I have long been acquainted with the term “going viral.” But I didn’t realize the incubation period could last so long.
On Sept. 9, I wrote a column about a local woman who discovered, after her husband died, that he was also her father.
Suddenly, 10 days later, I started getting phone calls from all over the planet.
Oprah’s people called. So did Anderson Cooper’s.
It all began when Valerie Spruill, a 60-year-old Goodyear retiree, phoned me and said she had a “60-year-old family secret” she wanted to share.
I initially put her off because she wouldn’t provide any details. What kind of “family secret” could possibly interest mainstream readers?
But the Doylestown resident was persistent, and in subsequent calls she sounded rational and genuine. At one point she mentioned a connection to James Barbuto, which intrigued me, because Barbuto was the central figure in the biggest scandal in Summit County history.
When we finally met in person, Spruill unloaded her bombshell.
During 28 years at the Beacon Journal, I have been told plenty of odd things. This was the oddest.
Spruill said she was certain of the relationship because, after an uncle told her about it, she paid for a DNA test.
She said she came to me because she wanted to inspire others who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in horrendous family situations. She wanted to show them they could still lead good, productive, fulfilling lives, as she has.
She also believed that the truth would set her free.
Spruill is deeply religious, which, along with therapy, has enabled her to deal with the psychological sucker punch.
Immediately after the column was published, I got plenty of local feedback. But 10 days later, the lid blew off.
A link to the column appeared on one of the national blogs — I believe Gawker was the first — and it spread faster than a case of the sniffles in a kindergarten class.
Soon it appeared in the Huffington Post. Before the day was over, the story went global.
By 2 p.m. that same day, Googling this once-obscure woman’s name produced 1,200 hits. Two hours later, the count was up to 3,070.
By Friday afternoon, plugging in “Valerie Spruill” returned 10,400 different entries.
One of the earliest hits was the website for a Brazilian publication that reproduced my column in Portuguese (and also lifted our copyrighted photo of Spruill without permission).
My voice mail and email went bananas. Everybody wanted one thing: Valerie Spruill’s phone number.
I told all of them I would not share her number unless she gave me permission. In many cases, she did.
Plenty of the callers worked for tabloids that were salivating over the prospect of a “freak show.” Three different people from the Daily Mail, based in Britain, called or emailed, pleading for her number.
A fourth person from the Mail who did not contact me rewrote my column for their publication. Well, “rewrote” is a stretch. I counted seven sentences in “her” story that were lifted word-for-word from my column.
I don’t know what they call that in England, but over here we refer to it as “plagiarism.”
The Huffington Post posted a video in which a woman narrated the story, showing footage of my column. She credited the Beacon Journal for initiating the story, but later in the video displayed quotes attributed to Gawker and the Daily Mail — neither of which talked to Spruill. Their quotes were lifted directly from the ABJ.
After I sent the Huff Post an email about it, the video was reworked — this time removing Gawker and the Daily Mail but inexplicably giving partial credit to the International Business Times, which hadn’t talked to her, either.
A caller who said she freelances for the British magazine Closer offered to pay me for Spruill’s contact information. When I told her we simply don’t operate that way, she expressed shock.
Closer, by the way, is the same publishing company whose licensee in France was raided for publishing the topless photos of Kate Middleton.
But many legitimate news organizations were fascinated as well. CNN’s national assignment editor called. So did a producer for the Discovery Channel. A news agency in Sweden wanted to syndicate the story and photo (we’re already syndicated through McClatchy Newspapers). NBC Universal wanted Spruill to guest on a new talk show.
I heard from a slew of others, including the Times of London, Essence magazine and radio stations from Manhattan to Seattle.
One of Spruill’s distant cousins called, saying he had met her only once and wanted to get back in touch. Still astounded by the entire concept, I asked whether he had any doubt whatsoever that her assertion was true. He said that, given his knowledge of the family, he did not.
Feedback from regular folks was massive, and almost universally positive.
“God bless Valerie,” wrote one woman. “She is a beautiful person. We’re only as sick as the secrets we keep. She’s innocent and free.”
Said another: “An inspirational story. To forgive imperfect parents and forge ahead to live an exemplary life is a great challenge, but it can be done.”
Many among the dozens and dozens who wrote and called said Spruill’s story enabled them to get a better grip on their own trying circumstances.
“I am so deeply touched by [her] story,” wrote one. “Valerie’s story diminishes my story that I’ve struggled with for many years. My heart goes out to Valerie and yet I rejoice in her strength. This story brings me closer to my healing.”
That is exactly the type of impact Spruill had in mind.
And her impact may be just beginning. Anybody want to bet against this becoming a movie?
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.