Pen in Hand, I Begin 2015 By Looking Back at 2014
I do so because I believe Pearl Buck’s words: “To understand today, you have to search yesterday.”
Searching yesterday, as in all of 2014, I found that I’d forgotten about some celebrity deaths, undoubtedly because I’ve been more concerned about the ones here at home. Still, they lived, they entertained and inspired us, and in 2014 Maya Angelou, Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mickey Rooney, Lauren Bacall, Shirley Temple, and many others all died. Some of them, like Hoffman and Williams, died far too young.
Personally, I was touched more by Maya Angelou and Robin Williams’s deaths than the rest, because their own work touched my life profoundly. In their collective body of work, they speak to the human condition—a topic Angelou always talked about, and something Williams taught me with his many roles.
As we start 2015, the world is a hot mess. Here in the U.S. black male deaths by the men in blue have led to riots over race, privilege, police, deadly force and justice. Or, some say, the lack thereof. Then there was the University of Virginia gang rape that was—and then wasn’t. Or was it? From kindergarten to college (43 in Mexico, 276 in Nigeria, and 132 in Pakistan) at least 451 students were kidnapped and/or murdered. U.S. and U.K. journalists were beheaded. And three Malaysian airliners have crashed: one simply vanished; another was blown from the sky by a drone, and the most recent one appears to have been downed by a bad storm.
Those were some of the more sobering headlines that found their way onto the 27/7 news cycle, and which caused not a few people to give up reading or watching the news completely. Then there was less important news, which quickly turned quite serious. For instance, there was the parody about a plot to murder North Korea’s leader. That seems to have led to a cyber-attack on Sony (the debate continues as to who was responsible), one of the largest movie studios out there, which resulted in dozens of embarrassed celebrities. Not to mention studio execs, after the hackers shared email correspondence and other private information with a voyeur public.
Along the way, free speech was taken hostage—until President Obama reminded his people that the United States does not cower before cowards, resulting in said speech being released, to the tune of almost $20 million in earnings for Sony after just one week.
Another disturbing 2014 news story involves the rise of the dangerous group ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), not to be confused with that other Isis, the ancient Egyptian goddess of health, marriage and wisdom who surely must have been much more benevolent than this modern ISIS. On top of that danger, there was the equally deadly Ebola outbreak, which killed more than 7,000 people in West Africa, and made even me worry about boarding my next flight.
The Ray Rice elevator incident, and the two-steps-forward-one-step-back dance the NFL took in response—all of which has served as the best campaign against domestic violence in decades—made for a fascinating 2014 news story. By punching out his then-fiancée (now wife) the former Baltimore Ravens running back has provided a new level of awareness to the behind-closed-doors war zone that many women and children have remained captive to for far too long. If Twitter is anything to judge by, (#WhyIStayed) the clumsy Rice-NFL mambo has helped other men learn that women aren’t punching bags. Or footballs, to be kicked around. But there is a price to pay for doing so—which can include losing your job as a breadwinner.
Then, most recently, a bit of good news: U.S.-Cuba relations saw a thaw, which means it’s only a matter of time before the island and its archipelagos become yet another pit stop for cruising tourists. Oh yes, the thaw also means that authentic Cuban fare should be much more accessible to people like me, who find their rich blend of exotic spices a culinary delight to the palate.
One of the best feel-good stories of 2014, perhaps by now forgotten in view of the overwhelmingly bad news, is the one about Pakistan teenager Malala Yousafzai, who in 2014 was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her “struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.” At 17, she is the youngest person to ever receive the distinguished prize. This and Malal’s own bravery at age 15—when she single-handedly stood up to the Taliban—reminds us that while courage often comes in the face of a child, it can flee by the time we become adults. (Then again, all those nurses and doctors caring for Ebola patients give us faith that even adults can be courageous when they are called to do so.)
Here in West Virginia we were happy to see a corrupt coal baron indicted in 2014 for his part in the Massey Energy deaths of 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine four years ago. Yes, Don Blankenship will have his day in court, for putting insanely rich profits before the safety of his employees. I’m just happy that the winds of change seem to be blowing in our direction over here in Appalachia, hopefully bringing down the Dark Lord of Coal Country with them.
I’d like to think this constitutes a happy change here in Almost Heaven, since the ongoing fallout for company execs at Freedom Industries includes similar federal charges. That firm, you might recall, contaminated drinking water for 300,000 residents one year ago January 9 when MCHM, a toxic chemical, leaked into the Elk River, leaving many people without a way to even take a bath—much less a drink.
And even closer to home, here in Morgantown, W.Va., the Skylar Neese murder case came away as one of the top five biggest news stories in 2014, according to WDTV. It was a real downer, and I should know, because I covered the story on my blog while simultaneously writing two books about the case and its related legal proceedings. (But make no mistake, although some of the details from my blog were used in the book, less than one percent made it into Pretty Little Killers.) If you aren’t familiar with the tragedy, it will air January 3 on ABC’s 20/20—just two days away. The adorable Ryan Smith asks some great questions during his interview with my coauthor and me.
The first book about the case, an ebook titled The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese, contributed to my becoming a New York Times best-selling author–which was definitely the most unexpected good news I personally got in 2014. Having this title added to my résumé was not something I aspired to–because I never sought recognition for my work. My work involves shining the light on other people, so journalism used to mean working behind the scenes. Not being the story. But I do believe that when you work hard, and you do good work, recognition comes whether you seek it or not.
Being a reporter, or a journalist, aren’t always one and the same—especially nowadays. Reporters report; journalists dig and dig, unearthing facts some people would rather keep buried. That being said, I have wonderful colleagues who refuse to be called “journalists” because they believe the title has become synonymous with reporters who feel entitled.
I don’t as a rule make New Year’s resolutions. I resolve every day when I get up to try and make that day better than the last. Some days I succeed. Other days I fail. In an epic way—but I never give up trying.
So for today, be it January 1 or not, I have concluded the following while looking back at the last year: I will post more about my work to social media, and I will blog once a week. I might blog here or at Huffington Post, depending on what news stories are making the rounds that week.
I would like to take in a professional journalism conference this year, to help me hone my writing, editing and cognitive skills. I also need to be kinder to myself, as I continue trying to find a good work-home-personal life balance.
I resolve to go through scraps, one at a time, and toss or file, and I’ll do the same with clothes I’ve outgrown or those which are heaped up in a mending pile, and with the books I’m never going to read. I’m also going to worry less, and to remember more, including this key point: “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”
Oh yes, and I will finish my sequel, To Shatter the Silence–sooner rather than later. Come downed aircraft, pestilence and disease, or other tragic world events that are sure to happen this year. All the while hoping that only good things light up our lives in 2015.
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I have four books. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.
For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.
Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!
Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and Sister of Silence placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”