The Lives of Others

What does it mean to "tell someone's story"?

On March 22, America’s Most Wanted told my story. I wasn’t the fugitive, or the victim, and it shouldn’t have been my story. It should have been Tyeisha’s. But as the producer from amw told me, “Girls die in ditches every day. The reason Tyeisha stands out is because she was profiled in Seventeen magazine.” I met Tyeisha Martin at a Red Cross shelter in Henry County, Georgia, on a sunny September afternoon in 2005. She was barefoot, wearing a tank top and Capri jeans, waiting in line to get a tetanus shot. I was living in a small town nearby called McDonough, south of Atlanta. I’d moved there a year earlier from New York City with my boyfriend. We were both writers, still thinking we might be able to publish the novels we’d written in grad school. I knew I wanted to write for a living, but I’d left my job at a women’s magazine certain I’d never go back.

I didn’t like what I’d been able to write in that world. Every time I put together an article, it felt like I was building a little lie. Whether it was culled from quotes e-mailed through a publicist, like the cover story I did on the movie star; or built upon crude stereotypes, like the “profile” of the three beauty queens who lived together in Trump Place; or the time I followed the rules of a dating book and neatly concluded that it’s better to just be yourself if you want to meet a guy. My instincts as a writer were nowhere in these stories. They weren’t little windows on the human condition, they didn’t wrestle with questions about the world; they passed the time on the StairMaster, at the dentist, by the pool.

I justified it plenty. I told myself that Joan Didion had started at Vogue. I told myself it meant something that I could make it in the glossies. That I was successful. The problem was that I didn’t feel successful. I decamped to Georgia, in part, to get some perspective on all this. But still, I wanted to write. So when Seventeen called and asked me to do a story for its Drama section about a young girl in Tennessee who’d been drugged and raped by her cousin, I said yes. Hell, yes.

I did stories like this for two years. I went to Birmingham, Alabama, to learn about twelve-year-old Jasmine Archie, who died, according to police reports, after her mother poured bleach down her throat and sat on her chest until she stopped breathing. I went to Wythe County, Virginia, and knocked on the door of the home where fourteen-year-old Nakisha Waddell had stabbed her mother forty-three times and buried her in the backyard. I wrote about two teenage lesbians who murdered one’s grandparents in Fayette County, Georgia. The stories were still formulaic, but instead of chasing publicists and trailing beauty queens, I got to read trial transcripts, track down family members, and hang out in county jails. Each story was an adventure, and, at least initially, the reporting felt like the kind of work I imagined a “journalist” would do.

Tyeisha was an accident. I was in Virginia reporting Nakisha’s story when Hurricane Katrina hit, and my editor called to ask if I knew anybody in New Orleans. They wanted to profile a teenage evacuee. I said I might know someone—a girl I knew from the local coffee shop had been headed to Tulane—but I’d have to get back to her.

I promptly forgot about it. There was no easy way to find this girl, since I didn’t even know her last name, and I was tired from the reporting trip. Sitting for hours with Nakisha’s grandmother had been mentally exhausting. This was the second Drama piece I’d done, and I knew what Seventeen wanted was brief and uncomplicated. I wouldn’t be able to tell how the old woman’s hands shook, or how cigarette smoke was stitched into every fiber in her trailer. Or that hanging in the back hallway where Nakisha stuck a knife in her mother’s throat was a plaque that read: “This house shall serve the Lord.”

When I got home, I needed to get out of myself, so I went to the Red Cross shelter at the local church where my boyfriend’s mom, a nurse, was helping tend to the hundreds of suddenly homeless people from New Orleans. That’s when I saw Tyeisha, standing in the middle of a group of boys. Tall, bored, beautiful. I remembered the editor from Seventeen and I approached her. She agreed to be profiled. Over the next several days, as she waited for FEMA money in a Days Inn near Atlanta and tried to decide where to go next, Tyeisha told me about her life. She’d dropped out of school in the ninth grade and had a baby at seventeen (she was nineteen when we met). When Katrina hit, she had a GED, a job at a linen factory, and though she and her daughter, Daneisha, were living at her mother’s house, Tyeisha dreamed of getting her own place.

On the evening of August 28, 2005, when residents were bracing for the storm, Tyeisha took her daughter to the little girl’s father’s apartment; he lived on the third floor and she thought two-year-old Daneisha would be safer there. Tyeisha spent the night with her sister, Quiana, and Quiana’s boyfriend, Chuck. Before dawn, the water broke down their front door. Tyeisha was terrified as the water rose; she couldn’t swim, and thought she was about to die. But Chuck and Quiana helped her, and the three of them climbed out a window and found a wooden door to float on. After several hours of paddling through the filthy water, they found a three-story house that had been abandoned, kicked in a window, and spent the night.

The next morning, the three refugees climbed up to the roof, and at the end of the day were lifted to safety by an Army helicopter. After several sweltering days in the gym at the University of New Orleans, they boarded a bus to Atlanta, where Quiana had friends. Through a series of fortunate coincidences, Tyeisha got in touch with her mother, who had Daneisha and was in Dallas. Her on-again, off-again boyfriend was in Texas, too. Tyeisha decided that’s where she should be.

On Friday, September 16, 2005, I dropped Tyeisha off at the Atlanta Greyhound station. She bought a ticket to Dallas and set off for the fifteen-hour ride. Six months later, Tyeisha was dead. She was found in a ditch beside a rural road in Fort Bend County, Texas. She’d been shot in the back of the head.

I learned about Tyeisha’s death from Quiana, who called me one night in March 2006 and whispered, “Tyeisha’s gone.” When she hung up, I went to my computer and found an article in the Texas paper: there was a sketch, and though her features were exaggerated, it was clearly Tyeisha. The article said the body they’d found had tattoos: Daneisha, RIP Larry. I remembered those tattoos. I’d asked about them as we sat on a bench outside the church. Larry was Tyeisha’s father, who had died, she said, about a year before Katrina hit.

I called the number in the paper and asked to speak to the detective in charge. I explained that I hadn’t seen or heard from Tyeisha in months, but I told him what I knew: that she’d survived Katrina, and that she’d apparently gone to Texas to be with her mother, daughter, and boyfriend. He asked me to fax him a copy of the article I wrote for Seventeen. He said they didn’t have many leads. I gave him Quiana’s number, and he promised to call me back. I called Seventeen, thinking that if the editors would allow me to write about her death, I could finance a trip to Texas. I could help find her killer. The impulse was a combination of personal outrage (I’d never known anyone who’d been murdered), curiosity, and ambition. I knew the victim and already had the family’s trust. I began having visions of writing the In Cold Blood of the Katrina diaspora. But there was a new editor on the Drama section, and she didn’t sound terribly excited about the idea. She said she’d talk to the editor-in-chief and get back to me.

Days passed. My editor called and said they might want to mention Tyeisha’s death in the next issue, but that they didn’t want a story about it. “It might be too morbid for the readers,” she told me. In my three years covering crimes for Seventeen, I had written about four female murderers, about stabbings and suffocation and gunshots to the head. The editors I’d worked with talked a lot about what their readers “wanted.” Those readers’ attention spans were short, apparently, and their eyeballs had to be hijacked with big, red letters and shocking graphics. When my story about Nakisha ran, “She killed her mom” was splashed in red letters across the first page; pictured below was a hunting knife “similar” to the one she’d used, and opposite was a grainy yearbook snapshot of Nakisha with stab marks Photoshopped all around her. I called to complain. My editor was polite, but said they knew what was needed to grab the readers’ attention in this “media-saturated” environment.

Of course, I was as culpable as the editors at Seventeen. I did the reporting that revealed nuance and uncertainty, and then did what I was told and turned in simplistic, straightforward stories with immutable lines between cause and effect. So why didn’t Tyeisha’s unsolved death make the cut? It occurred to me that the story didn’t fit the fiction of the magazine. The rigid code that dictated a certain number of pages be given to fashion, celebrities, and make-up also assured that lines didn’t get crossed. Tyeisha’s story had been one of triumph over tragedy. To have her escape Katrina and six months later be found by a roadside in rural Texas was just too complicated.

But I didn’t push. I dashed off pitches to various other publications I thought might be interested in her story: Texas Monthly, the Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times. No one bit. So I let go. Quiana and I talked every few days, then every couple of weeks. The case went nowhere.

Six weeks later, I got a call from America’s Most Wanted. Karen Daborowski, a producer, had read about Tyeisha in the Houston Chronicle and said they wanted to do a segment on her death. “Maybe we can find her killer,” she said. I had not watched America’s Most Wanted in years. In fact, had you asked me about the show the day before Karen called, I probably would have said it had been pulled by Fox a long time ago. But what I remembered as a mildly creepy combination of Unsolved Mysteries and A Current Affair had been airing nonstop every Saturday night since 1988. The show was still hosted by a man named John Walsh, who’d been thrust into the spotlight in 1981 when his son, Adam, was kidnapped and murdered. To date, it has helped catch a thousand fugitives.

So I agreed to the interview. But the interview turned into a request to travel with the producers and a crew to Texas. “We want the story to be about you,” said Karen. “About your bond with Tyeisha and how you cared enough to find her killer.” Calling my fleeting relationship with Tyeisha a bond was a stretch, but in my mind, Karen was asking how much I was willing to do to help Tyeisha. The story of her death deserved to be told, and if I couldn’t convince Seventeen or any other publication of that, I figured I could get in front of a camera and help someone else tell it. I didn’t think about what it meant, journalistically, to become an advocate for someone I’d written about. Having had no formal training in the craft I practiced, I navigated articles and the people involved by my gut, and I felt I owed Tyeisha this much. It also didn’t occur to me that I’d become to Karen what Tyeisha had been to me: a subject. Just as I’d asked Tyeisha to relive Katrina beneath a magnolia tree so I could write an article about her for Seventeen, Karen was asking me to be a character in her own television report about Tyeisha.

On October 13, 2006, I met Karen and Sedgwick Tourison, another producer, at the American Airlines terminal at Baltimore’s BWI. We landed in Dallas around noon and drove to a Whattaburger restaurant near the airport to meet Dave Barsotti and Tom Overstreet, the local camera and audio guys. We all said hello, then Dave dropped a mini-microphone down my blouse, tucked a battery pack into my pants, and told me to get in the driver’s seat of the rented Jeep Cherokee. As I drove, Tom aimed his camera at me and Sedg prompted me to talk about what I was doing.
“I’m driving,” I said, lamely.
“To … ” steered Sedg.
“I’m driving to visit Tyeisha’s mom, Cabrini, and her daughter Daneisha,” I said.

We exited the freeway and made our way into Cabrini’s apartment complex. As the crew unloaded the equipment, I wondered how I would greet Cabrini. The woman’s daughter had been murdered not six months before, and here I was waltzing in with cameras and lights and four more strangers to poke at her pain. The point, obviously, was to find Tyeisha’s killer. I hoped Cabrini knew that. Karen gave the word, and I walked down the outdoor hallway toward Tom, who had his camera positioned on his shoulder, and knocked on the door. Quiana opened it, looking gorgeous, just liked I remembered her. We hugged and I stepped toward Cabrini, who was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Tyeisha on it. I wasn’t sure if I should hug her or shake her hand, but she came toward me with her arms open, and I was glad. The crew flipped on the lights, wired everyone up, and we started talking on-camera, first about Katrina, then about what Cabrini remembered of Tyeisha’s arrival in Texas. Tyeisha didn’t want to stay in Dallas a day longer than she had to. “She was like, ‘Mama, it’s all old people around here,’_” said Cabrini. So she took Daneisha and left for Houston, where her boyfriend lived. For the first time in her entire life, Tyeisha got her own apartment. Her own furniture. “She was so excited,” said Cabrini. “She said, ‘Mama, there’s no rules. I can wake up when I want.’ I said, ‘Lord, I wouldn’t want to live where there’s no rules.’_” In February, Tyeisha stopped calling. On March 9, 2006, six months to the day after I met her, her body was found in a grassy ditch at the bend of a county road.

We woke up early the next morning and met downstairs at the hotel for breakfast. Sedg laid out the day’s schedule, which began with an hour of them filming me typing on my laptop in my room. Sedg wanted more shots of Quiana and me, so we picked her up and drove to a nearby park. Quiana was six years older than Tyeisha, and more articulate and outgoing. Life hasn’t been easy for her. She is twenty-nine, and has four children. She had an emergency hysterectomy just a few months before Katrina hit. The storm washed away her home and separated her from her mother, sister, and children. She settled in Atlanta with her boyfriend, but they broke up. And then her sister was murdered.

When the cameras were ready, we said our lines. I asked her about the last time she talked to her sister, and she said it had been weeks and that she’d begun to worry. We repeated this sequence several times so they could film us from different angles. Quiana didn’t seem to mind. I remembered what she said to me months ago, when she called and told me about the murder: “I don’t want to see my sister on Cold Case Files in five years. I want somebody caught.”

After we dropped off Quiana, Sedg and Karen told me they wanted some Sex and the City shots of me, so we stopped at an upscale strip mall to do more filming. Trailed by Tom and his camera, I dutifully walked into a boutique and gazed at racks of clothing I couldn’t afford. Karen assured me that they needed shots like this to “set me up” as a former New York City magazine writer. They thought it important to play up the “fish out of water” angle: big-city girl gets caught up in a small-town murder. The whole thing was false, and I reminded Karen that I hadn’t been on staff at a women’s magazine since 2002. But in the language of reality television, three years of my life are boiled down to a shopping trip in order to facilitate a story arc.

That night we flew to Houston, and the next morning we showed up at the Fort Bend County sheriff’s station. Inside, Detective Campbell—who Sedg had warned me was “all business”—opened his case file, and pulled out color photographs of the crime scene. There she was: lying in the grass, her skinny legs sticking out from under a yellow tarp. She had on the same blue jeans and belt she was wearing when I met her. The grass around her body was long and lush, green and damp. I wondered if it rained on her while she laid, eyes wide open, in the clover. She was found just a few feet off the road, and according to Campbell, had been shot there. There were minimal wounds other than the fatal bullet wound, which Campbell said suggested that she had been killed by someone she knew. Campbell told us that when he visited her apartment, “it was organized and homey. Like she was focused on raising a child.” He showed us birth certificates and FEMA correspondence. She’d kept her papers in a shoebox. “She was doing all the things she should,” he said. “She was setting up her future.”

The big Texas sky was crowded with clouds in every shade of gray as we drove past fields of cows and ducks, past an old country homestead with a gated family cemetery in the front yard, past Trav’s Roadhouse, to the bend in the road where Tyeisha was murdered. A house sat just a few hundred yards away, but Campbell interviewed the people there, and they didn’t hear the gunshot. “The TV was probably on,” he said. As Tom and Dave set up the shot, I stepped onto the grass, half expecting to feel some sort of ghostly presence. The sun shone through the clouds, but I tried to imagine the road at night. I tried to see her in her last moments. I tried to feel her fear. But I couldn’t. All I could do was what I was doing, standing before the cameras to make sure she was not forgotten.

Months went by. And then a year. Occasionally, I would get a phone call from Karen, saying they were planning to air the show soon, but then she’d drop out of contact for a couple of months. At one point, it had apparently been slated to run as part of a special Hurricane Katrina hour in late 2007, but then she told me it was “so strong,” they wanted it to anchor another episode. Tyeisha had been dead more than two years when the segment finally aired on March 22, 2008.

I was back in Georgia that weekend, visiting my boyfriend’s family. We got take-out BBQ from a local rib shack and gathered in front of the TV. Before each commercial break, they teased my segment: “Coming up: a magazine writer leaves behind the glitzy New York fashion world in a quest for justice.” I covered my face as they pasted my voice over clips of Sarah Jessica Parker adjusting her skirt on the street and cringed at the reenactments. The “Julia” in the segment had a big apartment with leather couches, and the “Tyeisha” was much more conservative than the tattooed girl with messy, maroon-tinted hair extensions I’d met in Georgia. They flashed images of the real Tyeisha on the screen, but my face was the most prominent. The piece even ended with John Walsh giving me a “personal thanks” for being involved.

To me, the compelling story is still Tyeisha’s. How, like thousands of her friends and neighbors in New Orleans, she was torn from her support system, separated from the people who looked out for her. She’d tried to rebuild a life for herself and her child in a new state and instead became the victim of a brutal murder. But no one else seemed particularly interested in that story. According to the Centers for Disease Control, homicide is the second leading cause of death for black women between ages fifteen and twenty-four, but even to America’s Most Wanted, Tyeisha’s tale was only worth telling in relation to me.

I suppose I knew that the press tends to illuminate the exceptions, the extremes. The plight of the family with septuplets instead of the more common burden of unexpected twins; the detained immigrant with the amputated penis instead of the thousands with untreated depression. The impulse is understandable, and certainly an oddball story can draw attention to a worthy issue, but what of the issues inside the more common stories? By their very nature, such issues—like mental illness in immigrant communities, or the high murder rate among young black women—are more intransigent, harder to untangle and fit into a facile narrative. I imagine that maybe Jill Leovy, a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, was thinking this way when she created The Homicide Report, a blog on the paper’s Web site that attempts to report on every single homicide in Los Angeles County; last year, there were 324. As the explanatory page puts it, “only the most unusual and statistically marginal homicide cases receive press coverage, while those cases at the very eye of the storm—those which best expose the true statistical dimensions of the problem of deadly violence—remain hidden.”

It remains to be seen whether my appearance on America’s Most Wanted will lead to the capture of Tyeisha’s killer. Two months after the show aired, there are no promising leads, but I believe I did the right thing, as a human being and as a journalist, when I realize that had I walked out of that Georgia church ten minutes later, or turned left instead of going straight out the door, Tyeisha Martin—not yet twenty years old, mother, sister, daughter, hurricane survivor—would have died not only too soon, but in silence.

Julia Dahl is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.