6 Works of Narrative Journalism That Challenge Long-Held Beliefs

I can hardly believe it’s been over two years since I read “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” an incredible work of collaborative narrative journalism that was co-published by ProPublica and the Marshall Project. At the time I read the investigative longread, I couldn’t help marveling over how solid the reporting was. As I oftentimes tend to do when reading nonfiction, I used the piece as a master class in how I could become a stronger writer.

At the same time, I couldn’t help but be wrapped up in the story of a nightmare: a woman who reports a rape and is made out to be a liar, only to later find herself vindicated…but only after years of pain. It was a horrifying story, large enough to fill an entire book.

Two years later, we have that book, in T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong’s A False Report, a work that uses the original story as a jumping off point to challenge our assumptions about false rape accusations. At a time when one common, dismissive response to #metoo is that some of those allegations of sexual assault must be false, it ably lays out how even those reports that have officially been deemed false in the past may not necessarily be so.

Reading A False Report reminded me of why I love narrative journalism so much. I find that its greatest power is in putting a face to the most controversial issues, and then using that human connection to push back against the most stubborn and long-held beliefs. It may not effect change. Not at first. But at the very least, it gives us an in.

Here are six works of narrative journalism you might want to read for yourself:

A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America by T. Christian Miller & Ken ArmstrongA False Report by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong

For all the reasons mentioned above, I want to throw this book at everyone who has ever said to me, “Those allegations can’t all be true.” Perhaps not, but this book makes a good case for why some of the assumptions about rape allegations—and the assumptions about the ways in which a victim is “supposed” to act—are based upon skewed data.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

By the time I made my way to this book, I was already sold on the idea that we all deserve a more dignified death, one over which we have greater control. But as our medical capabilities have grown, our culture seems to become more and more attached to the idea of cheating death, even at the expense of a good quality of life. Gawande’s book does a great job of showing why we shouldn’t lean too heavily on the fruits of scientific and technological progress.

Selling Sickness by Ray Moynihan and Alan Cassels

We’ve steadily become more aware of the ways in which we, as a people, are often over-diagnosed and overmedicated. Moynihan’s work almost 15 years ago was part of that awakening. In Selling Sickness, he and Cassels show us how the pharmaceutical industry has created medical disorders out of natural bodily processes. (P.S. Moynihan and Barbara Mintzes did the same thing for the diagnosis of female sexual dysfunction in 2010, with Sex, Lies and Pharmaceuticals.)

When Sex Goes to SchoolWhen Sex Goes to School by Kristin Luker

This book about the sex ed wars impressed me because of its unbiased approach to a topic that tends to make people on either side very emotional. I myself can’t talk about the importance of comprehensive sexuality education without losing my head and making reductive assumptions about those who would oppose it. So I appreciated Luker’s ability to keep a cool head and help me to understand (not agree with; understand) the other side.

The Science of Yoga by William J. Broad

I have to chuckle every time I think of this book. In advance of its publication in 2012, the New York Times published an excerpt of the book—completely out of context—that had the yoga world in an uproar. The trollish title: “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.” All of my fellow yoga teachers raved about how much they hated the author, and how they would never in a million years read the book. I immediately decided to read the book, and found it to be a smart, well-researched piece of work that puts the Americanized practice of yoga in its place at a time when it was being touted as the cure for every damn thing. In the end, though, it told me what I already knew: Yoga can be a force for good but, when you push it too hard, you’re gonna get hurt.

Black and Blue by Jeff Pegues

Finally, while this book has received less attention than Matt Taibbi’s I Can’t Breathe and Paul Butler’s Chokehold, Pegues manages to do what Luker does in her above-mentioned book: give a voice to both sides of a formidable divide, one that pits police and black communities against each other. And in the end, he even comes up with some possible solutions to the ongoing tension.

Which work of narrative journalism, whether book-length or otherwise, has blown your mind?

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