Conversation with Aluf Benn
Deadline: Ochberg Fellowship Application
Workshop: Reporting Safely from Crisis Zones
Panel: How to Freelance Safely
In November, 1996, my editor Tom Ferriter spotted a short AP story about a Korean mother whose only child had been murdered. Yong Jones' son, Laurence, Jr., had moved from Maine to Baltimore to study at Johns Hopkins medical school. Before he could enroll, he was shot in the face during a late-night robbery. He was 24. The story explained that Yong believed that her son's soul would be damned if his killer was never caught and punished. For three years, Yong had begged police to find her son's murderer. While police worked the case, Yong lost her husband, too. The story said Baltimore police finally arrested a suspect three years after Laurence Jones was murdered. A powerful photograph accompanied the report. It showed Yong weeping as she knelt over the sidewalk where her son had been shot.
Our First Meeting
I called Yong and met with her the following January. Her son's killer had yet to be tried. I was overwhelmed by her sadness. She sat in her darkened living room surrounded by dozens of photographs of her murdered son and dead husband. She cried throughout the two hours I talked with her. And at times during our first meeting, I cried with her. Though the local paper had covered her story, no one had told her story from start to finish. No one had explained who this mother was and why she was so desperate to save her son's soul. I told Yong I wanted to tell her story as completely as I could in serial form. To gather enough details for the serial, I'd need to spend hundreds of hours with her. I knew before the story was done, this mother's grief would keep me awake at night and I would not only cry when I talked with her but when I typed my notes and wrote each of the chapters.
I still think of Yong a lot, wondering how she is doing. While I wrote the story, I was pregnant with my first and only child. I couldn't help but wonder how I'd deal with such a terrible loss. My daughter, Emma, was born six days after the birthday of Yong's son. It was tough because Yong hoped my baby would be born on her son's birthday so the two would somehow be spiritually connected. Recently, I wrote an update on Yong. Though she is relieved her son's soul is now in heaven, she still must visit him and her husband in the cemetery every day. I know she will never be truly happy again. There is no closure when the two people you loved the most are gone. Yong and I talk every few months on the phone and get together occasionally for lunch. I know that I will probably keep in touch with her for a long time. I don't believe a reporter should forget or shun someone who has allowed them to write such a personal and painful story.
Yong told me that part of the reason she agreed to tell her story was so she could help others. She wanted other parents to know that they could take on the judicial system and win. She also hoped that her story would comfort others who had buried a child. After the serial ran, the newspaper received several letters from grieving parents. They said Yong's courage and love for her son inspired them to confront their own grief. When Yong read their letters, she was surprised. 'You really think I helped them?' She read their words again and again. And, in a way, I think those letters helped Yong heal.
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