Best of slow journalism – The strange case of Anna Stubblefield

Photo: AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade

Photo: AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade

Weighing in at nearly 11,000 words, this New York Times story on the sexual assault trial of a philosophy professor is extraordinary in many ways. It’s written by Daniel Engber, a self-styled “slow-form journalist” who interviewed members of the family of a black American male in his thirties with cerebral palsy, who, according to a New Jersey jury earlier this month, was sexually assaulted by Anna Stubblefield, a former professor of ethics at Rutgers University.

Stubblefield, was in her forties and married with two children at the time she told the family of “D.J” – who wears nappies, needs help to walk and eat, and who has never spoken a word – that the pair were in love. She has since defended herself against accusations of sexual assault by saying that “D.J” consented to sex through a controversial technique known as facilitated communication, which, in the case of Stubblefield, saw her hold his hand while he – or they – typed on a keyboard. Before long, Engber reports, “a man who had been said to have the mental capacity of a toddler was on the conference circuit and taking college classes.” Stubblefield claimed that disability was a social construct used to oppress the disadvantaged, and that “D.J” was an intelligent person who had previously been unable to express himself. But the man’s family couldn’t get facilitated communication to work for them and critics of the technique argue that it works similarly to a Ouija board, and Stubblefield was – perhaps innocently – typing the messages herself.

It’s a fascinating and disturbing premise for a longform story and Engber tells it brilliantly, taking us in a balanced and non-judgemental way through the history of facilitated communication, the personal circumstances that led Stubblefield to being one of its loudest advocates, and how – in her words and the words she alleges “D.J” typed – the pair “fell in love”. The New Jersey jury did not agree with her version of events. The sentencing of Anna Stubblefield, scheduled for early next month, could see her face up to 40 years in a correctional facility.

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