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ivoh | January 16, 2018

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Hard truths and painful inspiration:
Restorative narrative after Boston

Hard truths and painful inspiration: <BR />Restorative narrative after Boston'

Earlier this week, ivoh founder Judy Rodgers sent a note to the organization’s Core Team with a link to a video presented on the New York Times website.

The video tells the story of Marathon bombing victim Jeff Bauman and the first steps of his new life as a double amputee.

“I really love the trajectory of this as an example of ‘restorative narrative,’” Rodgers wrote, noting that the video offers “no gloss on the difficult parts but real strength in his own journey and sense of purpose.”

As ivoh (Images and Voices of Hope) explores the concept of “restorative narrative” as a cornerstone of its annual gathering next month in the Catskills, we’ve been wrestling with the question of what, exactly, is meant by the term.

Coverage of the immediate aftermath of the Marathon bombings was one of the first prompts to get me thinking about the idea of restorative narrative nearly three months ago.

I wondered what it would take for the region to achieve the kind of unity declared by the “We are one Boston” signs that appeared after the bombings. And I was struck by the power of “crowdcaring” demonstrated by the Boston Globe, Google and other media in the hours and days right after the attack.

In addition to reporting details of the bombings, the Globe set up a Google doc for people offering runners and others a place to sleep if the bombings had prevented them from leaving town as originally planned. Other groups and individuals launched fund-raising sites to raise money for victims.

Megan Garber described the phenomenon in an Atlantic piece headlined: “Boston and the kindness of Google Docs: Empathy, in the guise of a spreadsheet.”

I explored the idea further when coverage of the Oklahoma tornado suggested a tilt among journalists from “what can I tell?” to what can I do?”

Skeptics understandably question whether a narrative form aimed at a specific outcome – restoration – really qualifies as the sort of independent pursuit of the facts usually associated with journalism.

Can media undertaken with a particular purpose or intent in mind measure up to the standard of independence?

I believe it can, partly because of the first characteristic Rodgers highlighted from the Times video: No gloss.

Too many debates about what society needs from journalism break down along the lines of negative news or positive news.  Neither category gets us very far. Some news is positive, and some is negative. Most is both.

What I find myself increasingly looking for from media is clarity and inspiration. I want to understand as clearly as possible what’s happened and why. And I want to be moved emotionally and intellectually to accomplish something that matters  — or at least understand how someone else might.

The restorative narrative theme also shows up in the remarkable five page spread the Times published in Monday’s print edition at the same time it presented the video online.

The article by Tim Rohan begins:

“Jeff Bauman stared straight ahead, his eyes wary and unconvinced, as his doctor told him the next procedure would be easy and painless.”

Can you guess how easy and painless the procedure turned out to be?

The reporting and writing in this 4,600-word piece is so compelling that I don’t believe sharing its kicker represents any kind of spoiler.

Describing Bauman’s first steps with his artificial legs, Rohan writes: “He took five steps, each a bit more cautious than the last.”

In both his lede and kicker – and in much of what lies in between — Rohan reflects more struggle than conquest. In the process, by revealing signs of hope as well as pain, he gets pretty close to what seems to me to be involved in crafting a “restorative narrative.”

There’s a much larger discussion to be had about this emerging narrative form, of course, and we hope to engage much of it Aug. 8-11 in Haines Falls, N.Y. If this is the sort of conversation you’d like to consider joining, you’ll find details here.


  1. steven brion-meisels

    Thanks for this Bil.. As always it is great to read your voice – and this story is close to us in Boston in special ways.

    Take care and keep writing!