Nigel Campbell's picture

Heated Debate Over Whether An Exposé Resulted In A Transgender Inventor's Suicide

A controversial investigative piece posted on Grantland on Jan. 15 has sparked a heated debate on journalistic responsibility and sensitivity to the transgender community and experience. 

Grantland reporter Caleb Hannan was initially intrigued by a "scientifically superior" gold golf club invented by Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt. His research into the golf club led to research into its inventor and that's when inconsistencies began to arise. 

Vanderbilt's claims that she'd attended MIT couldn't be verified. Her alleged work within the defense industry and on "top secret government projects" also proved to false. 

As it became clear that Vanderbilt's back story wasn't what she claimed it to be, Hannan dug further until he made a provocative discovery: namely that Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt had been born a man. 

It's important to note that Hannan says that with that particular revelation "a chill actually ran up my spine."

How Hannan chose to handle that discovery is the primary source of the ensuing intense debate. 

Slate's Josh Levin articulates his position extremely well, writing:

Section by section, Hannan lays out that Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt is not who she purports to be—that she didn’t go to MIT, and that she didn’t work in the defense industry. As part of that litany of shocking disclosures, Hannan also reveals that Dr. V—whom he never met in person—was born Stephen Krol. “Cliché or not, a chill actually ran up my spine,” he writes, explaining the sensation he felt upon deducing “that Essay Anne Vanderbilt was once a man.”

The fact that Dr. V once lived under a different name is not irrelevant to Hannan’s story—the name change complicated his quest to check up on our background, which I believe makes it fair game if handled sensitively. But presenting Dr. V’s gender identity as one in a series of lies and elisions was a careless editorial decision. Hannan makes no claim that her identity as a trans woman has any bearing on the golf club she invented or the scientific background she inflated. And yet it sent a chill up his spine. It’s this line that feels particularly inhumane. Dr. V is a con artist and a trans woman. Hannan, though, conflates those two facts, acting as though the latter has some relation to the former. It seems that, in his view, they both represent a form of deceit.

As Levin points out, even if Dr. Vanderbilt proved to be a con artist, her gender identity is separate from her decision to lie about her scientific and educational background. 

Hannan warned Vanderbilt that he planned to reveal that she'd been born a man by the name Stephen Krol; Levin writes:

​Hannan eventually sent Dr. V “an email trying to confirm what I had discovered.” The inventor got very angry, tried to get Hannan to sign a nondisclosure agreement, and wrote him a note saying that “his deportment is reminiscent to schoolyard bullies.” Not long after that, Hannan writes, he got a phone call informing him that Dr. V had committed suicide.

While it's unclear whether Hannan's planned "outing" of Dr. Vanderbilt as transgender led to her decision to commit suicide--she'd made a previous suicide attempt in 2008--it's clear that he could have handled that particular revelation with more care. 

As Hannan writes:

“What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself."

It doesn't appear--at least at the time of his essay's publication--that Hannan gets or fully understands the trans experience. (Gawker compiled many of the varying reactions on Twitter to that particular issue.)

Did he go too far in outing Dr. Vanderbilt as transgender? Could he have handled it in a more appropriate way?

Updated Monday 2:43 p.m. PST:

Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons responds to controversy over the piece. Read his full Letter From The Editor here.