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March 7, 2017

Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author, Ron Suskind, keynoted the annual Kansas Autism Conference.

If Ron Suskind was writing this story, he would not begin by inserting the name of the speaker (his), the place where he spoke (the CoLab at Johnson County Community College) or the composition of the audience (journalism students).

Suskind, a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist, likes to inhabit the world of those he writes about. Telling a good story, he said, isn’t about the recitation of facts. It’s about a narrative – learning and sharing other people’s stories.

“If it’s not a narrative, we don’t remember it,” he said. “And that’s journalism. Tell the story. There’s nothing like it.”

‘Life, Animated’

Suskind talked to the 250 participants of the Kansas Autism Conference March 3 at JCCC to discuss the story of his son, Owen, a young man with autism.

Suskind’s book, “Life, Animated,” shares how Owen memorized Disney movies and used those scenes to communicate with the world.

A 2016 documentary of the same name intertwines home videos, family interviews and animated sequences to tell the Suskind family’s story.

It’s easy to see a reflection of “Life, Animated” in the advice Suskind gave to the 20 or so journalism students who gathered to hear him after the keynote.

The topic focus might have switched, but some similar themes emerged. Suskind said:

  • “In some stories in your life, you should be able to walk in the shoes of your character. You want to flow through your characters. Look how they see you…and how they see the world.”
  • “The great narratives show that the ‘them’ are ‘us.’
  • “Embrace complexity. Allow your characters to be as complex as you are.”

He referenced a scene from the documentary where he asked his son, through a puppet of Iago, “How does it feel to be you?”

A journalist’s job, he realized, was to ask that same question of his or her sources. When he greets an African-American man on the D.C. street corner with the highest drug rates of the metro, Suskind said, he again is searching for the answer to “How does it feel to be you?”

Starting fires

“I know it feels like a time of carnage in journalism, but people are still reading,” he said.

He compared journalists to “fire starters” who do the work of gathering the wood and beginning a bonfire others will seek out.

“That’s the model of journalism in this era,” Suskind said. “It’s amazing, the might you have right now.”

Unique opportunity

Mark Raduziner, professor and chair of the journalism and media communications department at JCCC, said he found Suskind’s talk both motivational and moving.

“Suskind’s appearance on campus gave journalism students an opportunity to hear from a Pulitzer winner who understands the power of craft, and we’re delighted he took time for students to hear of his experiences and ask questions,” Raduziner said.

For more information about the journalism and media communications department, visit online or contact Raduziner at 913-469-8500 ext. 3131.