The Great Exploiter

Five years ago, I was working as a staff writer at the East Hampton Star, a family-owned weekly newspaper on the eastern end of Long Island, New York, when an editor first told me about a great untold story of the so-called Hamptons that I eventually turned into my first nonfiction book. 

In March of 1984, four young commercial fishermen disappeared in a hellacious storm off the coast of Montauk. But much of the real drama, I would discover, unfolded not at sea, but on land. Through each of their survivors, whether friends or family members, the lost men became a lens through which to examine the process of grief and letting go. 

I first met Mary Stedman, the widow of the young captain, in the summer of 2017. We spoke uninterrupted for three hours, followed by dozens of hours in the weeks and months and years thereafter. I’ve always been fascinated by complicated women, and Mary possessed not only a photographic memory but a deep, expansive intellect. As we became better acquainted, she passed along the names of dozens of people who helped fill me in on the man Captain Michael Stedman had been.

Unlike many nautical stories, historically authored by white men, I wanted the reader to learn as much about the four lost fishermen as they do about the women they left behind: the widow, the mothers, and the girlfriends. The disappearance of the boat was like the still point of the turning world. The men were dead. It was the survivors left to grapple with what came afterward—not only the loss of their loved ones, but the life that continues being lived, both the wonderful and the not-so-wonderful parts.

Over the years, the boundaries between Mary and I grew blurred. Our relationship was no longer one between source and storyteller. There was a give and take. We both shared certain intimacies. And yet, despite the trusting relationship we seemed to be developing, I always had a sense that our closeness wouldn’t last. Our eventual estrangement was inevitable. That became especially apparent when a thicket of personal secrets spilled forth from other sources. When I looped back with Mary to corroborate what I had heard, wondering why she had left out such a vital part of the story, our relationship imploded. She eventually severed all ties.

The braided narrative of my book came to encompass the decades-long tension between the summer people and the locals, the ways in which trauma can alter our memories, the powerful, and oftentimes painful, dynamics between fathers and sonsas well as the secrets that not only haunt families from beyond the grave, but often wend their way through the next generation. When my book came out in late May, I anxiously awaited word from Mary.

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She sent me a note in June over Instagram, where she called me “the Great Exploiter,” among other expletives. 

Criticism and complaints are part of nonfiction storytelling. Over the years, I’ve been on the receiving end of the disappointment, even the rage, of a few sources once a story gets published. But this time was different. My book took years of reporting. I knew my sources well, and my heart was in deep. 

There were aspects of the tale, particularly around infidelity and betrayal, which few knew about, and of those, even fewer wanted revealed. As the years wore on, an agonizing set of choices presented themselves: to tell the story as some key sources wanted me to tell it (and subsequently avoid their ire), or write the story in the complexity and richness it deserved to be told. I opted for the latter. 

A clear path forward presented itself when I was putting the finishing touches on the first draft. When I explained to the high school girlfriend of one of the captain’s sons my quandary—namely, of what to include and what to leave out—she explained that I had to reveal the secret related to paternity at the heart of the story. “Everyone who grew up with us in East Hampton knew about it, ” she shared with me over a cup of coffee. “And if you don’t put it in the book, people are going to think that you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Writing about a place that I now call home, and where our children attend the local public elementary school, was but an added layer of complication. When my husband, a sociologist, read an early draft of the manuscript, he gently asked whether, following the dictates of his profession, I might consider substituting aliases in place of real names. I explained that I could not. I promised that my next book would take place in a far away, distant land.  

At various junctures, I asked myself: What does it mean to tell a story about a place when you’re not from there? While writing the second draft of the manuscript, I inserted myself as a minor character—not as an exercise in narcissistic self-indulgence, but to help explain to the reader how my outsider status was both a blessing and a curse. 

While being a newcomer allowed me to approach the story with fresh eyes, it also made me an easy target. Among a certain subset of readers, especially those with generations-long ties to the South Fork of Long Island, an outsider’s telling of the gritty truths behind a local tragedy was seen as unnecessarily intrusive. Others balked, directly and indirectly, that it was a woman who finally told this long-buried story, and seemed to take particular offense that it hadn’t been penned by one of their own: preferably a native son.

Over the past six months, after participating in some three-dozen virtual and in-person book talks, I’ve discovered that Mary is hardly alone in her damning personal assessment. Though the questions have taken on slightly different forms, all have essentially wanted to know: What business did I, as an outsider, have in revealing intimate details related to the personal lives of private citizens? 

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At various inflection points, I took comfort in the work of Janet Malcolm, who at the beginning of The Journalist and the Murderer, writes: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

Taffy Brodesser-Akner, who is a staff writer at the New York Times, where she often writes about celebrities, is an expert knife-wielder. Over the years, she’s learned that trying to predict a subject’s reaction to a piece of writing was a fool’s errand. And that maybe even worse than momentarily pissing a subject off is when a piece of writing is unmemorable, provokes little to no reaction, and quickly fades into obscurity.   

“There’s a small sorority of people who understand this and within that sorority there’s an even smaller group of people who know the awkwardness and inexplicable humiliation that comes with someone you wrote about hating what you did,” Taffy Brodesser-Akner told me. “The smaller sorority not only knows how much this hurts, but we continue to do it because we don’t work for our subjects, we work for the reader.”

Before leaving an interview, Brodesser-Akner often warns subjects that the story isn’t being written for their consumption: While it’s about them, it isn’t for them. “You only have control of the story. You have no control of how people react,” she said. “The subject has the right to have their reaction. You had your say. And if you did it right, it rarely feels good.” 

A few days before I called Brodesser-Akner, she had heard from a disappointed subject and had called Olivia Nuzzi, her friend, to commiserate. In mid-August, Nuzzi, a staff writer at New York Magazine, wrote a profile about Cindy Adams, the New York Post’s gossip columnist. 

Two days later, Nuzzi found herself, not unexpectedly, on the receiving end of an Adams backlash. “The writer’s insecurities were apparent. Those insecurities were paraded further. A snarky article I understand. It helps anyone not famous get yet another assignment,” Adams wrote in her column. “Note to a magazine editor: Pick a writer whose insecurities are less obvious.” 

Since Adams routinely writes about her own media attention, Nuzzi had expected to appear as fodder in her column. Even still, it was clear that the profile had struck a nerve. It seemed like she was trying very hard to wound me with what she wrote, which made me feel sad for her, because she must have felt wounded by what I wrote,” Nuzzi said. “My intention was not to be cruel.” 

Nuzzi often wonders to herself: “When the piece comes out and the person is furious, is that a failure on my part for not having been clear enough? Or is it a lack of self-awareness on the part of the subject—and would no amount of hand-holding have created a different outcome?”

Increasingly, before she sends a first draft of a story off to her editor, Nuzzi wrestles with some version of: What can I personally live with and what, ultimately, is the contribution?  “The very nature of what I do—the business of transacting with subjects and sources—can feel hopelessly icky, no matter what lengths I go to ensure that I’m conducting myself not just ethically, but fairly and empathetically.”

Biddle Duke, the editor who gave me the magazine assignment that eventually morphed into my book, explained that the hardest part of our work is to manage our natural instinct to meet the expectations of our sources. 

“Journalists hide behind that notion of service to readers, almost as a sacred cloak, as if that loyalty, that responsibility to others, elevates our work, and makes it somehow sacrosanct,” Duke said. Sure, you are accountable to readers. But most of all you are accountable to yourself, your sense of right and wrong, your loyalty to the truth. That is the journalist’s sometimes lonely, unenviable, and often inevitable destination.”

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In the summer of 2018, one of my sources, Peter Connick, the older brother of a young blue-blooded mate who was lost at sea, and who I had recently interviewed, emailed me to say that he had had a change of heart. He threatened to lawyer up and that a cease and desist letter would soon follow. (No such letter ever materialized.) Partly because of that email, which was the last time Connick and I communicated directly, Simon & Schuster’s legal team pored over my final manuscript. While the essence, and the depth of the story stayed firmly intact, the sharp edges were coaxed into a more palatable––and hopefully less litigious––version. 

In mid-April, about six weeks prior to my book’s publication date, I shared the finished manuscript with a local deejay who often hosts local writers, hoping she might consider having me as a guest on her public radio show. Instead, she called to tell me that I was an awful person and that I should be ashamed of myself. My chapter about Mahoneyville, a local compound in East Hampton for wayward youth, and specifically my documentation of the alcoholism that had ravaged several summer families, struck a painful nerve. She took particular issue with one of the personal revelations that implicated Connick, a childhood friend. Before hanging up the phone, she said that when her friend finally read the book: “He will kill himself and you will have blood on her hands.” 

I soon discovered that this same woman had started not only sharing the pdf of the book with her friends and family, but had printed out hardcopies for her friends to read in advance of my publication date. Simon & Schuster’s attorneys responded with a cease and desist letter of their own. (It’s an act of copyright infringement every single time a piece of material is shared in such a manner.) What we couldn’t control was that this woman would soon start speaking ill of both the book and me to various East End powerbrokers. 

All throughout last summer and into the fall, whether interacting with readers in-person or via Zoom, to say nothing of the ad hominem personal attacks masquerading as “customer reviews” online (or, as Robin from Goodreads wrote: “I guess I should have stopped when the writer confessed she believes in ghosts. Shame on me.”), I have continued to work at the ongoing process of developing a thicker skin. 

Mary’s notion that I am the Great Exploiter is not only correct, it’s also in line with Malcolm’s damning assessment of our profession. “Journalistic subjects know all too well what awaits them when the days of wine and roses—the day of interviews—are over,” she writes. “And they still say yes, when a journalist calls, and still they are astonished when they see the flash of the knife.” 

I told the truth as I saw it. That’s my job. And now I have to live with myself. 

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Amanda M. Fairbanks is a journalist based in Sag Harbor, New York. Her first book, The Lost Boys of Montauk: The True Story of the Wind Blown, Four Men Who Vanished at Sea, and the Survivors They Left Behind, was published in May.

TOP IMAGE: Montauk, NY. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images