A conversation with writer and troublemaker Carl Elliott, Part II

Introduction and Part I here.

You have criticized your own institution, the University of Minnesota, in print, for being involved in a dubious drug trial in which a patient died. I can imagine that doing a story like that might have saved you on travel, but it probably didn’t earn you Employee of the Month. What was that like?

Carl Elliott: It’s been pretty ugly.

Can you elaborate? Had you known it would turn out this way, would you still have done it? Has anything good come out of it?

CE: Well, as far as I can tell it has made me a hated figure at the University of Minnesota, at least, in the Academic Health Center.   Not a single administrator at the university has said anything supportive or sympathetic, even in private. I’ve seen people duck in doorways when they see me coming.  Last winter, the Board of Regents turned down a request for an external investigation of the suicide.  The public affairs office has told reporters I am on a personal crusade against the Department of Psychiatry.   Last spring, the General Counsel for the AHC, Mark Rotenberg, met with the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee to discuss whether academic freedom protects faculty members who make “factually incorrect attacks” on university research.

That said, I’ve gotten a lot of support from my colleagues in the College of Liberal Arts, and from a handful of my colleagues (not all of them) in the Center for Bioethics.  All that has been tremendously reassuring.  If not for them, I’d probably be contemplating my next move in a dimly lit room with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a revolver on the table in front of me.

Would I have done it if I had known it would turn out like this?  Sure.  The trouble with being raised in the South is that you are driven by this twisted sense of shame and honor that compels you to do things that everyone else sees as moronic, insane or self-destructive.

How did you wind up writing for The New Yorker? Did you submit something(s) over the transom? Or did they seek you out?

CE: If you bother them long enough they’ll eventually relent and publish something, just to get rid of you.

There are countless MFA grads (myself included) who will be comforted to know that…What about the initial impulse, though? At some point you must have made a conscious decision that instead of sending your work to the Moldavian Journal of Bioethics that you would try for a mainstream magazine. What prompted you to do that?

CE: Unfortunately, I was never able to get an article into the Moldavian Journal of Bioethics.  That’s a tough nut to crack.  I think you need an agent.

Back when I was imprisoned in medical school in South Carolina, looking desperately for an escape route, I used to get The American Scholar in the mail.  This was an accident.  I had no clue what the magazine was, but it had started arriving after I was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in college.  Medical school is a kind of intellectual suffocation, and I was so desperate for air that whenever The American Scholar arrived I would read it cover to cover.  It’s hard to imagine that now, but it’s true.  Joseph Epstein used to write an essay for every issue under the name Aristides, usually about something casual but abstract — like, say, name-dropping — and those essays seemed brilliant to me.  They were really smart and funny, but also unpretentious.  He made writing seem effortless.  For years I wanted to write articles like that, for readers like that, but I had no idea how to do it.  So I just kept trying and failing, until eventually I stopped failing so often.

I have to ask: what is the deal with your brother, “B. Elliott?” He runs the WCBH website and insults you regularly via blog, twitter and interview.  It’s quite hilarious, but I imagine that some people don’t get the joke–or is it a joke? And what did/does your publisher think?

CE: My brother is a very disturbed man and we can only hope he gets the medication he so desperately needs.

Actually, that website makes me laugh so violently I need medical help myself.  My publisher hates it.  They think it is juvenile and obscene.  They’re right, of course, but that’s what makes it so funny.  It’s much better than my book.

You must find yourself mentoring students who, prior to working with you, have been groomed for the sort of bioethics you disdain and who probably don’t have much in the way of investigative journalism skills. How do you go about training them?

Over the years I’ve had a handful of graduate students who seem interested in this kind of writing — by which I mean literary journalism, or narrative nonfiction — and some of those students have been really good, but for the most part, they are pretty set on the standard academic track…which doesn’t really make room for this kind of writing.

I did teach a class last year on Investigative Journalism and Bioethics (known informally as “Fear and Loathing in Bioethics.”) My co-instructor was Amy Snow Landa, a graduate student here who used to be a health journalist, and we cross-listed the course with the journalism school.

You know what bothered the traditional bioethics students the most?  Talking to actual human beings.  They wanted to write their papers without ever picking up the phone or making an appointment to interview a source.  The idea of talking to an actual human being terrified them, especially one who might not welcome their call.

Investigative journalism is a tough job.  I admire investigate reporters a lot — the real ones, I mean, not second-raters like me — but they are a special breed.  One of the books we read in our Fear and Loathing class was Poison Penmanship, a collection of essays by Jessica Mitford.  She quoted an English reporter who said that the only qualities you need for success in journalism are “a plausible manner, ratlike cunning and a little literary ability.” To which Mitford added: “plodding determination and an appetite for tracking and destroying the enemy.”

That seems about right to me.  Investigative reporting is a job where a little bit of malice goes a long way.

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