By Greg Braxton
2013 SFJ Diversity Fellow
ST. PETERSBURG, FLA — Personality profiles can be the most insightful, involving pieces in print journalism, providing in-depth glimpses into fascinating figures while simultaneously allowing writers time and space to display their craft.
But every so often, the process produces results that can be unexpected, and, in some instances, even tragic.
Tampa Bay Times enterprise reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton encountered that delicate situation with her award-winning 2012 profile of a woman suffering from persistent genital arousal disorder, a rare debilitating disease that produces unwanted sexual feelings and responses. The intricately detailed story which exposed the humiliating ordeal of Gretchen Molannen also proved to be a troubling experience for both Molannen and the seasoned Anton, who detailed their encounters during a gripping session at the October conference for the Society for Features Journalism.
Before the story with Molannen was published in late November, she committed suicide. She took her life on Dec. 1, the day after the story appeared online.
Choking up at times as she recalled the experience, Anton defined the experience as a journey between her and Molannen, two people that always had a trace of possibility that something horrible may happen.
During the presentation, Anton showed video footage of Molannen that was filmed during their interview by the Times’ Eve Edelheit. The interview was conducted at Molannen’s home, where she was a virtual prisoner due to anxiety and discomfort. Molannen, who may have had other mental difficulties was straight-forward and candid during their interviews, though at times Anton had to work through Molannen’s repeated reluctance to participate in the story. Her parents were deceased, and her only true connection to the outside world seemed to be her boyfriend, who often encouraged her not to talk to Anton.
The sensations that Molannen experienced with her persistent sexual arousal syndrome, wrote Anton, is “akin to sexual arousal. But this is far from the pleasurable feeling that people associate with sex. It was not triggered by love, or lust for the boyfriend who would soon arrive to drive her to an appointment. It was unbidden and unwelcome.”
The journalists in attendance at the conference listened in rapt silence as Anton spoke of her roller-coaster drama in dealing with Molannen, who said in the video package she often had thoughts of suicide.
The two had proceeded with the story both feeling that it might help Molannen with getting assistance while shining a more educated light on the disease. But two days before the story appeared in print, Anton received an e-mail from Molannen’s boyfriend saying that she had killed herself. “I sat there, frozen in place,” Anton said as she described how she felt when she received the news.
“I thought about my role in Gretchen’s death,” saying she heard from experts and others who assured her that it was not her fault. Still, she felt some responsibility. “I felt guilty. But intellectually I could see it wasn’t all my fault.”
She also said she found it a bit unnerving when the story of Molannen’s death attracted the attention of the media and she was pursued by reporters for interviews: “It was an odd experience to be at the center of all those stories.”
Though Anton still appears troubled by the experience, her talk was testament to her determination to find peace with the outcome. The story of the story has also turned out to be a cautionary tale about what can happen to journalists when dealing with emotionally fragile subjects.
Greg Braxton is a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times. He is one of the 2013 Penny Bender Fuchs Diversity Fellows.