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Matt Gallagher on "Cherry" and the Media's Flattening of Trauma
"It was clear during the research and interviews that no journalist or agent or go-between ever really applied a lick of scrutiny to this story."
Gallagher zeroed in on Walker’s “Cherry,” a best-selling novel recently adapted into a feature film about a kid turned soldier turned veteran turned addict turned bank robber. “Cherry” is a piece of autofiction — part truth, part fantasy — that Walker wrote following a wildly popular BuzzFeed story focused on his bank-robbing spree.
In his essay, Gallagher writes about how “Cherry”’s fictionalized structure has made it easy for Walker’s true crimes to become an abstraction. In turn, Gallagher remedies this problem, first by identifying the many non-fictitious elements of “Cherry,” then through asking tough questions about Walker’s behavior. Most compellingly, he examines the trauma of a bank teller Walker really robbed, Rosa Foster, who was pregnant during the stickup.
“All these pieces were out there, easy enough for me to find. I just put them together,” Gallagher told me. “It was clear during my research and interviews that no journalist or agent or go-between ever really applied a lick of scrutiny to this story, and that more than anything makes me think it's indicative of a larger concern in modern society.”
“Cherry” certainly offers a numb view of the world, one where threats of violence hold little power. Gallagher’s nuanced essay — which is really worth reading in full —elicited many thoughtful responses, but it also set off a bit of a firestorm on Twitter, and in corners of the the literary world. I recently spoke with Gallagher about his essay, and the criticism he faced. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Battle Borne: I guess I'd like to start off with how you came to this piece. It seems like you and Elliot Ackerman and some other vets had been informally discussing “Cherry.” When did you decide that you had something interesting to say publicly?
Matt Gallagher: So, “Cherry,” the book, came out in late 2018. There was a group email exchange. Elliot had reviewed it very positively for the Wall Street Journal. He shares a publisher with Walker, which I think is how he first encountered it.
I had read “Ranger Games,” which came out a year before. It’s also a non-fiction book about veteran bank robbers, and I thought it was really well done. But when “Cherry” came out, I was really focused on finishing my own novel, “Empire City.” So, I was really emotionally checked out from “the scene,” so to speak.
But then, somebody shared Brian Van Reet’s take on the dilemmas of “Cherry,”” which I thought was really sharp and really well done. Subsequently, someone forwarded that email from the Knopf [Publishing] editor that I write about in the piece. [The Knopf note falsely claimed that Walker never pointed a gun at Rosa Foster.] And I’ll admit it, that email just kind of got stuck in my craw. I just felt “there's something off here.”
Essentially, nobody wanted to take any kind of accountability. Here's this guy Walker, he’s taken accountability, he's in prison. But like nobody else involved in shepherding the story really had. They were talking about this story only as a product. They wanted to benefit from the similarities to real-life when it was beneficial, and then they wanted to distance themselves from it when, you know, these tricky ethical or legal questions came up.
Even so, I had sort of forgotten about “Cherry.” But then earlier this year, I saw a trailer for the movie. And so I returned to those questions and re-read the emails from the Knopf editor. And I just kept thinking about it. And I kept trying, I did, to quit thinking about it. I was not looking for another assignment. But it was just one of those things that kind of stuck in the back of my head, and I re-read the BuzzFeed piece [about Walker’s bankrobbing] that set all this off — it was before the book, before everything.
And that BuzzFeed article names the bank teller. And so I was like, “Okay, I’m going to make a deal with myself and scratch the itch. I'm gonna try to track her down.”
I was like 95-98 percent sure she'd signed a non-disclosure agreement and had gotten some kind of payment, which, you know, is never gonna make up for what happened to her. But at least it's something, right? We live in a capitalist society. That's one form of payment, and accountability.
This really wasn't the case of Woodward and Bernstein here. I tracked her down, emailed her and then called her the next day. As it turned out, I was the very first person in eight years who really bothered to reach out to the person mentioned in the first paragraph of that article. That's a really long-winded answer to your question. It was a messy journey getting to this article.
BB: One thing that that I really found fascinating in your piece was how much it focused on the gun, and the robbery — the action itself. Walker has sort of, like, backtracked on what he did and didn't do and what he did with the gun, and whether he wielded the gun at Foster.
It was really great to keep things focused there, because the gun is the threat. That's what makes Walker’s behavior so morally dubious. Did that really stick out to you when you first read the book? Or was it with the film where this threat of violence seemed flattened, or lacking context and heft?
MG: I think it really, really impacted me when I watch the film. The film opens and closes with that. And there’s this same language as the book, you know — “bank tellers don't take it personally.” It’s a really interesting way to kind of sanitize questions of culpability. Certainly, the federal government makes a really hard legal distinction with firearms, the heart of his sentencing came from two armed robberies.
And, you know, as somebody with subjective experience with this, I think I was positioned to make an ethical call and say that his behavior with the gun mattered.
He was high, he needed drugs. I get that. But that doesn't change the fact that she's a black woman. And that she was pregnant. I hope my piece forced readers to engage, and sit with it and ponder it, rather than kind of jumping over it. You know, so much of the press on this has done that, for over eight years now.
On a storytelling level, I wanted my piece to introduce folks to Rosa. I wanted to show she wasn't just kind of a hollow human being on the other end of the gun. She’s a real person with a real-life. A real family. And there were consequences to her from Walker’s behavior.
BB: Do you think that the sort of inattention “Cherry” pays to Rosa and other victims is indicative of larger problems in in media?
MG: [pause] I do. You know, I wanted the story of Nico Walker and “Cherry” to be a case study for kind of looking at the entertainment machine at large. And how it treats veterans, and violence, and guns.
And I will admit biases, that I'm sensitive to how we as veterans are depicted in American culture and society. A lot of folks are willing to believe this is a normal way to behave when we return home. I find that frustrating. And to Walker's credit, he's never claimed that. But, you know, the people who shepherded the story and the public certainly suggest that.
BB: Obviously, big-budget Hollywood films now are just filled with violence, and all sorts of weaponry. And obviously that explosion of violence in cinema over the last, I don't know, maybe 50 years, has seemed to lessen the severity of violence in the public eye.
And now, one gun in a film is like nothing. There's no real consequences or severity. Do you think there’s a way to properly re-contextualize a gun, or violence? To put it in the proper framing?
MG: Yeah. I think that's why this case study is so fascinating. Like, the easy out is to say “It's a movie. Come on. It is entertainment.” And there's some truth to that. I'm not trying to be Pollyanna about this. On the other hand, this story is heavily based on real events.
There’s a constant desire throughout the process of turning a real life event life to book to movie of wanting to have things both ways. And that's disingenuous. It's trying to blur the line between reality and entertainment for the very cynical reason that it will make money.
There was a more complicated way to do this. I think, you know, it's Walker story, his book, really. There's this point in my piece I quote from Walker’s lawyer, who in petitioning the court for a compassionate release, says, you know, “This is not a story about a bank robbery." And there's real truth to that. But “Cherry” has certainly been packaged, marketed and sold multiple times over as a story about armed bank robbery.
I wanted this to be a story about storytelling itself. And in my research I couldn’t find anyone who went on public record to acknowledge the weight of the story, except for the actor who played walker, Tom Holland. He realized that, “Hey, this was based on a real event and pointing a gun at somebody said has serious consequences.” And you can watch that. And he's not bullshitting. Maybe it's because he was the first person in all of this that actually had to physically act out what that looks like.
BB: Were you expecting blowback to this piece?
MG: I didn't know what to expect, I knew it would ruffle some feathers. There is kind of an unspoken code in books that, you know, you can gossip behind people's back, but you're not supposed to put names to it publicly. I thought in this case it was important to kind override that goofy code.
If you're going to write, why not try to write something pursuing honesty? I try to keep that in mind with my own work. And I'm sure I failed many times with that. But it is something I aspire for. And I think when writers are in the game too long, that erodes.
I don't do a lot of investigative journalism, I'm more of a fiction writer, a book reviewer. And so I guess I was surprised how quickly the story kind of became politicized. Some readers loved the piece and some readers who didn't like it put it through a very political prism. They came after me as a messenger, rather than reckoning with Rosa Foster, or reckoning with how some character in the story reminded them of themselves. So, should I have been surprised in 2021 that some people wanted to make this a political binary? No, but I was a fool. [Laughs]
BB: What did you find to be the most preposterous criticism of the piece? And was there anything said that you felt was leg itimate?
MG: Most preposterous that I saw came from a group of really far lefty socialist journalists who accused me and some of the people defending the piece as defending the Pentagon and defending the military-industrial complex. That we were targeting Walker because he’s a truth sayer.
Listen, it's totally fine for them to be completely unfamiliar with my work and my life. But I’ve never been accused of being a mouthpiece for the Pentagon before. Certainly, the Lieutenant Gallagher who got his blog crushed by the Pentagon [laughing] would find it hard to believe he was being accused of that. But, you know, perspective is a hell of a thing.
I think that there was a valid criticism that, at 7,000 words, it was too long. I really tried to shave it down. The first draft was 12,000 words. Writing is always a fight. And maybe it was a little too long. It's definitely something we grappled with, up until the very last minute. But as I told my editor, with a piece this complex with so many different parts I’d rather err on the long side than leave something out.
A journalist for The New Republic objected to my use of first person. That was something I considered and wrestled with myself. And actually, at first, I didn't want to do it. My editor talked me into it. And once it was there, I thought it was good idea. Because I'm not biased. I'm not somebody who doesn't have deeply vested principles and ideas and thoughts on this stuff, right?
After the story dropped, Walker also wasn't super pleased. But he was professional in a way that some of his people weren't. And, you know, I'll be eager to see what this next book is. Because, you know, for all the messiness of how the story came to be, the guy can write. And maybe that doesn't matter to some people, but it actually does matter to me.