Attachments of this sort make reporting an undeniably more personal enterprise, but they do not make it a predictable one. Growing up as the son of a physician who became a target of the pro-life movement’s wrath undoubtedly made me feel a measure of wariness about its members. But it also made me want to understand them. Would this impulse have been stronger if I had had no personal connection to the story? Would a writer coming at the subject from a more neutral vantage point necessarily have produced a more balanced portrait of those activists? Or a less penetrating one of a person like my father and the pro-choice advocates on the opposing side?

The answers to those questions don’t seem self-evident to me. It is perfectly possible for a reporter to write with greater insight about people with whom he or she doesn’t naturally identify than those with whom he or she does. An author may feel an added burden of responsibility to extend imaginative sympathy to people in the former camp, to break through the wall of fear and suspicion that many journalists situated on one side of a polarizing conflict aspire to scale. I began working on Absolute Convictions knowing I would never see eye-to-eye with pro-life activists about the morality of what my father does. But I also knew I could not do the story justice—or hope to appeal to a general audience—without trying to understand what motivated them, which would require attempting to overcome my own assumptions and stereotypes. Sleeping on a Wire offers a model for how a writer can meet that challenge. “They have no individual names, only one collective name; they have no faces, only ‘characteristic features,’” Grossman writes at one point of the Arabs in Israel. “When we good citizens meet them outside, in our territory, we treat them suspiciously, as if they were a mobile enemy enclave.” The deftness and sensitivity of the portrait he draws likely reflect his awareness that these preconceptions risk clouding his own point of view.

In the end, such hard-won awareness arises not from a writer’s personal background but from his or her sensibility, values, and judgment, things that can never be inferred from identity alone, even if identity plays an inevitable role in shaping them. 

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Eyal Press is the author of Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict that Divided America (just out in paperback from Picador) and a contributing writer at The Nation.