A Q&A With Mimi Swartz
The executive editor on writing about Camp Mystic, legal battles, and lawyers.
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Mimi Swartz has written dozens of articles for TEXAS MONTHLY over the years, first as a staff writer in the eighties and now as an executive editor. Having chronicled everyone from injured citizens battling tort reform advocates in her article, “Hurt? Injured? Need a Lawyer? Too Bad!” for which she received the 2006 John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest, to the fallen architects of the Enron disaster in the book Power Failure: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Enron, Swartz is well-versed in writing about our legal system. This month, she uproots the family tangles beneath Camp Mystic, a bucolic Kerrville summer camp caught up in the kind of pettiness it has taught generations of Texan girls to overcome.
When you’re approaching a story like Camp Mystic, in which every person involved has their own mutually exclusive interpretation of events, how do you weigh the claims? What’s the procedure if you suspect someone is being less than honest, or simply delusional?
For this story I read the transcript of the month-long trial, and that helped me determine where to put the weight. It’s very different to read a transcript rather than to listen to lawyers and litigants talk. You have time to really go back over and over, and look at not just what they said, but how they said it.
Is there a time during the interviewing or writing process at which you choose a particular point of view for the story? Is there a relation between the point of view you take and the sympathy you feel for the subjects?
I try to be fair to everyone, but after a certain point, the reporting starts directing the theme and direction of the piece. The Mystic story was difficult because people were so polarized—and everyone was so nice!—but eventually I came to find a path through the woods.
There’s a great moment early in “Hurt? Injured? Need a Lawyer? Too Bad!” when injured plaintiff Alvin Berry thinks he knows more about Proposition 12 (which limited non-economic damages in malpractice cases to $250,000) than the lawyer he’s talking to, only to find out he’s had the law wrong the whole time. You lead the reader just far enough along into the scene to think, like Alvin, that the lawyer is naive, so that we experience with him the disconcerting feeling of having the rug pulled out from under us. What goes into reconstructing such a scene? How vital is it to recreate for the reader not just the facts and events of an article, but also the emotional experience of its subjects?
The emotional description is the one that keeps the reader involved, so that’s crucial, and I work very hard to draw the reader in in the most human ways I can think of—I try to find universal experiences, so that they can relate to the people they are reading about. I do try to think hard about scenes—not just what a person said, but how they said it, what the room was like, what their body language was like, smells, sounds, etc, as if it were almost a movie.
How does the involvement of lawyers impact the researching and writing of a story, either by hamstringing what sources can say, or by threatening legal action after publication?
Sometimes lawyers are an obstacle, but most of the time I’ve found them to be very helpful. Like journalists, they know how to shape a story, and to tell it in a way that people can relate. The only problem is that their stories are slanted, so a writer has to go back and figure out where he or she agrees and disagrees. As for threatening legal action—that doesn’t happen very often if you’ve done careful reporting. And, of course, thanks to our excellent fact checkers.
At one point in your Camp Mystic story, you state, “Times have changed for camps. Personal injury lawsuits … now threaten their very existence.” Do you feel we’ve gone over the edge when it comes to litigation? Is there any getting out of it?
I don’t really know that we’ve gone over the edge—certainly in Texas many of the so-called reforms have limited court access to our most vulnerable citizens, and it’s getting worse. Yes, we have bad lawyers, but we also have bad doctors, bad corporations, etc. and someone has to be a check on them.
On a similar note, while summer camps are threatened by rising litigation costs, “Hurt? Injured? Need a Lawyer? Too Bad!,” detailed how attempts at controlling these costs overreached and ended up prohibiting legitimate claims. Where’s the middle ground here? What needs to happen, legislatively, for us to get there?
This is a very good question that I do not know the answer to. But it’s not going to happen in our Legislature. It seems that our civilization works only in extremes—the pendulum swings one way, and when it goes too far, people start working to pull it back, and then it goes too far in another direction …
Your subjects seem to trip again and again over the same crack in the sidewalk: Greed. Have you come to any general conclusions as to how greed operates, either in twenty-first-century Texas or in people overall?
Greed is a very human emotion, to which we are all vulnerable, so it makes for good copy. I don’t think it operates any differently now than it did thousands of years ago—for some people, enough is just never enough, and they will go to great lengths to try to fill emotional holes with physical things. It never works, but they keep trying.