A Two-Timing Guy

Yesterday Gene Weingarten won his second Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, which, according to no less an eminence than Joel Achenbach, is the first time anyone has repeated in that category. As Joel recounts, the story behind the winning story began on the morning I read about the unimaginable horror of a local man who went off to work, forgetting his adopted child in the back of his car, strapped into a car seat, on a hot summer day.

I found it so unimaginable, in fact, that I couldn’t stop imagining it. With me, it was more “how could anyone survive that” than “how could anyone do that,” because I knew I would have been capable of that. I know that I can get frighteningly distracted. I know that I can forget stuff. Important stuff. REALLY important stuff.

And as I sat there imagining the unimaginable, I knew there was one person who was even more outrageously forgetful than I was.

Gene Weingarten.

I also knew Weingarten was obsessed, an absolute connoisseur of moral dilemma and metaphysical angst, the unsolvable puzzles that make the human condition so particularly pathetic.

I knew that he would be particularly haunted because of his own fears that he could commit this atrocity himself, and that if the worst came to pass, he would never be able to stop torturing himself for it.

It turned out I hit it on the nose. Years ago, when we were both at the Miami Herald, Gene forgot to drop his toddler daughter at pre-school, and almost went into work, leaving  her in the back of a locked car on a sweltering South Florida day. Just as he was about to close the door on her forever, she said something.

He’d never told anyone, not even his wife.

So when I said, “You were born to write this story,” he didn’t just take it as an assignment, he took it as a sacred mission.

The first thing we decided to do was the one thing we knew would be most difficult of all in a difficult story: try to get the father who had just killed his child by accident to talk to us. Gene called the man’s lawyer, trying to persuade him that his story would be a sincere exploration of how this horrible thing could happen to a good man. The lawyer said: absolutely not. Not now. He said the guy was undergoing treatment. He said he’d let Gene know when or if he could ever contact the man. Weeks passed. Gene learned the man had returned home. He spent days trying to contact the lawyer. The lawyer never responded. So Gene wrote a letter,  a very sympathetic and moving letter, and drove to the man’s house with the idea that he would simply hand-deliver it and walk away. The letter explained why Gene was interested, that he believed it could have happened to him. It said if the man didn’t want to talk, Gene would pledge to leave him alone.

No sooner had he returned to the office than the man’s attorney exploded, threatening all sorts of immoderate actions and launching personal attacks.

That, we figured, was that.

Gene wondered if we should even go ahead with the story.

I said absolutely. That we needed to canvas prior cases, to find people in different phases of recovery, or lack of recovery, from nearly identical tragedies. That the whole point was to get inside the perspective of someone to whom this had happened, to understand it from inside out. There were enough cases out there, unfortunately, that I felt convinced we could find some who would be willing to talk.

And soon enough, Gene hit the jackpot. A woman who had left her infant son in a car several years earlier who, weeping over her dead son’s body, had vowed to take on whatever discomfort, endure the hate and humiliation of public exposure, in order to present herself as a stark warning to other parents. She would strip her soul bare in order to save someone else’s child. Gene was the opportunity to fulfill of her vow.

She became Gene’s guide into this far corner of hell. She revealed herself with fearless, some might even say reckless honesty. Through intelligence, eloquence, and genuine empathy, Gene had won her absolute trust. And that relationship paid an almost miraculous dividend: the woman decided to attend the trial of the father of the most recent victim.  She connected with the man in the halls of the courthouse, reached him with their shared horror, and eventually, she persuaded him that he should talk with Gene, and that doing so would, ultimately, save others from the nightmare that had become his life.

Gene would have his story, and eventually, his second Pulitzer.

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