“My Family’s Slave,” by Alex Tizon, which appeared on the cover of last year’s June issue of The Atlantic, was the most-read piece of 2017. Alex told the story of Eudocia Pulido—whom he called “Lola”—the woman who worked for his family for most of her life, living, essentially, as a slave. In a powerful essay that went on to win a National Magazine Award, Alex describes his relationship with Lola, and how he reckoned with what his family did to her, shining a glaring light on the phenomenon of modern-day slavery.
A few weeks before the story went to press, Alex passed away unexpectedly. I talked to Denise Wills, who edited “My Family’s Slave,” about how she developed the story with Alex and shepherded it through to publication after he died. Take the time to read the story, if you haven’t. We’re very proud to have published it.
“A portrait of a woman whose life I am still trying to fathom.”
Caroline Kitchener: When did Alex first come to you with this story?
Denise Wills: In the spring of 2016, after we published Alex’s first story in The Atlantic, he sent me an email with about five story ideas. One of them was about Eudocia Pulido—“Lola”—who he described as his family’s slave. He wrote, “There are many, many Lolas in the world. This would be a personal story, an intimate glimpse of modern-day slavery, and a portrait of a woman whose life I am still trying to fathom.” That jumped out at me.
Caroline: When you got the first draft of Alex’s story, what were your impressions?
Denise: This was clearly a story he’d wanted to write for a long time. His wife later told me that he’d been struggling for years and years to tell it. In the first draft, that was really clear. There were a lot of holes in the story—I think because it was so hard for him to write. He focused on things that weren’t really relevant, describing, at length, the scenery in the Philippines, or the driver who took him from the airport to visit Eudocia’s relatives. And he didn’t go as deep as he needed to go into exactly what his family had done to Eudocia, and how that made him feel, and the rift that caused between him and his mother. I wanted to know more about what Eudocia was like, and what she meant to him as a caregiver.
Caroline: How did you draw those parts out?
Denise: It took many rounds of back and forth. I would ask questions in places where I thought something was missing. And then he would write, usually more than we needed, and I would trim it back and ask other questions. We kept tossing drafts back and forth—for months. It’s hard to have perspective on your own life. I think that was what he struggled with the most—just trying to make sense of it all when he grew up in it. There were limits to how he could see the story, and how he could understand it.
Caroline: In the drafting process, were there breakthrough moments? Were there points when you stepped back and said, “Yes! This is exactly what he’s been trying to say?”
Denise: Definitely. Mostly, those were moments when he added detail. In the first draft, he wrote that his family treated Eudocia like a slave—that she worked from dawn until late at night. But it wasn’t really clear what he meant by that. Then he described how she often would fall asleep in a pile of laundry, in the middle of folding a garment. Another example: Initially, I could sort of tell that Alex thought of Eudocia as a mother figure, but that wasn’t really coming through. He added a detail about how, once, when he was sick and unable to chew his own food, Eudocia chewed the food for him and then fed it to him. Those moments, those details, were stunning.
Caroline: The piece published in our May issue; Alex passed away suddenly in March. How did you find out?
Denise: The week Alex died, Jeffrey Goldberg, our editor in chief, read Alex’s piece for the first time, and immediately saw how powerful it was. I emailed Alex to tell him that. Then Jeff decided to make it the cover story, and I emailed Alex to tell him that, too. I didn’t hear back. After a couple of days, I was starting to worry about him. Friday night, I was at home, watching a movie with my daughter, when I searched his name on Twitter. The news had just been reported that he had died. I don’t know if he ever saw my email saying that Jeff loved the essay. I don’t know if he ever saw my email saying that it would be the cover story.
I called his wife the next day. She told me she was really glad I called. She’d been thinking about the story because she knew how important it was to Alex, and it was important to her that we publish it. She said that she and Alex’s siblings would do whatever they could to help us finish the piece.
Caroline: What was it like to finish the story without Alex?
Denise: We made very few changes after Alex died. I just didn’t want to risk changing the piece in a way that wouldn’t reflect what he thought or believed. His family helped us get the piece through the fact-checking process, and they provided many of the pictures that we used. I think it was really meaningful to them to see the piece come out, not only because it was Alex’s last story, but because they had lived through this, too. They cared about Eudocia, and telling the truth about who she was and what their parents had done.
Caroline: The piece comes out, and it is unbelievably huge. It blows up the internet. How did that make you feel?
Denise: When you work on a piece for so long, you can lose perspective on how it will affect a reader coming into it totally cold. But I did have a sense that this story was special. One of the proofreaders said she had trouble proofing it because she was crying so much. No one has ever said that before.
That said, I don’t think anybody here anticipated just how big the story would be. We were worried that it was going to get lost in the week’s news about Trump. (Now I don’t even remember what that news was.) But the morning we published, I remember seeing the traffic go up and up and up. A friend who knew I’d worked on the story called to tell me it was trending on Twitter, which seemed pretty crazy.
Caroline: The piece received an incredible amount of praise, but also some backlash. There were people who criticized Alex, and the decisions he had made. With Alex gone, how did you respond to that?
Denise: It was tough because people were criticizing him in a very personal way. I think they felt like they knew him because the piece was so personal. Had he been alive, I think he would have relished that conversation and wanted to jump into it, but he wasn’t here, so he wasn’t able to answer readers’ questions. Melissa, his wife, did eventually do some interviews herself, and she did a really good job of explaining how Alex felt about all of this.
Many of the critics were upset about things they felt Alex should have been able to see about his own life, and couldn’t. But I think we’re all a product of the families we’re raised in—a product of our circumstances. None of us can see our own lives perfectly clearly, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
Caroline: In the editor’s note that Jeff wrote to accompany the piece, he said this was the story Alex had been waiting his whole life to write. Why do you think this story meant so much to Alex?
Denise: I saw Alex as a person who was trying to account for what his family had done—not excuse it. The fact that he chose to use the word “slave” was, to me, evidence that he wasn’t trying to cover up the brutal reality of what his family had done. I don’t think he was seeking absolution. I think he was trying to honor the memory of someone he loved. I think he was trying to shine a light on the problem of modern-day human trafficking. I think he was trying to confess his family’s treatment of Lola and, to a certain extent, admit his own role in that.
Caroline: Earlier this month, “My Family’s Slave” won the National Magazine Award for best essay. What was it like to see the piece win?
Denise: It was a wonderful tribute to Alex, and a great affirmation of what we did with this piece—what he did, and what I tried to help him do. I was thrilled, but I also felt sad that he wasn’t there. This story felt important while Alex was alive, and then, after he passed away, all the more so. We’re lucky when we do something professionally that we feel matters in some way. This piece was that for me.
Today’s Wrap Up
Question of the Day: Did this story lead you to reflect on anything in your own family’s history?
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