Monday, March 2, 2009

Hannah Upp Tells The NYT She Doesn't Remember A Thing. Reporters Forget To Check.

Okay, so we're not going to call Hannah Upp a liar for claiming she has a disease so rare that practically the only other known victim is the fictional spy hero Jason Bourne.

But we are going to accuse the two reporters who recounted her story in yesterday's City Section of not properly questioning her fantastical account of three weeks spent missing last summer -- and accuse the section of publishing a sub-standard piece of journalism, in a dubious effort to make headlines with a scoop.

In "A Life, Interrupted," freelance writers Rebecca Flint Marx and Vytenis Didziulis devoted most of a 3,071-word cover story to an exclusive first interview with Upp, a 23-year-old schoolteacher whose disappearance for three weeks beginning last August 28 captivated the city. She was found face down in the Hudson River on September 16, and -- until yesterday -- had made no public statement about what happened.

According to the NYT -- which attributes all of its information directly, and only, to Upp -- she was told by doctors at Richmond University Medical Center in Staten Island that she suffered from "dissociative fugue," a rare form of amnesia that lasts for odd intervals of time and causes victims to suddenly forget who they are.

“It’s weird,” Ms. Upp told the NYT in her first interview. “How do you feel guilty for something you didn’t even know you did? It’s not your fault, but it’s still somehow you. So it’s definitely made me reconsider everything. Who was I before? Who was I then — is that part of me? Who am I now?”

All good questions. But don't look for the answers in the City Section story -- they're not there.

The NYT reports, correctly, that dissociative fugue is extremely rare -- "so uncommon that few psychiatrists ever see it," the reporters say. They interview two psychiatrists who have treated victims of the disorder, but report no attempt made to speak with Upp's own psychiatrist to confirm the diagnosis. Instead, they simply accept her version as the truth and report on the condition as though it were widely accepted as the cause of Upp's disappearance.

In fact, however, even what the psychiatrists tell the NYT runs counter to the facts of the Upp case. One says that significant travel -- "not only travel across cities or countries, but also across continents" -- is a common symptom. But Upp, according to the NYT, barely seems to have left the Upper West Side, where she lived. Nothing is said to reconcile that discrepancy; the NYT only reports that the police believe she spent most of her time on Riverside Drive.

It's also worth noting that when Upp first revealed her diagnosis on Facebook last October, the Daily News reported it and interviewed a Columbia University psychiatrist not quoted in the NYT, who didn't think Upp's behavior sounded consistent with that diagnosis:

In between, Upp was seen several times around the city and was spotted twice in four days checking her e-mail at an Apple store.

Dr. Arthur Saraija, a psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor at Columbia University, said that sort of behavior isn't typical of dissociative fugue.

Yet the reporters take Upp's account of her experiences at face value, even though there remain significant questions that call her version into doubt -- and allow her to attribute information to her doctors, even though they aren't even identified, let alone interviewed. The confusing fact that Upp logged onto her GMail account at the Apple store -- but didn't check any of her emails -- is explained by Upp this way:

“I was on a computer, but there’s no evidence in my Gmail account of any e-mails being sent or read,” Ms. Upp said. She did log in, something her doctors attributed to a muscle memory: How many times in our lives have we typed in our name and password without even thinking? “So their theory,” Ms. Upp said, “is that I thought, hey, this is a computer, this is what I do with a computer.” But once she opened her e-mail, she couldn’t figure out who Hannah was and why everyone was looking for her. “So I logged out and left.”

A convenient explanation, and possibly true -- but unsubstantiated and unchecked by the two NYT reporters.

Ultimately, the reporters fail to go very far beyond the published accounts of her sightings, and even then they tend to go with Upp's version over the reports of eyewitnesses. That seems an odd decision, given the diagnosis that she has forgotten everything that happened. It means that Upp offers nothing more than pure conjecture about her experiences. Given that she contradicts the facts as reported by others, the story doesn't reconcile anything.

Take, for example, reports that Upp had been seen repeatedly at various New York Sports Clubs, where she had a membership. The NYT takes Upp's contradiction of those accounts at face value:

News reports of her appearances at various New York Sports Club locations suggest that she was careful to keep moving, though Ms. Upp believes that the number of sightings was exaggerated. For one thing, she pointed out, she did not have her gym ID with her; for another, the gym knew she was missing and surely would have contacted the police had she appeared.

Of course, as long as Upp contends that her condition keeps her from recalling anything about her disappearance, it's impossible for anyone to contradict her because there's nothing to contradict. In fact, she's the one doing the contradicting; much of the NYT account reveals discrepancies between Upp's version and that of eyewitnesses, with no resolution of the holes in the narrative.

The reporters also don't bother to explain how Upp has resumed her normal life, and re-established who she is-- aside from saying, at one point: "Simple social routines like seeing friends and taking a dance class have helped her re-establish her personal identity." Even the NYT's panel of psychiatric experts aren't asked to weigh in on how victims figure out the mystery of their amnesia. (You'll recall that it took Jason Bourne three movies to figure out who he was, exactly.)

Upp's friends, who aren't medical professionals, think it will be easy for her to get back to normal. “If Hannah doesn’t want to let this incident eat away at the rest of her life," one friend tells the NYT, "then it won’t be an issue any more than the common cold is an issue to you or me." Really!

Who are these reporters, Rebecca Flint Marx and Vytenis Didziulis? They're not identified in the NYT. A Google search for Marx turns up bylines in magazines ranging from Salon to Time Out NY. Didziulis is currently a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

It's not entirely their fault. The City section's longtime editor, Connie Rosenblum, owed them a more thorough edit; she should have raised more questions about Upp's interview, and pushed the reporters to get corroboration of Upp's version of events and her condition. Just because someone gives you an exclusive interview doesn't obligate you to believe everything they say.


Anonymous said...

This story didn't make sense to me either. Her situation was nothing like Jason Bourne, who was able to function normally, just without any memory. There must have been more to it than she says.

Anonymous said...

"Who are these reporters, Rebecca Flint Marx and Vytenis Didziulis?"

Are they "reporters" or a couple of people who sold a story to the Times? Lately it's getting harder to tell the difference.

Anonymous said...

They're freelancers. Which means reporters without a job.

Anonymous said...

Isn't freelancing the default status at the Times these days?

Anonymous said...

The City section has always depended on cheap freelancers to fill the pages. Trouble is that Connie Rosenblum isn't tough enough on them, and the result is one-interview stories like this one.

Anonymous said...

I can understand that she lost her memory from 8/28 to 9/16 on 9/16. OK, stipulate that. Let's look at the calendar -- if I woke up on 8/29 somewhere -- there are only three possibilities -- (a) I don't know who I am, and I would go to a hospital and say "Hey! Help me!" (b) I know who I am and since I care that people are concerned and looking for me and I call the search off immediately (c) I know who I am and I cover my tracks -- I don't care about the pain I am causing others and the waste of resources in the search. Is there a (d) that I'm missing here?

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with your take on this article. Whoever did the reporting here (Marx? Didziulis?) had absolutely none of the skepticism and intelligence required in a good reporter. This is an entirely sympathetic, and therefore flawed, piece.

Anonymous said...

Hate to break it to you Anonymous #1... Jason Bourne is a fictional character. Not real. This character's "experiences" were made up by another person. A complete fabrication. Meaning that this is not a valid point of comparison to real life.
It's really nobody's business what happened to this woman, and it's certainly not your job to diagnose or vet the veracity of her claims.


To Anonymous #8:

Hannah Upp's condition was nobody's business until she granted an interview to the NYT about what happened to her. In doing so, Hannah Upp opened her experience, and her claims, to examination and questioning by the public.