We think we know better, but a part in each of us wants to see the world unfold with the simple morality of a fairy tale. We’re at ease when situations and people can be divided into convenient dichotomies: good and evil; heroes and villains; victims and perpetrators. We acknowledge all the gray shadings but reach for the old rubric anyways, the dualisms, the choosing of sides.
Once upon a time, the story of Essay Anne Vanderbilt (aka Dr. V) seemed like a simple one. She was the mysterious founder of Yar Golf and the inventor of the Zero MOI Putter. Her putter was the subject of a breathless infomercial, but it had also attracted high praise from the rarefied (and one would presume knowledgeable) world of professional golf. For writer Caleb Hannan, the assignment was straightforward: find this inventor, talk to her and those who endorsed her, and find out if the club legitimately worked.
When Hannan first contacted Vanderbilt, she emphasized that she wanted him to focus on, “the science and not the scientist.” However, her grandiose pronouncements and penchant for self-promotion made that a difficult proposition. Vanderbilt said that she had helped build the stealth bomber, and was on the team that invented Bluetooth technology. She claimed to have come up with the idea for the Zero MOI Putter while working at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital.
Along the way, those claims and credentials would be irrefutably debunked. In his finished piece, Hannan also revealed that Dr. V was formerly a man, and in a sad coda, that she had committed suicide before the story was completed.
When the long-form story was first published on Grantland on Wednesday January 15, 2014, it received plaudits at first and a storm of criticism shortly thereafter. The site was accused of everything from having poor judgement, to being exploitative, to being transphobic. Hannan was redressed for “outing” Vanderbilt against her will in his piece and to one of her company’s investors, with some commentators suggesting he bore some responsibility for her suicide He also received numerous death threats.
Grantland Editor-in-Chief Bill Simmons delivered a mea culpa on January 22, offering apologies to those offended, defending Hannan, pouring some ashes over his head and those of the other editorial staffers, and generally promising to be more sensitive next time out. The site also posted an op-ed from fellow ESPN writer Christina Karhl, detailing problems with the writing from the standpoint of the transgendered community.
So now, here is the inflection point where you are supposed to choose. Whom do you side with? How do you apportion the blame? Vanderbilt was the one who fabricated a gossamer persona and back-story and invited the scrutiny that led to its disintegration; Hannan was the one who took a personal detail and made more hay out of it than he needed to. Vanderbilt clearly didn’t want her transgendered status to become public knowledge; when Hannan was faced with a subject revealed to be mostly artifice, the question then became, what is the truth? And while Vanderbilt’s past as a man comprised part of that truth, was it fair or just to reveal it?
While Hannan’s piece itself has some issues, it’s clear that he didn’t set out to be a Kitty Kelley style takedown artist. At the beginning, he seems like Fox Mulder of X-Files: wanting to believe. He is initially credulous about Vanderbilt’s fantastic claims. And when the discrepancies begin to appear he gives her opportunity to explain them. But when he finds out that Vanderbilt lived as Stephen Kroll for the first 50 years of her life, you can see the gears turning in his mind—here’s the hook: Dr. V was born a man. Because otherwise we’ve seen this story before—journalist meets eccentric fabulist, eccentric fabulist is undone by their lies and contradictions, end scene. The transgender angle kicks the “not what they appeared to be” storyline into overdrive.
Though I understand Hannan’s choices, I sympathize with Vanderbilt. I read Hannan’s piece after reading the post-mortems from Simmons and Karhl first and the advance knowledge of how everything ended puts a suffocating layer of dread over the article.
When I was a kid, our local community college used to hold bridge building competitions for elementary school students. Participants constructed miniature trestles out of packages of balsa wood and glue, and then they were tested beneath a pneumatic press to see how much weight they could hold before they crumpled and failed. And that is what reading Vanderbilt’s increasingly desperate and inchoate responses to Hannan reminded me of, the gradual buildup of this inexorable and crushing weight, the glue cracking, the wood splintering.
Clearly, it was a mistake for such a fragile person to weave together such an outlandish fantasy and then bring it into the public square, the world of golf pros, infomercials, and curious journalists, when one tug at any single thread could cause the whole tapestry to unravel. But as Hannan himself wondered, were her sins very great? In a country that still regards P.T. Barnum as more folk-hero than charlatan, and where overheated infomercial claims are de rigeur, was Dr. V guilty of anything more than simple puffery?
The more I seek answers, the more I find only dissonance. I understand the logic that led Vanderbilt to create her elaborate “Dr. V” mythos; I understand why Hannan destroyed it. The tragedy is that the whole thing wasn’t really needed. The “mad scientist” trope has its appeal, but just as irresistible is the idea of the “unlikely prodigy:” the savant who emerges from their garage or basement with a new product, computer program, or work of art that blows everyone away. A golf putter doesn’t need a comic book hero’s origin story.
In the end, the case of Dr. V is a tale with no winners, only losers. An inventor dead before her time, a writer burdened with a measure of infamy to live down, victims of happenstance as much as anything, two satellites drawn into each other’s orbit and set on a collision course.
The pain comes from knowing that so much of it was avoidable. Somewhere, in some happier alternate reality, there was a great article to be had. An inventor with limited knowledge of golf and club fabrication creates a revolutionarily different style of putter that attracts praise from pro golf’s upper echelons. How did she do it? What inspired her? Did it actually work as advertised? Those would have been the only questions Hannan would have needed. And the answers would have been compelling enough.