On Sunday, the Globe’s Jenna Russell told the tale of renowned Harvard Law School Professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr.’s journey into the fog of Alzheimer’s disease. We caught up with Russell to ask about the process of reporting this sensitive story and about the outpouring she’s received from readers.
1. Tell us a bit about how the story come about. Did you approach the Ogletrees?
In April, there was a bit of local media coverage when Charles Ogletree went missing for a few hours in Cambridge, and it reminded us about his struggle with Alzheimer’s. My editor suggested I check in with the family to see if they might be open to talking about it. I sent a letter to Pam Ogletree in June, and didn’t really expect to hear back. But she called me in early September, to find out what I had in mind, and she graciously agreed to meet to discuss a possible story.
2. How long did you spend with the couple observing their relationship? Was most of that time spent with Charles or with Pam?
It was a very busy time for Pam, as she was packing for their move to Maryland. I wasn’t sure how much time she would have, or how much she would want to open up. We didn’t know each other at all, and this was such a deeply painful and personal story. She was reserved at first, but she made time for me, in a series of meetings spanning about six weeks this fall, first with her alone and later including Charles. As we established a foundation of trust, our conversations quickly became very deep and rewarding. Her honesty and directness were stunning. I found myself contemplating marriage and commitment in ways I never had before.
3. Tell us how you handled the most sensitive aspects of the story, knowing you’d have to report on such difficult details?
I made it clear at the start that there would be no surprises in the story, that I would be transparent about the details I included, and that we could talk about it if something felt very uncomfortable. I told Pam that if she changed her mind about telling the story - even at the very end - it was OK. In the end there was no question she declined to answer, and nothing she wanted to pull back from publication. I think it was important to her that the story be very real and unflinching, since one goal was to help other families feel less alone.
4.The piece seems as much about Pam as it is about Charles. Was that your intent, or did the story evolve in that direction?
I came to this story without any personal experience as a caregiver, or with Alzheimer’s disease, and I really didn’t have any idea where it might go. I definitely didn’t expect it to evolve into such an intimate portrait of a marriage. It became clear to me about halfway through the reporting process just how much this was a story about the two of them together. And it was really Pam who clarified it for me, the day she talked about the “purity” of what they have now. That just stopped me in my tracks.
5. In many ways, this was a universal story about the devastation of Alzheimer’s. What do you want readers to take away about this disease?
One thing that was important to Pam was to tell people about some of the treatment possibilities that do exist, in the hope that others might find them sooner than the Ogletrees did, and reap more benefits. But it’s been so interesting to see the different ways readers are responding. A handful found the story too hopeful or too sweet, not dark enough in what it shows of the disease. But overwhelmingly, I am hearing from caregivers who recognize themselves and their own experience in what Pam and Charles are living through, in love that survives the worst things life can offer. I think that recognition means the most to me.