Journalist couple discusses difficulties faced when writing about their premature baby

Journalist couple Kelley Benham and Tom French talked about their premature baby, Juniper, who is the focus of a new feature series Benham published in the Tampa Bay Times. (Alexis Macklin/DD)

Kelley Benham and Tom French’s presentation began with a picture of a tiny, premature infant.

“Tom and I had been journalists and storytellers for many years … when we sort of fell into the story of our lives,” Benham said.

The couple led a Must See Mondays discussion at the Walter Cronkite School titled “Never Let Go: Reporting and Writing on the Frontier Between Life and Death.” The discussion focused on the couple’s efforts to record the story of their severely premature baby who was not expected to live.

Benham’s series in the Tampa Bay Times, titled “Never Let Go,” was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing. Benham went into labor four months early and the baby, Juniper, was born at 23 weeks. She said that at 20 ounces and 11 inches, her daughter was no bigger than a Barbie doll.

Cronkite School writer-in-residence Terry Greene Sterling quoted from the “Never Let Go” series in her introduction to the couple’s story.

“(French) and I had stretched the limits of science once already to create her,” Sterling read. “To keep her, we have to do it again … we would explore the wonder and peril of man’s ability to manipulate nature, and we’d surrender the understanding that we control so little.”

After going through the constant pain and suffering of wondering whether or not their child would live, the couple knew they had to write about their experience. However, Benham, a staff writer at the Tampa Bay Times and French, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and professor of practice at Indiana University, had to figure out how to write a story in which they had become the subjects of their own piece.

“We weren’t thinking at all as writers, we were just trying to survive it,” Benham said. “Even if we had been thinking as writers, a story about a critically ill baby really demands a happy ending … the ones that end with dead babies are really hard to read, and it seemed at the time that a happy ending was almost an impossibility.”

Sterling said the genre, sometimes called literary journalism or narrative nonfiction, fuses meticulous, fearless and detailed reporting with storytelling techniques usually associated with fiction. She said that the narrative journalists unwittingly became the main characters in this case.

“Once we’re determined to write it, it makes the story not about us, but about something bigger and more important,” Benham said. “We realized we really needed to write this story.”

The two writers said they had difficulty figuring out how to write about the traumatic experience, but they ultimately agreed to have Benham write a series and collaborate on a book. However, during her writing Benham struggled to figure out who the main character would be.

French recalled the “epic journey through the corridors” Benham took after giving birth, including refusing pain meds in order to provide Juniper with milk and walking across the hospital to do so. Then he told her, almost frustrated, that it was obvious who the main character of the story should be — her. From that point, Benham developed their story as a series.

“When first-person journalism is done badly, it’s awful,” French said. “When it’s done well, it can just have such a power to connect with your audience. It’s crucial, when you try to do that, to understand what your story is really about and why it really matters to other people.”

French said he has experienced many people who have been driven to write about traumatic experiences before, such as journalists writing memoirs. He said the problem is just because a person goes through something profound does not mean it will be exemplified that way to their audience — you have to have something fresh and engaging and figure out why it will matter.

Benham’s key to making this story engaging was to escape the events that happened in her head and consult other sources. She found the hospital medical chart and called it a “gold mine”, using it to get an outside perspective from the data and conducting interviews with the people that interacted with Juniper.

“I didn’t have enough notes, and my memory was terrible,” Benham said. “I had a huge handicap, but it actually turned out to be this great gift because it forced me to dig and find a story that was better than the one that was in my head.”

As the couple works to turn the series into a book, the almost 3-year-old Juniper is healthy and thriving — a happy ending that at the beginning seemed impossible.

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Correction: Dec. 5, 2013

A previous version of this story misspelled Kelley Benham’s first name. It has been updated with the proper spelling.