Honest Storytelling... But Not Too Honest

Just telling the facts, just giving the minimum details to an event does not always make for a good story. Actually is seldom makes for a good story. Case in point, Hester Rumberg’s non-fiction work,Ten Degrees of Reckoning: A True Story of Survival. In this work Rumberg retells the harrowing events of the Sleavin family, the tragedy that befell them while they were at sea, and the mother’s (Judith Sleavin) struggle to survive and reclaim a sense of life. It is a powerful and gripping story that begs to be told for many reasons. It tells of gross corporate negligence, of the frustration of the court system on the national and international level, of one woman’s strength and hope, and of the beauty that can be found in a family. There are many reasons to tell this story and many ways that it can be told. In each and every way the truth, the facts, the basics of the story can be maintained while holding up a nuance of the narrative. Sadly, I do not feel that Hester Rumberg does the story justice.

Rumberg, a physician by training and a sailor by hobby and passion does a good job gathering the details, learning as much as she can, sharing as much of the details and the back story as she can and does a fine job in this pursuit. Yet in spinning the web, in telling the story, Rumberg falls short. All the details are there, the facts are present, but the narrative core is missing making this a mediocre work.

It should be said that Rumberg is a friend of Judith Sleavin, and someone that Sleavin trusts to tell the story. Rumberg should be applauded for shouldering the mantel of telling her friend’s tragic story. This is not an easy task. Yet something is missing.

Rumberg is not a writer. She is not a journalist. She is not someone who has practiced the art of writing, of telling a tale, of finding and fleshing out the story. True to her training as a radiologist, she looks at the story and tells what happened, but that does not pull out the story.

One story has many facets. Think of the four different stories of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They are in the later part of the Bible in case you weren’t sure). These are all working with many of the same facts, many of the same bits of information and yet all offer slightly different pictures of Jesus. One goes into great effort to connect the teachings of Jesus with the teachings of Moses and the Prophets. Another shows how the person and ministry of Jesus is one that goes beyond the rules and expectations of Judaism to include outsiders. Another offers a more “spiritual/mystical” view of Jesus’ teachings and ideas but one that does not diminish Jesus’ humanity. In the Bible we have four stories of the same person. Overlapping facts. Overlapping details, yet each one offers a different nuance in the narrative.

This does not make one “true” and another “false,” but is honest and true to the subjectivity that is going to be present whenever one begins to tell a story. Even if the story is autobiographical, it will still have nuance and bias. This is a reality to journalism, to storytelling, and is important to realize and embrace. The trick, so often, is to decide what your "bias" is going to be, what the angle of the story will be, and then to fully embrace it. That is good storytelling and as long as one holds to the facts it is also "truth-telling."

There is a story to tell in this book, and it is a good and powerful story. Scratch that. There are many stories to tell, and they can be good and powerful. What one needs to do is to take a chance, embrace a story, and then, without apology, tell it.