Covering Race and Mental Health

Media

Rare indeed is the news story that sensitively describes the strange, scary things that can occur at the intersection of race and mental illness. But, thanks to a pair of conscientious writers at the Boston Globe, the story of a troubled black woman who gave birth while standing on a crowded subway train turned out to be one of the more gripping, poignant news stories I’ve read in a long time. Appearing on the Globe's front page on Jul. 31, the story by C. Kalimah Redd, a Globe correspondent, and Mac Daniel, the Globe's transportation writer, described the bizarre case of a suburban Boston woman named Joyce Judge.

On the morning of Jul. 30, Judge, 42, awakened feeling sick in the motel south of Boston where she was living with her two children. She left them -- a 15 year-old and an 11 year-old -- and boarded a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority subway train bound for Boston. As the train neared a stop just inside the city, Judge let out a moan. To the astonishment of passengers, Judge stood looking out of the train window and holding a handrail while a full-term baby boy dropped from between her legs, hit the floor of the subway car, and rolled several feet, "stopping when he bumped up against the next row of seats," according to the Globe story. Judge scooped up the baby, tied the umbilical chord in a knot, and wrapped the baby in a silk scarf. In another shocking detail of the story, Judge "cradled the baby in one arm and grabbed the handrail with the other and continued to ride the T and stare out the [train] window," according to passenger Chris Chin, who told The Boston Globe that he stood four feet from Judge. "Either she didn’t know it happened, or she didn't want to acknowledge it," Chin said.

The story is front-loaded with all the details you need, short but vivid descriptions of Judge before and during the birth, the passengers' reactions, and the chaotic scene that unfolded among police, MBTA officials and passersby as the woman, incredibly, leapt from the train after it stopped, clutched the baby and waved off passengers' offers of help as she "hustled" out of the station and onto busy Columbia Road. "It was simply surreal," passenger Bill Mahoney told the newspaper. Another witness, Robert Busby, was in the train station when he saw Judge drop her placenta as she ran by. "She just literally picked it up with her hand and put it in some kind of bag she was carrying, and this was in mid-stride," Busby said. "It was the craziest thing I've ever seen."

By the story's end, I decided I had to speak to the reporters who had written it. Not only had the writers excellently presented a chronological account of the incident and the necessary details they also presented them in stark yet unbiased language. Moreover, the story included a bedside interview with Judge, and quotes from her worried relatives. For a "first day" story, it was rich with details and depth. How on earth did the reporters get the interview with Judge, who had been stopped by police blocks from the train station, and taken to Boston Medical Center? How did they track down the passengers who had watched the incident unfold?

I phoned Mac Daniel and Kalimah Redd to find out. What they described is a textbook study of solid, aggressive, run-and-gun reporting overlaid with a refreshing appreciation of restraint, and healthy doses of integrity and compassion. In total, the story is "both sad and happy," Daniel told me. "It is sad that an obviously troubled woman had to go through what she did. But, at the same time, its happy in the sense that she's got a beautiful baby boy, and its happy that she's getting some help," Daniel said.

For his part, Daniel used technology to help track down passengers who had witnessed the incident: by mid-day, he posted a note on the Globe's website, globe.com, asking to hear from anyone who had been on the train where Judge had given birth. Within hours, Daniel said, he was inundated with e-mails and phone calls from people who had been on the same subway car. After quizzing the respondents carefully to make sure that they had, in fact, witnessed the incident, Daniel began shaping his story.

"It seemed like the passengers just wanted to talk about it, they had gotten to their offices or homes or wherever, and logged on to their computers. I think that because they had been so touched by what they'd seen, they felt they needed to check in, somehow. And they went to Globe.com." Daniel’s determination to make sure the passengers’ accounts were accurate was accompanied by a strong desire to avoid judging Judge. It would have been easy, he explained, to write a story loaded with outraged derision, one that could have exploited the woman’s delicate mental state.

"It’s a strange story, so I knew we needed to be careful to tell it accurately, but tell it for all the right reasons," Daniel said. "It was important that we not lose sight of the fact that we’re talking about someone who doesn’t have very good coping skills." He knew, that readers would pick up the story the next day and say, "judgmentally, ‘how could she do this? What was she thinking? ‘" Daniel told me, "We had to be careful."

Kalimah Redd, meanwhile, was in the Boston neighborhood where Judge’s family lived. After getting a call at home that morning from her editor at the Globe, Redd went to the subway station where Judge had alighted with her newborn. But, since a few hours had passed between the time that the incident occurred and Redd’s arrival at the T-station, there were no passengers who had witnessed the birth on hand. Boston police and MBTA police, however, held a press conference, and afterward, Redd approached the MBTA officer who had finally stopped Judge as she jogged away from the train station. "He was very open, and very good," Redd said. "And he was very concerned about Judge and her kids."

From there, Redd learned that the police in Braintree, a suburb just south of Boston, had already gone to the motel where Judge had been living and retrieved her two other children. Redd phoned that officer, who also spoke at length about his concerns for the two older children and Judge. After the Braintree officer mentioned that Judge had family members in Boston’s Mission Hill neighborhood, Redd set about tracking them down. She returned to the Globe newsroom, "dumped everything," and huddled briefly with her editors, who told her to stay on the story. By early afternoon, she had used the Globe’s databases to find the Judge family, and drove to the Mission Hill apartment building where Judge’s mother lived.

"She wasn’t home, but there were some neighbors on the front stoop, so I talked with them," Redd said. Over the next few hours, Redd met and interviewed several former neighbors, a few relatives, and, importantly, Judge’s mother, Marie, who arrived at the apartment building just as Redd was preparing to depart. To Redd’s credit, she stayed cool once she realized that Judge’s mother had not yet heard the news of her daughter giving birth on a crowded subway train. "She had been out all morning, and hadn’t heard anything about it," Redd told me of that first encounter. "I told her and, at first, she panicked. She is an older woman and she had no idea…I had to explain it to her, as calmly as possible." After Marie Judge calmed down, she invited Redd inside her apartment, where they talked, and she gave Redd a photograph of Judge. One of Judge’s sisters arrived, and she, too agreed to be interviewed.

When I asked Redd to describe Marie Judge’s response to her daughter’s situation, Redd sighed. "You could tell she’d been frustrated with [Joyce], and had tried to help her. She seemed very tired. She seemed disappointed, but not terribly surprised." And so, later that afternoon, Marie Judge invited Kalimah Redd to accompany them to Boston Medical Center to see Joyce. Lisa Judge, Joyce’s sister, explained that Redd wanted to interview her to help clear up what would undoubtedly be widespread misconceptions about the incident. "I said I wanted to humanize the story, [knowing] that our readers needed to hear from Joyce what actually had happened, and what she had been thinking," Redd told me.

At the hospital, Redd spoke with Joyce Judge for approximately fifteen minutes, she said. "She seemed very jittery, she spoke really fast, and would sometimes go off in tangents…she was very sharp and very bright but every so often she would talk on and on". And, curiously, there in her hospital bed, Joyce Judge had shades on, Redd said, and was sitting up "writing something." When Redd asked her to describe her actions and mindset, Joyce Judge said "she was trying to go to the hospital, but once the labor started, it didn’t make sense for her to be on the train because the people on there couldn’t help her. She had been trying to make it to the hospital but she ran out of time," Redd said. When the reporter asked Judge why she had refused passengers’ offers of help after the baby was born, Judge’s reply was telling: "She said, ‘Some people can’t take the sight of blood….they were overreacting.’"

There are numerous reasons why this story, and the Globe’s handling of it, are important: foremost, Joyce Judge’s history of mental illness is vague yet it clearly figured into her behavior on that subway train. As Mac Daniel pointed out, it would have been easy -- and in my estimation, cheap -- to write a story that lacked compassion. In the recent past, for example, stories about African Americans with mental illnesses who have become embroiled in highly volatile situations with law enforcement officials typically take the cheap tack, in that cops or other officials who mishandle mentally unstable perpetrators are allowed to set the tone of the story.

Since the mid-1990s, numerous stories of mentally ill blacks who come into contact with police officials have not ended happily, including incidents involving gun-toting mentally ill black men in Florida and Pittsburgh who engaged in stand-offs with police. And just last summer in Boston, a black single mother who suffered from bi-polar illness was shot and killed by several city police officers after they found her in a basement at her apartment building, holding a knife over the bodies of her two dead children. In that case, the Globe, like other news organizations, initially covered the story from a law enforcement angle -- although in the ensuing months reporter Ellen Barry delivered a lengthy profile of the dead woman and her long struggle with mental illness and the health care bureaucracy.

In the case of the Judge story, however, it seems that nearly everyone involved -- including cops and social service workers -- were refreshingly mindful of the woman’s right to privacy, as well as the need for compassion in describing her circumstances. By contrast, the recent murder of a black New York City Council Member James Davis by a spurned adversary who was also African-American (and possibly suffering from a form of mental illness) drew scary and unhelpful headlines from some news organizations, notably The New York Daily News, which ran a hundred-point headline calling Davis’ African-American assailant a "wild-eyed killer."

The fact that New England’s largest news organization exercised such good judgment in its handling of Joyce Judge story is significant, primarily because it perhaps indicates an awareness on the part of journalists that sensationalizing such events only causes more harm than good -- especially for African Americans who have historically been reluctant to seek mental health in times of emotional or psychological crises. The recent case of a black man who was found hanged in Belle Glade, Florida, is another example of how the press can further cloud a story involving blacks and mental health -- an area that is already deeply murky and under-researched.

In that case, police in Belle Glade say they found the man, Feraris "Ray" Golden, hanging from a tree in a relative’s yard, and that they cut him down. After the county coroner declared the death a suicide, some of the man’s family members protested that he couldn’t possibly have killed himself. He had been dating the daughter of a white cop, the relatives said, and so racist white cops probably conspired to kill him. "Explain to me how a drunk man can climb a tree and hang himself," one family member shouted during the public inquest. Stoking the flames of anger in that case, of course, is the family’s reluctance to admit that Feraris could possibly have taken his own life.

As Gregory Lewis, a Florida Sun Sentinel writer who has been covering the story told me when I spoke with him last week, "it’s hard for them to admit that he may have committed suicide ... in their minds, black people don’t commit suicide." And that, of course, is the crux of the Belle Glade story and most other stories involving blacks, mental illness and the authorities: the archaic and destructive notions that most Americans -- black and white -- hold regarding blacks and mental health contribute to widespread confusion during volatile situations that usually result in disaster. The old saw that blacks who are preternaturally strong, incapable of complex emotions or thoughts, and unlikely to experience depression gets folded into news stories, which then perpetuates the myths, rather than dispelling them. Thus, the Globe’s handling of the shocking story of Joyce Judge is remarkable, and should stand as a valuable touchstone to other journalists faced with the complicated challenge of describing African Americans and mental health crises.

Amy Alexander is a Boston journalist who has written for the Miami Herald, the Village Voice, and the Fresno Bee, and is co-author of "Lay My Burden Down: Unraveling Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African-Americans" (Beacon). She can be reached at amylynnalex@netscape.net

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