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Reader's Digest Article

The Nicholas Effect
 
The Nicholas Effect

   

Chapter Thirteen: Talk Shows, Reporters, and Photographers

From the moment we entered the police station at Polistena, and the police showed their astonishment that we had been fired on, it was clear this was going to be a major news story. Before we went to bed that night, Maggie put into words what I'd been thinking: "We should tell whoever asks everything we know. It'll make it easier to catch the people who did this and it might help save someone else on that road."

The media did come in force, not just from southern Italy but the whole country, and phone calls from the United States and the rest of Europe soon followed. But all stories peak, and today's front-page news often can't find space on page 32 tomorrow. We were determined to keep interest alive as long as we possibly could.

"If attention falls away soon," I thought, "this will be something people will remember for a while and think sadly of when reminded of it, but it will have no lasting effect." I wanted to etch it in people's minds. So, from the start, we were ready to talk to the press. In my view, all of us were after the same thing: to get to the bottom of this whole affair, whether it was the crime itself or the organ donor shortage or the psychological effects on a family of such a loss.

Without ever discussing it, we also wanted the information to be as detailed and unadorned as possible. We had our own views, but we wanted everyone to read into it whatever they chose. It's what helped make it a universal story.

Having worked on daily papers for so long, I understood the need for speed. For news stories it is essential to answer as best you can there and then, not wait three days until you have confirmed it in detail. When Nicholas' story came to the world's attention, it came with a bang. As it turned out, the story had a tail like the Hale-Bopp comet, but the initial impact was what put it on front pages around the world.

That first decision-to answer reporters' questions fully and immediately-was instinctive. The follow-up was deliberate and, I hope, thoughtfully worked out. So, once we were back home and while the calls were still coming to us, I started to initiate other media contacts. I wrote and telephoned and faxed. I sent clippings of our story in case they'd missed it and photos of some of the events such as the meeting with President Scalfaro. I tailored suggestions to suit their readers, mentioning that Nicholas was a Boy Scout to some publications, that he collected stamps to others.

Whenever we traveled to talk to organ and tissue donation groups, I let the local papers know. When we went back to Italy, I gave the flight number to the San Francisco television stations. We asked Parents magazine if they'd be interested in a mother's view. I tried Parade and CNN and women's magazines. I asked Grahame, my half-brother in England, to contact the newspaper in Accrington, the small town where I was born.

I combed the reference books for publications that might be interested and began to call them, one after the other, mass circulation magazines, healthcare and religious publications, organ procurement newsletters, UNICEF. I telephoned rather than wrote so I could explain how I thought our story would interest their readers. I was encouraged to find that when they picked up the phone almost everyone knew what had happened to us.

I looked for new ways to tell the story. I used developments like the progress of the recipients to move it on, contacted Italian-speaking radio programs, wrote more and more articles for newsletters. All this in turn set up a chain reaction to new publications, some of which I'd never heard of.

Journalists contacted us from Argentina and western Australia, Poland and Japan. An American friend in Nepal sent a clipping from a paper he'd seen there. Another read it in Kuwait, a third in Hong Kong. Children from Chernobyl, recuperating in Italy, knew the story of Nicholas. I like to think it gave them hope.

Many of the calls produced nothing but condolences. A few were quite cool, indicating they thought enough had already been written about what after all was only one donor family among thousands a year. By contrast, Vanity Fair rejected the idea with such delicacy that at first I thought they'd accepted it.

But among the failures were triumphs. Parents magazine agreed and Maggie wrote a much-praised article for them called "Just Say Yes." In it she says how glad she is now to have neglected the laundry to play with Nicholas. "At bedtime he didn't ask for water but for a hug," she added. "I told him I'd never run out of hugs."

A television crew did turn up at the airport to do an interview and, as a by-product, the flight attendants put us in first class. The Accrington Observer telephoned-at 2:00 one morning-and did a comprehensive piece. Ann Landers printed a letter I sent to her, and I got more calls from that than almost anything else I've ever written. The prestigious Economist magazine printed one too: none of my friends who claim to read it noticed. I've never dared show my British friends the article I wrote for the Journal of the American Medical Association, however: the subtitle was "A Piece of My Mind," to which the English schoolboy response is simple but effective, "Are you sure you can spare it?"

In Scouting magazine I painted this picture of Nicholas: "I never thought he would make a good Scout. Like his father, he seemed destined to be baffled by knots, tent pegs, and getting damp twigs to light. I daresay his entry for the pinewood derby was the ugliest in the United States, possibly in the history of the event. And he was always losing the slide for his neckerchief. I have a memory of him on a lake last summer. He'd so looked forward to taking a canoe trip that we gave him his life jacket and paddle and launched him. You're on your own, we told him. He didn't know it, but we watched him every second, ready with the other canoe to pick him up if anything went wrong. He just sat there, making ineffectual strokes with the paddle, carried along with the wind farther and farther away. In the end he just drifted, his mind consumed with some daring adventure, a hero alone in a canoe against the wilderness. He'll never learn the J-stroke, I thought, as we went out to tow him back. And, of course, he never did. But he had inside him the pure spirit of scouting. He hated to see others unhappy and wanted to help anybody in trouble. Even when doing jobs he didn't like, he tried his best. He was loyal to his friends, his family, and his toys." Letters poured in from Scouts asking how they could earn an organ donation patch for their uniform.

Just as those biblical figures begat a child which begat another which in turn begat a third, so these stories spawned others. I wrote articles for local papers, British papers, schools in Italy, magazines, more newsletters. Talented people who had never met Nicholas were writing about him too as if they knew him. The Sonoma County paper, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, part of the New York Times group, covered the story at every stage with evocative writing and photographs that were used around the world: there's no chance now of shopping in Santa Rosa or any of the nearby towns without someone saying, "Don't I know you?"

In the San Francisco Examiner, one of Stephanie Salter's articles captured the feeling so well that the editors allowed it to take up most of the front page and an entire inside one too. I left a copy with the Asian-American desk clerk at the airport hotel where we were staying on the Saturday night it came out. He called the room a few minutes later, scarcely able to talk for emotion.

I'd always felt Reader's Digest was a natural for the story. Reaching twenty-seven million readers in a score of languages justified a lot of effort, and I pursued the editors for months. At last they agreed to cover it and assigned it to a senior writer, Robert Kiener. Years before, when we came to the United States, the very first house I looked at was in Reader's Digest's hometown in New York state. It was an attractive place, but here was something else I couldn't face telling my friends in Britain, that I would be living on Pleasant Avenue, Pleasantville.

With his kindly manner, I could easily have mistaken Robert for Mr. Pleasant of Pleasant Avenue, Pleasantville, but in fact he was a probing journalist and a beautiful writer. Eventually he came with us to Italy and wrote an article of such close observation that it became the lead story in almost all the overseas editions from Russia to China, Australia to Hungary. If this isn't universality, you might say, it surely comes close.

Nor did it end there. The professor of pediatric surgery at Bombay University Hospital, I heard later, was impressed enough to translate the whole article into Marathi, the local language, for even greater impact. "There are still another fifteen official languages in India and dozens of dialects," I reminded Rob. "This is no time to relax." It was satisfying to see how writers of such different types had searched for the words that made the experience live for them. Organ and tissue donation was invariably treated seriously and sympathetically. In our first contacts with healthcare groups, we'd been told the press as a whole had almost ignored the subject, covering only stories of organs being sold or influential people jumping the line. Whatever the truth of that, what we saw now was the clear demonstration that donation could be not just news, but good news too.

More than that, these stories spoke of what I'd felt from the earliest days: that Nicholas' death had sent an electric charge through the human spirit. Transplants, they showed, were doing more even than saving lives: they were helping bring people a little closer together. So now when strangers tell us they signed their donor cards because of what happened to Nicholas, I reflect that a lot of it is due to nothing more than staying up late and writing letters to editors.

Television coverage was equally extensive. The morning talk shows were the most disruptive. At 7:09 a.m. you're unlikely to be scintillating. But with the time difference, it turned out to be 4:09 a.m. Pacific time. And for that we had to be sitting in our hardback Windsor chairs about thirty minutes earlier to make sure everything was working. Even before that, the cameras and booms and mysterious black blinking boxes had to be set up. On those nights, we left the front door unlocked and tried to go to bed early. Typically, at around 2:00 a.m. the crew would arrive-shushing each other, setting up equipment with elaborate care but substantial noise, and occasionally tripping over Maggie's randomly placed furniture. Sleep was impossible and, after a while, we didn't try. We got up, made tea, and sat around getting in the way.

Several times two or three of these competitive morning shows arrived one after the other, and the normally empty street in front of the house was lined with huge floodlit trucks, their generators filling the night air and bouncing signals off satellites.

The coverage had a number of variations around a few basic themes: these people donated their son's organs and they don't regret it; transplantation crosses national borders; one death can save several lives-all of which we agreed with. A few talked about Nicholas living on through the recipients, which we didn't agree with in any literal sense, but our view remained that people should take from this story whatever they wanted.

There was another side too-these are newspeople, after all. So, along with the perfectly sincere condolences and the sad looks, there's always someone who blurts out with genuine enthusiasm, "What a great story that was." They're right, of course. That's why they're interviewing you.

All this activity was, for me, like being back in the rough-and-tumble of daily journalism. There was the same camaraderie among journalists and the differences in method that have always surprised me: some knew everything about our case, including our ages; others asked what happened. Some approached the whole episode of the attack with delicacy. Others hit it head-on: one wanted to know what were the exact words we said when we discovered Nicholas had been shot and seemed surprised that we didn't know. Some television studio sets were of opera house dimensions. Others were modest: in one noisy office I did a radio interview for a Spanish language radio station sitting in a broom closet with an interviewer and an interpreter.

The news coverage was the first surprise-its extent, its prominence, and its global reach. But the fulsome editorials and features were the second. Life magazine's first article said that while we had not hidden our grief from Eleanor we had taught her "-and they have taught the world-to create a miracle from a tragedy." Its second, by Brad Darrach, remains among the most touching of all the articles that have appeared in its eloquent wonder at life's mysteries. It obviously came from the heart. When, two years later, Brad died and I telephoned his wife, she said simply, "It was the kind of article he liked to write." Eloquence and empathy came equally to Stephanie Salter in another San Francisco Examiner article. "The desire to wound back when wounded is one of humankind's most primitive violent instincts," she said. "The Greens did not surrender to it and, for that, they have inspired respect and awe in millions." In yet another feature, she added, "The Greens have continued to surprise and impress us as they've struggled, openly, to wring every ounce of good they can out of their boy's awful death. In a subtle, almost magical way, that is difficult to comprehend in the modern age, the Nicholas effect has begun to act like some potent medicinal vapor."

The Minneapolis Star Tribune editorialized, "Italians were stunned. They didn't expect such grace, least of all from Americans." The Los Angeles Times commented, "The Greens embraced people unknown to them. Amid heartbreaking loss they bore no bitterness." A Reuters story from Rome written by Philip Pulella said, "In a country where violent deaths are often followed by wailing, finger-pointing and threats of vendetta, the composure and serenity of the Green family forced even the most smug Italians to take a hard look in the mirror."

Ann Pleshette Murphy, then editor-in-chief of Parents magazine, wrote to Maggie after her article appeared, "I haven't denied my Nicholas or his sister Maddie an extra story or small treat since I read your simple, beautiful words," and And then there was one editorial from Italy that also holds a special place. "One day, the American boy's little sister will understand the reason for such a great clamor, and she will be proud not to have heroes in her family, but to have grown up breathing the values of solidarity and brotherhood." What a deluge it was and these are just a few of the drops. Clearly, some alchemy was at work, and we were determined not to lose touch with its source.

Over these years we have met an array of media people. On one quick visit to Rome, I'd arranged to meet several journalists, one after the other. I was staying at the Ritz. Empty your mind of associations with the Ritz hotels in London and Paris. The first room I was given had no door. "There's no door?" the man at the front desk said when I told him. "No door?" He came with me to look, mumbling all the way to the third floor. But there was still no door. It turned out that it was being varnished, and they gave me another room. This one had a door, but now I almost choked on the smell of the newly applied varnish on it. I went to the front desk again. By now I was an obvious troublemaker: do you want a door or do you not want a door? But my status changed dramatically when he handed me a sheaf of messages later in the day and smiled like a co-conspirator: I'll be there at 8, Mimi. See you tonight, Paola. Be ready at 9, Antonella. See you after the theater, Olga.

All this coming and going to Italy produced expectations from new contacts back home too, like the planning committee for a major organ donation conference I was invited to join. "Will there be a lot of work?" I asked. "Oh, no, just a few conference calls." "Well, then, sure, I'd like to do it." "Oh, there's one thing. Do you think there's any chance you can ask the Pope to come?"

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