Going beyond journalism
Linden MacIntyre talk to examine the complexities of human nature and the stories we carry with us
By Jenn Watt
Many years ago, journalist Linden MacIntyre stood watching as the site of a massacre – a family home – in Lebanon was excavated. Boys in their early teens stood beside him, looking on as body parts were pulled from the rubble. Their faces “were like masks” as they observed family members brought out in pieces.
He wondered how this gruesome event would affect the teens. “This will rewire them and they will take this scene away from here and it will shape their lives and attitudes and the lives and attitudes of their kids and it’ll go on down through [the generations],” MacIntyre recalls thinking.
It occurred to him that journalism would never be able to mine the depths of what happened that day. It could never cover what was going on inside these boys’ minds and what consequences would follow.
“When I was covering conflict in places like Lebanon, for example, I realized I’m seeing things happening on various levels here. I’m only reporting on what I’m seeing, hearing and smelling and there’s all sorts of other dimensions and levels to this and I just can’t get into that,” he said.
Fiction, on the other hand, offers the opportunity to explore issues with more care and space. It allows the mind to examine life beyond the basic facts that limit journalism.
So it was no surprise that in 1999, MacIntyre began shifting into fiction – writing about how one event can echo across not only one person’s life, but those of generations to come.
“Two guys in war do something awful,” he says, describing the plot for his first book, The Long Stretch.
“They are twisted for the rest of their lives by it. ... Their children will grow up with particular attitudes and challenges that may very well be related to this one incident that the kids will never know about.”
MacIntyre took three novels to map out the impact of one misdeed: The Long Stretch, The Bishop’s Man and Why Men Lie.
The Bishop’s Man won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2009.
If it weren’t for his longtime employer, the CBC, and in particular The Fifth Estate, MacIntyre says he would likely have left journalism long ago. Besides the limitations of the craft, the financial support isn’t there like it used to be.
MacIntyre used his departure from the corporation in 2014 to illustrate that point. On the heels of an announcement that CBC would shed some 700 jobs, the veteran broadcast journalist took his leave, making room for the new crop of workers.
He gave a lecture at the University of Toronto, which was published in several places online, where he spoke candidly about the state of journalism, the CBC and the cult of celebrity that emerges from chronic under-funding. In regards to the Jian Ghomeshi scandal, which unearthed a bevy of allegations of sexual assault and unwanted advances by CBC Radio’s star host, MacIntyre said precarious work conditions deserve some of the blame.
“That was the whole thrust of my lecture was that in a time of great vulnerability for people working in a very vulnerable institution – an abused institution – people become, if you have an abusive personality among them, they’re going to get abused. If it happens to be an abusive personality that tends toward sexual exploitation, it’s going to happen,” he said.
“If you’re an intern hoping to translate your internship into a short-term temporary foot-in-the-door contract, you’re not going to call the cops, you’re not going to complain,” he said.
Ghomeshi has pleaded not guilty to the allegations made against him, but MacIntyre says the situation has highlighted the inadequacies within the corporation, much of which is tied to its ever dwindling resources and management that bends to the will of the federal government.
“This is a problem with an institution that’s in the middle of an existential crisis that’s brought on by politics and brought on by the transformation of upper management (I mean, like head office and board of directors) into this crowd of people who are totally subservient to the government of Canada which happens to hate public broadcasting,” he said.
MacIntyre doesn’t miss journalism much, choosing to invest his energy in fiction. In 2014, he released Punishment, a novel following the life of retired corrections officer Tony Breau, who leaves Kingston to return to his childhood home of St. Ninian, N.S.
Upon arrival, he finds that a young girl in the community has died – the grandchild of his former sweetheart – and that an ex-con named Dwayne Strickland is being tried for her death.
Tony knows Dwayne not only from the corrections system, but also from growing up in the same community. Tony’s life played out in a socially acceptable manner with marriage and a reliable job, while Dwayne got into trouble early on and was never able to escape it.
The mystery of the girl’s death unfolds as Tony reintegrates into St. Ninian society, which brings with it a love story and revelations about human nature.
A Torontonian originally from Nova Scotia, who for many years has owned a place in the Haliburton Highlands, MacIntyre has experience in the small town setting and the tightly knit community that comes with it.
Add tragedy into the mix and it can create the perfect environment to discuss the universal pitfalls of human nature.
“Punishment comes at a time when people are quite acutely interested in vengeance and interested in crime and punishment and interested in justice. They’re interested in what we do with people who do bad things,” MacIntyre said.
Set in the early 2000s, the terrorist attack of 9-11 and the invasion of Iraq run parallel to the story. Characters discuss the world events that contain many of the same themes as the book: the power of fear, the human desire to assign blame, the notion that people can be wholly good or bad.
Our tendency to label people and seek to punish them rather than look deeper into their lives and society in general can lead us to dangerous places, he argues.
MacIntyre gives the example of Canadian Stanley Faulder who was executed by the state of Texas in 1999 for the murder of an elderly woman in a burglary gone very wrong. Faulder had suffered a brain injury as a child resulting in effects to cognitive functioning. MacIntyre spent many hours interviewing him right up to the day he died.
“It was one of the last human conversations he had,” he said. “He was talking about life and death and remorse.”
Had he avoided drugs and alcohol, Faulder speculated he may have never done his bad deeds. Learning from those lessons, rather than condemning Faulder as purely evil, would serve society better, MacIntyre said.
Those categories are futile anyway.
“Evil’s only a moral quality that you attach to what people do, and to declare people to be bad is to exclude the possibility that they can also do good things – or to declare somebody to be good is to exclude the possibility that they do bad things,” he said, noting that while Mother Teresa is considered to be one of the most saintly humans in recent memory, she also was known to be a difficult personality. It doesn’t negate her good deeds, but she certainly wasn’t purely good.
Convenient categories give us all a sense of security, he said, and helps us explain away actions of family or community members outside acceptable behaviour.
“When a bad thing happens in a community like Haliburton and in a family, people want to hear explanations that reassure them that what happened is not symptomatic of a bigger problem in the community,” he said.
On Sunday, Nov. 8, MacIntyre will be the guest of this year’s Friends of the Haliburton County Public Library gala at Pinestone Resort.
Doors open at 1 p.m. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at Master’s Bookstore in Haliburton, by contacting 705-457-2695 or emailing email@example.com.
The Haliburton Echo is giving away two tickets to the gala. See next week’s issue for details.