The naked truth
Updated 10:00 AM ET, Fri March 31, 2017
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(CNN)Behind the double-mastectomy scars that run across her bare chest, she had a story to tell.
So late last April, Paulette Leaphart embarked on a 1,000-mile walk from her childhood hometown of Biloxi, Mississippi, to the halls of Congress in Washington.
And she did it topless.
The breast cancer survivor screamed for a cure and demanded better and more affordable health care. She wanted women without breasts to believe in their beauty and be proud of their strength. By showcasing and embracing her scars, she hoped to inspire others to do the same.
Her journey was bold, visual, moving. It offered a hero to admire and, given Paulette's audacious decision to walk shirtless in the face of strangers, a rich spectacle to witness. It spoke to African-American women, who face the highest breast cancer mortality rate. It inspired legions of survivors. And it spoke to many who'd lost someone to the disease.
It seemed a storyteller's dream. But reality would eventually intrude.
Documentary filmmakers were first to seize on Paulette's potential -- after she approached a producer who was out on a shoot, lifted up her shirt and said her story needed to be told. A stunning trailer for "Scar Story," in which the film crew would follow her entire walk, was released in late October 2015.
A Kickstarter campaign to help fund the film went up weeks before the walk began, attracting enthusiastic donors. Journalists flocked to Paulette, eager to tell her story. Even megastar Beyoncé took notice and featured Paulette in "Lemonade."
I saw the trailer on Facebook and, like so many others, was hooked. In a world hungry for heroes, whose stories of inspiration bring us light amid darkness, Paulette seemed to feed that craving. After making a few calls and learning she was walking with her 8-year-old daughter, no less, I hopped in my car, picked up my amateur photographer stepson, and headed to North Carolina to walk with her.
Some stories land on a journalist's plate like manna from heaven. They're perfect morsels you can't wait to share. Others arrive a mess of ingredients with no recipe to follow. This one started the first way and finished the other.
After walking with Paulette for a full day, I left with more questions than answers. No matter how much I hated to admit it, aspects of her story simply didn't add up. And the more I kept digging, the more inconsistencies I found: about her past and her cancer treatment, about how much she was actually walking, even about her motivations.
Part of me wanted to walk away -- from Paulette and the story. If even one woman's life was saved thanks to a conversation Paulette started, wasn't that enough? So what if our hero was flawed?
But then I thought about the thousands of people following Paulette on Facebook, all the journalists who covered her journey and the online video viewed more than 20 million times.
And I realized: This story wasn't just about Paulette. It's about our need to find -- and, for some of us, become -- heroes. It's about the unchecked storytelling and self-promotion that thrives on social media. It's about the disappointment we feel when reality jolts us awake from our reverie.