Autobiographical Essay

The following is a “journalistic autobiography” that I wrote in 2010 as part of a fellowship application. 

Looking into her eyes changed the way I see journalism.

On the eve of Holly Dunn’s junior year at the University of Kentucky, she watched as “The Railroad Killer,” Angel Maturino Resendez, killed her boyfriend. Resendez then turned to Dunn, stabbed her, raped her and left her for dead. But unlike his other 16 known victims, Dunn survived.

She is the only one who lived to talk about the pain. I was the journalist she chose to tell that story to.

Seeing the tears well up in her eyes, I began to understand the responsibility that comes with such a story. While the local news outlets reported the horrific crime, my story was the first in which she chose to speak on the record. It was as if she was loaning me this deeply personal experience for me to take care of.

To properly report such a story, I researched narrative writing, traveled across the state to spend time with her, interviewed her friends, researched Resendez and went through several drafts. Two months later, I published a story that showed how this incident provided a positive turning point in her life.

It was a defining moment for me, too. It was the first time I witnessed the power of journalism.

I was only 19 years old, a sophomore working at UK’s daily student newspaper, The Kentucky Kernel. Growing up, my family never subscribed to a newspaper or had done anything worthy to grace its pages, besides the occasional honor roll mention. But I had always known that journalism interested me, and now I knew why.

After the story was published, students, professors and community members sought me out. Many people, including some family and friends, wanted to tell me their own rape experiences and how the story touched them. And partly because of the exposure the story gave her, Dunn was able to start Holly’s House, a resource center for victims of sexual and intimate partner abuse.

Humbled by this experience, I became determined to repeat it. I wanted to bring other stories of emotion, pain and change to light. And since then my life story has involved giving readers glimpses into other people’s life stories, so to properly tell it, let me share with you some of the stories that have made up my life.

While an intern at The Virginian-Pilot, I convinced my editors to let me spend every Tuesday night over three months with a homeless outreach group in Virginia Beach. This resulted in a story examining the often-ignored problem of homelessness in the family-friendly tourist destination. Watching the sun set over the ocean with several members of Virginia Beach’s homeless contingent from under a bridge just beyond the strip of high-end hotels, beach shops and carnival rides also made me realize how fascinating and emotional it is to enter someone’s life and see the world with them.

One of the first enterprise stories I wrote for The Bakersfield Californian was an in-depth profile of an Ethiopian doctor, who fled his homeland as a young man when a tyrannical military junta had a hold over the country. After coming to the United States and settling in Bakersfield, he returned to his homeland to open a hospital. My story motivated people to donate thousands of dollars and several pieces of medical equipment to his impoverished hospital a world away.

Also at The Californian, I brought to light the fact that all but one Bakersfield hospital and several physician groups do not do criminal background checks before hiring and credentialing physicians, an error that allowed one doctor charged with driving under the influence and cocaine possession to practice undetected.

I’m proudest of the long-term narrative project I completed, in which I followed four overweight-to-obese young people for close to one year to write about the challenges they faced. The subjects included a 15-year-old grappling with a future of illness and a 16-year-old, who at 480 pounds decided surgery was the only way to save his life. I became a regular member of their lives, accompanying them at home, school and family and church functions. This project also allowed me to delve deeper into multimedia. The newspaper gave the three oldest children voice recorders so that they could record their thoughts while I wasn’t with them. Along with featuring their recordings in the stories, we used them in photo slide shows online.

Most recently, I’ve written for The Louisville Courier-Journal, coming back to the state where I wrote the story that started it all, the story about Holly Dunn.

While at the newspaper, I profiled another shocking crime, though this one has remained unsolved. Sept. 10 marked the 10-year anniversary of when 17-year-old Jessica Dishon disappeared. She was later found dead not far from her rural home.

I tracked down Bucky Brooks, Dishon’s neighbor who was once charged with her murder and who, after spending two years in jail, was freed when the judge declared a mistrial. Brooks and his family had moved three times since he was released, in the hope of not being found. But after combing court documents and talking to sources and former neighbors, I found the family living an hour south on a rural road in a neighboring county.

I left several notes on his door. No one ever answered my knocks.

Then I received a call from his lawyer, a regular source of mine who encouraged him to talk to me. Sitting in the lawyer’s office across from him and his wife, I could see fear and anguish in his eyes as he recounted his story and swore his innocence.

He trusted me to be fair.

Looking into his eyes reinforced my belief in the power of journalism and the trust journalists are given to tell stories. I hope to do this, whether by writing stories myself or by helping others produce them, for the rest of my career.

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