on the job

The Tales We Tell

A young reporter winces when his big story lands on the Dr. Phil show.
January 1, 2007

I first began to notice the wisp of a girl with long black hair as I drove home from work in the evenings. She was usually standing on a corner beside a gas station in downtown Annapolis, her sliver of a face pockmarked, her dark eyes locked onto each passing vehicle. Her ragged clothes and weary demeanor were conspicuous along this busy downtown corridor, where leafy blocks of historic homes meet antique shops and cobblestone streets.

It took a few weeks for my curiosity to boil over, but I eventually pulled my car to the side of the road, approached her, and struck up a conversation. My press pass, I figured, was license enough to talk to whomever I pleased. Sarah, I learned, was a prostitute. I was a reporter at The Capital. A lot of people wanted something from this troubled twenty-four-year-old. I wanted a story.

What she told me that day, and over the weeks that followed, turned out not only to be a great story, but a minor media phenomenon, one that has taken Sarah all the way from her precarious existence on the streets of Annapolis to Dr. Phil’s coveted couch in Los Angeles. And yet it’s a story that has also left me with questions about the nature of the narrative I began to construct that day last April. With Sarah’s recent appearances on national television, these questions have only intensified.

Sarah’s story is what you might call a parent’s worst nightmare: cute, all-American kid dabbles in drugs and careens into a downward spiral. Until she began experimenting with heroin around age seventeen, Sarah insists that she had a fairly typical childhood in a quiet middle-class neighborhood outside Columbia, South Carolina, with her mother, Cindy, and her twin sister, Tecoa. She considered herself a budding artist who loved to draw and was rarely seen without a camera around her neck. The household was strictly vegetarian and junkfood was forbidden; Sarah didn’t even taste a Coke until she was ten.

When I met Sarah, more than six years after she began using heroin, her life was a shambles. Her drug habit, which now included crack cocaine, had forced her to drop out of community college several years before. She had dipped in and out of prostitution and rehab centers ever since.

Annapolis is a quaint state capital better known for its annual yacht races and sumptuous crab cakes than its prostitutes. I knew that Sarah’s salacious tales of sex with local lawyers, construction workers, and soccer dads in minivans would shake things up. My sense of this deepened when she invited me into her innermost sanctum, a tiny trash-strewn clearing behind some bushes in the local cemetery where she spent much of her time. I sat on a tree stump and watched her smoke crack. “I know I’m killing myself,” she told me as her body stiffened and her bloodshot eyes rolled into her head. “But I just can’t stop.”

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It turned out to be the first of several such encounters with Sarah, each one as disturbing as it was compelling. It was also my first serious encounter with the dueling loyalties that hover over journalists—to the story or to my humanity. “This,” I’d say to myself after one of Sarah’s raw testimonials, “is great fucking stuff! I can’t wait until my editor reads this.”

Several weeks after I met Sarah, my story was published on the front page of The Capital. It chronicled her life over the course of several days. Our attempts to conceal Sarah’s identity failed when a series of photos we ran of her, though taken from behind, allowed people to recognize her on the street. It was something we’d gone to great lengths to avoid, and for me and the photographer I worked with, it was a painfully embarrassing mistake that still makes me uncomfortable more than six months later. In a matter of days, Sarah went from an anonymous street urchin to something of a local celebrity. People were seduced by her candor, her street savvy, and by the story of a middle-class white girl—not unlike their own children—whose life had unraveled so tragically.


The Dr. Phil show came calling in July after receiving video footage and a copy of my article from a former guest of the show who was living in Annapolis. Sarah and her sister Tecoa, herself a recovering drug addict and former prostitute, were flown to L.A. and placed in “The Dr. Phil House,” a picturesque halfway house-turned-Big Brother compound where hidden cameras would document the young women’s attempt to rehab while the good doctor used his distinct brand of bullying southern charm—imagine a football coach doing psychology—to get to the root of their self-destructive behavior. Another group of opportunists, it seemed, had latched onto Sarah’s story.

The three-part series that Dr. Phil’s producers dubbed “Heroin Twins” began November 20. I tuned in to episode two, a week later, and there was Sarah, looking particularly deranged as she roamed the streets of Annapolis smoking crack and hooking, all of it in slow motion while foreboding music played in the background. And there was Dr. Phil, appearing suddenly on a plasma screen to berate the girls with boot-camp rhetoric: “You’ve entered my world now,” he tells the sisters. And later: “Come tomorrow morning, I’m coming for you.”

The Fall and the Redemption—through self-discipline, of course, and in public, no less. I cringed as I watched; it was my story taken to the extreme. The narrative that Dr. Phil was exploiting was the narrative that I helped to establish. Sarah’s story always required simplicity to be compelling. If Sarah were black, had grown up in an inner-city neighborhood, and didn’t have albums of angelic childhood photos, would she be on Dr. Phil? Would I have even stopped my car that day? It occurred to me that I had no idea what led Sarah down her troubled path; certainly it was more than casual experimentation. As an inexperienced reporter in search of a great story, I had relied on a trite, one-dimensional narrative of tragedy and redemption, the kind of thing we’ve all seen countless times on television and in the movies. I had failed to try to understand Sarah more fully or give dimension to the long, often contradictory battle she’d waged with addiction.

I can still recall a warm afternoon several days after I first met Sarah, when I followed her as she was en route to her favorite spot. She had just been paid $20 by a customer and, after a five-minute detour through the local open-air drug market, she had $10 worth of crack, a small rock about the size of a pencil eraser, which she had wrapped into a plastic bag and stuffed down her pants. She passed through the gates of the old cemetery, following a narrow trail over rolling hills, past blossoming trees and chirping birds, through a dense maze of impassive stones. She slowed to an easy stroll and a rare look of calm came over her sunburned face. Moments later, as she sat atop an old stone crypt, she pulled out her crack pipe and began smoking. “This isn’t me,” she kept saying that afternoon. “I’m a lot smarter than this. I’m just stuck, and I really need help.”

Peter Holley is a student at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.