Landry’s Latest Gives Trauma Sufferers Their Say

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I don’t know if it’s really necessary to “disclose” that I attended journalism school with reporter and author Janice Landry but I am going to do so (and yes, I am well aware that there is a fine line between “disclosing” something  and “boasting about it;” I promise to walk it as best I can).

We didn’t know each other well, but as fellow members of a graduating class of 15, we certainly knew each other. We’re veterans of the early years of computerization at the University of King’s College School of Journalism, during which Apple Mcintosh computers (with a whopping 512kb of memory, if my own memory serves me correctly) rubbed shoulders with MS-DOS-based, floppy-disk machines and manual typewriters.

Janice Landry. (Photo by Paul Darrow)

Janice Landry. (Photo by Paul Darrow)

Landry graduated at the top of our class and I always had the vague impression that she walked off the stage with her diploma and did a live hit on ATV minutes later. It turns out I’m barely exaggerating, as her official bio makes clear:

In 1987, immediately after graduating from university, Janice was hired full-time at CTV-Atlantic. She remained there until 1999, when she resigned after the birth of her daughter.

For 12 years, Janice held virtually every job, from an editorial standpoint, in the television new business, including, but not limited to: general assignment reporter, show producer and writer, weekend assignment editor and co-anchor, back-up weekday news anchor, senior reporter, live and taped event coverage.

I’ve followed her career over the years and have been especially intrigued by her latest incarnation as an author and advocate for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Last week, I had a chance to speak with her by phone and ask her a whole bunch of questions — about her latest book, The Legacy Letters (which, like Landry herself, has Cape Breton connections); her work promoting greater understanding of the effects of trauma on first responders and others; the award she recently received for that work, and other things. Here’s some of what I found out.

 

Landry says she originally began to think about the effects of trauma on first responders following the death of her father, Captain Basil (Baz) Landry — son of William (Bill) Landry of River Bourgeois —  who had served 31 years with the former Halifax Fire Department.

[M]y dad was a Medal of Bravery winner here in Canada and Dad was really humble and he never told his story as to why he had received his medal…[Before] he passed away, he had given me a box of stuff and said…”Janice, you’ll know what to do with this.”

It took her months, she says, perhaps as long as a year after her  father’s death to open the box and when she did she found her father’s Medal of Bravery — the first ever awarded to a member of the Halifax Fire Department — along with a bunch of newspaper and magazine clippings about her father’s particular act of heroism: Baz Landry had risked his life to rescue an eight-week-old baby from a burning house.

Realizing that few people besides her father’s fellow firefighters knew about the award, Landry decided to honor her father by telling his story in what became her first book, The Sixty Second Story. She put her father’s act of bravery into context by recounting the story of nine other members of the Halifax Fire Department (the oldest fire department in the country), who had died as a result of the Halifax Explosion in what remains the biggest loss of firefighting lives in Canadian history.

Telling her father’s story and that of the “Fallen Nine,” as the earlier firefighters came to be known, got her to contemplating the nature of trauma and its effect not just on firefighters, but on first responders in general:

When I was a kid growing up and my Dad would go to a fire, I was just a kid and naive, and I thought, “Well, he’ll be home for supper”…I never thought when he goes out, he might not come back. And in the case of that fire where he got the medal…he only talked about it with me once, years later. He and I were adults, sitting having a drink one night as father and daughter, not firefighter and journalist, and he told me that story and…it wasn’t till after he died and I started doing my research that I realized, “What did my own father see and hear and smell?” He never talked about it with us.

Her second book, The Price We Pay, looked at the toll taken by their work on a range of first responders, including police officers, RCMP officers, paramedics and military personnel. One reviewer called it “a straightforward and compassionate discussion of trauma and PTSD among first responders and others involved in shock events.”

But Landry wasn’t done with the topic — or perhaps more accurately, the topic wasn’t done with her. In her third and most recent book, The Legacy Letters: How Trauma Affects Our Lives, she broadens her scope to consider how trauma affects people not directly impacted by “shock events.” In part, she focuses on families — revisiting the relatives of the victims of crimes she covered as a young reporter; talking to the families of first responders. But she also turns the lens on her own profession, contemplating how reporting on such events affects journalists.

 

In fact, the forward to The Legacy Letters is provided by a journalist: Cape Breton’s Phonse Jessome — who writes of his own PTSD diagnosis, which he says followed years of denying that the events he was reporting on — “murders, fires, drownings, every kind of violent death” — were taking any kind of toll on him. Of telling himself he was a “professional observer” with “no room for feeling” in his world.

It all came came to a head in 1999, a year after the Swiss Air crash off the coast of Nova Scotia, when Jessome says he first heard the term post-traumatic stress disorder from a psychiatrist he was interviewing about the effects of the crash on recovery workers. Says Jessome:

Tears rolled down my face as I drove away from that interview. I knew I had every symptom the doctor described, and I’d had them for a long time.

Landry, whom Jessome describes as a friend and fellow “adrenaline junkie,” says although she herself has never been diagnosed with PTSD, she has felt the impact of the darker side of the profession:

[W]hen I came out of King’s, I started working in television and immediately, very, very soon after I graduated, I started covering crime and that became the specialty of mine…I came out of King’s with great training, I loved the school, but you have very little life experience as a human being. And so, I was plunged into crime reporting and…most of the cases I covered in my early ’20s were…very violent crimes against young women…So, I’m a young woman reporting on these very violent crimes against young women with little life experience and it has impacted me and I don’t mind telling people that.

Landry says from her current perspective, with 30 years’ experience under her belt, she has become more aware of the impact news stories have, on journalists but more importantly, she says, on the families of victims:

[I]n this book, there is a very poignant communication between me and the sister of a missing young woman and I urge people that do pick up the book to read this woman’s statement about how her family was, of course, traumatized by the fact that their loved one is still missing, but that they were also traumatized by members of the media coming to them [with] things may or may not have been factual, so things that were hypothetical, the what-ifs. I just think we have to be cautious and these discussions are good to have…How should we be approaching this? Is it always the right thing to do, the best thing to do, to be first?

So, for example, [you go] to an accident scene and tweet out a photograph of a car on its roof and we can see what the car looks like, we might even be able to see the license number, and the family doesn’t know yet that someone has died…[T]here are people that are impacted by your words, long after you’re on to the next piece.

Landry says once she’d decided to go back and speak to some of the families whose stories she’d covered it took her “months of preparation” to get ready for it:

…I had to formulate why…I would do that, to take them back to [traumatic events], and primarily the answer is twofold: a) to let them know that we truly care about them and b) to try to get some sort of a solution for them. Because I feel if there is anything I can do to help, I’m going to try to do that.

What she could do, she realized, was provide them an opportunity to speak for themselves, in their own, unfiltered words. It all began with Ann King, a British Columbia woman whose daughter, Andrea, went missing in Halifax, where she’d come to attend university, in January 1992. Andrea King’s remains were discovered in a wood in Lower Sackville in December of that year. Her killer has never been identified.

ATV Evening News Weekend with Jonathan Gravenor & Janice Landry, 1994. (Source: YouTube)

ATV Evening News Weekend with Jonathan Gravenor & Janice Landry, 1994. (Source: YouTube)

Landry, who says she developed a relationship with Ann during the time the case was in the headlines, had to steel herself to reach out to her again in 2016, but King was gracious and ready to talk. During the course of their conversations, she told Landry she had always regretted not properly thanking the people of Nova Scotia for their support during her ordeal.

And in that moment I said, “Well, Ann, why don’t you write an open letter and I’ll put it in the book?” And she immediately agreed, and so she was the first legacy letter that I received…And I thought…if I give these people a chance to say exactly what they want to whomever they want, it gives them a little bit of control where they didn’t have any, and that was just my way of trying to support them.

Which is why each story in the book is followed by a letter from the subject of the piece — including a very touching one from Cape Breton firefighter Micheal Hilliard — offering a “heartfelt message about trauma.”

 

Landry says those messages have resonated — particularly with first responders, many of whom have reached out to her privately to tell their own stories of trauma and PTSD.

But her work has also been recognized publicly, most recently by the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, a Canadian organization dedicated to supporting first responders coping with trauma. Landry was named winner of TEMA’s 2018 Rev. Ron Nickle Resiliency Award, given to “the individual who is able to share their story of resiliency which best contributes to our community’s understanding of the psychological stressors affecting Canada’s public safety and military personnel.” Landry says receiving an award from:

…this specific group of people, and an award named for the Reverend [Nickle] who was revered in the first responder community in Ontario, and certainly from the largest group in Canada to do this work, was hugely gratifying and humbling.

But it was more than that: it was motivating. Writing The Legacy Letters, she said, “was very emotionally taxing…and at the end of last year I was like…maybe that was it and I’m done now.”

It was a decision she said she “felt good about,” until she received the award in February, and more people, many from the first responder community, began to reach out to her about their mental health challenges or PTSD diagnoses:

And I thought…there’s so much work left to be done and I’m not done yet…I still have more I’d like to say on behalf of people like this.

And so, she is hard at work  — “15 or 16 interviews in” by her own estimate — on her next book, which she hopes will appear either late next year or early in 2020. She remains, she says, “deeply, deeply” honored that so many people have been willing to share their stories with her:

[P]eople wonder well, why are they doing that? Why does the parent of the missing child go on television? Why does the firefighter tell us the story about his trauma? And 99% of the cases, of the many people I’ve interviewed, they do it to try to help other people. They do it so that other families don’t have to go through what they have gone through…And of course, if they’re the type of person that will run towards the fire while the rest of us are running away, here they are, off duty, still trying to help people…

 

 

 

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