Dallas Morning News’ Girl in the Closet’ series reveals the power of hope
Dallas Morning News reporter Scott Farwell spent nine months playing laser tag, shooting hoops, and bowling with one of his sources.
It was his attempt to make the interview process less painful for Lauren Kavanaugh — a 20-year-old girl whose mother and stepfather tortured, sexually abused, and starved her for six years. They locked her away in a closet, where she was held prisoner. At age 8 when she was rescued, she weighed no more than a 2-year-old.
Farwell had tried reaching out to Kavanaugh for a year before she finally agreed to meet with him. But even then, when on the court or in the bowling alley, she was reluctant to talk to him about what happened. When he would ask her questions, she would typically say “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember.”
Then one night, she called him.
“I had somewhere to go and I thought about telling her, ‘let me try back you later,’ but I thought better of it and cancelled my plans on the spot,” Farwell said by phone. “It was that interview — it lasted about three hours — where she just completely opened the door.”
“Why now?” Farwell recalls asking her.
“I just decided I can trust you now,” she told him.
After the interview, Farwell spent eight months working exclusively on a story about the traumatic experiences Kavanaugh endured and the impact they’ve had on her. The resulting eight-part series, “The Girl in the Closet,” ran in The Dallas Morning News about a month ago. It’s a powerful restorative narrative — a story that captures hard truths but also reveals hope and possibility. The series may remind some readers of another restorative narrative — Lane DeGregory’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story, “The Girl in the Window.”
National media reported on Kavanaugh after she was first rescued from her mother and stepfather in 2001. But the hype died down, as it always does, and reporters moved on to other stories.
“It was a story that had been bounced around unfinished in the newsroom for years and years,” Farwell said.
When his editor Steve Harris asked him if he would revisit it, Farwell took on the challenge. He ultimately conducted dozens of interviews with Kavanaugh, family members, detectives, therapists, doctors and others involved with the case. Through the course of his reporting, he saw Kavanaugh make small improvements; telling her story became part of the healing process.
“It became clear from talking to her therapist that this relationship with me was therapeutic for her,” Farwell said. “She was growing a little bit in her therapy work, so we felt good about that.”
He recorded every interview and then listened to each one. Though time-consuming, the exercise helped him determine how to structure the story; he wanted the dialogue, character development and scenes to fit together seamlessly. Farwell equated the experience to carpentry.
“You cut all your pieces of wood, lay them all out, and have a plan,” he said. “It’s a creative journey for sure, but at the end you want it to be like a dresser, where it’s all square and the drawers slide like butter back and forth. No jiggling.”
Writing the narrative was an emotional investment. “It just hurt so bad. It was exhausting,” Farwell said. “You just felt like you sort of wanted to collapse at the end of it.”
Bob Mong, editor of The Dallas Morning News, didn’t want readers to feel the same way. So he asked Farwell to modify the first part of the story.
“He wanted me to reconfigure the first few days to give more of a whiff of hope — to let people know that this was going to be a painful journey, but if you stuck with us, there would be some emotional payoff in the end and something restorative that you could look forward to,” Farwell said. “He was right.”
Farwell changed the first part by adding passages like this one, which shows where Kavanaugh is today:
“Earlier this year, she graduated from high school at age 20 and enrolled at Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, a few miles from the rural home she shares in Canton with her adoptive mother, three dogs and a squawking parrot. For the first time in years, Lauren’s off medication for depression and bipolar disorder. She’s exercising, talking more and seems to have new energy and optimism.”
There was value, Farwell said, in showing how a young girl who was tortured could survive.
“We began to feel like this was a story that in some way everybody could relate to, in that we’ve all been hurt in our lives and we’re all really insecure inside and we’re all in the world trying to make sense of it, trying to find our place in it,” Farwell said. “The idea that Lauren, who had been through this nightmare, was able to get up every day and function and walk forward and try to make sense of it, and try to make a life for herself — we thought it would be meaningful for all of us.”
Farwell heard from some readers who were at first reluctant to read the story.
“There were many people who said, ‘I have kids, it’s too tough. You’re dragging me through the bowels of humanity. I just can’t do it.’ But they would see there was some whiff of hope in this and they got sucked in, and they just tore through the rest of it,” Farwell said. “We’re oral creatures, and we’re touched inside by stories. If we tell those stories to folks, they’ll consume it, they’ll read it, they’ll pay.”
The response to the story, Farwell said, was “unprecedented.” During the eight days it ran online, it received half a million unique page views. That same week, the Dallas Morning News’ print circulation increased by 5 percent, Farwell said.
He received several hundred emails from readers, and thousands tuned in to the live chats he conducted. A successful Dallas Morning News chat typically attracts 300 participants, with an average engagement time of 3.5 minutes, Farwell said. His three live chats about “The Girl in the Closet” attracted 10,000 unique visitors with an average engagement time of 20 minutes. Kavanaugh and her mother joined Farwell during the third live chat and answered readers’ questions.
Getting Kavanaugh to participate in the live chat and the videos that accompany the series took time. Farwell said The Dallas Morning News’ Sarah Hoffman didn’t shoot videos of Kavanaugh until the end of the year-and-a-half reporting process.
“It was only at the end that she was in the place that she could do it,” Farwell said.
He was careful not to gloss over the struggles that Kavanaugh still faces. He writes that she has difficulty looking people in the eye, being friendly and making friends. As a sex abuse survivor, she dresses like a boy to make herself less vulnerable. She hides and hoards food so she’ll have it in case someone deprives her of food like her mother did. She says she hasn’t been able to love anyone in her life yet.
But despite all that, she has exceeded expectations. She was once skeletal and so damaged that people suspected “she would be feral, wild and without a conscience,” Farwell writes. They thought she would end up in prison or a mental institution — not at Trinity Valley Community College, where she’s taking classes.
Farwell writes that Kavanaugh is a “long shot,” a “young woman who functions, one who is surprisingly whole.” Her life story reflects triumph and uncertainty. It’s about neglect and trauma, survival and hope — themes that Farwell did a good job conveying at the end of his series.
“What we leave people with is incredibly important. There is certainly a temptation to put a pretty little bow on stories, particularly a story about somebody’s who’s been hurt and is putting their life back together,” Farwell said. “As a writer, I wanted to be emotionally accurate and honest in the betrayal of Lauren, and I wanted to make sure we had a scene or dialogue or whatever it was at the conclusion of the story that left readers with the feeling that this human being is remarkable. It is a triumph of the human spirit that she can function in the world — and yet there are many challenges ahead for her.”