In 2017, a writer came to Stanford with her book project in hand, next to no connections on campus and a thirst for deeper insights into topics at the heart of her would-be bestseller. A year later, that writer is touring the country, confronting people with difficult ethical questions raised in her now-published work about the political divide that is ripping the nation apart.
"What does it mean for rural Americans to have paid for urban Americans' energy appetites for more than a century, and how does that feed, ethically, into the political divide we see in our country today?" said author Eliza Griswold, who returned to Stanford in early October to discuss her latest book, "Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America."
The book humanizes the devastating effects of the natural-gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing — commonly called "fracking" — by focusing on the most intimate and anguishing details of a poor family in southwestern Pennsylvania: from the $600-a-week salary of the book's protagonist, to the emaciation of her sickly son due to their toxic surroundings.
The son is Harley Haney, and he holed himself up in the unfinished basement of the family's hovel throughout his illness. His plight mirrored the allegory told by the late sci-fi novelist Usula Le Guin in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." In short, a utopian city called Omelas basks in carefree decadence that somehow rests on the suffering of a single child locked in a dark and dingy basement.
Griswold did not know this disturbing story when she came to Stanford as part of a writer's workshop run by the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society. But Benoît Monin did. Monin, a professor of business leadership and psychology affiliated with the Ethics Center, shares the story with his students to illustrate the theory of utilitarianism, which states that actions are justified if they benefit the greatest number of people.
In Omelas, every resident is taken down to see the suffering child at some point, and is given the choice of staying in the euphoric town and suppressing the secret or leaving in disapproval. Few walk away.
Monin, after reading Griswold's manuscript while she was at Stanford last year for the workshop, told her how Harley was essentially the suffering child under Omelas. And ever since then, Griswold credits Monin for connecting her story to a work of such deep, ethical inquiry.
That is exactly the point of the writer's workshop: to help authors hone book projects that address ethical issues in public life by inviting them to Stanford and gathering scholars with relevant expertise from across the university to provide feedback that adds depth and rigor to their work.
Besides Monin, Griswold benefited from the perspective of Stanford Law Professor Michelle Anderson, who studies state and local government laws, especially in regions of concentrated poverty.
"One of the marks of a good book is that you can remember where you were when you read it, and how you carried it around to all the things you had to do," Anderson said. "The manuscript for this book was something that I schlepped around, read on trains, waiting for trains. And I felt, for a while, that I was part of another family's life and another family's experience."
Griswold also shared her manuscript with experts at Stanford Earth who study energy production and how such activities affect global warming and health. Griswold is an award-winning journalist and readily admits that her job is to find and present the views of experts, not be one. In that sense, the writer's workshop was the perfect opportunity to help bring her book to fruition.
During her talk at the Stanford Humanities Center, Griswold explained how the workshop allowed her to unpack uncomfortable questions she couldn't yet answer. She said she couldn't think of another program that deepens the process of journalism like the writer's workshop did for her.
"It's transformative," Griswold said of the experience. "I found so much of what different people brought to the table extraordinarily valuable."
In addition to Griswold, the Ethics Center brought independent journalist Adrian Nicole LeBlanc to Stanford in 2018 to work on her manuscript on American masculinity as told through the world of standup comedy. For the workshop's inaugural year, the center hosted acclaimed New Yorker writer Phillip Gourevitch to campus in 2016 to work on his manuscript revisiting Rwanda two decades after the genocide there.
Griswold's manuscript is the first one to have gone through the workshop program and be published. But the center expects more to come.