If one is of a mind to bear witness to an American city coming apart, bit-by-bit, amid the bitter fruit of great catastrophe, it might be instructive to bear witness to New Orleans' pre-eminent chronicler -- Times-Picayune features columnist Chris Rose.
EXHIBIT 1, from the Columbia Journalism Review:
For the next 4,000 words, Rose described a spiral familiar to many Katrina survivors: the “crying jags and fetal positionings,” the “thousand-yard stare,” the inability to hold conversations. “I’d noodle around on the piano, read weightless fiction, and reach for my kids, always, trying to hold them, touch them, kiss them. Tell them I was still here,” he wrote. “But I was disappearing fast.” Finally, Rose described how the anti-depressant drug Cymbalta helped clear away some of that darkness, enabling him to function again.
In few cities would such a personal account have received such prominent play—or elicited more than 6,000 e-mails. But Katrina has transformed how journalism is practiced at The Times-Picayune. It has blurred the lines between those who suffer and those who chronicle that suffering, and has challenged traditional notions of objectivity. And it has become a better newspaper in the process. Every reporter and editor was directly affected by Katrina, and the Picayune’s pages are suffused every day with outrage and betrayal—and with solid reporting. The paper has relentlessly investigated the Army Corps of Engineers, which built New Orleans’s faulty levees, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose response to the storm provoked such frustration and anger. It has sounded the alarm about Louisiana’s disappearing wetlands, which would render New Orleans even more vulnerable during the next hurricane. And it has sent reporters to Japan and the Netherlands to learn what makes successful flood-control systems work.
And the newspaper has bonded with its readers; the Picayune is an essential part of coffee-shop conversation all over the metropolitan area. At a time when dailies are wondering how to hold onto wandering readers, it has proven that a paper that claims a stake in its city’s survival, reporting with passion and voice, can remain an essential part of the civic conversation. “Other papers would kill to be that relevant,” says Harry Shearer, the actor and satirist and part-time New Orleanian.
No Picayune writer epitomizes this transformation more than the forty-seven-year-old Rose, whose journey through breakdown and redemption spurred a communal catharsis. “He bled for us in those columns,” says Linda Ellerbee, the former NBC anchor who covered Katrina’s aftermath for Nick News, a children’s broadcast. “He made it more real than any photo, any TV coverage could—more than Anderson Cooper crying on the air, more than Sean Penn going though the water in his boat. He let us into his dark places. In the old-fashioned, Biblical sense, he bore witness.”
In fact, for Rose, recovery was proving harder than just taking a pill. Feeling impatient, he started upping his dose of Cymbalta. Then he added painkillers to the mix. He began withdrawing again, and losing weight, until he weighed what he did in eighth grade. His columns became “unrunnable,” says O’Byrne, who spiked three in a short span of time. “They were just angry, rageful rants against life and the universe.”
Finally, last April, Rose’s wife Kelly arranged for an intervention. She and O’Byrne, along with three neighbors, confronted the columnist at his house and urged him to enter rehab. He didn’t need much persuasion. Not only did Rose understand he was in trouble, but he had an additional incentive: he had also recently learned that he was a bone-marrow match for his sister, who had leukemia. “I thought, ‘I’m gonna save Ellen’s life and then write a story that will blow people away,’” Rose says. “And I get to be the hero.” Rose went into rehab for thirty days, kicking both the painkillers and the antidepressants. But not in time to donate marrow to his sister, who died three months later.
There is no thousand-yard stare on Rose’s face now. He is as transparent in person as his columns are. One afternoon last October, he brought forty copies of 1 Dead in Attic, the best-selling compilation of his post-Katrina columns, to a meeting of the Ladies Leukemia League in suburban Kenner. After a spirited talk—Rose repeatedly mocked the country-club neighborhood where they were meeting—his friend Jacquee Carvin raised her hand. “Is there anything else that you can personally impart to the leukemia society?” she asked. Rose let out a sigh. “You put me on the spot there,” he said.
“Just watch me and you’ll get through it,” Carvin replied.
Rose’s eyes welled up. “My sister died of leukemia in August,” he said, his voice choking. “I was her bone-marrow match, but we never made it.” He told the women about his struggle with depression and slide into drug addiction. “I was killing myself real fast. When I found out I was a bone-marrow donor, I said, ‘I’ve got to fix myself.’ And I went to rehab. So what happened was, instead of saving my sister’s life, she saved mine.”
These days, Rose laughs hard and cries easily. His marriage has dissolved, but he is hanging on. “I’m a work-in-progress,” he says, sitting on his new front porch near Tulane University and watching his children race in and out of the house. “I got these little guys; I gotta take care of them.” And Rose is trying to figure out the next step for his journalism. He’s writing fewer internal monologues and more reported stores. He feels settled into New Orleans for the long haul.
AND NOW . . . EXHIBIT 2, from Sunday's newspaper:
Chris Rose, a columnist for The Times-Picayune, was arrested Friday night and booked in an alleged domestic violence incident.
Rose, 48, caused a disturbance and refused to leave the home of a former girlfriend, according to a New Orleans Police Department report filed in Municipal Court.
Police booked him with a municipal domestic violence charge and disturbing the peace. The police report said Rose refused to leave the woman's home but does not mention physical violence.
The incident took place at about 7:30 p.m. in the 7400 block of Pearl Street, the report says.
Rose allegedly became involved in a dispute with a 34-year-old woman, his former girlfriend, and another man. Responding officers wrote in their report that Rose had a "strong odor of alcohol and slurred speech."
After being booked, Rose posted a $2,800 bond. He is scheduled to appear in Municipal Court on Monday morning, according to court records.
Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss declined to comment on the incident.
Reached Saturday afternoon by telephone, Rose said he "had the poor judgment to try to have a conversation" with the woman when it was clear she did not want to talk.
Rose said the woman's companion took offense and punched him in the mouth. Rose said he then left and was walking home when he was arrested.
NOBODY GETS out of this life unscarred. Nobody gets out of this life without screwing up big-time sometime.
These days, folks seem to be living that concept large in the City Formerly Known as Big Easy. Especially newspaper columnists of the sensitive type.
Like Ringo says:
It don't come easy,YEP. God help us all.
You know it don't come easy.
Got to pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues,
And you know it don't come easy.