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The Lives of Others

What does it mean to “tell someone’s story”?

By Julia Dahl  

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.

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About the Author
Julia Dahl is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.
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