Restoring the humanity of Tacoma’s ‘drunk teacher’

Newspapers from New York to London blared headlines of her downfall. Klara Bowman, an elementary school teacher in Tacoma, Washington, had been fired for drinking in the classroom.

It was a story almost tailor-made to go viral. As the news broke this past March, readers gobbled up the salacious details: how her blood-alcohol level was maxed out, how her coffee mug reeked of booze, how she stumbled into a wall as she was escorted away.

But journalist Matt Driscoll was wary of the mounting attention. Growing up, he witnessed how alcoholism ravaged his father and wrecked their family life. He had come to understand alcohol addiction as a disease, not some kind of “comic personal failing.”

Driscoll drew on those personal experiences to denounce the media frenzy, in his column for The News Tribune in Tacoma. He admits Bowman’s story had news value for the local community, but he questions the motivation behind its spread online.  

“I never saw anyone talk to an addiction specialist or seek to put this struggle into some sort of larger, broader context other than simply, ‘Drunk teacher is really drunk at school: Gets fired,'” Driscoll said. “You kind of forget that there’s a human being behind that headline.”

Three months after her firing, Bowman took her own life. She was 33 years old. The news hit Driscoll “like a punch in the gut.” Though he had never met Bowman, he set out to restore some of the humanity he felt was lost in her story.

What he came up with was a nearly 3,000-word follow-up feature detailing Bowman’s struggles with alcoholism — and with the public shaming she endured after her firing.

His reporting started right after Bowman’s death, when he began to receive phone calls from her friends and former colleagues. They were so moved by the compassion he showed in his previous column that they wanted to share the tragic news with him.

“I’m not trying to pat myself on the back or anything, but I was probably the only media person to show any sort of empathy in the original coverage,” Driscoll said.

Some of the callers encouraged Driscoll to pursue the story, and they gave him personal insight into Bowman’s life. But gathering all the details he needed would ultimately take months. Driscoll remembers contacting Bowman’s parents in late July, and it was only at the end of August that they agreed to meet. With their help, Driscoll pieced together a more complex narrative: of a woman who turned to alcohol to cope with her younger sister’s death.

Cancer claimed Brita Bowman at age 10, and Klara Bowman, who was only four years older at the time, turned to alcohol on the first anniversary of her passing. It was the start of a pattern, as Driscoll reported. The two times Bowman was discovered drunk as a teacher coincided with the time of year when her little sister died.

Driscoll’s feature was published on October 15, and since then, his in-depth approach to Bowman’s life has garnered him widespread praise. Driscoll was a featured guest on the Canadian radio show Day 6, as well as on his local public radio station KUOW.

All the attention has left Driscoll feeling hopeful about the future of media, beyond the lure of click-bait. “It speaks to the fact that there is a desire for more nuanced takes and more thoughtful reporting,” he said.

Images & Voices of Hope spoke with Driscoll by telephone, about how he came to tell Bowman’s story. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Allison Griner: What was your reaction to finding out about Klara Bowman’s suicide?

Matt Driscoll: When she had taken her own life, my initial reaction was like, ‘Whoa.’ I assume that the coverage didn’t help, and then I dug into it and learned that she was in the process of changing her name. It was a cloud that was hanging over her, with the Google results and the infamy that came from that very low moment.

We can’t say for certain that it directly led to her suicide. I want to be clear about that. But it obviously didn’t help, and it was weighing on her.

Griner: What were the factors you weighed when you started to pursue your feature story?

Driscoll: I waited for what seemed like a while in the news business, before reaching out to the family. But once I was kind of sitting on their couch, I realized it had only been a few months. It hadn’t been that long.

That speaks to how brave Tom and Robin were to share their story with me. Basically I reached out via email. I just explained that I thought there was a story there that was important to tell about their daughter, and that I wasn’t going to write anything not only without their permission but without their involvement.

So I said, ‘I understand what you’ve been through, and this is the only time you’re going to hear from me, so if you don’t respond, I totally understand. I’m sorry for your loss.’ Just like that. So I sent that, and I waited. They didn’t get back to me very quickly, and I assumed they didn’t want anything to do with further media coverage.

Then one day, Robin wrote back and said they’d be willing to talk. And then there was some conversation about how that would all play out. I told them I actually wanted to come to Spokane and meet with them in person, and there was a little hesitation about that. It was really a delicate thing. When you’re doing something like this, you don’t want to pressure them into something they’re not comfortable with, because they’ve already been through so much.

But they agreed and had me over. And we met over the course of a couple of days. Now I have a pretty solid relationship with Robin. We still email. It was really important to build that relationship of trust.

Griner: How can the media break this culture of treating drug and alcohol addiction as a ‘comic personal failing,’ as you write?

Driscoll: That’s a tough one to answer. I think it’s all about providing full context. It’s about trying to avoid the temptation to pounce and pounce quickly on the sordid details.

With a lot of the coverage, there is this kind of circular effect. We know how people typically react to these sorts of things and what sort of spreads typically online, so as the media, we’re tempted to give that to them, because it gives us our page-view quota or whatever. Or it gives us the clicks.

It’s not like it would have taken that much longer to do the story right in the first place. The media, as this kind of umbrella category, could have just made a call to her parents or learned a little bit more about her struggle or talked to an addiction specialist and learned a little bit more about the way this disease manifests in general.

That wouldn’t have taken that much longer, but I just think there’s this tendency to say, ‘Oh, we’ve got something here because we’ve got a kindergarten teacher, and she was drunk in class, and there are public records saying she was walking into a wall, and people are going to eat this up so let’s give it to them.’

I think we have to resist that urge a little bit and think just a little bit harder about what the real story is, and try to provide that. Whether that’s always going to compete with the viral story, I don’t know the answer to that, but I think just being more thoughtful in that approach will go a long way.

Griner: I imagine there are some people out there who believe that Klara Bowman probably deserved the negative attention she received.

Driscoll: Yes, I’ve heard from a few of them. Not many, but I have heard from a few.

Griner: How do you respond to that?

Driscoll: Well, you can’t change everybody’s opinion. How I respond to that is by writing the stories behind people’s struggles. That’s how people are moved to reevaluate these things.

I totally understand some of that reaction, especially if you’re a parent here in the Tacoma school district. I get the initial anger over what happened. While was in the midst of her disease and was battling it, she made some truly terrible decisions that potentially put kindergarteners at risk.

So I understand the angry reaction from that point of view. But the broader, societal reaction of ‘Oh, she made the decision to drink, and she’s getting what she deserved’ — I don’t get that as much, just because I have an understanding of the way alcohol addiction as a disease works.

So I guess my reaction to that reaction is to tell the human story behind things like this and hope it resonates. Just getting preachy doesn’t seem to do too much. But when people see the human stories behind these headlines, that is what makes them stop and think, at least hopefully.

Griner: What’s happened since the publication of your story? Has anything changed for you or Klara Bowman’s family?

Driscoll: Tom and Robin, they’re people of faith. I think part of their motivation in talking with me was the firm belief that Klara’s legacy could help people after this tragedy, after her death. I would hope that’s been the case.

For me personally, the reaction to this story has been completely overwhelming. Hundreds of emails. I’m sitting here talking to you, and I’ve done other interviews. I’m just a columnist here in Tacoma, Washington. I do three columns a week, so this is not a typical reaction to something I would write. I have heard from so many people. A lot of them have written about the ways that the story has changed their perspective on alcoholism or addiction or being quick to judge.

I know Tom and Robin, they’re still very much dealing with the loss of their daughter and will always be. But there is the hope that telling the story will have an impact, and based on the reaction I’ve seen, I think that’s the case.

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