Reporter Caleb Hannan thought he'd found an interesting idea for a story when he stumbled across a YouTube video about about a "scientifically superior" golf club called the Oracle, invented by a brilliant MIT-credentialed physicist named Dr. V. He set out to find out more about the woman behind the invention, but was met with a swirl of secrets and inconsistencies. As he peeled back the layers, he uncovered a series of complicated truths: Dr. V did not possess the degrees or credentials she'd claimed. Dr. V is a trans woman. And within months of presenting those findings to her, Dr. V committed suicide.
Grantland's piece, "Dr. V's Magical Putter," can be read here. It isn't just a story about the mystery and intrigue surrounding a dubiously magical golf putter, it's a chronological narrative of the author's attempt to untangle the web Dr. V. — Essay Anne Vanderbilt — constructed around her as she reinvented her life, the difficult confrontation that ensued, and ultimately, her death.
Here's the short version:
- reporter seeks out the inventor of an allegedly awesome golf club for sports site
- inventor is a woman who claims to be a brilliant scientist
- inventor insists from the beginning that the reporter only report on the science, not the scientist
- reporter tests product and loves it
- reporter verifies credentials for fact check
- discovers the degrees/credentials don't exist, nor does the person by that name exist prior to the 2000's
- reporter eventually determines that that the woman is trans
- reporter determines the degrees didn't exist prior under previous name
- the credentials and science-related experience that support the golf club's claims are false
- reporter lays out falsehoods about degrees and backstory to subject (and one investor) and asks for answers
- Months later, reporter learns Dr. V has committed suicide
At first, the story was celebrated for basically being a "good read."
It is well written, and extremely well-reported, but in this case, a bit too reported. That was evident when backlash surfaced on Twitter from members and advocates in the trans community, who, all too aware of the prejudice and violence trans people experience and lengths they must often go to to protect their livelihoods and bodies, took issue with what they felt was a callous disregard for Vanderbilt's privacy regarding her trans status, not to mention numerous problems with the story's structure, tone, and some recurring misgendering.
In a piece over at feminist site Shakesville called "Careless, Cruel, and Unaccountable," Melissa McEwen writes:
Hannan distances himself from this tragedy by including in the story the report of a previous attempt at taking her own life made by Dr. V, as if to suggest that her suicide was inevitable.
Further, he catalogs her deception about her educational and professional background alongside the revelation that she is trans, in a way that suggests her failure to reflexively disclose that she is trans as part of any introduction to a new person is a lie, just like so many others she told.
When she does not agree to become the focus of his story, which was meant to be about the science, he pouts and tasks her with the responsibility for his aggressive invasiveness: "Dr. V's initial requests for privacy had seemed reasonable. Now, however, they felt like an attempt to stop me from writing about her or the company she'd founded. But why?" He reports disclosing that Dr. V is a trans woman to one of her investors. He publishes her birth name. He describes the scene of her death. And he concludes the piece by calling it a eulogy.
I think it's important to look at this controversy via the multiple separate issues that suddenly intertwined (and, full disclosure: I worked with Hannan in 2008 for one year at a Village Voice alt-weekly in Nashville).
Issue one is the reporter's job to report. A reporter cannot take at face value any claims a person makes about their background. There's an old saying in journalism: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. Hannan agreed to report on the science, not the scientist in this story, but these things are a bit inextricable. To report on the science, Hannan would have to do more than simply test the golf club. He had to corroborate whether the inventor went to MIT or really worked on top secret projects for the Department of Defense and stealth bombs as she and her inventors had claimed, experiences that were essential to the science behind the product. When those facts didn't check out, Hannan returned to Vanderbilt to verify whether there was, in fact, the formal training that had been advertised to investors and consumers. There's no getting around that. It was a conversation that had to happen. Her evasiveness (and the outsize claims surrounding the product and its inventor) led to his looking further into her identity. There's no way Hannan could've known that the trans identity status was on the table or where it would lead, but as a reporter, he had to clarify facts (even ones that might not appear in the final story).
Issue two is the reporting on the trans status of the subject. This is much clearer: Don't out someone who doesn't want to be out. The end. Everyone has a right to privacy when it comes to their gender identity or sexual orientation, and beyond this, the trans status is not relevant. Hannan should have treated those pieces of information as distinctly different: It is one thing to not wish to disclose gender identity information or sexual orientation, it is another to lie about your education and work experience. Instead, he mixes in that discovery alongside the others, as if they are all the same kind of cover-up, as if part of the scam involving fudged credentials is the hucksterism of transitioning. It is unclear from the story how he addressed the discovery of Vanderbilt's trans status with her privately, how Vanderbilt responded, or what (if anything) was discussed in terms of whether it would be published or not. This is the question I've put to him (which has not been answered as of this piece's runtime).
Issue three: It appears from the story's tone that there was zero ethical concern whatsoever concerning the trans status. This is the sort of stuff that comes up, by the way, in 101 ethics classes: Say you're called to cover the story of a hero who saved a drowning man from an icy river, and in the course of reporting you determine the hero is also gay, and would prefer to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. Do you report on it? The answer, of course, is no, you don't report that detail, because the hero being gay is irrelevant to the story. But real-life scenarios are not so simple.
Vanderbilt's assertion in the piece that Hannan "was about to commit a hate crime" certainly suggests she feared being outed, possibly because that was discussed, or possibly because she simply existed in the world as a trans woman and understood all too well the risks of being discovered. And even if Hannan had no intention of publishing her gender identity, that doesn't clear up the ethical issues in the postmortem outing (and I have an email into Grantland's editors as well asking this as well, which was not returned at this time either). All we know from the story is that Hannan presented her with his discoveries, that she became angry, that he was unable to get through to her, that months went by, that one last email was received, and that days after that, he learned of her suicide. And that Grantland then published the story.
Issue four is in the writing and editing — how the story is framed, specifically, the way that Vanderbilt's trans status is treated as a revelation that's part and parcel of her fabricated education and background. It implies that the act of transitioning is itself a dishonesty or on par with lying, when what it actually reveals is the author's (and/or editor's) biases about the act as intrinsically fake or disingenuous, when it is, in fact, a more honest, genuine identity at long last for the person in question.
One thing is certain: This is a tragic death, it raises questions about the complexity of living trans, of reporting on trans issues, the nature of suicide, and about what it means to be honest in a piece while still respecting the privacy of the subject. Grantland certainly isn't in the business of gotcha journalism. And reporters do not typically go into stories about promising new golf clubs hoping to ruin lives. Investigative reporters go for big fish. Feature writers are looking for good stories.
But this is a fucked up situation — had Vanderbilt not been trans and simply exposed for a fraudulent backstory on a golf putter, any number of results could've come from that. Adding in the trans status and the high risk of that status only makes this thornier and more tragic. Suicide is a personal decision (and there was an earlier attempt in Vanderbilt's life), but it's impossible to know the complex chain of events that lead to it here.
None of this changes the fact that when editors and reporters have the luxury (and privilege) of not being educated about issues foreign to them, this is what can happen — inadvertently contributing to a tragic confluence of events by at bare minimum, not even understanding the risk for tragedy. This story should have been handled with the ultimate care and concern, with the understanding that the very hardship of being trans could impact an individual's way of managing her life and her own past and the extent to which she'd be comfortable disclosing it, or agreeing to ANY part of how that life is discussed in the past tense. It's deeply cynical to think that anyone involved in the assigning or writing or editing of this story expected to out a trans woman who lied about a putter, but the story took a tragic turn that doesn't feel mitigated. And, as someone on Twitter succinctly pointed out, it wasn't just a putter to Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt's life is also more than just an online Grantland piece about that putter. She's more than her product, or her background, or her past, or even her lies. At one point in the story, Hannan asks:
What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself. Yet the biggest question remained unanswered: Had Dr. V created a great golf club or merely a great story?
But I'm not so sure that was the biggest question that remained unanswered. I understand why Hannan kept going when he realized there was something sketchy about the putter, but when he realized there was a much more at risk, he might have done more research. Were the real risks of outing a trans person ever acknowledged or weighed? Was that decision to include those details made after the news of her death? Was Vanderbilt ever assured privacy regarding her trans status? Was the possibility of reporting on the subject's fraud, while respectfully divorcing it from her irrelevant gender orientation, ever even considered?
Negative attention is a fact of life for trans people, and that they are already at 25 times the risk for suicide than the general population. Hannan's piece seems to lack this understanding, or any trans awareness at all, an oversight that I think was not malicious, but deeply ignorant. Had he grasped it, his story might've turned out very differently.
Here are current journalistic guidelines from Poynter on reporting on trans issues, and here are tips on how to be an ally to transgender people.