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A Journalist Grapples With Grief -- Part I

MacArthur Award winner Adrian Nicole LeBlanc on the emotions of capturing her father's dying days

- November 14, 2006

Journalist Adrian Nicole LeBlanc with her father Adrian Leon LeBlanc, prior to his death from lung cancer in 2003.
Photo by Arthur Joseph Giangrande
For Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, what should have been a professional high in early 2003 coincided with personal tragedy. Her first book, Random Family -- now considered a triumph of "immersion journalism" that helped her win a MacArthur "genius" grant in 2006 -- was being released. At the same time, LeBlanc was grappling with her 85-year-old father Adrian Leon LeBlanc's deterioration from late-stage lung cancer. Shuttling between her Manhattan residence and her childhood home in Leominister, Massachusetts, LeBlanc strove to spend as much time as possible with her dying father. With the intention of writing about him someday, she began tape-recording their talks, so she'd be sure to remember him exactly as he sounded and in his own words.

Those conversations have been distilled into "The Ground We Lived On," an arresting radio documentary that peers into the intimate relationship between LeBlanc and her father. Even as they prepare one another for the inevitable, their conversations -- "the ground they lived on," as LeBlanc describes them in the piece -- continue with humor and insight up until his death. In the first installment of a two-part interview, LeBlanc lays bare her ambivalence about documenting her dad's last days. In Part II, she describes how she and StoryCorps producer Sarah Kramer (interviewed here) distilled 40 hours of audio footage and 70 pages of text into a 12-minute tribute to LeBlanc and her father's profound connection.

What was it like for you when your father was diagnosed with lung cancer?
He had a sequence of events happen: He had an aortic aneurysm that was longstanding, for years. It finally got to the point where it had to be operated on. During that surgery, he was paralyzed in the torso, and during the neurological testing for that -- which now brings us easily six months into this odyssey -- that's when he finds out he has lung cancer. So, we were dealing with his paralysis, which was a stunning kind of devastation, and the lung cancer was just sort of in the background.

It's not to say we didn't recognize [the lung cancer] was devastating, but he was trying to deal with becoming paralyzed. So then, this doctor said to us, "Look, you don't have time on this." So, the lung cancer diagnosis really collapsed into just a pure crisis feeling in my life. I was incredibly close with him -- I went into high alarm. I was very stricken, and anxious, and terrified.

How did it occur to you to do this project?
Dave Isay, who's the head of Sound Portraits and StoryCorps, was an acquaintance of mine, not a close friend, and we met for lunch, I think -- we'd sort of crossed paths in journalism, prior to this. I was in the throes of this grieving and [Random Family] was coming out. I was just really devastated, and a friend of his had just lost a parent to lung cancer, so Dave said "Tape your dad. Just tape him, Adrian." I said, "No, why?" He said, "Just tape him. Get down the info about his life. You think you'll remember all these details but you really won't." Which I know from journalism -- you think you will [remember every detail], but you never do. So he gave me a tape recorder and said, "Just do it."

I brought it home and did one interview with my dad. It was very stiff, like" "Where were you born? Blah, blah blah." The taping got screwed up, so I got some consultation from StoryCorps, and then that's how it happened. It was never with a plan to do anything with [the material] except have it. It was this idea that I would get [my dad's] bio down, because I knew I would forget the name of his high school, that stuff. And I know I will write about my dad someday, but [I was] definitely not thinking it was for a project.

In "The Ground We Lived On," you say of your father: "His keen joy in observing people and the world is the reason I became a journalist." Can you elaborate on that?
We thought a lot about the use of the word 'keen,' because it wasn't just this sort of vague thing -- he really was a bird watcher, he'd always called himself a bird watcher, and he was the kind of person that would watch people very carefully. He was a very loveable guy, a gentle nice guy -- he wasn't a person you'd feel uncomfortable with, but he was absorbing people and would often have a very astute take on them. Not a critical one, but, kind of like these characterizations. He would think about it, and he would enjoy it. I guess it was observing, then characterizing.

And, he also was a person who was incredibly curious about people and the world. He would always ask questions like, "What's your day like?" It's the question he always asked people: "What do you do during the day?" I think partly because of his union stuff [LeBlanc's father had been a labor activist], he was always trying to place that -- things that were good, or things that were working and things that weren't. And in ['Ground'] it says he would call us to the window. He was always pointing things out -- my mom did it, too. It was a way of looking at the world.

What was your dad's take on being taped during all this? Did you have to convince him?
No, no, no. I think he always secretly wanted me to devote myself to writing about him at some point. We always thought we'd get around to it -- it was never spoken, but we both sort of knew it. He was totally game. I think he would've done anything for me, in general -- he was supportive. When we started, he never even said, "Why?" I think he understood that I needed to do it, I wanted to do it -- he sort of wanted to do it. I think he liked to think about his life in our conversations. When I used to go home and visit, we would always get up really early and go out to breakfast. I would always ask questions, and he would talk.

My mother didn't want it to happen -- she was like, "Adrian Nicole, if you have to do this, [do it], but I don't want to be in it." Of course, the great irony is, she's the only one [besides LeBlanc and her father] really in it, because of both the way the documentary went and the quality of the recording -- only certain recordings have useable quality. So, my father was trying to say, "Respect that your mom doesn't want to be in it." So, sometimes, I'd shut it off when she'd come in the room. And sometimes I wouldn't, because I just forgot that it was running.

How does your mom feel about it now?
Well, she just listened -- I was just calling her [LeBlanc was finishing a cell phone call when we arrived for the interview]. She seemed to think it was very beautiful. She was nervous about listening, but I think she sees it as something very separate from her. I think she just hopes it will help me process this a little bit better than I've been able to. But, it is pretty intimate in terms of them, and I feel respectful of the fact that I still made the decision to do it despite what she wanted, and despite that, in fact, it was a very private moment between them. Which is sort of sobering, but I still have to face that I did do it. I don't think that she has a problem with it, but she had no way of knowing what was on it. I didn't share it earlier because I wasn't going to let anybody change it, and I didn't really want to know if she hated it, because then I never would have had the guts to do it.

In what way did your father's illness impact your relationship? You say you'd always been close, but did you feel that was ratcheted up while he was sick?
[While he was sick], we were still talking, and then he was talking less, then he was not talking at all. So, it didn't change our relationship at all -- ['Ground'] is really representative of our relationship. I just spent every minute I could with him. I mean, the sad thing was that [Random Family] was coming out, and he was like, "Get out there, honey -- you jumped in the water, now you're gonna swim. You don't just let this thing die." So, I was doing readings and it was horrible. I was so dissociated from that. I have no recollection of most of those events; I could've cared less, really -- not because I didn't respect what I had done and the fact that people cared. I just wanted to be [with him] all the time, and I was scared I would get a cell phone call... I hated being away from him. Any available minute, I gave to him.

He was being cared for at home -- that must've been a huge thing for you, your mom...
And my siblings. He was in a hospital a lot, prior to that because he'd had major surgery, so getting him home was great. Then, hospice was amazing. Hospice allowed us to take care of him the way we needed to, and we were lucky that we had the comfort level, financially, to not have to worry about sustaining that. I'm in a career that, even though money was never the thing it generated, I could just be home that much. It's one of the things that makes us most happy and proud.

"I don't think you should ever shelve your introspection about your own motivation. I think it's really crucial."

As a journalist, the impulse to chronicle or document what's going on -- even if you're not thinking of it as anything official -- how did you negotiate that?
I have to credit Dave Isay with that. Even had I had the impulse, I would've repressed it because I would've been very uncomfortable about it -- reckoning with that impulse we have as journalists. I think it's good to reckon with it, because I don't think you should ever shelve your introspection about your own motivation. I think it's really crucial.

It helped me feel much more at peace and confident about what I do. It's not about preserving my dad. It's not even about the death: There's just 12 minutes [of the program] where people, friends -- maybe strangers -- just get to know my dad. I do really believe that about writing about people: You get to know them and you get to see things, and it's really valuable. I think it sort of matters that you get to know the way someone else is living. Dave Isay really does believe that regular people need to be known and I think it's true.

"Immersion journalism" is a term that's been used to describe your work. Does this project fit into that category?
I understand what people mean by that. I guess part of it is the luxury of time, because [journalism] is really a hard business to make any kind of time in. I think of it as time, where the immersion comes in, the willingness to let your [work] dominate, or be a very, very large part of what you're doing. ['Ground'] was implicitly immersed, because obviously it is my family life.

My other projects are my life, but this made me aware of the journalism. When I was doing Random Family, my reporting was my life. Whereas [with 'Ground'], I was aware that there was a footbridge between my life and the reporting. I thought, "Oh, I am reporting." Not to say that I don't intellectually know that I'm reporting...

But you were more conscious of it?
Yes, of my own agency and intention. Because, no matter what, even if I didn't know this was going to be a documentary -- I mean, come on! I set up a tape recorder on the hospital bed.

You say in 'Ground' that there are moments when caring for your dad feels "spiritual," and you describe the reverence you feel toward his flesh, even as he's physically deteriorating. Those sentiments may sound familiar to those who've experienced loss like this, but in the media you don't tend to find them outside the purview of self-help books, or articles specifically about grief. So, how would you place this project in the larger journalistic landscape?
I never thought of that part of it. I wonder, how would one cover that stuff journalistically, as opposed to more personally -- like self-help. It's a really good question: I don't know how you would cover it journalistically. I don't know how people would report about this. It's clear that since I don't know, and you're clearly wondering, we need to cover it. Personal essays get the closest, I think.

In the piece, you say: "Serious loss brings you into one of the world's silent fraternities." And sooner or later, if one lives long enough, we'll all go through an experience like this. So, why is that fraternity silent?
A total inability to deal with mortality, a refusal to deal with aging: I think that's thoroughly American. I was in Eastern Europe this summer, and it's really different there. We don't know how to deal with it and we willfully don't deal with it. Just the very fact that when some loved one gets sick or is dying, it's like everyone else's life is continuing -- if you bring it up, people don't really want to hear about it.

In the second half of this interview, Editing Through Loss -- Part II, LeBlanc describes the grueling editing process that had her reliving her father's final moments to create "The Ground We Lived On."

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This interview contains excerpts, and has been edited for clarity.]

Rebecca L. Fox is mediabistro.com's features editor.

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