Jeff Benedict: Journalism is a great profession

Published: Monday, May 9 2011 4:22 p.m. MDT

Lauren Austin

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When I entered law school I wanted to be a prosecutor. I'm so glad I became a writer instead.

Law was the more conventional path. But I jumped to the unpredictable world of writing when my wife told me she believed I could succeed as an author. It's a lot easier to believe in yourself when someone else believes in you.

That critical decision was made 14 years ago. I've published nine books since then. The subjects have been diverse, ranging from Indian casinos to forensic science to athletes and violence against women. Looking back, I see that my family has been heavily influenced by the people and topics I write about. These experiences are part of us.

My tenth book, "Poisoned" is no exception. Last week I received a shipment of boxes containing the first editions to come off the press. After spending two years on this project, I couldn't wait to see bound copies of the finished product. Even though this is the 10th time, I still feel like a little boy on Christmas morning.

Slowly, I opened a box and saw 28 copies of "Poisoned" staring back at me. It's a little like seeing 28 television screens, all showing the same picture — overwhelming. I removed one copy and ran my fingers gently over the glossy jacket. Then I thumbed through all 314 crisp pages while taking in the aroma of fresh ink on new paper.

I couldn't write a book like "Poisoned" without people's trust and cooperation. In journalism, those two commodities are more valuable than gold bars and diamonds. I need people to open up and let me inside their lives. It can be a very scary proposition for them. One way I relieve the anxiety is by showing my subjects early drafts of pages. This is unorthodox in journalism. But I find that it strengthens trust and ensures accuracy.

Still, I never know how my subjects will react to the final product. But I figure they should see it before consumers do. So after I inspected my new book I sent advance copies to some of the people featured in it. That's the part that can be a scary proposition for the writer, which is probably one reason most writers don't do it. You never know how people will react to the way they've been portrayed.

One of the people I sent a book to is Roni Austin. Her 6-year-old daughter, Lauren, dies in the first chapter. Roni and her husband had to decide whether to remove Lauren from life support. No decision compares to that one.

Roni wept when she told me what it was like to be a mother in that position. I conducted that gut-wrenching interview with her at an inn near San Diego. Fittingly, it rained that day.

I decided to dedicate my book to them. Here's the inscription:

To Lauren, a daughter whose time was cut short. And to Roni, a mother who made the right decision.

Although Roni had seen early drafts of the opening chapter, I nonetheless wondered how she would react to the final version and the overall narrative.

A couple of days later, I received this voice mail:

Good morning, Jeff. This is Roni Austin. Well, I think you probably did near the impossible. You've really left me speechless. I opened the book … and saw the nice note you left in there. It choked me. (Brief pause.) And I saw the inscription that you made, the dedication, and started reading the book. And I just wanted to tell you that you really got me.

I'm so glad I didn't follow my first reaction and say, "You know, you're a nice man, but I don't think I want to talk to you about this." I'm glad I talked to you. I feel like we're a little bit connected here, even though we're brother and sister of a different mother. I hope you understand.

I just want to thank you for doing what you've done. And thank you so much for standing up for everybody.

This is why I love to write. A message like this tops the experience of seeing the book for the first time.

A few days after Roni's voice mail, I got another surprise. This one was a video about "Poisoned." It was produced by Terry Murphy, who was just nominated for an Emmy for a short documentary she produced on the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak for Seattle's PBS affiliate. In mid-April, Murphy flew from Seattle to spend a couple days with my family. She brought along cinematographer Chris Raaum and lighting virtuoso Doug Irvine.

I've been interviewed at my home many times. But I have never had a television crew living in my home for two days. The presence of television cameras and microphones recording everything you and your family do and say is a bit like turning the tables on an investigative journalist.

But it was a great experience for our family. The highlight for me was seeing each of my children interviewed on camera. Even my 5-year-old daughter, Clara Belle, was under the lights for a one-on-one interview. It was a unique experience for my children, exposing them to the world of television at a young age. The video is now on YouTube www.youtube.com/jeffbenedictauthor

Opportunities like this remind me how grateful I am to have chosen the path less traveled.

Jeff Benedict is a best-selling author and a columnist for SI.com. He can be reached at jeff@jeffbenedict.com.

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