Legacy of Love and Pain

On April 9, 2001 a shocking offense occurred in an overlooked public housing project in Houston: a mother of five was purposely set ablaze by her estranged husband - the man who once vowed to love, honor and cherish her had tried to kill her. The attack was initially reported by the media but quickly faded in favor of other news stories. Meanwhile, Angela Hudson was fighting for her life after suffering second- and third-degree burns from her waist to the top of her head.

When I read the newspaper brief about this attack, I was instantly drawn to the story. Partly because of the brutality of the assault. Mostly because it hit a nerve. Like many others, I grew up a witness to domestic violence, although less violent in comparison to Hudson's situation. Yet, the memories to this day are vivid. I can still hear the squeal of police sirens. I can still see my older sister (time and time again) black and blue after her husband beat her. I can still smell the fear.

I knew firsthand that the effects go beyond the offender and victim. They extend generations.

When I approached Hudson's mother, Doris Tate, in the burn unit waiting room, I recognized her face. It was one of loneliness and heartache. I had seen that face before.

She shared pictures of her oldest daughter with me and how she spiraled from a loving, outgoing woman to a defeated and controlled wife. Understandably, Tate was reluctant at first to cooperate on a story. Her daughter was on life support clinging to life. This was the worst moment of their lives and a reporter and photographer — strangers — were asking to document it all.

Andrew Innerarity, the photographer on this project, and I pledged to be respectful of the family's wishes including Angela's decision to participate in the story once she was able to make that determination on her own. It was a huge gamble journalistically speaking, but we were there to report a remarkable story not worsen a family's pain or hinder the recovery process. This, after all, was a family who never dealt with the media. They, like all other victims of crime, deserved that extra care.

After that, they allowed us tremendous access — from heart-wrenching visits in the sterile burn unit to family birthday parties. As we spent our days, nights, weekends and holidays with the family, they shared their history with us — an unfortunate legacy of domestic abuse that is far too prevalent in our society. Each of these women (including Hudson's teen-age daughter Angel) had a story to tell — from the past, present to the future. Three voices. Three perspectives.

The reader response was tremendous. In two days following the story, more than 100 women contacted shelters wanting help to escape their abusive situations. And those are just the ones we know about. That's all the family wanted out of this endeavor — to help others so that they wouldn't have to suffer as this family had.

Today the family continues to receive calls from well-wishers. To them it's a good sign; their message of hope is still circulating. I'm happy to report that the family is slowly moving forward. Angela Hudson is back with her children although they once again live in the apartment where the attack took place. She says it's a sacrifice she's willing to make to be a mother again.

Only recently did I tell the Tates and Hudsons of my experiences with domestic violence. As journalists we are taught to be fair and impartial and to keep our feelings on the sidelines. I believe in those tenets, but that shouldn't preclude us from drawing upon our life experiences to report stories others can't quite see or comprehend. You see, it's our unique experiences that give us the insight and the ability to tell a story with more heart, more feeling. It's that perspective that makes the story more than a collection of words.

Tonight's ceremony comes during a time when terrorism and the war in Iraq dominate headlines. (Right now, Andrew Innerarity is imbedded with Fort Hood troops who are on their way to the Persian Gulf.) The Dart Award reminds journalists not only of the importance of covering the news events but also documenting the life-changing effects and trauma that will no doubt be left behind.

On behalf of the Houston Chronicle and all my colleagues (from editors to designers) who worked so hard on this project, I'd like to thank the Dart Center for recognizing newspaper coverage that documents the effects of violence — whether it is a catastrophic event or a brief but savage moment of domestic violence. It's an honor to be this year's recipient of the prestigious Dart Award. We are thrilled yet humbled by the recognition.

I'd especially like to thank Angela Hudson, Doris Tate and Angel Tate for sharing their heart-tugging journey with us. Their bravery and resiliency is nothing short of inspiring.

Thank you.