In Saturday’s New York Times, Neil MacFarquhar wrote about the difficulty in measuring global progress on the Millennium Development Goals. As MacFarquhar rightly points out, while there’s no question about our collective commitment to eradicating hunger and poverty (which, MacFarquhar writes would be like “opposing mother’s milk”) there is no cookie-cutter approach to creating effective programs and policies that work in every country or every context: to date, only one in five countries has reduced by half the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day.
Eliminating poverty requires an understanding of the complex and interconnected factors that perpetuate it, an understanding that shines through in Cary Fukunaga’s visually stunning debut film Sin Nombre, which had its world premiere at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
Sin Nombre follows the story of two young people—Sayra from Honduras and Willy of Mexico—who meet during a long and dangerous ride on the top of a train headed through the Mexican countryside to the United States. Despite being unable to know what their futures hold, the main characters and many others take a leap of faith, taking the chance what lies ahead is a better than the extreme poverty they are leaving behind. Throughout the journey, they experience violence, sexual assault, cold and hunger, and a breathtaking range of emotions: fear and hope at what awaits them in the United States, and sadness and longing for who they’ve left behind.
While this film is not the first to tell the story of the many who risk everything for the promise of a better life across an international border, Sin Nombre’s focus on youth is less common—both in film and prominent policy fora including the United Nations.
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While Fukunaga does not make any political arguments in regards to immigration in Sin Nombre, he does take the position that everyone be treated with some measure of humanity. As world leaders gather this week at the UN, hopefully they too will recognize the needs and rights of young people living in countries where education, employment and opportunity are not available for many.
Editor’s note: On Wednesday, the New York Times published an article, titled “Gay Talese Goes Through the Twitter Wringer,” that referenced our reporting about Gay Talese’s comments to New York Times Magazine staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones. In that article, Talese referred to Hannah-Jones as “duplicitous.” On Thursday, New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet released a statement, saying the Times‘ article “was flawed and Nikole was treated unfairly.” Baquet praised Hannah-Jones as “one of the most accomplished and prominent journalists of her generation.” He also wrote: “this incident is larger than the exchange between her and Gay Talese. Too often, we are clumsy in handling issues of race and gender and this story was another unfortunate example. We have made strides in our coverage and culture, but the best solution is to continue building a more diverse, inclusive newsroom.”
Verandah Porche didn’t grasp the full significance of what she had done until later.
At the time, sitting in an auditorium at Boston University (BU) at the Power of Narrative conference, she simply felt curious about something the keynote speaker, writer Gay Talese, seemed to have left out. Talese, 84, is a giant in the world of narrative journalism, best known for his 1966 Esquire profile “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” On Saturday, dressed in one of his immaculate suits, Talese regaled the roughly 550 attendees with tales of his childhood and reporting tips, including one that became a Twitter punchline because of what came next: “Journalism is avoiding, if you can avoid it, any kind of technology.”
Then Talese took questions from the audience. Porche’s question was first.
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“In addition to Nora Ephron, who are the women who write who have inspired you most?” she asked.
Later, I felt sure the questioner was someone deeply familiar with Talese’s history of sexism—familiar, for example, with the 1964 cab ride during which he leaned over Gloria Steinem to say to Saul Bellow, “You know how every year, there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.”
Perhaps the questioner knew enough to predict that after his keynote, Talese would insult a prominent Black woman journalist by asking her if she was headed to get her nails done. But I was wrong.
“I was just authentically curious, and being a woman of my generation, I’m very sensitive to exclusion and erasure and complacency,” Porche, who is 70, told me later by phone. “I was listening for his relationship with women, unconsciously, that’s just what I do, and so I heard him talk about the great Nora Ephron … and also obviously there was his mother, and then there was nobody.”
Porche was already an outsider at the conference attended by hundreds of journalists. An accomplished poet and educator, Porche lives in rural Vermont, on a former commune called Total Loss Farm. For her workshop at the conference, she created her first-ever PowerPoint presentation. And as she raised her hand that day, her experience of sexism over the decades was, perhaps unconsciously, with her.
In the mid-1970s, Porche flew out to the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa to address a class led by poet Sandra McPherson. After the talk, McPherson confronted Porche, saying she believed Porche’s poems were actually written by men. The accusation turned out to be based on a misunderstanding; McPherson had heard a group of men scheming about releasing a book of poems under a fake woman’s persona, and mistakenly connected that to Porche. Still, the encounter was a game changer for Porche, who at the time was reeling from her father’s recent death.
“I sort of went home to Vermont and decided, there’s got to be a better way to be a poet,” Porche told me. “I developed this outsider career that was very local.”
On Saturday, Porche’s question—if not her name—entered the national spotlight, not because of what she said, but because of how Talese responded.
“I’d say Mary McCarthy was one,” Talese began. His voice tapered off, and then he paused.
“Of my generation…” A 12-second pause. “None. I’ll tell you why.” Then Talese dug the hole out of which he’d spend days trying to climb. At first, he clearly confined his answer to the past, saying when he was young, women tended not to do the kind of journalism that interested him. But then he did something my former journalism professor would have slashed in red pen: He shifted tenses.
“I think women, educated women, writerly women don’t want to—or do not feel comfortable dealing with strangers, or people that I’m attracted to, sort of offbeat characters,” he said. “I didn’t know any women journalists that I loved.”
From the balcony, Sandy Tolan, an author and professor of narrative journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, shouted “Joan Didion?”
“I’m glad you reminded me,” Talese responded. “But she doesn’t deal with antisocial people. She’s an educated, beautiful writer.”
Two men were on stage with Talese: Tom Fiedler, the moderator and BU’s dean of the College of Communication, and Mitchell Zuckoff, a BU journalism professor. Neither challenged Talese.
Sitting in the audience, I felt erased. “What is he saying?” I remember exclaiming.
I wondered for a moment if I was the only one who noticed. But, of course, I wasn’t. It quickly became clear we were in the midst of a viral moment. On Twitter, women registered their disapproval. Some walked out. We’d been encouraged to tweet ahead of the keynote. So we did. As my friend and I turned to each other in shock, an older man whipped around and shushed us.
That evening, the Boston Globe hosted a cocktail party at a nearby hotel. By then, stories about Talese’s remarks had appeared in media outlets, including the New York Daily News, the Washington Post and Jezebel, all of which referenced the Twitter firestorm. But absent from that firestorm was the woman who started it all. At about 8:30 that night, Porche, aided by a BU student, finally posted a tweet identifying herself as the woman who asked the question.
Talese has since written to the Boston Globe (a sponsor for the conference) that he misunderstood Porche’s question, taking it to apply to women journalists who may have inspired him as a young man. He noted a number of “contemporary women” whom he admires but left out at the time: Susan Orlean, Larissa MacFarquhar, Lillian Ross, and Katie Roiphe.
Fiedler, the moderator, acknowledged to the Globe that he “may have been able to defuse the situation,” if he had “anticipated that [Talese’s] remark would create the stir that it did.”
It’s a twisted version of “Sorry, not sorry.”
But no clarification would have stopped what happened next. Immediately after his keynote, Talese walked over to attend a private luncheon for speakers. He met Nikole Hannah-Jones, who has won widespread acclaim for her coverage of racial segregation in schools and housing. Hannah-Jones delivered Friday’s keynote address, launching the conference. But when she was introduced to him as a New York Times Magazine staff writer, Talese was more curious about how she got her job.
“He asked again if I was actually a staff writer. And I said yes,” Hannah-Jones told me by phone on Monday. He asked her how she got hired for that job. “I said they called and offered me a job,” she recalled. “He asked me who hired me, why was I hired?”
Hannah-Jones said she was the only Black person in the room.
“I felt defensive,” Hannah-Jones recalled. “I feel like I’ve been explaining why I’m in a room where apparently people think I’m not supposed to be most of my life, so I know when someone is asking me that question.”
The conversation moved on to other topics. But at the end of the luncheon, Talese asked Hannah-Jones something else.
“I was talking with another woman journalist,” Hannah-Jones recalled. “We were trying to figure out what session we were going to go to next, and that’s when he asked me if I was going to get my nails done.”
Now, Hannah-Jones, like Talese, is an immaculate dresser, and that extends to her turquoise, baby blue, and glitter nails. But when Talese asked if she, an investigative reporter at one of the nation’s leading publications, planned to skip out on the journalism conference at which they were both keynote speakers to head to the salon, Hannah-Jones did not even know what to say.
“Part of it was, I mean, I just come from a family where respect for your elders is very ingrained, but part of it is feeling like, honestly, as a Black woman, that it would be very hard for me to say something without coming off looking like all the stereotypes that women and Black women get,” Hannah-Jones told me on Monday. “It was a hard moment for me to realize that even at this point in my career I could still be silenced.”
The conference, like many journalism gatherings, was overwhelmingly white, another reminder of how far the field of journalism has to go to address racism and sexism, not only in our coverage, but within our own ranks. For women like Porche and Hannah-Jones, Talese’s remarks cut in part because they felt familiar. Talese echoed decades of exclusion. That was what the men on stage didn’t hear, but we did.
As the conference concluded on Sunday, I approached Mitchell Zuckoff, the second man who had been on stage with Talese, to tell him I thought he had shirked a basic, journalistic responsibility: Ask a follow-up question. Zuckoff committed to asking one next time, telling me, “In the future, if I’m moderating a speaker or a panel, and something is said from the stage or the audience that I believe to be open to offense or misinterpretation, I will take a moment to seek clarity from the speaker.”
But Zuckoff has publicly defended Talese, saying he believes he was talking about his experiences as a young man.
I called Zuckoff on Monday and asked him about a particular moment in Hannah-Jones’ keynote from Friday that sticks with me. In response to a question from a white audience member, Hannah-Jones reminded us that race and segregation are not Black issues. Segregation exists because of white people. I asked Zuckoff if he thought he had failed in his responsibility, as a man, to confront Talese’s sexism.
“He answered it in a way that I understood completely at the time not as a sexist statement,” Zuckoff said. “If I had perceived it the way you did, perhaps I would have said something different. But I didn’t, and I don’t.”
For me, this conference has become one of those defining moments. It was a moment when an elderly man said something outrageous, and the men who had a platform to intervene failed to do so. It was also a moment when I banded together with other women, over pizza and in the hallways and classrooms between sessions. In slightly different words we told each other: I felt it too; I see you; I admire you; you belong.
While we don’t know what would have brought Anna Yocca to self-induce, we can surmise what would bring a person to do so given what we know about the state of reproductive health care in Tennessee and the roles other factors, such as job security and health care, might play.
Think of a time when your back was against the wall. Maybe you had only one person to talk to or help you, and that person was struggling too. You had no resources. You had no options. You had no hope.
Now think about Anna Yocca, the Tennessee woman who reportedly tried to end an unwanted pregnancy in September with a coat hanger and was arrested and charged this month with attempted murder. Try to imagine what she might have faced before she filled the bathtub with warm water, picked up that hanger, and inserted it painfully into her vagina.
Women seeking abortion today in Tennessee face too many barriers. While we don’t know what would have brought Yocca to self-induce, we can surmise what would bring a person to do so given the state of reproductive health care in Tennessee and the roles other factors, such as job security and health care, might play. By putting ourselves in such a tenuous position, we can better understand why laws seeking to criminalize a health-care procedure do more harm than good, especially when it comes to groups already marginalized in our society.
Maybe she tried to raise money for a safe and legal abortion but couldn’t. Maybe her job pays a low wage, and like many fast-food workers fighting for $15 an hour, she could not afford the unpaid time off work for the appointment or the cost of the procedure. Maybe she knew her Medicaid would not cover the cost of the abortion because the Hyde Amendment does not allow it. Maybe she learned that something was wrong with the pregnancy and knew even then that the cost of her abortion would not be covered on that premise because of the passage of Amendment 1, which allows Tennessee legislators to ignore women’s self-determination and further regulate and restrict access to abortion care.
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Maybe she had no idea where or whom to turn to, to help her pay for an abortion. Maybe she talked to a local clinic where staff refused to give her a referral for the procedure because of their personal moral beliefs. Maybe she couldn’t find a Planned Parenthood that could help her because Republican-led efforts to defund the organization have created such a hostile environment in Tennessee that women are seeking out other options for terminations.
Maybe she was afraid of religious protesters who would videotape her or scream in her face, or worse, perpetrate violence against the clinic and its providers like we saw recently in Colorado. Maybe she read about the Georgia woman who ordered Cytotec (an abortion pill) online and almost went to prison for it. Maybe the new 48-hour waiting periodlaw or numerous other medically unnecessary restrictions created too many obstacles for her to overcome. Or maybe her man didn’t want her to have the baby—a scenario reproductive rights activists often forget to include when talking about women seeking abortion care.
We can never fully understand another person’s unique circumstances: We don’t walk in their shoes. Whatever the reason, Yocca found herself in the bathtub, with a hanger and no other option. Now she’s being charged with attempted murder and it’s unclear what will happen to her son. A son whom she is now the mother of. This is a moment an anti-choice supporter might say that she should have still carried the baby to term, and this is the moment I say, then what? What is their plan for the baby now? Where is their support to provide for his now-mandatory medical care? Food? Shelter?
This is where I say from experience, don’t hold your breath, because anti-choice supporters won’t be there.
In passing law after law to push abortion out of reach, Tennessee lawmakers are failing pregnant people who choose to terminate, which is their constitutional right. For almost 20 years, the Tennessee legislature has been under conservative control and has had a devastating impact on the state’s women and families who are struggling to make ends meet. In the last five years alone, the legislature has made deep cuts in child-care assistance and comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education in schools. Mothers struggling with substance addiction can be prosecuted if they are found using drugs at the time of delivery, under the fetal assault law that works only to deter women from seeking the health care they need.
Moreover, it is harder than ever for low-income households to put food on the table. The poorest women and girls in this state have seen cuts to their food stamp benefits—even though many women in Tennessee work full time and still need food stamps to support their families from month to month. In 2010, Memphis was coined the “hunger capital of the United States” and five years later, our city is still working to provide food for thousands of Memphians, a consequence of unemployment, low wages, and poverty in this area.
Yocca’s arrest appears to be a striking indictment of failed public policy, and a precursor of things to come if we don’t reverse these trends. As we prepare for the 2016 legislative session, we at SisterReach already anticipate some manner of policy retaliation because of her situation.
Women will always need abortion care, so where are we supposed to go if every clinic is forced to close due to restrictive state and federal laws? Rural women without their own cars already face high barriers in transportation. Memphians face unreliable bus service just getting to work, the grocery store, or a general practitioner’s office—in the most urban area in Tennessee. Nevertheless, women have always done, and will continue to do, what they must to end a pregnancy.
A recent study conducted by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project surveyed 779 women ages 18 to 49 there and estimated that 100,000 to 240,000 women of reproductive age had attempted to end a pregnancy. My own personal and professional experiences tell me that many of those women probably did so because they had nowhere else to turn.
But Yocca and all of the women in Tennessee who have already made the choice to end a pregnancy, or are considering it, are more than mere statistics. They are real people who deserve compassion, protection, and resources.
They deserve reproductive justice.
Since last year, SisterReach and our partners have been trying to undo the harm of the state’s fetal assault law, which we know has the potential to cause women to end wanted pregnancies for fear they will be incarcerated for their drug addiction.
We cannot afford to think about or advocate for abortion without this broader context: Though pregnancy rates are going down in Memphis, due in part to the influx of free long-acting reversible contraception women and girls can access from several providers across the city, our sexually transmitted disease rates are on the rise. Young people do not have access to comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education across the state due to conservative ideology. And while the overall focus has been placed on teen pregnancy prevention, it is only part of a broader focus of comprehensive offerings imperative to young people’s ability to identify and navigate healthy and unhealthy relationships, survive, and thrive.
Memphis is among the hardest-hit areas in the country for new HIV infections among Black men who have sex with men, and yet there is no focus on Black women’s health—for the Black women who are the wives, girlfriends, and lovers of these same men who remain with them in order to hold positions of authority and survive under the judgmental gaze of those who are morally in conflict with other people’s lives and sexuality. Domestic violence shelters across the state are at capacity with no other alternative but to turn away women and children in desperate need of protection from violent partners. And currently, Memphis is wading through a backlog of rape kits dating back to the mid-1970s.
Women and girls in the state, and across the country, have lived experiences that might lead them to make the same choice as Anna Yocca. We must defend and uphold the human rights of Black women and women of color, young women, poor white women, rural women, HIV-positive women, trans men, and low-wage workers as we fight for safe, legal, and affordable abortion.
It is not the job of lawmakers, district attorneys, or health-care workers to police our bodies or pregnancies, or to inflict their personal religious beliefs onto our lives and futures. However, it is the job of Tennesseans to make sure women and girls have access to life- and health-affirming health care. As advocates, our job is to make sure that no woman on this side of the new millennium should fear arrest or incarceration for trying to end a pregnancy, experiencing a miscarriage, stillbirth, or for seeking medical treatment in any of these circumstances. It is our job to fight for justice for Anna Yocca, because she is our sister, mother, aunt, cousin, daughter, friend, and neighbor.
SisterReach is calling on everyone to stand with us and our co-laborers in Tennessee as we demand that the Rutherford County district attorney, the Tennessee legislature, and our fellow residents take a step back to look beyond the shock of what Yocca reportedly did and think about the conditions women and girls in Tennessee are forced to live under—to what kind of future we want for women and girls across Tennessee.
As a Black woman who knows exactly what a lack of abortion access before Roe meant for Black women, I cannot help but cringe at the thought of what tragedy we will face if Tennessee does not reconsider its position in interfering with women’s health-care decisions.
As we move deeper into a holiday season that admonishes all of us to have “peace on Earth” and “good will toward men,” I hope and pray that we broaden our scope of understanding to include all people, including Anna Yocca and every woman and girl like her.