The man behind the yellow door hadn’t come out for more than a few minutes in two years. A former Capitol Hill staffer gripped by schizoaffective disorder - a combination of schizophrenia and depression - he didn’t think of himself as sick, but rather that God was speaking to him through his two young sons.
In the past, his frightened family would have been able to have him committed to a psychiatric facility, but with the passing of laws expanding rights for those suffering from mental illness, their only choice is to wait for him to become a danger to himself or others before he can be forced into treatment.
Stephanie McCrummen, an enterprise reporter for The Washington Post, worked with this unnamed man’s family for more than six months to report and write “Behind the yellow door, a man’s mental illness worsens.” The story follows his ex-wife and his parents as they struggle to accept his worsening condition with no clear way to help him.
“Everyone is worried about the man in the house,” she writes in the article.
“No one knows what he is doing. No one knows what he is thinking, what he is eating or how he is surviving ... He has not let anyone beyond the front door, which he has fortified with a new lock, a piece of plastic bolted over the window, and a piece of plywood bolted below that, all of which he has painted a bright shade of yellow. He keeps the living room curtains shut.”
As a member of the enterprise team, McCrummen tells narrative, immersive stories that expand on coverage of current events. She was inspired to write this story after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
“When things like that happen people ask ‘but where was the family?’” she said. “I wanted to tell what it was like to be them.”
McCrummen spent months researching mental illness and talking to families about their experiences before she zeroed in on her subjects. Many of the two dozen or so families she spoke with were concerned about privacy and only agreed to meet off the record. It was also important to find relatives who were currently dealing with a sick loved one.
“I didn’t want to recount a story,” she said. “I wanted it to unfold in front of my eyes to the extent it could.”
McCrummen started working with the man’s family in October 2013. She said the hardest part was helping them navigate their worries about privacy and feelings of betraying their loved one by contributing to the story.
“It’s so important to have human, normal conversations up front with these people you want to write about and really tell them what you want to do,” she said. “The people have to agree and then those people have concerns… those all had to be addressed.”
The Washington Post agreed to use just the family members’ first names and to shoot some photos as silhouettes to further protect their privacy. McCrummen also took care to leave out details, such as the neighborhood that the man lived in and where he used to work, to make sure the story didn’t unintentionally identify him.
Once she started reporting, it was a challenge to always be on the scene when something important was happening.
She got a lucky break when she accompanied the ex-wife during the process of selling the house. Making her ex-husband homeless was the best hope of getting him mental health care. The visit turned into a pivotal moment in the story.
The only character in this story never interviewed was the mentally ill man himself. McCrummen and her editor met several times to discuss whether or not they should contact him as part of her reporting. On one hand, it seemed wrong to write a story about someone without their input just because he or she is mentally ill; on the other, speaking to the man behind the yellow door could jeopardize his health.
In the end, she feels they made the right decision.
“I think if we had reached out to him in his state of mind… I think it would have made us part of the story, part of the dynamic with this family,” she said.
Journalists have an ethical duty to influence a story as little as possible, she said, but staying emotionally distant from such a compelling topic was difficult. The man’s father often sought her out as an ally in the fight to help his son and his ex-wife sometime saw their conversations as a way to release stress.
“You want to hug people sometimes; you want to be their friend and you can’t, not in the course of the story,” she said. “It’s really important to keep those lines clear.”
As a journalist, “the best thing we can do is write the truest most honest story possible,” she said.
McCrummen stopped reporting when she felt the family’s story had reached a logical pause. The writing process took three weeks followed by several weeks of meetings with her editor.
“Behind the yellow door” ran on the front page of The Washington Post. Several state and national legislators read the story and passed it around. McCrummen said she thinks it can become a document of sorts to help bring the family’s perspective into debates about involuntary commitment.
McCrummen hopes that her story helped people understand what it’s like to love someone who’s suffering from mental illness.
“The most rewarding thing was reactions that people read it and said ‘this is my daughter, my husband’… that people felt it rang true.”