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Confessions of a Reluctant War Reporter

Written by Siobhan DarrowAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Siobhan Darrow

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On Sale: February 16, 2011
Pages: 208 | ISBN: 978-0-307-77392-0
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Former star correspondent for CNN, Siobhan Darrow covered the world’s hottest war zones over the last two decades, reporting from the front lines in Moscow, Chechnya, the Balkans, Albania, Israel, and Northern Ireland. Her fearless pursuit of stories placed her in countless life-threatening situations, prompting Darrow to wonder what about her character so attracted her to adrenaline, and so alienated her from the family life a part of her longed for. Darrow approaches this question with the same honesty–and seat-of-the-pants courage–that established her reputation as a premiere reporter, and the answers she arrives at form this riveting memoir of a woman assigned to cover history in the making, even as she chases down the most elusive “get” of all: her own happiness.

Excerpt

1

Animal Sanctuary

Joy usually entered our house on four legs, sometimes on two webbed feet or a pair of wings. When I was growing up, no matter how little money we had, there always seemed to be enough to feed another tiny amphibian, canine, or feline mouth. My mother loved animals, and I think having them around helped keep her sane. There was Lion Face, the big orange tomcat who fathered innumerable kittens. There were the African frogs, who accidentally froze on the windowsill one sudden winter's day, their limbs captured midstroke, trapped in an icy grave. And there were the gerbils I won at school by guessing how many beans were in a jar. My cat ate them and left their carcasses on my pillow--her pillow. Perhaps it was an innocent offering, or maybe a warning not to betray her with other animals. I accepted the violence in my animal world. It had rumbled around my human world ever since I can remember.

I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I lived with my grandparents, my older sister, Alexandra, and my mother during one of our many separations from my American father. My grandfather always sat in his wheelchair by the fireplace; one of his legs had been shot off in the First World War. In our bedroom, an old grenade lay on the mantel piece, a daily reminder of the danger lurking outside. The "Troubles," as people in Northern Ireland called their bloodshed, were still brewing but had not fully erupted yet. It was 1963. When we crossed the ocean to America, turmoil came with us and took root in our home in New Jersey. I found sanctuary with the animals.

When we got a dark Siamese cat, my mother said I could name her. I was paralyzed with indecision. "How about Lap Sang or Soo Chong?" my mother offered, referring to the names of Oriental teas. I was too excited to choose, so we combined them into Lap Sue. I hoped that since I had named her, she would be mine. As it turned out, nobody else could stand her. She could be vicious, clawing and scratching anyone who went near her, but I loved her. I tried to stay on her good side, giving her my pillow each night, and when her long feline limbs sprawled across it as if it were her throne, I craned and twisted my neck to the side so as not to disturb her. Once Lap Sue savaged the leg of a visiting child so badly the girl needed stitches, and I was terrified her mother would demand the cat be put to death and I would lose her. My mother defended Lap Sue valiantly. I wished that she would defend me the same way. When my mother had something to express to me, she directed it at Lap Sue. In our house, humans were discouraged from showing emotions. Instead, we learned to show our feelings with the animals.

I relied on Lap Sue. She purred so loudly that when I curled up and laid my head against the soft fur of her belly, her inner motor drowned out the yelling. It would start when my father came home. It was usually late and we would be in our bunk beds. Alexandra was on the bottom; Lap Sue and I were on the top. I'd stroke her silky body and stare into her pale blue eyes. She'd stare back, half squinting, her eyes reassuring me. I would lie quietly, my body tensed, hearing but not wanting to hear, knowing I had to listen to make sure nothing bad happened, to make sure my mother was OK. I would creep out of bed and crack open the door. "Go back to your room," she'd say. "I'm fine."

One of my clearest early memories is of a summer's day when a whale washed ashore at the beach. It was my first contact with the world that would one day dominate my life: television. I was six, Alexandra was seven, and our baby sister, Francesca, was two. We were in Kennebunkport, Maine. It was a treat to trade New Jersey's sweltering summer heat for the cooler New England beach. Even rarer, we were all together, a mother and father and three little girls with sand pails and bathing suits, staying in a motel room with a kitchenette, on a real family vacation. Some nights we got to eat dinner out, with the thrill of grilled cheese and French fries, which we never had at home. Other nights my mother cooked fresh seafood, including lobsters. We made friends with the crustaceans en route from the fish market, and when they were lowered into their liquid graves, the cauldron of boiling water on the stove, it broke our hearts. During the days, we frolicked in the giant waves of the Atlantic. My parents were born on either side of this ocean, and by now the gulf between them had grown as wide and as deep. The beach was my father's domain; my mother's fair skin kept her out of the sun, so it was my father who played with us by the sea. Out in the waves, he held us tight so we wouldn't go under. We squealed in delight.

One morning the tranquil scene was spoiled. Surrounded by a gathering crowd, an enormous gray blob was lying on the beach. At first I could not figure out what it was. I had never seen anything like it. It was giant and smelled sickly, choking the freshness of the sea air. A moat of gooey oil streaked with blood surrounded it. Finally I understood that it was a baby whale that had been hit by a boat, its big blubbery corpse now washed up on the beach. Soon a local TV reporter arrived. It was the first time I had ever seen a TV camera. The crew filmed the giant ocean casualty and then turned their camera on me. Now I realize what a perfect television image it was, a small girl weeping at the sight of this huge, wasteful death. Later, viewing the world's pain through a TV lens became my way of life.

My mother was Scots-Irish, from a well-to-do Protestant family in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the daughter of a barrister with a houseful of servants. My father was the son of an overbearing immigrant Jewish mother who landed in New Jersey and burdened her children with all the pain and paranoia of the small Russian village she grew up in. When my parents met at medical school in Belfast, their romance spoiled each other's plans to be a doctor. Years later I came to see what an act of rebellion their union was for each of them. For my father, my mother's proper British ways were a distinct step outside the insular family life of Jewish immigrants whose ambition--to turn their son into a doctor--was more important than love or happiness. For my mother, befriending a clever and charming American was an escape from the cloistered life of postwar Northern Ireland. They married quickly, and Alexandra and I were born within a couple of years. My mother quit medical school to take care of us. My father was unable to finish either, and was reduced to taking odd jobs.

By the time we moved to America in 1964, there was already tumult in my parents' domestic life. My father had been so afraid of his domineering family that he could not bring himself to tell his own mother that he had married a non-Jew. He didn't tell her that he was married at all, or that her first grandchildren had been born. When he went home to New Jersey, ahead of us, he still did not tell his family. No doubt he was afraid that his mother would blame his failure at medical school on this Protestant woman, this shiksa who had lured him into marriage.

When my mother, Alexandra, and I arrived by ship, he met us at the pier. But there was no home to go to. For a while we lived like vagabonds, traipsing from the house of one acquaintance to the next. Once he finally confessed to our existence, my father's mother and sister refused to see us. They wielded enough emotional power over him to make him unwilling or unable to stand up to them, and he often went to see them by himself.

Although I never really got to know him, relatives told me later that my father was a highly intelligent and emotional man who had trouble holding a job for long. Most of what money he did earn went to his mother, so deep was his guilt about marrying outside the tribe. As a result, his wife was essentially stranded in a foreign land with small children she could barely feed. As we grew up, we lived a half hour away from my grandmother, but she still would not see us, her only grandchildren.

Uncle Leon, my father's unmarried older brother, was the only member of his family who broke ranks and came to visit. He had no wife or children of his own and lived with my grandmother, so we were the closest he ever got to a taste of family life. He probably braved a lot of wrath from his mother by coming to see us, but he came anyway. He was the only connection I had to my father's family.

As a child, I worshiped my mother. She was beautiful, strong, and regal, despite the decidedly unregal circumstances in which we often lived. She held her head high in a town where people were generally judged by their income. Perhaps she was spared harsh judgment because she was an outsider and appeared sophisticated even while lugging our dirty clothes to the Laundromat or paying for our groceries with food stamps. I knew how badly we needed the government-sponsored food aid, but I was embarrassed when she pulled out the blue-and-green booklet while we were standing in the supermarket line, wishing she would take them out at the last minute so nobody but the checkout person would see. With this shame, I often weighed whether or not to go to the supermarket with her, but my desire to be with her usually won out. She was devoted to us, and we to her. She worked three jobs to pay for our ballet classes and my oboe lessons. After all she sacrificed, I was terrified of failing her by bringing home a bad report card. She was a firm disciplinarian, determined to see us work hard. She always corrected our grammar, forbade gum chewing, and hounded us to do our homework. I could always get out of doing menial tasks like the dishes if I went and practiced my oboe.

My mother never let our poverty define us. With whatever she had, she always bought the best. We ate Swiss chocolates or none at all. She concocted exquisite meals on our food-stamp fare. It didn't matter how tatty our apartment was; it was often full of distinguished academics from a nearby university who, oblivious to the surroundings, were drawn to my mother's charm, beauty, and excellent cooking. My mother felt superior to most Americans: she thought American wealth was vulgar, so often unaccompanied by good manners, education, or social refinement. She had nothing but contempt for the parents of my more affluent friends, whose children would go home to an empty house and whose mothers took them to McDonald's. We often had no money for new school clothes but were brought up to believe we were somehow better bred than the other children.

Having been brought up with servants, my mother wasn't born to housework. She always seemed to be ironing or sorting clothes, but despite her valiant attempts, our house always looked like a mess. There were mountains of laundry, piles of dishes, stacks of books. And the newspapers. They were everywhere. My father collected them and refused to let my mother throw them out. They lined the walls of my parents' bedroom, yellow, dusty, and half-read. The electricity and phone were often turned off because my father had not given her money to pay the bills, but our sheets were ironed meticulously, as were the linen napkins. Perhaps it soothed her to make some order in the chaos that she fought so hard to hide.

To my mother, expressing an emotion was a bad American habit to be discouraged. "It's vulgar to talk about yourself," she would often say, though sometimes she talked of the grand life she had left behind in Belfast. I loved hearing her stories, partly because her life seemed such a mystery. She had lived in the country with horses and dogs. It seemed a lot to give up to be with us. I often feared that she'd tire of our life and go back to her exalted country, leaving us behind. I wanted to be good and not let her down, to give her every reason to stay. I stuck to her side like glue, terrified to let her out of my sight. Many years later, I thought that maybe because I spent so much time keeping track of her, somewhere along the way I lost track of myself.

I learned to subsist on tiny crumbs of love. My mother was an extraordinary cook, but emotional sustenance was scarce. It must have taken all her strength to hunker down and survive and bring us up practically on her own. Maybe she couldn't let down her reserve, even for a minute, for fear it would all unravel. She seemed to pour all her love into feeding us elaborately. But I still felt emotionally malnourished. I learned to sate my hunger in unsavory places later on, with men so incapable of showing affection that they always left me in a state of near-starvation. I thought it was like indulging in fast food: when you eat greasy French fries, you know you'll regret it later. But sometimes I was so ravenous I didn't care. I seemed to accept almost any man who took notice and paid attention to me. I often failed to look them over and see how unappetizing they were. Always so well fed, yet starving.

Since my father wasn't around much, I lived in an all-female world with my mother and two sisters. My towering flame-haired mother with her long, chiseled, aristocratic nose looked as if she had stepped out of the Victorian era. Alexandra looked wild and woolly, with an exquisite face that also looked as if it were from an earlier century, a face more at home on the walls of Europe's finest art galleries than the streets of New Jersey. I, too, had corkscrew-curly hair, and no amount of ironing or hair rollers would straighten it enough to let me look like my classmates. Francesca, the youngest, with straight blond hair and huge blue eyes, always seemed the most American. We used to call her Marilyn, from The Munsters, that seventies TV show about a family of assorted freaks and vampires that had one normal-looking relative.
Author Q&A

Author Q&A

Q: You've spent most of your professional life in front of a camera, reporting on breaking news events around the world. What made you turn to the quieter life of memoir writing?

A: After years of racing from one crisis to another telling other people's stories, I felt the need to stop running, to stay in one place, and to know my own story. I had been running so long, many of the events I covered felt like a blur in my memory. I felt I had to stop to keep myself from becoming deadened inside. I had to ask myself why I had put myself out there on the front lines, endangering myself, over and over. It was not an easy question to answer. But as I wrote, I realized that for me, covering the news was a way to keep other things at bay--things I really wanted like intimacy, a serious relationship, a family. News had become my emotional surrogate. For me, writing a memoir was a way to understand what I had done, and also a way to make me stay in one place and look myself in the mirror. I realized I was just like many other women who have been out in the world chasing big careers, putting work before all else, only to wake up in my late thirties alone and afraid I would miss out on what really matters in life.

Q: Early on in Flirting with Danger, you talk about your unusual childhood in New Jersey, troubled by poverty and an absentee father. Underlying all of that was religious tension. Your father's family was Jewish and your mother is Irish Protestant. How did observing religious conflicts in Europe and the Middle East help you understand the battles in your own family?

A: Sometimes I thought that I was suited to covering wars because I grew up in a war zone, with my parents constantly at each other's throats. All my emotional armor was already in place. But on another level, when I was reporting on ethnic conflicts in Chechnya, Croatia, Northern Ireland, or Israel, I found myself drawn to the 'bad' guy's side of the story. We in the media have a tendency to portray conflicts in black and white, with a simple good guy/bad guy split. I did that, too. But I was often drawn to hearing out the less popular side, whether it was the Serbs in Croatia or the Protestants in Northern Ireland. Somewhere along the way I realized that in my family, my mother always portrayed my father as the bad guy, and that for a long time I swallowed her view, rather than seeing that there are really two sides to every story. My father died when I was a teenager, and I never got to know his side of things. It was an absence that I think spurred me to hear both sides of a story, sometimes sympathizing with the 'bad' guy whose side is not being fully told.

Q: You spent a lot of time in Russia, both as a student and as a reporter. Did your experience living in Russia during the Cold War shape your views about American politics and capitalism?

A: When I lived in the Soviet Union as a student, I got a firsthand view of communism and all its ills. It made me really appreciate the freedom I had enjoyed in the U.S. But it also allowed me to see the U.S. from an outsider's perspective. I saw how arrogant and naïve and insensitive Americans can be, without even knowing it. America is a young country, like an impetuous teenager who has not understood the meaning of struggle and hardship in the same way that the Russian people have. The Russian people have a lot to be proud of.

Q: With your involvement in CNN's World Report, you stress the need to expose both sides of a story. Has the current wave of terrorism made you rethink your views?

A: Not at all. I believe even more strongly in the need to hear all sides. Painting any situation in black and white polarizes each side, and makes solutions harder to find. Osama bin Laden may be a madman, but the poverty and misery in the Arab world that breeds fanaticism is very real. We need to look at the underlying causes for all this rage and sometimes that means hearing other views, even if they are abhorrent to us.

Q: What was it like as a woman to report from locations in which women are denied a voice in political affairs? Were you ever slighted in favor of your male counterparts?

A: Often women feel they have to be tougher and braver than their male counterparts to prove their right to be in a war zone. In most cases, being a CNN reporter trumped being a woman. Even combatants who think women belong at home want to get their story told. If they must tell it to a woman, so be it. I think sometimes having a woman around broke up the monotony for them. But it wasn't always easy. The first time I showed up at Russian Headquarters in Chechnya with a camerawoman and a female producer, and asked to be flown to the front with Russian troops, the Russian commander laughed at us. After a few days he relented. Then he got attached to us, and was sorry to see us go when we finally left his base a week later.

Q: How do you feel watching former colleagues covering the war now? Do you wish you were there?

A: I feel enormous compassion for them. I know how hard it is out there, how hard it is to find food, to stay warm, to find electricity, just the basics to stay alive. I worry about their safety. I know the fear they may have at times, the fear I tried to ignore when I was out there but was nonetheless my constant companion. I have no more desire to be there. I have broken my addiction, taken off my emotional armor, and I don't think I could handle it out there anymore. I am content to stay home. I had my time, and it was exciting. But I want different things in my life now.

Praise

Praise

“Move over Murrow and Amanpour. If you want the real dish about the life and attempted loves of a war reporter, then read Flirting With Danger.”–Henry Shuster, Senior Producer, CNN

“Siobhan Darrow tells her story…with an eye for the telling details, with a relish for the absurd and, time and again, with disarming honesty.”–The Financial Times

“With quiet courage and poignant candor, Siobhan Darrow rips off her TV mask and shows us her soul: confused, curious, at war with itself, brimming with love, and desperately human.” –Deborah Copaken Kogan, author of Shutterbabe

“Rather than adding to the heroic accounts of flak-jacketed foreign correspondents in danger zones, Flirting with Danger is an altogether more candid account of what really preoccupies the war reporter on assignment. Siobhan Darrow tells her story . . . with an eye for the telling details, with a relish for the absurd and, time and again, with disarming honesty.” –The Financial Times

“The more you read of Flirting with Danger, the more you put the book down and exclaim: Is this woman Bridget Jones in a flak-jacket and fatigues?” –The Scotsman

“The bravest part of Flirting with Danger is not in fact the chilling accounts of front lines and shell-dodging for interviews. It’s Darrow’s willingness to admit that much of the time she had love on the brain.” –Los Angeles Times
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of Flirting with Danger, a memoir by Siobhan Darrow, a former star correspondent for CNN. Darrow began her career as CNN's Moscow correspondent during the political and economic turbulence that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. She recalls in harrowing detail her subsequent assignments as a frontline reporter covering conflicts in Chechnya, Croatia, Northern Ireland, Israel, and Albania. Her tenure as London correspondent for CNN provided her with a front-row seat to every history-making event in the 1990s, from the collapse of the IRA cease-fire in Northern Ireland to the death of Princess Diana and the cloning of Dolly in 1997.

About the Guide

Flirting with Danger is more than just the story of Darrow's rise to journalistic eminence. With humor and unflinching honesty, Darrow describes her own troubled childhood and complicated family situation. The daughter of an emotionally cool, well-to-do Scotch-Irish mother and an intelligent but troubled father, dominated all his life by his immigrant Jewish mother who steadfastly refused to meet his Protestant wife and children when they settled only miles from her home, Darrow explores the impact of a childhood in which "two alien cultures lived under one roof with no dialogue, just hostility, misunderstanding, and resentment" [p. 14] on her choice of profession. Turning her critical journalistic gaze inward, she examines how her parents' relationship and her resulting feelings of confusion influenced her own romantic relationships, including a failed marriage and numerous passionate, yet ultimately unfulfilling, love affairs.

Set against the background of the world's most volatile trouble spots, Flirting with Danger is an engrossing portrait of a woman whose eyewitness reports on war and political turmoil made her a much-admired public figure, and whose confrontations with personal demons finally allowed her to discover the private rewards of a loving husband and home.

About the Author

Siobhan Darrow was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and grew up in New Jersey. She joined CNN in 1986, and worked as the producer for CNN's World Report and The International Hour. From 1991 to 1995, she was CNN's Moscow correspondent and was nominated for an Emmy Award for reports she filed from Chechnya in 1994. As well as covering breaking events, she presented a number of in-depth stories on social change in the former Soviet Union, including a series on Russian women and on life in the Central Asian Republics. She spent three years in CNN's London bureau and is now living with her husband in California and working on a second book.

Discussion Guides

1. Darrow spent her childhood and adolescence in a household torn apart by poverty, anger, and bitterness. Were the clashes between her parents inevitable, given their different cultural and religious backgrounds? To what extent was her father's inability to persuade his mother and sister to accept his Gentile wife and children responsible for the disintegration of his marriage? What responsibility, if any, did Darrow's mother have in creating the rift between the children and their father?

2. At college, Darrow writes, "I began my infatuation with Russia, the place of my father's origin. I wanted to know the enemy. I couldn't know my father; it would have been too much of a betrayal of my mother. So I took a circuitous route to find him, crossing the ocean, the world, and enemy lines, to Russia" [p. 17]. Does the need to understand her father and his origins color her feelings about the Soviet Union and the people she comes in contact with? Does it enhance or diminish her ability to draw an accurate portrait of a society many Americans considered the "evil empire"?

3. How do Darrow's everyday experiences as a student in Moscow mirror the dualities that defined her life growing up in New Jersey? In what ways is her fascination with Dima [p. 19] similar to her mother's attraction to her father? In what ways does it reflect emotional qualities Darrow shares with her father?

4. "My marriage felt like a sham. But that was the model that was familiar to me; that was what my parents' marriage had felt like. It felt uncomfortable, but it was a discomfort to which I was accustomed" [pp. 35-36]. In light of this comment, is Darrow's willingness to accept the lack of emotional connection in her marriage (as well as the constant physical separation) surprising?

5. What impact did Darrow's affair with Ted Turner have on the way she perceived herself? Did it change her views on the nature of love and the meaning of intimacy? To what extent was Turner not only a lover, but also a "father figure" who fulfilled her lifelong fantasies of having a strong, caring protector? Darrow's next lover, Alessio, was almost ten years younger, but she writes, "Of the two of us, in many ways he was the older and wiser"[p. 63]. When she returns to Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union, she falls under the spell of the handsome, exciting, and blatantly unfaithful Trevor. How do these relationships illuminate Darrow's confusion about what she wants from a man and what she thinks she deserves?

6. "Women covering war often feel they have to be braver and tougher than their male competitors, just to prove themselves" [p. 79]. As a reporter, did Darrow face greater challenges than her male colleagues? Did her gender allow her certain advantages as well? How does she protect herself from being overwhelmed by the horrors she sees?

7. In several places, Darrow describes her attraction to war reporting as an addiction. How valid is this assessment? What evidence is there in the book that this is common among war correspondents? Have you read other books or articles that support this view?

8. Television news has often been criticized for numbing viewers to the terrible realities of war and other tragedies. What techniques does Darrow use to convey both the emotional impact and the objective reality of the scenes of devastation she writes about in Flirting with Danger?

9. In recalling her experiences in Chechnya, Darrow says, "I struggled to find the right words to give meaning to what I was seeing. I hoped, mostly in vain, that reporting on this desperate situation would somehow help improve it" [pp. 101-102]. Has Flirting with Danger influenced your thoughts or opinions about current world events? Does it suggest new ways of looking at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the war in Afghanistan, the rise of terrorism, and other dangerous situations caused by ethnic or religious differences?

10. How would you describe the tone of Flirting with Danger? In what ways does Darrow's career as a journalist come through in the way she tells her own story? How does the style of the book differ from other memoirs you have read?

11. Darrow has lived a highly unusual life and faced dangers few people ever encounter, but not all of her experiences are completely unique. To what extent are the issues and concerns Darrow explores common to most women today? Does Flirting with Danger offer insights relevant to your own life?

12. "Sometimes we sleepwalk through events in our lives, only to understand how they fit into our particular cosmic weave much later" [p. 28]. How did the skills and personality traits Darrow developed as a child shape her approach to covering war zones around the world? In what ways did her experiences as a correspondent change her perceptions of her mother and father and help her come to terms with the mistrust and anger that pervaded their home?


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