May 24, 2011

To my readers: The writing and soaping pursuits of Wanda Fleming can now be found next door. Meow! Published pieces from 2008-2009 are still located here.

New Address:

Stop, Thief!
The boy made a choice. And so did I.

The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, September 13, 2009

Years ago, I witnessed a woman in a supermarket stuff lamb chops down her coat. Though clumsy, the theft was swift. She moved on, clutching her bodice and holding a basket, empty but for canned peas. I froze, thinking how sad, how odd, how cold that meat on her chest must feel.

"Do you think she was a klepto or just hungry?" my husband asked as I unloaded groceries onto the kitchen counter.

"I don't know," I offered.

The woman was tiny, with a body that had surely once been touted as petite or gamine. Now she stooped and had tracing-paper skin with veins that looped to an interstate of purple and green.

"Should I have said something?"

"Like what?" he asked. " 'Stop, thief!'?"

Today is different. Before the act unfolds, I sense it coming. I'm scanning the drugstore shelf for my favorite deodorant, the super-industrial kind that will artificially plug my pores, taking me dryly from teacher conferences to preparing a dinner for my in-laws. As I search the containers, I see him -- a child of 9 or 10, 11 at the most.

He and I stand in a chain pharmacy. It sits in a well-to-do neighborhood of popular restaurants that serve not food but "cuisine" and shrimp that is never spicy fried but "Crispy Dangerous." Here students from the nearby schools flood in before morning classes. They congregate and gossip, sometimes chatting to a hornet's buzz. And they buy what passes for breakfast: potato chips, cupcakes and dye-drenched sodas.

Most mornings, a crossed-arm manager stands guard, eyeing the buyers as they crowd the snack-food aisle. But right now, it's so early that the caravan has yet to arrive. It's just me, my deodorant and the boy.

It's his dawdling that rouses my attention. Blinking furtively, he peers at me, then over his shoulder. In his third pass of back-and-forth glancing, he gambles on my seemingly intent hunt for toiletries. He unzips the front pocket of his knapsack and thrusts in a bottle of orange soda. But a glitch ensues. The pocket is too short, the bottle too tall. He fails to calculate that the soda must lie at an angle. The zipper refuses to close. Squeeze, push. The seconds tick....

January 25, 2009

XX Files
Sunday, January 25, 2009
Washington Post Magazine

Suspended Disbelief

What's the worst thing that can happen to a marriage? Terminal illness? Addiction? An affair that jackhammers through a family's honor and bank account? Or maybe one spouse suddenly announces, "I don't think I ever loved you," evoking memories of rare carnal encounters and the bored sighs they elicited.
No. For my friend, worse happens.
Police come to her door with a devastating allegation about her husband....

..And a response to the controversy this essay incited:

A Writer’s Diary: When a Controversial Work Unravels
By Wanda Fleming

On January 25, 2009, my essay, Suspended Disbelief appeared in the Washington Post Magazine. The piece recounted the story of a friend whose husband had been accused of molesting an eight year child as she sat on his lap and viewed a movie with family and friends. Nearly a year after the gathering, he would be convicted of not one, but two misdemeanor counts of child sexual abuse. The children were 8 and 10 year old girls.

An error in my piece, and an unwitting but important omission, sparked a firestorm. Incensed, relatives of the girls called the newspaper, submitted angry comments on the newspaper board and sent my husband an inflamed email. Within days, the Magazine submitted a two-line correction. Four weeks later, editor Tom Shroder printed an apology and a letter from one girl’s grandmother.

Since then, I have received numerous inquiries about what actually transpired. These have ranged from the serious and factual, for example, “How many girls was this guy convicted on anyway?” (The answer is two.) to the seemingly banal, such as, “Were these people black? (The answer is “No, none of them.”).

In the aftermath of the publication, I responded to no one other than the Magazine’s editor. After some distance and reflection, here are my answers to the most salient questions:

What was the impetus for the essay?
How well did you know these people?

In my essays, I often grapple with difficult subjects and attempt to place a personal face on them. I view writing as a privilege and seek to be ethical and intelligent in my work.

The impetus for Suspended Disbelief was an account a woman revealed to me in 2007. We had come to know each other through my business which she and her family had begun to patronize. To this day, I have only seen the husband two or three times. And with the exception of salutations, I have conversed with him once, a brief conversation about the weather.

When the wife and I had coffee, she was greatly distressed, and the conversation was emotional and protracted. The details I described were the best of my honest recollection. At the time of our meeting, I was not writing for the Washington Post, and XX Files did not even exist. The story however disturbed me on many levels, and shortly thereafter I began to write the essay.

Suspended Disbelief was submitted to the Washington Post in March 2008 and after light editing, was published in January 2009. While I apprised the family of its pending publication, neither the convicted man nor his wife ever saw the essay until it hit the stands.

What was the message of Suspended Disbelief?
The subheading of the essay presented the message clearly: “Guilty or not, it’s a tragedy.” And ironically, this has once again echoed. For all parties involved, it continues to be a mess of tragic proportions.

The piece neither sought to impugn the honesty of the girls nor exonerate the convicted man. Indeed, I intimated that his innocence was questionable and therefore made me more protective of my own child. Ultimately, I thrust my arm out in an almost feral reaction to his appearance on our porch.

The essay, however, did lay out the consequences of such a charge and the ricocheting effects of incarceration. It asked readers to contemplate the impact on the convict’s marriage and family, particularly if the accused was innocent as he and his family continue to insist. The piece was in effect a tightrope that I sought to walk, but managed instead to tumble from.

What went wrong?
Crimes, particularly deviant ones trigger intense public reaction. Most of us have intractable responses to such matters. We hold firm to our beliefs on how they should be handled and how justice should be meted. In the case of sex crimes, it is common to hear the sentiment, “Cut off the guy’s balls, and send him to an island.” It is also not unusual to hear, “If a guy does his time, the government should stay out of his business.” These reactions stay fixed even when we are not privy to details of individual cases. When writing about such contentious topics, making an error, even unknowingly, encourages the intensification of already deep seated sentiments.

As written in Suspended Disbelief, pressure was indeed placed upon the man and his family to accept plea offers. They were informed that rejecting them might lead to a long prison term. I said the man accepted a plea, but I was wrong. He did not. Convinced that he was innocent, and that such acceptance was tantamount to an admission of guilt, he refused the offers.

There has been some discussion about this error. Did it favor the convict and his family? From their vantage point, ironically, it did not. They were disappointed to see the error for they viewed the plea rejection as suggestive of his innocence.

Others, however, particularly the family of the victims, viewed my error differently. They see the man’s conviction as vital for it points out that an “impartial” party, in this case, a judge in a bench trial, found the man guilty. And indeed they are correct; the case became no longer the girls versus the man. Someone agreed that he did it, and that someone was a Court judge.

The important omission? What was it?
In a 750 word “personal essay,” much is omitted. The literary genre maintains the precarious distinction of demanding an intimate tale from an unwavering personal perch. Many readers have asked me why the newspaper and I were so assailed when the piece was clearly a personal essay based on a coffee shop conversation, not an A section expose. In my reflection on the matter, I believe that the fairest answer is that this situation was less about traditional reporting (for which there is sorely little XX Files space), and more about leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of facts. This was a delicate case on a very disturbing topic. And in the midst of it, I left a stone unturned.

Since the essay’s publication, I have learned that by the time the case had wound through the judicial system, it had gone from a girl on a lap to two sets of sisters back to two girls. The case moved from a felony to misdemeanors, and bypassed a jury trial to end with a bench trial.
Ultimately, the man was convicted by a judge on the testimony of two girls.

My essay did not mention two girls. It merely mentioned the precipitating event. Would this information have made the man appear guiltier. In the eyes of many, it would have.

The truth about “facts”
The truth about any feature writing, particularly short pieces, is that many known facts never appear in print. In Suspended Disbelief, I took deliberate pains to remove what some writers call “markers” or identifiers. In 2008, my biggest fear was that neighbors, co-workers or friends of any of the characters would recognize the subjects.

In my first versions, the essay detailed the families’ neighborhood and the profession of the convicted man. It described his children and the school where the portrayed victim attended. Hair was flaxen and windows covered with frost. By the time the piece had been submitted, however, no one knew where anyone lived. No one knew what anyone looked like. And the case could have occurred any winter day in Podunk, USA. Still, the family of the featured victim discerned the case and recoiled vehemently. This begs the question, can true anonymity be assured without deliberate fabrications and vaguely sketched composites?

Tied to this is the ongoing skirmish over “facts.” What facts? Whose facts? Which facts should appear in such a piece?

By the time newspaper, had issued the apology and printed the grandmother’s letter, the case appeared to be utterly open and shut. Frankly this is untrue. As the case made its way through the system, statements, stories and scenarios shifted and expanded. Not the least among the most troubling facts was the presence of one victim’s own parent in the same room while the alleged sex abuse occurred. Do this and other unpublicized “facts” vindicate the man? Not necessarily, but they do begin to explain why the convict’s family was aghast and disbelieving.

What now?
From my perspective, as a writer the worst part of this situation has been the realization that I erred in my work. For my error and any omissions, I apologize. Errors erode the veracity of stories. They weaken the reputation of publications, particularly high-profile ones. And they curtail converations that may have been had and that are gravely needed--in this case ones about morality and justice.

As a human being, what is the worst part of this? It’s the constant gnaw that will not leave me, the knowledge that someone in this miasma is lying, and doing so repeatedly, flagrantly, and without remorse. Since that day in the coffee shop, this story has haunted me, not merely because I too have children and a spouse, but because the anger of all parties and the cries of being wronged, are so overwhelming.

“How far into the weeds do you really want to go with this?” a friend and lawyer asked recently.

To uncover the truth? I thought. Pretty far I guess, pretty far.

Wanda E.Fleming
March l7, 2009

This case is now on appeal. I continue to write.

December 8, 2008

Knife Fight
December 7, 2008,

The XX Files,Washington Post Magazine
Photos by Lily Gasperetti, our 11 year old shutterbug wunderkind.

Three nights before he cuts my throat, I dream my surgeon defuses a bomb in my basement. Removing his mask, he ascends the stairs to the kitchen, where he’s met with thunderous applause.
I don't share this reverie with him as I sit in his office. Behind me, invisible, he presses the tumor. He holds my neck in a gentle choke. Thump-thump, tap-tap. Soon, my throat will meet his scalpel. It's a gamble: He may extract the malignancy with ease or fall into a whirlpool of mishaps, among the worst being an errant nick that severs a vocal cord....
Won't open? Type KNIFE FIGHT by Wanda Fleming into the search engine .

November 4, 2008

Sweet Recall

SKIRT Magazine, November 2008

"Your house smells like cookies.”

That’s what the delivery guy says as he drags in my boxes.

For the past year, he has race-walked my pavement in his brown pants and shirt. Today, however, is his last day. He’s going back to school, but first he’s taking a week off to bake cakes.

“Cakes? Really?” I raise my brow.

“Yeah, my mom used to make pound cake and this big monster chocolate cake for our family reunion, but now she’s in a nursing home.”

His mother suffers from dementia, that cruel slight window between a bad memory and Alzheimer’s. Two years ago, she dumped a tablespoon rather than a teaspoon of salt into her prized pound cake. A year later, she misread three cups of milk for eight. Then she couldn’t find the recipes at all.

The delivery guy took over. He recounts digging through a kitchen of clutter, through dog-eared cookbooks missing their spines and magazine clips yellowed and stained. He rescued the recipes....

Read the rest at SKIRT magazine: You must scroll down; on the left, under essays, click on SWEET RECALL.

XX Files

Soup's On
We are all hungry, but for what?

By Wanda Fleming
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, October 26, 2008; Page W31

"Spies always make the worst soup," Darryl mutters. "You're obviously a spy."

Until now, I've been the shelter's helium balloon. I've floated above it all, a yellow smiley face stamped on a Mylar disc. Now I stand accused of espionage and, worse, lousy soup-making. I drift to the floor.

No other volunteer experience has prepared me for this one, not the Earth Day cleanups or candy striping at the children's hospital or the food bank distribution of cornflakes and diapers. All three ventures unfolded the same way: the assisted bubbling over with thanks. This one's different...

Read the rest at the Washington Post Magazine: Continue reading here ... NOTE!: You must type: Soup's On into the search engine and go from there.

September 2, 2008

Two Jobs. One Only Sounded Cool.
Working as a Researcher Would Boost Her Résumé, But Scooping Ice Cream Left a Sweeter Taste, and Memories to Match

By Wanda E. Fleming
Special to The Washington Post Monday, StylePlus, September 1, 2008; Page C08

That summer Americans fell hard for premium ice cream, the expensive yolk-rich kind made of cane sugar and smooth half-and-half. The hunt for it spilled into the tiny parlor that sat on a street of upscale boutiques selling sapphires and suede boots. Customers abandoned plain chocolate and vanilla, and thumbed their noses at the neon-colored sherbets of childhood. They wanted the extravagant.

Running their hands along the glass cases we would later spray and wipe clean of fingerprints, they would pause at the boysenberry. They'd stare at the black walnut and eye the rum raisin. Then came the inevitable pointed finger and the words, "Could I get a taste of that?" .....

Continue here:

August 22, 2008

XX Files

Virtual Violations
Stalking the stalker

By Wanda Fleming
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, August 10, 2008; Page W31

POSTED AT 1 A.M., the e-mail simply states: "I found your Web site. I want to buy your sweetest soap and move it up your thighs. I want my mouth washed out. What scent do you suggest?"

My heart stops.

I have two consuming vocations: handcrafting scented soap and writing. I work on both in a Batcave-like room dubbed The Studio. Cement makes up the floor. Drafts rattle the 100-year-old jalousie windows. But the ambiance is well worth the rent.

Only three people are allowed in this space. The stalker slips in anyway. He finds me through the words I write.

Continue reading here ... NOTE!: You must type: Virtual Violations in the search engine and go from there.

July 13, 2008

The XX Files Makes it Debut

Washington Post Sunday Magazine editor Tom Shroder announces the new column The XX Files. I will be one of its contributing writers. My first story, Virtual Violations, will appear August 10, 2008. Stay tuned!

Editor's Note

By Tom Shroder
Sunday, July 13, 2008; Page W02

Ten months ago, I issued an invitation in this space: "If you think you can write a magazine column with personality, fresh insight, keen observation and an original take on the tumultuous times in which we find ourselves, we want to hear from you." And, if that weren't asking enough, I indicated that we were looking for someone with "a vivid sense of self, keenly aware without being self-glorifying. Honest. Revealing. Provocative." ........ Read more here:

April 8, 2008

A Father and Daughter, Forging a Belated Bond

By Wanda E. Fleming, Special to The Washington Post Monday, April 7, 2008; C08

It's 3 a.m. and it's raining, the kind of rain that stabs the pavement with noisy diagonal needles. The telephone rings. This should be a horror movie but it's not.

The voice on the line is my father's, and my father does not use the phone. That is my mother's province. He is shy, and throughout my childhood I rarely saw him call anyone. "It's bad," he says. "Mom had a heart attack." It's a month before my parents enter their 45th year of marriage; my mother is dead.

Though ultimately she was the tiniest person in our family of towering members, my mother was clearly the most formidable. Think of the dignified beauty of Clair Huxtable, the nerve of
Donald Trump and Joan of Arc's will, and you have the picture. My mother once confided she had wanted to fly fighter planes as a teenager. She held a college degree at a time when few women even attended. Her curtains were starched white, her lemonade made fresh from lemons we rolled across the wooden cutting board together. And late at night, curled up with her Shakespeare or a presidential biography, she smoked cigarettes, lots of them....

Continue here.

February 2, 2008

Full Exposure
by Wanda Fleming

Special to Skirt Magazine, Atlanta

December 2007

“Cover me please. Just cover me.”

No matter how much my mother yanks and finagles the tie, the hospital gown slips open revealing bare skin. The first time it happens, I lower my eyes. As we walk to the bathroom, she roots and bunches the threadbare fabric. The hem hikes up brushing a lattice of green and bruised red veins.

“We could use my robe belt,” she whispers.

I kneel and wrap it around her waist to keep the gown closed.

In the first years of married life, my mother changed more than 25,000 diapers: my siblings’, and mine. She viewed and lathered six sets of baby bottoms, patted and powdered six sets of inner thighs. Now role reversal had begun to seep in. Like imaging dye on an X-ray, it had entered and was coursing at will.

I playfully grab my mother’s hand and feel the jutting wrist bone. I kiss her face and sense a hollow slackness. Arms crossed, I lean into the hospital wall and interrogate her doctor.

Conducting his evening rounds, he smiles serenely, like a man for whom a wife and a warm meal wait. When he speaks, the gently parsed words slip from his mouth like Scrabble tiles sliding off their rack onto the corridor floor: weakened...vascular...system.

That’s what he says. This is what I hear, “Her heart is decimated, shot, kaput.”

From what he can tell, over the last two decades my mother has suffered several small heart attacks. Before I research the drug interactions of her newly prescribed pills, before our roles ever truly switch, my mother has another. She dies chasing her breath....

Read the rest here at SKIRT magazine: