‘The moment when life changes’: Harry Bruinius on finding the story (audio)

What makes a story, a story? For Harry Bruinius, the Monitor’s New York bureau chief, it’s the moment a person’s life changes. He has long brought this approach to his reporting, covering issues of religion, race, and even gun violence.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Harry Bruinius stands in front of a C-47 airplane at the Waterbury-Oxford Airport on May 16, 2019, in Oxford, Connecticut. The D-Day Squadron flew to Europe and deployed paratroopers over Normandy on June 6th to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion.

‘The moment when life changes’: Harry Bruinius

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I met Harry Bruinius 20 years ago, when the self-described divinity school refugee came to the Monitor to edit for a summer. He and I both learned what it meant to be a Monitor journalist at the same time, and from the same people: then-national editor Scott Armstrong, who used to read aloud snippets of Raymond Chandler and extoll the poetry of Seamus Heaney (there was something about hockey, but I blocked that part out); and the much-missed Cheryl Sullivan, who mentored junior writers without ever raising her voice and believed that everything, even “Star Wars,” came down to politics.

Since then we’ve both left (me to take care of relatives, him to write a book and open a business) and come back to the Monitor family. Being his editor the past five years has meant getting to think about things like what it means to forgive the unforgivable, and what it means to be trusted with someone’s story. It also means saying, “Harry, this one made me cry again.”

Harry, as you’ll hear, likes to follow the advice he was once given: “One of the best ways to begin a story is the moment when life changes for somebody.” Please take a few minutes to hear Harry’s story in his own words. (Then scroll down to find a few of his stories.)

Note: This audio story was designed to be heard. We strongly encourage you to experience it with your ears, but we understand that is not an option for everybody. You can find the audio player above. For those who are unable to listen, we have provided a transcript of the story below.


SAMANTHA LAINE PERFAS: What makes a story, a story? For Harry Bruinius, the Monitor’s religion writer and New York bureau chief, it’s the moment a person’s life changes. He has long brought this approach to his work reporting for the Monitor, covering issues of religion, race, and even gun violence. Yvonne Zipp, our Daily editor, speaks with Harry about the various stories he’s written in 2019.  

YVONNE ZIPP: Harry, you’ve been writing for the Monitor for about 20 years. Can you tell readers a little bit about your background?

HARRY BRUINIUS: Yeah, I actually came to New York about 20 years ago as well, and I was a refugee from academia and I was hoping to be a theologian and professor at the time. And, you know, I sort of bagged all that and came to New York to be a writer. And one of my first jobs when I made my first internship, in fact, was with Ron Scherer, who was the New York bureau chief at the time, 1999. And he kind of helped shape my Monitor voice and told me all a lot about what the Monitor was all about. And that kind of set the trajectory of the next 20 years of my life.

YVONNE: You have two very different beats. Can you talk a little bit about how you bring the Monitor lens to both of those?

HARRY: We often talk at the Monitor about how our journalism can help readers understand others who might be very different from them or to really dive into, you know, what makes people think the way they do. I live in Queens, which actually even might be the most culturally diverse place in human history. You know, there’s political beliefs of all sorts, religious beliefs of all sorts. And, you know, New York might be 80 percent Democrats, but over a half million people voted for Donald Trump in New York City. So, you know, we have a range of ideas and viewpoints here in the city. And for example, earlier this summer, I did a story about language diversity in Queens and actually how a lot of rare languages are dying. And one of the last places they’re spoken is in Queens, where there’s there’s over 600 languages spoken here. And it was interesting because the story ended up being about this cultural conflict or clash, you know, between a younger generation that wanted to preserve their cultural heritage and their parents. That kind of had a classic New York immigrant point of view in which they wanted their kids to become new Americans, focusing on English and more of the important languages in their own culture and some of the smaller languages or some of the more localized languages are dying out. And these kids wanted to show this effort to preserve these. And I thought that was it was really interesting.

YVONNE: Can you talk about how you began a story?

HARRY: Back when I was a journalism student, [I met] a nonfiction writer named James Stewart, who had won a Pulitzer Prize. He would always say the best place to begin a story is at the moment when a person’s life changes. So I kind of took that to heart. And so when I approach a story, I’m I’m always thinking in terms of altered states. I always kind of look for those kinds of metamorphoses and people: how they once were, what happened to them to make them change, and what the changes in their lives have meant moving forward. So it’s always kind of a general approach that I take in seeing, you know, not not conflict per se, but change and growth and development, you know, sometimes good, sometimes bad.

YVONNE: One example that comes to mind when you say that is a story you did earlier this year on how survivors of mass shootings heal. Then you and Patrik Jonsson, our southern bureau chief, worked on that together and that stories really stayed with me. Could you maybe talk a little bit about that?

HARRY: Yeah, it was an emotional experience reporting the story, talking to people who have endured moments that I couldn’t even begin to imagine and then to ask almost incredibly audacious questions like, “How have you grown in the aftermath of such a, you know, at times, horrifying ordeal?” I chose to begin with one of the trauma counselors and who was a specialist in these sorts of, these traumas that happened unexpectedly. During 9/11, he got in his car from Virginia Tech and drove to New York to volunteer as a trauma specialist. And he kind of said, ‘I don’t know, if that’s a good thing about me or a bad thing that I’m drawn to this. That I, that I want to be engaged with people at these moments.’ But one of the things that he was trying to get at was that it was through the resiliency of human beings, you know, in moments like these, that that he sort of discovered, you know, his own resiliency. And that really made a big impact on me. And later, I talked to one of the students at Virginia Tech shooting a woman named Kristina Anderson. And she was in a French class when the shooter came in, shot a couple of times, went out of the room and then came back again and shot her again. And she talked about how, you know, dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder changed her life and what she had to do to try to reclaim it. They call it post-traumatic growth. It’s sort of the the opposite of PTSD. And she was cautious in saying that, you know, ‘I don’t want to I don’t want to say that, you know, I’m growing through this per se.’ But then again, it changed her life in a way that made her different and more engaged with who she was. And she described how she grew in a way that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise. And talking to her was was was humbling and listening to her was trying to describe her altered state in a way that was both honoring to her experience and offering kind of a glimpse of hope. This phenomenon of growth that happens in moments like these, it was hard to wrap my own mind around it, reporting it. And I’m glad the story turned out well.

SAMANTHA: Thanks for listening. To see more of Harry’s coverage, you can visit csmonitor.com. This story was produced by me, Samantha Laine Perfas with sound design by Noel Flatt. Copyright The Christian Science Monitor, 2019. 

Related links: 

After a mass shooting, what does healing look like?

It’s a question we were almost afraid to ask: What does healing look like to survivors of mass shootings? But people’s generosity in sharing their lives with Harry and fellow staff writer Patrik Jonsson was humbling. 

Why Queens is the ‘Noah’s Ark of languages’

To save the world’s rarest languages, you have to travel – in this case, hop a train to Queens. The New York City borough is a modern Babel, with more languages spoken than perhaps any place in history.

‘My first mission was Normandy’: World War II pilots recall role in history (video)

A 75th-anniversary reenactment of D-Day was about more than getting to fly in cool planes (although Harry got to do that, too). It’s about “why we live free, and the sacrifices that were made, and the incredible examples of what we can accomplish as a country when we all come together,” one pilot told Harry.

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