Lauren Sandler is an award-winning journalist and the author of This Is All I Got: A New Mother’s Search for Home, as well as two other books. Her essays and features have appeared in Time, The New York Times, Slate, The Atlantic, and Elle, amongst others. Lauren has taught in the graduate journalism program at NYU, and was a regular commentator for the BBC. She has been a Poynter Fellow at Yale, a Calderwood Journalism Fellow at the MacDowell Colony, and a resident at the Maison Dora Maar in Menerbes, France.
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Kendall Dawson. Of the process, she said, “Lauren Sandler’s book, This Is All I Got: A New Mother’s Search for Home, is a striking capsule of journalism that narratively factualizes poverty and homelessness in the United States through humanizing individuals much of society chooses to forget. I’m indebted to Sandler and Camila for this acknowledgment and research.” In this interview, Lauren Sandler talks about the years it took to craft this book, immersive journalism throughout moments of incredible injustice, and the implications of a snowsuit.
Superstition Review: This book is a great feat of journalism following just one year of Camila’s life. Even as a seasoned journalist, nothing like this is ever easy. Could you describe how you approached the research and writing process from an ethical point of view?
Lauren Sandler: Thank you. This is an essential question for any work of journalism, but especially crucial when the power differential between writer and protagonist is so significant. I am a white woman of privilege, with the power to publish what I wanted. She is not. And yet she granted me full access to her life: a life of vulnerability and fragility but also of pride and ambition, so I could tell her story, as I witnessed it, to make people feel what a life like hers is like. I was completely and regularly open with her about the purpose of this work — that I was there not as her biographer but to understand the entire constellation of factors that led to her intractable homelessness. And we discussed that I couldn’t pay her for her participation, but that I expected there would be money offered by film studios once the book was published, and that I expected readers would want to donate to a family fund for her, which I set up.
I was surprised that in my time with her, Camila, who is a very private person, never told me that anything was off the record. Like most 22 year-olds, she took risks in her personal life; unlike 22 year-olds of privilege, those risks had high stakes. I knew about all of them. But it was important, I thought to try to keep anything gratuitously suspenseful or emotional about her personal life outside of the narrative. If it could hang on the clothesline I identified — that constellation of factors that yielded the social problems I was investigating, as she experienced them — it could go in the book. If it didn’t closely hew to that story, I left it out. I asked her to read a draft of the book. That was important to me as well. She chose not to. The fact that she made that choice chilled me. It left me feeling that no matter what steps I took to make sure I didn’t exploit her – beyond the exploitation which is inherent in a journalistic endeavor — I wouldn’t be sure she felt that way, too. Honestly, I could talk about this for hours — as many hours as these questions have kept me up at night since I met her in 2015.
SR: You are sometimes referred to as a gender and inequality journalist. How did you find your footing in this area? What compels you to continue writing about these communities?
LS: That’s a much simpler question to answer: I write where I find grief and rage. That’s my motor. And no matter what I’m writing about — whether it’s religion or politics or war or parenthood — the themes of gender and inequality always rise up as the main focus of my inquiry and expression, because I am endlessly furious at our inability to get free and become equal as a society. I’m never surprised, and always outraged — and there’s nothing that compels me more than that.
SR: Throughout this incredible research process, I assume there was content you had to exclude from the final publication. Can you talk about some stories or research you had to leave out? What were your parameters for deciding what to include or exclude from the final narrative?
LS: Beyond the clothesline that I mentioned above, the big challenge how to maintain suspense and momentum while conjuring the endless boredom of Camila’s experience of poverty — the endless hours on the subway, the days spent in waiting rooms, the boredom of the Brooklyn shelter after curfew, or the nights alone in the Bronx caring for baby. Suffice it to say that many scenes got left behind. That’s also true of other participant’s stories. Once Camila was forced to leave the shelter, it became clear that the book needed to follow her story closely, and so other women I’d spent time with moved into the background. Plus there were many threads of the book that I clipped quite a bit to keep the focus on her search for a home, for example, her travels through higher ed as a first-generation homeless student with a baby. Plus, all the months — and now years — that I’ve known her outside of where the book’s curtain rises and falls.
And then there was the research into policy, law, solutions, data. I decided that I wanted the book to read as much like a novel as possible, instead of a larger study of a failing system. And so most of that reporting ended up informing the narrative, rather than framing it. I’d never made a choice like that before — my writing is usually quite studded with that sort of material — but I thought this approach was essential to reach a larger audience, to grab readers who would ordinarily never pick a non-fiction book about poverty. I often say that nonfiction is about what you leave out as much as what you write in, and that was as true with this project as anything I’ve ever done.
SR: In the book, you mention how taxing it was to sit back and witness all the injustice happening to the women of the shelter. How did you put yourself back into that previous emotional and mental state to craft the book, or did you avoid going back to that place to write from a more distanced perspective?
LS: I don’t think I express it that way in the book. It certainly isn’t the cushiest reporting, but I don’t think of my reporting as sitting back, or taxing. But I do say that at a certain point I had to take a break from the intensity of my relationship with Camila, and my immersion in the constant crises of injustice she must endure, if only to immerse myself in the very different occupation of writing. And I admit there was some relief I experienced, when she felt abandoned by me during that time, that I could slip back into my class comforts and wile away my hours at my desk. I don’t think I needed emotional distance to write — in fact, I very much carry my mental state of reporting into my writing — but I certainly needed the time and space to craft the book itself.
SR: After your time with Camila, you spent years editing and organizing. Do you have a personal set of criteria for knowing when a piece is done? Could you explain what that process is like?
LS: This book was such a bizarre, unexpected process (though I suppose they all are). I first wrote it without the character of myself in the narrative at all, which an editor (reasonably) suggested I think. Then I wrote another version with too much of myself in it, which a different editor (reasonably) suggested I modulate. So that was a few years right there, between waiting for edits and the like; especially because my initial imprint shuttered while I was awaiting notes, and these things can take a while. I write with a sense of pressing timeliness which keeps me from fussing too much — or perhaps not enough — and makes me impatient to get the writing out into the world where it can do its work as soon as possible. So the parameters are less about art and more about urgency, to be honest.
SR: While reading I found myself frustrated by the runaround Camila was getting from all areas. Were there moments you felt like using your privilege to assist Camila in some way? How do you think the narrative would have changed if you had inserted yourself in her story?
LS: Honestly, Camila was such an expert in navigating a system I was encountering for the first time, I don’t know how I could have intervened. My privilege exists in living outside the world of social services, not because I have any wisdom or strings to pull within it. How I could have inserted myself in her story was by offering her a place to stay. I couldn’t have rented an apartment for her — we wouldn’t have been able to afford that — but I could have invited her to crash on my couch as long as she needed to. But it was important I bear witness to what obstacles she could, and couldn’t overcome, obstacles that she’d had to face her whole life, but that became unsurpassable once she became a mother. That was the story I was there to tell. Some people have challenged me on journalistic ethical bases for doing things like buying Camila’s son a snowsuit. That was a possible crisis I wasn’t willing to see play out, and it didn’t hang on that clothesline, the constellation of factors that kept her from stable housing. Others — though none of them journalists — have damned me for keeping my home closed to her when she needed a place to stay. Had she ended up on the streets, I don’t know if I could have held that reportorial boundary. She always secured a place to land, so I didn’t need to find out.
My mother-in-law, who has spent a long career evaluating and shaping social service programs, remarked a few months ago that in no other career — medicine, social work — do we ask professionals why they don’t personally involve themselves with the people in crisis they have chosen to work with, and I’ve been thinking about that a great deal, why we ask these questions of journalists. As one who tends to resist personal boundaries with the people I write about, Camila perhaps most of all, it’s worth some reflection, what balance is necessary, and why.
SR: As demanding as this book could be to read, it is very necessary in understanding the oppressive systems and individuals affecting those around us. As an author, how do you balance challenging readers while also looking out emotionally for them?
LS: I don’t believe I need to look out emotionally for readers. I trust that readers are up to a challenge. And as someone who has always read to feel, and not just to think critically, I think that an emotionally challenging experience is essential to making a story matter.
SR: As someone who is in their early 20s like Camila, I was incredibly humbled and saddened by our differing experiences. Would you say this book is for those facing similar trials as Camila or those with the power to challenge the system? Why?
LS: That’s a great question. I had in mind, when I was writing, that this book needed to exist so that it could shake people by their lapels, people of privilege who maintained willful blindness about this massive human rights crisis playing out all around us, every day, one which I believe we need to fight like hell to change. I want this book in every book club, in every sorority sitting room, on the desks of philanthropists and policymakers. But once the book was released, I began getting emails from people who saw their own stories reflected in Camila’s, and in reading the book, felt deeply seen themselves. Those people can fight like hell, too, and I’ve encouraged many of them to share their own stories as a way to both fight and be seen for what they’ve survived, or continue to endure. However, I don’t think it should be up to our most vulnerable brethren to fix this madly cruel way of structuring society.
SR: This book traverses very intimate times for Camila, her family, and her acquaintances. Do you still communicate with those you observed? Can you describe how it feels to foster such intimate relationships that you then must leave abruptly?
LS: I never feel I must leave relationships with the people I become close within my work, and certainly not on the level I have in reporting this book, and certainly not abruptly. Camila asked me, after the book came out, not to discuss anything involving her or her intimates, and I agreed, so I’ll just leave that there.
SR: Homelessness in the United States has been a long-standing concern, but the global health crisis has added a new layer. I was saddened by the statistics on single mothers and the repetitive cycle of children without secure housing. How do you think this book speaks to the heightened moment of economic insecurity?
LS: I could talk — and grieve and rage — about this for hours, days, years. We all should be doing just that. Our failure to make housing a human right, to make it a product to be sold to the highest bidder, enriching — and withholding taxes from –—the people who need it least, is, as you say, a crisis that long predates this moment. It’s a problem we could have solved when we were most solvent. Now, in an economic crisis, a vast population will experience what Camila has endured, and worse, we will be hardest pressed to support them on a systemic level. It’s an avoidable tragedy of simply cataclysmic proportions. To me, the book had incredible urgency before the pandemic hit, and our economy collapsed. Now our eviction moratorium hangs by a thread. I would implore people to read this book to experience what the crisis of unstable housing is in our economic best-case scenario – for someone who is so well-equipped at navigating our broken system -- and draw that line straight into the worst-case scenario, which will define our lives for the foreseeable future. Imagine what those lives look like now, and in the time to come.
SR: In an interview with InStyle you state that you wrote this book because “. . . when we talk about these issues, they're in vast terms; they're in big data numbers. And those conversations are important, but unless we actually can feel other people's experiences. . . then we never actually get it. We never actually feel it.” Literature is a powerful method to create that empathy. What was an early experience where you learned language has power?
LS: I do believe that literature has the unique magical property of allowing us to step into another person’s inner life, crossing the space between individuals and identities alike. I’ve always read, since I was a small child, to feel as much as I possibly can inside other people’s experiences. That’s a bit different than intentionally constructing empathy, but it’s always seemed to me that once you feel inside someone else, it’s nearly impossible to lack empathy for that character or subject, or people in the world whose experiences overlap with that character or subject. It’s hard to pinpoint a first memory of that intensity of feeling in a way that has shaped how I perceive people in the world, but the book that this question instantly conjured is The Bluest Eye. I don’t believe that Toni Morrison set out to build empathy — and that was not my mission in writing This Is All I Got, either — but to bring us into trauma and hope and history, to feel both beauty and injustice, to feel power where the privileged world suggests it can’t possibly exist.