Up Close with Jeanne Marie Laskas
Laskas is the author of six other books, include the award-winning Hidden America (Putnam, 2012) and a trilogy of memoirs: Fifty Acres and Poodle, The Exact Same Moon, and Growing Girls. She is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, where she is director of The Writing Program, and founding director of The Center for Creativity. She lives on a horse farm with her husband and two daughters. PSR Editor Tony DeFazio caught up with Jeanne Marie this summer.
Tony DeFazio: How did the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu become a topic that you pursued for GQ?
Jeanne Marie Laskas: It was not my field to write about medical issues or certainly not even football, but it was a story idea that we were kicking around in the office for GQ Magazine with the idea that there had been a lot of media coverage at that time, in 2009, about the issue. The question at first was very simply, "Is there a way that we can add to the conversation?"
I thought no, because there had been so much coverage. But we started looking into it and we came up with the name of Dr. Bennet Omalu. Who never got any mention, beyond one time he was in the scientific literature as the guy who figured out what was going on in the brain. And my question was, "Wait, what happened to that guy?"
And I started digging
Tony: This is an incredible story that went from a magazine article to a novel to a movie. How do you know when a story like that has the potential to exist in a larger medium?
Jeanne Marie: In this particular case, when I wrote the article, it was really just figuring out the chain of events of how Bennett walked through and figured out the science, and also how he had been silenced by so many people for so long. And that is kind of a lot to accomplish in an article in a 6,000 or 8,000 word story. So what I never got to tell in that article was the rest of Bennett's life. Which is just so rich and interesting; how he ended up here and how we ended up in this mess. How he was uniquely positioned, historically, as the person to figure this thing out. And that I never got to tell in the magazine article. It was just too much.
So in the book I wanted to unravel it all. It was only after I decided to do a book that I went back to Nigeria with Bennett and met his family. I decided to start from the beginning.
Tony: When you start the process of book-to-novel, are you already fairly confident that there is some level of interest in a book?
Jeanne Marie: For this particular story there was endless interest. Already by the time I had started working on the book, the movie was starting to percolate and gain real traction. So I knew it was going to be a movie too.
The movie couldn't do Bennett's life any more justice than a magazine article could, so I still thought there would be the question, wait a minute who is this guy? How did he end up here? And that's what I wanted to accomplish in the book.
Tony: Is it difficult to surrender your work to Hollywood?
Jeanne Marie: Two things on that. I think it could be difficult if... well, one thing I would find impossible would be turning a memoir or a personal story into movie. Because then you have lived it. This is a little bit different in that it was a research piece and from the very beginning the agreement is that the movie is an adaptation. The reason that it worked so well is because the screenwriter, Peter Landesman, who was also the director, is a former journalist. So he was as curious as I was about the story and determined to get it right and to dig and dig and dig. So in that sense I felt like it was in good hands. Now it is a different genre, they are going to dramatize it in ways -- I don't want to say "stretching the truth" but compressing time. In general they told the true story
Tony: Dr. Omalu faced a lot of blowback for his research. Did you receive anything similar from the GQ article or the book?
Jeanne Marie: Not from the medical community so much. I do remember that the NFL pulled a Roger Goodell profile that the magazine was planning to run. So it was just stuff like that, that no one would even have noticed.
Tony: Which goes along with the territory of being a journalist?
Jeanne Marie: Oh gosh yeah. Yes yes yes. They had been trying their hardest to have no one talk about this. For a very long time.
I wasn't particularly worried because it wasn't like I was expressing an opinion. It is rock solid and it is in the medical literature. It wasn't even a doctor's opinion, it was just telling the story of the science in the published work. So I never felt nervous that way at all, about what they could possibly say.
Tony: You're very familiar with Pittsburgh and the culture here. Do you think that Dr. Omalu was forced from this town?
Jeanne Marie: You know, it is a twisted story that had to do with his job with Cyril Wecht, and really had nothing to do with the concussion work that he was doing.
So you kind of have to separate the two. His work was not being acknowledged by the local media, or the local scientific community, let alone the national one. But that wasn't a reason to get "kicked out." It was more about that whole office really falling apart after Wecht got indicted. And he was in that storm.
Tony: Dr. Omalu's research has been validated on a number of fronts and is probably accepted as the truth. But do you feel that the doctor himself has been vindicated?
Jeanne Marie: Yes, I think in many ways he has. In the scientific community, I don't think anyone doubts his earliest findings or the fact that he was the first person even to do an autopsy on an NFL player to look for CTE in the brain. I think the difference between 2009 and now is huge. Huge difference in the level of acceptance that he has received.
Tony: The tagline on the book is "the man who changed the NFL forever." Is that more true as every day passes?
Jeanne Marie: You know what? I do. And the thing about that is it was certainly never his intention, nor does he even probably acknowledge it. I don't know if he truly understands it.
His impact on the NFL... he's not that interested in the world of the NFL. It's sort of beside the point to him. It's really quite about the science. When you delve into his past is when you realize that this is a person who had absolutely no agenda going in.
Tony: Is this a story of triumph?
Jeanne Marie: I think it is. I think ultimately it is. Even though it's not over, we still have so many people suffering and playing the game without really understanding. And in youth sports there is there is still a lot going on, so the story is not over. But for a particular scientist who figured something out people are finally listening to him. So in that sense it's a triumph.