It all started when C.J. was at the Mall of America for a media event. It happened to be the same day that Abigail and Brittany Hensel, conjoined twins, were out for a day of shopping. For those who don't know of the Hensel twins, here is a primer. The takeout: The family tries to maintain as normal a life as possible, but has done limited media appearances to help dispel some of the curiosity and explain how painful it is for the twins to be stared at or otherwise treated as a spectacle. The most cringe-worthy party of a documentary made about their lives is when a Spanish TV cameraman happens upon them and starts taping them without their permission.
So when C.J. spots the twins at MoA, what does she do? She stalks them then writes about it. Here is the part of the column that describes the embarrassing episode, in its entirety:
Just a day at the mallThe Guinness World Records guy wanted a gander at Minnesota's adult conjoined twins.
Guinness adjudication exec Danny Girton Jr. heard about them Sunday while he was at the Mall of America to declare that Duff Goldman, of Baltimore's Charm City Cakes and Food TV's "Ace of Cakes," had baked the world's biggest cupcake. Girton learned that Abigail and Brittany Hensel had walked by me and Todd Walker, one of my Fox 9 contributor pals.
"Now, there's something you don't see everyday," I remarked to Walker, returning to our previous conversation as the twins walked by Barnes & Noble. Seconds later, they came into view for Walker, who instantly became the personification of flappable: "Did I just see that? Did I just see what I saw?"
When Girton figured out what Walker was hyperventilating about, the Guinness guy wanted to see for himself. Walker agreed to take Girton to find them, and I tagged along.
Not long into the pursuit, my conscience told me: "You can't do this. This seems wrong." It's not as though I was seeking an interview or was going to be gauche enough to ask if I could videotape them. Since it was obvious they get gawked at enough, with many MOA shoppers barely able to contain themselves, I dropped out of the chase.
"Don't pretend you didn't partake in the pursuit," said Walker said. "We threw Duff, the Food Network stuff and Sandra Lee to the wind. You were terrible." He exaggerated but more fairly observed: "You just shrugged your shoulders and said, Yeah, well, as if somebody walked by wearing pink shoes on the wrong feet. You were quite funny, your cavalier attitude, about the whole thing."
It's called being accepting.
"Don't forget to write what you said when I called you later and asked if I had really seen [conjoined] twins."
I reminded Walker that we couldn't all be born cute, little blondes. Besides, I've seen Fancy Ray.
C.J. is at 612.332.TIPS or [email protected] More of her attitude can be seen on Fox 9 Thursday mornings.
Apparently, the father of the twins saw this odorous piece of writing and contacted C.J. After he made clear his disappointment, C.J. issued an apology in her column. But she clearly took a smartass approach and almost argues against the father in the course of saying sorry (emphasis added):
An apology to the twinsThrough their father, Mike Hensel, I apologized to Brittany and Abigail, the conjoined twins who live in rural Minnesota, for the item I wrote last week.
I regret that the item's intent -- the need to accept differences in people and not to follow them around in public, at a place such as the Mall of America -- was misconstrued by their family and friends. It did not occur to me they were uncomfortable with media attention. They have participated in lots of interviews. They've appeared on "TLC" and "Oprah." They've been written about in Newsweek, the UK's Telegraph and Daily Mail. In February, they appeared in the City Pages' blotter blog.
Let me clear something up, C.J. We did not contact the family when we wrote our item, so it should not be used as a club against Mr. Hensel. Secondly, do you not recognize the difference in tone between this from City Pages:
These two young women have remarkable spirit and their story should serve as an inspiration to anyone tempted to think his or her life is too challenging.
And this from your gossip column:
"You just shrugged your shoulders and said, Yeah, well, as if somebody walked by wearing pink shoes on the wrong feet. You were quite funny, your cavalier attitude, about the whole thing."
Which is why Strib editor Nancy Barnes rightly apologized in her column Sunday:
Last week, our gossip columnist, C.J., wrote an item regarding a set of conjoined twins, Abigail and Brittany Hensel, whose family has tried to enjoy as normal a life as possible. They want to live without everyone talking about them. In this instance, C.J. talked about spotting the pair and trying to follow them at the Mall of America and her internal debate with herself when she realized that was the wrong thing to do. We later learned that the article upset the family and the twins.
Now, C.J.'s column often ticks off its targets; it's part of the give and take of a gossip column. However, in this instance, we could have handled this better. Nobody on staff intended any harm, but in writing about this incident, we crossed over the line between covering gossip and being unintentionally hurtful to people in their private lives. This was a voyeuristic bit of writing that we should have kept out of the paper.
We did double harm by issuing an apology that, in part, suggested it was the family's fault for misunderstanding our intent. We fumbled our handling of this and I apologize to the family.
Hopefully, this post will not compound the problem by shedding even more attention on this unfortunate episode. If there is a moral to this story, it is this: If you see the Hensel twins in public, show some class and leave them alone.