Excerpted from Flirting with Danger by Siobhan Darrow. Copyright © 2002 by Siobhan Darrow. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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.
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?