Tag Archives: memoir

Newsroom Confidential by Margaret Sullivan

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Too many journalists couldn’t seem to grasp their crucial role in American democracy. Almost pathologically, they normalized the abnormal and sensationalized mundane.

These days, we can clearly see the fallout from decades of declining public trust, the result, at least partly, of so many years of the press being undermined and of undermining itself. What is that fallout? Americans no longer share a common basis of reality. That’s dangerous because American democracy, government by the people, simply can’t function this way. It’s high time to ask how public trust in the press steadily plummeted from the years following the Watergate scandal and the publication of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s—when seven of ten Americans trusted the news—to today’s rock-bottom lows.

My parents were both readers, which should come as no surprise. Mom, a homemaker, consumed a steady stream of mysteries her entire life, as least the part of it that included me. Dad worked at night, but would set aside some reading time every day, particularly on his days off. He was not much of a book reader, though. His preferred material was the newspaper. Well, newspapers. There was a flood of them coming in, the New York Post (pre-Rupert), the Daily News, The Herald Tribune, The Mirror, the Telegram, the Times. Not saying that we had all of these coming in every day, but all were well represented. And if you wanted to see what he was reading, it was not hard to figure it out. Next to his living room easy chair there was always a stack. If it were books, today, we would call it a TBR. But the stack had a life of its own, and a sorting that was inexplicable. He must have read a fair bit as he kept the pile from overwhelming the room, hell, the entire apartment. I cannot say that I was a big news-reader as kid. More sports than anything. I wanted to keep up with the teams I cared about, the baseball Giants, the Yankees, and eventually the Mets.

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Margaret Sullivan – image from PBS

I was very fortunate to have been raised in an environment in which reading the news, every day, was just a normal part of living. Even though my parents were not well-educated—Mom finished high school. Dad did not.—they valued staying informed. There was no talk at home about reporters slanting stories, although I am sure they did. The news was like the water supply, presumed to be potable, and universally consumed. But there was one exception. It was not until later in life that I began to read the news with a more critical eye, but even as a kid, I could see that sportswriter Dick Young was a mean-spirited son-of-a-bitch, flogging right-wing bile that had nothing to do with sports. I guess that was my first real exposure, consciously anyway, to journalistic political bias. Young was not a person who could be trusted, even though he held a very public position at a major New York newspaper. I doubt, if Dad were still with us, that he would accept what he’d be reading today as revealed truth. But back then, mostly, though, we took the news at face value.

Margaret Sullivan, a doyen of media self-reflection, has not been happy with the face value of American news reporting for quite some time. The news media, in her view (and in the view of anyone with a brain) is far too concerned with the horserace aspect of political competition, far more than they are with the actual policy substance that differentiates candidates and parties. One of the most respected journalists of her generation, having led a major regional newspaper, and having held two of the most widely read and respected writing posts in contemporary American journalism, she has had a ring-side view of this in action. She worked for thirty-two years at The Buffalo News, rising to be their top editor and a vice president. In 2012 she moved on to be the Public Editor at The New York Times, and in 2016 headed to The Washington Post as a media columnist in the high-powered Style section. She retired from that gig in August of 2022, and is currently teaching part time at Duke while working on a novel.

She won a Mirror award for her writing on Trump’s first impeachment, served on the Pulitzer Prize board, and was a director of the American Society of News Editors. She has also suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous sexism, as she worked her way through her share of glass ceilings. She knows a thing or two, because she has seen a thing or two. Newsroom Confidential is not just a personal memoir of her career in the newsroom, but a look at the changes that has taken place in journalism and in our view of journalism over her career.

It’s high time to ask how public trust in the press steadily plummeted from the years following the Watergate scandal and the publication of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s—when seven of ten Americans trusted the news—to today’s rock-bottom lows.

The high point may have been the inspirational impact of Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting on the Nixon administration’s corruption, Watergate most particularly. It was seeing that journalism was a way to impact the world, to improve it, that moved her to pursue a career in the news. We follow her through the career travails at The Buffalo News. She tells a bit about her full dedication to work conflicting with the demands of having a family, exacerbated by having to cope with the extra resistance of gender bias in her struggle to advance her career.

But while Buffalo may have occupied the bulk of her professional life, it does not occupy a proportional piece of the book. The real meat begins with her move to The New York Times. As Public Editor, her role was to be an outsider, looking critically as the work of Times reporters. Not exactly a recipe for making friends. Most editors were not particularly receptive to criticism, constructive or not. The sexism presented straight away, as a Times obituary about a very accomplished woman opened with a description of her cooking skills. Her job was not only to write about wrongs, but to offer recommendations for improvement. It would prove a Sisyphean task. She writes about her personal conflict in taking on a Public Editor investigation into a story written by a Times mentee of hers. While it may have been an important and high-profile position, it was a very tough job at times.

One thing I learned back in my twenties is that it is not only the content of articles that merits attention. Their placement is also significant, as is the heading given to those articles. These are often provided by an editor, not the reporter, and are often misleading. Sullivan writes about the most egregious example of the Times doing this, in its treatment of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign. The paper saw Clinton as a “pre-anointed” candidate, presuming that she would win. They wanted to be seen as tough, and were very defensive about being seen as too soft on Democrats.

The Times had certainly treated the FBI’s two investigations of the 2016 presidential candidates very differently. It shouted one from the rooftops, and on Trump and Russia the paper used its quiet inside voice, playing right into the Republican candidate’s hands. With a little more than a week to go before the election, the Times published a story with the headline “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” If anyone was concerned about Trump’s ties to Vladimir Putin, their fears might be put to rest by that soothing headline, though the story itself was considerably more nuanced. Even that reporting, not very damning for Trump, appeared on an inside page of the paper, a far cry from the emails coverage splashed all over the front page, day after day. We now know, of course, that Russia had set out to interfere with the election, and did so very effectively.

That sort of selective exposure was not exactly new. The Times had been aware, back when John Kerry was running against George W. Bush, of a domestic spying program. They sat on the story for thirteen months, finally posting the information when the reporter who dug up the story threatened to scoop them with his book. The potential impact was considerable, as revelation of the program during the campaign might have impacted the election result. One collateral result of this was that when a later major leaker of government secrets was looking for a trustworthy outlet, the Times was bypassed, because there was no confidence that the paper would publish the material. The Washington Post and The Guardian received the materials instead.

She writes about the transition of the news business from paper to digital, the decline in readership overall, and the national decline in news outlets, noting some who railed against the change, and others who saw the future early on and climbed on board.

Sullivan’s real reporting bête noire is excessive reliance on anonymous sourcing, aka access journalism. Sure, there are instances in which getting on-the-record quotes is impossible, or even dangerous. But the over-reliance on anonymity has resulted in reporters being played for fools, being fed self-serving tidbits, often intended to dishonestly manipulate public perceptions, often aimed at using reporters as ordnance in internecine political battles, and far too frequently serving no public good. The classic example of this was Judith Miller at the Times, reporting inaccurate intel given to her by members of the Bush Administration in order to build support for a war that was already being planned.

In the digital age another piece of this is a compulsion to generate clicks. This creates an incentive for reporters to sometimes hold on to maybe-less-exciting policy stories in favor of pieces that are likely to raise a reader’s temperature. The old trope If it bleeds it leads has been translated into the age of digital journalism as favoring heat over light.

It is not really breaking news why people’s trust in journalism has declined. The news was once considered a realm in which professionals investigated and reported stories with an eye toward what was considered newsworthy. But with the demise of the Fairness Doctrine regarding broadcast news, the gates were opened for full-time partisanship in the airwaves. The concentration of media ownership into the hands of fewer and fewer corporations has diluted, if not entirely removed, local news reporting. Now, many local stations broadcast what their distant owners tell them to, including the airing of political puff pieces for favored candidates and issues, and political hit pieces for those they oppose. With so many places in the nation reduced to a single newspaper or local news channel, local news has become more and more a mouthpiece of national corporate views. And a reduction in the availability of diverse perspectives.

The rise of the internet has had a huge impact on how we receive and perceive news. But a major reason, maybe the biggest, for a loss of faith in the media is the relentless assault on mainstream media by the right. Bias in the media is hardly new, but the unceasing emotionally-charged torrent of lies from right-wing media has raised dishonesty to a new, steroidal level. Every article that portrays Republicans or their supporters in a less than flattering light is attacked as evidence of some imaginary left-wing bias. One result of this relentless attack machine is that many outlets have become reluctant to report actual facts, lest they be attacked as biased. The Times, for example, took years to finally come around to describing Donald Trump’s blatant lies as just that. Can you fully trust a paper that is so weak-kneed about reporting the facts? Even regular Times readers must wonder. And, of course, those on the right now attack any media outlet that does not totally support the GOP party line. Even where no bias is present, many, if not all, on the right claim to see unfairness because they have been told thousands of times that such bias is always present. And the right is fond of using the threat of lawsuits to harass their targets. Trump is notorious for suing the objects of his ire, not expecting to win in court, but hoping to cost the sued large sums of money in legal fees, thus intimidating them, and, he hopes, deterring them from crossing him again. At least the Times has the resources to stand up to such bullying, but there are many media outlets that do not. Thus, MSM reporting slants away from truth.

Sullivan’s experiences writing for the Times and Post are fascinating, offering a view from inside the fishbowl, of the cultures, and some of the personalities, the battles that were fought against external attackers and the internecine conflicts that occur everywhere.

If Dad were around today, I expect he would approve of the many news subscriptions my wife and I share, the Times, the Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily Beast, our local paper, et al. Our stacks of unread material may not accumulate next to chairs in our living room, but reside instead in a black hole of unread materials and a digital TBR of things we intend to get to. We have come to view news reporting with critical eyes, sensitive to biases that creep into (or are on full display) the text of pieces, aware of how those pieces are presented, where, when, and why. The sort of trust in the news that was extant in the middle twentieth century is gone. But that does not mean that all trust has been lost. For those willing to do the work, it is possible to discern good from bad, both in publications and reporters. But it takes a lot more effort today than it ever did. We are aware, as our parents’ generation was less likely to be, of a reporter’s bent. As the world has forced us to look closer at all sorts of informational input (think ingredient lists on food packages), we have become more discriminating consumers of news. This reporter can be relied on. That one cannot. The fracturing of the news into a galaxy of providers has made it easier than ever to choose only the news that that fits preconceived perspectives. But it is not exactly a news-flash is that it remains possible to find quality reporting. It just takes a bit of digging.

As for Sullivan’s look back at her career and the shift in public perceptions, it is revelatory, informative, and engaging. If you know anything at all about Sullivan’s writing, this will not come as a shock. The bad news? The decline in public trust of media is very real, as is the reduction in local reporting. The good news? (I believe) people are becoming more aware of bias in supposedly neutral news media. Trust in journalism can be rebuilt, but it is clear that many outlets rely on readers/watchers accepting their reporting with uncritical eyes. After you read Newsroom Confidential you will have a greater sense of what the journalistic challenges are today, both for readers and producers of news. You will not be able to say That’s news to me.

Review posted – 11/18/22

Publication date – 10/18/22

I received an ARE of Newsroom Confidential from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair and balanced review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating an ePUB.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Margaret Sullivan’s FB and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Time – Margaret Sullivan Can Only Indulge in So Much Nostalgia About Journalism – by Karl Vick
—–Vogue – Local Journalism Is Dying, and Margaret Sullivan Is Sounding the Alarm in Ghosting the News – by Michelle Ruiz – not for this book but a fascinating interview
—–The Problem with Jon Stewart– also from 2020 – also very good
—–PBS – Trump’s Showdown – Margaret Sullivanby Michael Kirk – from 2018 – good stuff

Items of Interest from the author
—– Sullivan pieces for the Washington Post –
—– Sullivan pieces for the New York Times
—–The Washington Post – If Trump Runs Again, Do Not Cover Him the Same Way: A Journalist’s Manifesto an adapted excerpt
—–Literary Hub – Veteran Reporter Margaret Sullivan’s Favorite Books About Journalism

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, Journalism, Non-fiction

The Lonely Stories – edited by Natalie Eve Garrett

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When I invited people, I typically would offer up various prompts. I definitely made it clear from the beginning that I was interested in [pieces] that explored the ways in which alone time can be maddening and isolating and painful, but also pieces that explored the ways in which alone time can be a thrill, or a joy, or something that you crave but can’t access, which I think a lot of people also experienced during the pandemic. There was this simultaneous excess of loneliness and then absence of solitude, which is something I contemplated a lot. I feel like one thing I learned from making the book—but after it had already been printed, of course—is that our longing for solitude is also another kind of loneliness. I think it relates to my experience of the pandemic, and probably a lot of people’s experience of the pandemic. There was so much loneliness, but also the loneliness of not having solitude. Like, I have kids at home, and solitude is something that I crave. It’s like loneliness from oneself. A lack of connection to yourself. – from the CityLit interview

We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone. – Orson Welles

Welles was wrong. No one is born alone. We all emerge from mothers. Even so-called “test-tube” babies gestate in and emerge from a woman. Dying alone is a lot easier to manage, particularly when the passing occurs away from medical care. But, for most of us, even in the age of COVID, there are people likely to be in attendance, even if they are not necessarily the people one might have preferred. We are social creatures from birth. That said, I do take Welles’ point that we are isolated bits of consciousness trapped inside a meat sack.

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Natalie Eve Garrett – image from her site

We are the only true witnesses to our lives, present for every moment, every experience, every feeling. Even our closest friend(s), lover(s), shrink(s) or interrogator(s) can only know a sliver of the totality of us. So what? Is this something we require? Does this mean that we are doomed to aloneness forever? The best we can do to share that self with others is to select subsets, parts of ourselves, immediate needs, likes, reactions, interests, artistic expressions, and feelings to share, to connect our solo consciousness with the greater humanity within which we live, to demand responses, connections back, human links. What if that desirable steady-state of exchange is disrupted, or never settles in at all, for reasons internal or external? CAN ANYONE OUT THERE HEAR ME?

But we do have ways of connecting. Communication, if we can muster that. Words, gestures touch, other non-verbal modalities. We are largely telepaths, communicating our consciousness to others through the magic of sight and sound. No station-to station hard wires required. And yet, even given this miracle within us, we can, and often do, experience (suffer from) loneliness. Is loneliness a failure of communication, a reaction to external stimuli (rejection), a mechanism, like pain, that tells us that something needs attending to, or something else entirely? Maybe being lonely is just a garden variety human feeling that we all have from time to time, but that some have in dangerous abundance, in a way like cell growth and replication, which is desirable, versus out-of-control cell growth, which is cancer.

In The Lonely Stories, editor Natalie Eve Garrett has called together twenty-two writers of note for their lonely stories, memoir items, not fiction. The quote at top tells us that she was interested in looking at a few things; alone time as burden, blessing, or out of reach, longing for solitude, and feeling isolated in our lives among others. We learn more in that CityLit interview:

Even though it’s called The Lonely Stories, I definitely wanted it to encompass facets and permutations of being alone, including joy in solitude, how solitude can be replenishing and healing. So it felt like maybe sometimes I nudged things more in one direction or another and it was really important to me that the book tease out the distinction between the two, because loneliness is being defined as a lack, whereas solitude is kind of the art of feeling at home with oneself. There’s a quote for me that a friend reminded me of, that loneliness is a poverty of self and solitude is a richness of self. I feel that really nicely addresses the paradox of how being alone can be both maddening and joyful.

The tales told here cover a range. All of these stories, none longer than eighteen pages, present complexity. No simple woe is me, I’m feeling bad, will be found here. Sure, there is a bit of surviving the breakup of relationships, licking wounds, but there are universal concerns, at the very least concerns that very many of us share.

Megan Giddings writes about self-empowerment, allowing herself to function, to survive when alone, whether in a hostile social world or a physically perilous situation. Several writers tell of feeling isolated, lonely and alone in relationships. Imani Perry writes of the singular loneliness of the hospital room, and of how many of those offering help do so out of social obligation, without substantive intent or understanding. Maggie Shipstead writes of the up and down sides to experiencing the beauty of nature while alone. ( The natural beauty I saw while walking my dog—the frozen ponds and snowy beaches, the tender pale sunsets over whitecapped ocean—sometimes felt irrelevant, even discouraging, without anyone else to stand there with me and say something like, Wow, so pretty) She and others write about the joys of being alone. Sometimes coping with loneliness requires some creativity. One writer tells of concocting imaginary helpers to beat back the night. COVID figures in some stories, one in a particularly dramatic way. Of course, one can choose to be alone and find that it is not quite what one had hoped for. Lev Grossman’s story of setting out to make his fortune as a writer was hilarious, and hit very close to home. ( I can’t overstate how little I knew about myself at twenty-two or how little I’d thought about what I was doing.) Of course choosing to be alone works out just fine for Helena Fitzgerald and Melissa Febos. A question is raised; Can succeeding at aloneness spoil you for togetherness?

There are stories that will make you weep, stories that will make you laugh out loud, stories that will make you think, and stories that will make you feel. There are stories that deal with racism, alcoholism, marriage, rejection by one’s only parent, the loss of one’s parents to age and/or dementia. Three writers tell of the experience of immigration, one of multiple immigrations, and how being the outsider can stoke the engines of loneliness to a high intensity.
One of the most powerful pieces here is Yiyun Li’s story of public and private language. (Loneliness is the inability to speak with another in one’s private language. ) Anthony Doerr goes from a consideration of his on-line addiction to a concern about whether he actually exists at all. We think of writing as a solitary undertaking, yet some of the stories here point to writing as a way to create connections with other people.

One take on dream interpretation is that every person, every character in a dream is some manifestation of yourself. The experience of reading The Lonely Stories was a bit like that for me. In so many of the tales I could see myself in the experience of the story-tellers. I imagine that will be the case for many of you as well.

An aspect of this book that was, and probably should not have been surprising, (given the quality of the writers. Really good writing often has this effect.) was that I felt prompted to recall personal memories of loneliness, and it took some effort to turn that spigot off after only a dozen. I could have easily made this review a platform for my lonely stories, which would have been a disservice. (What if I alternate one of mine with one of theirs? went my inner gremlins. Wisdom won out. You have been spared.) It is the sort of book that would serve well as a springboard for a writing class. Everyone has felt lonely, if not all the time, then in some particular moments or parts of our lives. How about you tell of a time when you were lonely? The tales here will prompt you to think about a time, or many times when experiences, when feelings you had might fit quite nicely into a collection like this.

One thing I wished for was more of a look at definitions, where loneliness ends and being alone begins, for example. Where is the line between solitude and isolation? Where does the need to communicate run into a need for privacy? A three-dimension spectrum of solitude (not to be confused with the Fortress of Solitude) might be an interesting way to visualize aloneness, with the X-axis reflecting the degree of solitude, measured, I guess, in interactions per day in person or via comms, the Y-Axis indicating how much personal choice is involved (probably not much for a prisoner, some, for most people, more for a single person of means) and the Z-axis reflecting how a person feels about their XY intersection, with end-points at going insane and I’m good. Add color if a fourth dimension is needed. But maybe that would be in a psychology book, and not a memoir collection, so fine, whatever. There was an opportunity missed here in the selection of writers. Loneliness is a particular factor with older people, yet the oldest (that I could determine from simple Google searching) contributor is 60. Not a single fully vested Social Security recipient in the bunch, at least as far as I could tell.

Bottom line is that, while the title of this book may suggest it could be a downer, The Lonely Stories is anything but. It not only connects on an emotional level, but offers a wide range of insight into the human condition. You will laugh and cry, and maybe feel prompted to consider loneliness, or lonely times in your own experience. One thing is for certain. However you react to this book, you will not be alone in that reaction.

It’s the worst loneliness, I think, the loneliness we feel among those we feel we should be most like. Our tribe turns out not to be quite our tribe.

Review posted – April 29, 2022

Publication date – April 19, 2022

I received an ARE of The Lonely Stories from Counterpoint in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks. I felt less alone while reading the book and writing about it.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Catapult – Natalie Eve Garrett Wants Us to Feel Loneliness Without Shame by Tajja Isen
—–CityLit Project – Navigating Solitude with Kristen Radtke, Natalie Eve Garrett, & Nguyen Koi Nguyen

Songs/Music
—–Roy Orbison – Only the Lonely
—–Paul Anka – I’m Just a lonely Boy
—–B.J. Thomas – I’m So lonely I Could Die
—–Charlie Haden – Lonely Town
—–Bobby Vinton – Mr. Lonely
—–Yes – Owner of a Lonely Heart
—–Gilbert o’Sullivan – Alone Again
—–Carousel (the film) – Rogers & Hammerstein – Claramae Turner – You’ll Never Walk Alone
—–Les Miserables – Lea Salonga (concert performance) – On My Own

Items of Interest
—–Garbo – ”I want to be alone”
—–Roots of Loneliness – Solitude Vs. Loneliness: How To Be Alone Without Feeling Lonely by Saprina Panday
—–The
loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
by Alan Sillitoe – complete text
—– Frontiers in genetics – Long-Term Impact of Social Isolation and Molecular Underpinnings

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain

The Babysitter by Liza Rodman and Jennifer Jordan

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”Close your eyes and count to ten,” he whispered. I felt his breath on my cheek. The barrel of the gun was hard and cold against my forehead.
I counted, and when I opened my eyes, he was gone.

I sat up quickly in bed, gasping, my body soaked with sweat. What the hell was that?

Thus begins The Babysitter, a telling of growing up unaware that one of the author’s favorite adults was not who she’d thought.

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Liza Rodman – image from Simon & Schuster – Photo by Joel Benjamin

In 2005, Liza Rodman, then in her forties, was working on the thesis for her undergraduate degree when she began having frequent nightmares. It was not her first such experience. She had had these for a long time, but all of a sudden they were happening every night. In one, her husband was trying to kill her with a fireplace poker. Another featured a man killing nurses and eating their hearts. The dreams kept coming, with a faceless man chasing her, always with a weapon. She would wake up as her dream self was about to crash through a window, fleeing for her life.

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Jennifer Jordan – image from her site – photo by Jeff Rhoads

Clearly there was motivation to figure out this puzzle, so she started writing about them, incorporating them into her thesis, over a two year period, drawing out more and more details. One dream-site was The Royal Coachman motel where she, her mother, and sister had lived for a time in Provincetown. Another was Bayberry Bend, a P-town motel her mother had owned.

Slowly the process moved along, six months of regular dreams, more images, months more of nightmares, until she saw the face, a familiar one, someone she hadn’t seen since she was a kid, a handyman hired to work at the motel where her mother was employed. His mother worked at the motel too. He was one of a series of people who took care of her and her sister, a really nice guy, one of the few adults who were kind to them, who never yelled at or hit them, who took them around with him in the motel’s utility truck, on chores, to the dump, to his garden in the woods, but who had disappeared when she was ten. This was not all that unusual for the adult males who scooted through her childhood. Why would she be having dark dreams about that guy? So she decides to ask her mother, then in her 70s, what this might all mean.

“Did something happen to me back then that you’re not telling me?” I said, suddenly wondering if it did.
“What do you mean, happen to you?”
“With Tony Costa.”
“Tony Costa? Why are you still thinking about him?”
“I wasn’t until I had a nightmare about him.”
She was quiet for a moment too long, and I stopped stirring and waited. Mom rarely paused to contemplate her words, so I watched, curious as to what was going to come out of her mouth.
“Well,” she said, watching the gin swirl around the glass. “I remember he turned out to be a serial killer.” She said it calmly, as if she were reading the weather report.

Oh, is that all? Not all that surprising from Betty. Liza’s divorced mom was not exactly the best. While she did manage to keep body and soul together for herself and her two girls, she was frequently cruel to Liza, for no reason that the child could fathom. Mom, in fact is a major focus of the book, as chapters flip back and forth, more or less, between a focus on Tony and a focus on Liza and her relationship with her mother.

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Antone Charles “Tony” Costa, Provincetown handyman and murderer of four young women. (Photo courtesy Barnstable County Identity Bureau) – image from the author’s site

Who was this guy? Tony Costa never got to know his father, who had drowned trying to save a fellow seaman in New Guinea near the end of World War II, when Tony was only eight months old. He would be obsessed with his war hero dad for the rest of his life. There were early signs of trouble with Tony. At age seven he claimed to have been visited regularly by a man in his bedroom at night, an actual intruder? a fantasy? an obsession? He said the man looked like his father. He stood out among his peers during summers in Provincetown, his mother’s birthplace, cooler, smarter, and more “inside himself” than anyone else, according to a kid he hung out with there. Then there was the taxidermy kit. Lots of killing of small animals, neighborhood pets going missing, yet never a successful display of a stuffed animal. There is no mention of bed-wetting in his psychopath Bingo card, but who knows? We know he was raped as a pre-teen, and was probably one of several victims of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest in Provincetown. So his potential for madness certainly had some outside assistance. He was accused of attempting to rape a young girl as a teen.

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Jen and Liza, Northampton, 1979 – image from Rodman’s site

Tony was smart and handsome, but had terrible judgment, a ne’er do well, capable at work but unable to hold onto a job. He became a heavy drug user and local dealer. Clearly this guy had some charisma (as well as a considerable supply of illegal substances) and a way with young teens. A pedophile who married his pregnant fourteen-year-old girlfriend, he kept a crowd of young acolytes around him unable or unwilling to see through his line of distilled, grandiose, narcissistic bullshit. Cult-leader stuff. There is a Manson-like quality to him. And, like most narcissists, he was never willing to accept any responsibility for his own actions, always insisting that people were out to get him, blaming others for things he had done.

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The VW Tony stole after murdering its owner. A local spotted it in the woods and notified the local police, which spelled doom for Tony Costa – image from the author’s FB pages

There is more going on here than personal profiles of the major actors. A lot is made of how different from the mainstream Provincetown was, particularly during the tourist season. The ethos was much more accepting of whatever than most places. With people coming and going so much, it was custom-made for a predator. It was the 60s, man, drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll, and kids taking off for adventures, whether drug-related or not, and thus not necessarily raising instant alarms when they went missing. In 1971, for example, I bought an old Post Office truck at auction for three hundred bucks, and drove across country with three friends. (well, tried, we never actually made it across the continent) No cellphone, no regular check-ins. We didn’t exactly file a flight plan. If we had come to a bad end, no one would have known, or been alarmed back home for weeks. This is something a lot of people did. Of course, we were not runaways, and we were not female. That would have been a whole other order of business. The cops in Provincetown took a lackadaisical attitude toward worried parents looking for missing progeny. “Don’t worry. I’m sure they will turn up in due time.” And they were probably right, mostly. Except, sometimes they weren’t. It took a lot of pushing from those concerned about the missing young women to get the police to pay much attention. Rodman and Jordan provide a very detailed look at the various police departments that became involved in Tony’s case, both the occasional good police work and the ineptitude of inter-departmental communications. Sound familiar?

The locals were slow to allow for the possibility that there was a killer in their midst. Even today, there is an urge to protect one of their own, despite it being fifty years since the events of the book.

“I got threats when I wrote this book,” Liza says. It’s a loving portrait of the town, but not especially flattering. “I have a comfort level there that I don’t have anywhere else. Even in the face of this book.” – from The Provincetown Independent

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It was her sister’s 8th birthday. At the moment Liza was making a face at the camera, Tony was leading two young women into the Truro woods, where he would murder and bury them. – image from the author’s FB pages

One of the things about true crime books is that there is an element of suspense that is lacking. We know that little Liza will grow up to write this book, so we know that Tony did not kill her. This makes it more like a Columbo episode, knowing that the bad guy will get got, but enjoying seeing how that ultimately happens. That said, this is not a straight-up true crime effort. It is a fusion of true crime with memoir. Half of the book is about Liza’s childhood, her relationship with her mother in particular. It is an interesting look at how someone can survive a bad parent-child relationship. Showing how things were for Liza at home makes her a more sympathetic narrator for the other story. Geez, ya poor kid. I sure hope nothing else bad happens t’ya. And it makes it much more understandable how a kid who was starved for adult affection and attention would be drawn to an adult who was offering kindness and interest.

I did not get the frisson of fear reading this that pervaded in another true crime book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. Maybe because the killer in this one was long ago jailed, whereas the California killer had not yet been arrested when that book came out. But there is a certain vertigo, like walking near a cliff edge, blindfolded, only to realize the danger you were in when you take it off. It is distinctly possible that Liza might have found her way into Tony’s special garden if he had managed to stay out of jail for a few more years. Liza was like the little girl playing with Frankenstein’s monster in the movie, not realizing that he was more than just a large playmate, and seemingly friendly soul. Whew!

Rodman had been working on this project for about thirteen years. It happened that, in 2018, Jordan, a professional writer, was casting about for her next book project (She had previously published four books.) when she thought of her dear friend, Liza, (they had met in college) who was thrilled at the suggestion that they collaborate. So, sixteen years of research in all and here it is. An in depth look at a monstrous series of events, a sick individual, an interesting place in a time of upheaval, a difficult childhood, an odd friendship, and a very close call. The Babysitter is an engaging, informative read that will make you appreciate your sane parents, most likely, and appreciate your luck even more in never having had such a person as Tony in your life. (You haven’t, right?)

His coterie of teenagers, his stash of pills, and his marijuana helped mask his ever-increasing feelings of inferiority; by surrounding himself with idolizing acolytes who needed a hero, he could feel more in control, sophisticated, confident, and, of course, more intelligent.

Review posted – March 5, 2021

Publication date – March 2, 2021

I received an ARE of The Babysitter from Atria in return for an honest review. I did not charge them my usual rate of ten bucks an hour and whatever I want to eat from their fridge.

=====================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Liza Rodman’s ’s personal, FB, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter pages

Links to Jennifer Jordan’s personal and FB pages

Interviews
—–Red Carpet Crash – February 24, 2021 – Interview: Authors ‘Liza Rodman And Jennifer Jordan’ Talk Their Book The Babysitter: My Summers With A Serial Killer – audio – 17:02 – definitely check this one out
—–New York Post – February 27, 2021 – How I discovered my babysitter Tony Costa was a serial killer by Raquel Laneri
—–The Provincetown Independent – February 24, 2021 – Remembrance of Serial Murders Past by Howard Karren
—–WickedLocal.com – February 23, 2021 – In new memoir, local serial killer Tony Costa babysat two youngsters by Susan Blood

Items of Interest
—–Frankenstein playing with sweet young Maria
—–Columbo – or substituting for whodunit the howchatchem
—–My review of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Songs/Music
The author’s site provides a link to a considerable list of 39 songs mentioned in the book. But you have to have a membership to hear the full songs on Spotify instead of just the clips that are available on Rodman’s site.

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Filed under American history, biography, History, Non-fiction, psycho killer, Reviews, Thriller

Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour

book cover

Like a bird flying repeatedly into a pane of glass, I kept seeking Heathcote. Each time I reached out for him, the crack yawned open just a little wider, until eventually. I hurtled straight through.

How do you let go of someone you never had?

Charlie Gilmour was living in southeast London when his partner’s sister came across an abandoned chick.

Magpies leave home far too soon—long before they can really fly or properly fend for themselves. For weeks after they fledge their nests, they’re dependent on their parents for sustenance, protection, and an education too. But this bird’s parents are nowhere to be seen. They’re nor feeding it, or watching it, or guarding it; no alarm calls sound as a large apex predator approaches with footfalls made heavy by steel-toed boots. It could be no accident that the bird is on the ground. If food was running short, a savage calculation may have been performed, showing that the only way to keep the family airborne was to jettison the runt.

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From infancy to adulthood – From Charlie’s eulogy for Heathcote –photos by Polly Sampson and Charlie

This small bird with a huge personality caught his attention. Charlie’s struggles to care for, to raise, this raucous magpie parallels his growth as a person, and his lifelong struggle to get to know the man who had abandoned him as a chick months-old baby, his father, a well-known poet, artist and playwright. Heathcote Williams, for a brief period in his life, had likewise nurtured a corvid, a jackdaw, bequeathed at a country fair by a pair selling pancakes, fulfilling
an old boyhood dream
Of having a jackdaw on your shoulder, like a pirate.
Whispering secrets in your ear

Charlie seizes on this connection when he discovered the poem his father had written about the experience.

“Initially it was just meant to be a light-hearted story about this magpie that came to live with me, roosted in my hair, shat all over my clothes and stole my house keys. When my biological father died, though, it became a much, much more complicated story. Honestly, I really didn’t know what the book was about until I was quite far into the writing process.” – From the Vanity Fair interview

Williams was quite a character, a merry prankster, a Peter Pan sort, grandly creative but not the best at responsibility, able to charm all those around him, doing magic tricks, persuading people that he really was there for them, while never really being able to handle the demands or needs of the people who needed him most, leaving domestic carnage in his wake. Charlie had never really understood why, one day, he suddenly just got up and flew the coop on him and his mother, Polly Samson. This memoir tracks Charlie’s quest to make sense of the father he never really knew.

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Charlie Gilmour and his beloved magpie Benzene – image from Vanity Fair – photo by Sarah Lee

Charlie lucked out in the parent department in another way. When Mom remarried, it was to David Gilmour of Pink Floyd fame. None of David’s music career is addressed here. But he is shown as a stand-up guy, a supportive, understanding, and loving father who takes Charlie under his wing by adopting him.

Absent fathers are hardly uncommon. In 97 percent of single parent families, it’s the mother who ends up taking responsibility for the kids. The child’s impulse to seek them out is just as widespread: psychiatrists call it “father hunger”. I was lucky: I was adopted, and the man who became my dad is both a brilliant man and a brilliant parent. But the longing to know your maker is something that lives on. – from the Public reading Room piece

We follow the growth of Charlie along with Benzene. It is made clear early on that a magpie presents both challenges and delights that are uncommon in human-critter relations. Tales of bird behavior that might have one pulling out hair in clumps (which might actually be useful, as the bird stores food in Charlie’s hair) are told with warmth, and, frequently, hilarity. My favorite of these occurs when Benzene is under the sway of a nesting instinct, having settled on the top of the fridge as a place on which to construct her DIY nest. At a birthday party for her:

My dad strums her a song; my younger sister reads a poem; and a family friend, a venerable literary academic named John, unwillingly provides the sex appeal. This rather reserved man of letters is too polite to do anything but quote Shakespeare as Benzene places her birthday bluebottles and beetles lovingly up his sleeve and tugs the hem of his trousers insistently nestward.

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Heathcote Williams planning one of the Windsor free festivals in his Westbourne Park squat, London, in 1974 – Image from his obit in the Guardian – Photo by Richard Adams

Charlie’s nesting life is also under development. After he marries his partner and they talk about growing their family, he must confront his fears of being a parent himself. Nature vs nurture. Will he be the absentee his biological father was, or the rock-solid mensch of a parent he lucked into in David Gilmour? Clearly a concern that requires some resolution before going ahead and fertilizing an egg. The issue extends to a question of mental illness. Heathcote had been ill-behaved enough to get institutionalized. It was certainly the case that his behavior often crossed the line from eccentric to certifiable. Did Charlie inherit his father’s proclivities? Is genetics destiny? Charlie had committed some behavioral excesses of his own, consuming vast quantities of illegal substances, which fueled some extremely bad behavior. This landed him on the front pages of the local tabloids, swinging from a beloved and respected war memorial during a protest, and then in prison.

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Charlie with David Gilmour – image from The Guardian – photo by Sarah Lee

Charlie takes us through the attempts he made for many years to connect with Heathcote, but his father offered only teases of interest, always managing to disappear before Charlie could latch on, a hurtful bit of legerdemain.

In addition to the title, the names, which largely focus on feather development, given to the five parts of the book, set the tone. All the expected imagery is used throughout, including fledging to nest-building, to mating behavior, to molting, egg-laying and so on. It could easily have been overdone, but I found it charming. In rooting about in Heathcote’s history Charlie offers us, in addition to his personal tale, some of Heathcote’s outrageous adventures from back in the day. Charlie’s personal growth as a person adds heft.

I was reminded of a few other memoirs. In Hollywood Park, musician and writer Mikel Jollett tries, a lot more successfully than Charlie, to connect with his missing father, confronting issues of nature vs nurture. Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk looks at her training a goshawk as a coping mechanism to help in grieving for and remaining connected to her late father, similar in feathery subject matter, although it is quite a different book. Alan Cumming, in Not My Father’s Son, looks at the damage his father had done to him, trying to figure out how this mercurial man had become so cruel, as Charlie tries to figure out how his mercurial, if not overtly cruel, father had become so nurturing-phobic. John Grogan’s Marley and Me looks at the difficulties of caring for a difficult pet, and the corresponding rewards.

It is not necessary to love the memoirist to enjoy their book, but that is not an issue here. Charlie behaved rather poorly, both as a child and an early twenty-something, but learned his lesson, grew up, straightened out, and became a likable, decent sort, a very good writer who is very well able to communicate the struggles through which he has grown. It is easy to root for him to get to the bottom of what made Heathcote tick, and to find a way to make peace with what their minimal relationship had been. His writing is accessible, warm, moving, and at times LOL funny. You will need a few tissues at the ready by the end. Just for padding your roost, of course.

In the Archive, the sour smell of mold is somehow even more overpowering than it was at Port Eliot, as if the material is rebelling against the light. At the end of each day I come away filthy, sneezing, and feeling lousy—but I keep going back for more. I need this. My approach is far from methodical. I attack the body of words and images like a carrion bird, looking for the wound that will yield to my prying beak, the original injury that unravels the man. I peel back layers of skin, pick over the bones, snip my way to the heart of the matter. A patchwork biography begins to emerge; a rough story told in scavenged scraps. It feels almost like stealing, like robbing the grave, except it’s not the treasure that interests me. Heathcote’s glories get hardly a glance. It’s the traumas I’m searching for. Answers to those same old questions. Why does a person disappear? What makes a man run from his child? Why was Heathcote so afraid of family? What forces guided that nocturnal flight in Spring so many years ago?

Review posted – February 19, 2021

Publication date – January 5, 2021

I received an ARE of this book from Scribner in return for an honest review. No feathering of nests was involved. Thanks, folks.

And thanks to MC for bringing this to my attention. You know who you are.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–The One Show – The One Show: Elton John meets Charlie Gilmour
—–David Gilmour: ‘I’ve been bonded to Charlie since he was three. We were incensed by the injustice’ – Charlie and David Gilmour on their relationship and history
—–Bookpage – Charlie Gilmour: From feathers to fatherhood by Alice Cary
—–Vanity Fair – Birds of a Feather. Interview with Charlie Gilmour by Chiara Nardelli Nonino

Songs/Music
—–Donovan – The Magpie
—–The Beatles – Blackbird

Items of Interest from the author
—–Vogue – What Raising a Magpie Taught Me About My Famous, Troubled Father
—–Waterstones – a promo vid for the book – 1:52
—–5×15 Stories – Featherhood – a story about birds and fathers
—–The Guardian – ‘One spring morning my dad vanished’: the son of poet Heathcote Williams looks back
—–Public Reading Rooms – Heathcote Williams: Eulogy to the Dad I never knew
—– Charlie’s articles for Vice

Items of Interest
—–BBC – My Unusual Life | The Man Who Lives With a Magpie – a short doc on Charlie
—–Wiki on Pin feathers
—–The Guardian – David Gilmour: ‘I’ve been bonded to Charlie since he was three. We were incensed by the injustice’
—–Straight Up Herman – an arts journal blog – Being Kept by a Jackdaw – Heathcote Williams’ poem

Other memoirs of interest
—–Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett
—–H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
—–Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming
—–Marley and Me by John Grogan

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, Non-fiction, Science and Nature

Digging for Truth – We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper

book cover

I’m here because, for the past ten years. I have been haunted by a murder that took place a few steps away. It was told to me my junior year of college like a ghost story: a young woman, a Harvard graduate student of archaeology, was bludgeoned to death in her off-campus apartment in January 1969. Her body was covered with fur blankets and the killer threw red ochre on her body, a perfect recreation of a burial ritual. No one heard any screams; nothing was stolen. Decades passed, and her case remained unsolved. Unsolved, that is, until yesterday.

“Every nation-state wants an important past,” Karl said. So, often the ruling parties will commission archaeologists. But sometimes the past the archaeologists find is not what the powers want them to find.

In Becky Cooper’s gripping true-crime tale, We Keep the Dead Close, there are two mysteries at work. Who brutally murdered Jane Britton and why, and was Harvard University involved in covering up the murder? If so, did they know who the guilty party was?

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Becky Cooper – from the Boston Globe – photo by Becky Cooper

Ok, so here is how I went about reading the book. In addition to entering into my review file the names of the suspects people connected to the crime, I also kept a running list of the questions I thought needed answering as the book moved along. Here is a sample from reading through page 32:

Questions so far
—–Was Jim H (Jane’s sort-of bf) at her door at 9a as reported by her friends and neighbors, the Mitchells?
—–Where is Jim H now?
—–Who were the two men dashing to a car at 12:30a as reported by neighbor Ravi?
—–Why was Jane’s cat screaming at 8p, and if the place was effectively soundproof how did neighbor Carol Presser hear it?
—–Sounds like the killer was left-handed, given the location of the fatal blow.
—–What’s the deal with the red ochre sprinkled over Jane’s body?

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Jane Britton – image from Wikimedia

I kept a separate list for the question of whether Harvard engaged in a coverup. In a book of over 400 pages you can see how this list might grow. And grow it did, even as I checked off many of the questions when they were answered. But that was one of the major joys of reading this, or, I guess, any true crime book, or fictional crime book for that matter. Seeing if what strikes the author, or the investigators, is also what strikes you, the reader, the rousing of our inner Sherlock. Aside from the mystery, the whodunit of the story, there is content in abundance. For example, how can an institution like Harvard at the very least appear to be involved in covering up a crime, and yet remain unaccountable. Maybe that is not so surprising given that, after lives of diverse forms of crime, the Trump family remains on the spacious side of prison bars. But still, there is, or at least should be, some shock value to this. Did Harvard leadership hide a capital crime, did Harvard obstruct justice for fifty years? Cooper looks at evidence suggesting that it did.

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Professor Karl Lamberg-Karlovsky was a prime suspect in Britton’s murder – image from the NY Post – grad students had accumulated a file on him. One of them died under questionable circumstances.

As noted in the opening quote at top, Cooper had come across this story while an undergraduate at Radcliffe. The professor presumed most likely to have done the deed was still teaching at Harvard. Cooper graduated, moved on, was having a life, but the story stuck with her. Ten years after her undergrad days, she returned to the scene of the crime, as a graduate student, determined to find out the truth of Jane Britton’s death.

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The Dig team in Iran in 1968 – from West Hunter

This is a journey very reminiscent of Michelle McNamara’s amazing I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, in which she helped track down the Golden State Killer. Could Cooper do the same? We follow her through the labyrinth of her investigation, talking with everyone who knew Jane at the time of her death, and then branching out to the people who knew the people who knew her. She keeps trying to get access to official police records, a remarkably difficult undertaking for such a cold case, even moreso as Massachusetts is one of the worst states in the nation on Freedom of Information access, and gets in touch with local and state investigators who were involved back then. Suspects get their time in the spotlight, then are replaced with others. Was it one of these, or maybe someone in Jane’s circle who was never thought of as a suspect, or maybe someone else entirely?

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Jane Britton and Ed Franquemont at their college graduation in 1967 – image from Town & Country – source: the Jane Britton Police File – Franquemont, an ex, was universally disliked by Jane’s friends. He may have been physically abusive to her

But there is a whole lot more going on here than a procedural effort to unearth the truth in a nearly fifty-year-old cold case. There is a consideration of historical and all-too-contemporary gender discrimination issues at Harvard, a strong thread about story that permeates, and a subset of that, on rumor as a means of social control.

Cooper documents decades of dismissive treatment of women, not just at Harvard, but in academia well beyond those ivied walls. This manifests in many ways. Women at Harvard in the 1970s learned to dress as sexlessly as possible in order to de-emphasize their gender, lest they be seen as less academically capable than their male clasamates. In the 1980s, women were ushered to positions in the university that were high on administrative duties and low in departmental influence. In 1994 Nancy Hopkins documented the bias against women, showing that only 8 percent of the science faculty at MIT were women, and even lower, 5 percent, at Harvard. In 2005 Hopkins confronted then Harvard president Larry Summers at a conference when he claimed that female under-representation in science faculties was the result of innate biological differences. In the twenty-teens, Associate Professor Kimberly Theidon, was active at Harvard speaking out about sex discrimination and sexual assault, faulting Harvard for its lagging sexual assault policy. When her concerns made it into The Crimson, Harvard’s newspaper, her tenure application, which had already been approved by the authorizing committee, was withdrawn. Behind-closed-door deliberations on tenure decisions shields Harvard from much-needed transparency.

The tenure decision-making process “is an invitation to abuse,” Howard Georgi, a Harvard physicist who has served on tenure committees told Science magazine in 1999. “There’s no question this has affected women.”

The whole notion for the book began, of course, with the story BC heard when she was a Radcliffe undergrad. The police withholding their information made the story of Jane’s death largely oral, and certainly unofficial. And we know from the game Telephone, how stories can change when passed along that way. The file kept by graduate students at Harvard about Karl, with so many elements poorly examined, if researched at all, made that a kind of urban legend. Everybody back at the time of her death had their own experience of Jane and BC tries to make sense of them, learn from their Rashomon-like views the truth of who Jane was. She presents to us a Jane Britton who is not just a body deprived of life, but a three-dimensional person, with a personality, a history, hopes, talents, complications, and ambitions.

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Jane Britton’s boyfriend, Jim Humphries, was also a possible suspect. – image from the NY Post – source: Jane Britton police file

We construct history from the pieces that are available to us. Artifacts, physical objects, letters, photographs, newspaper reports, police reports, spaces that existed then that are still around today. Cooper pursues all she can find, but some will never be unearthed. Sometimes those pieces might lead in opposing directions. Sometimes the pieces might lead nowhere. Sometimes small pieces might hold large truths. Sometimes what seem large pieces hold little explanatory value. Which are the important shards? And which are just detritus? It takes persistence, sensitivity, intelligence, and creativity to make the story we construct of these pieces reflect the truth of the person, the event, or the time we are attempting to describe. Karl Lamberg-Karlovsky’s claim to fame, for example, was not the high academic achievement of his field research. It was his ability to transform the bits he found into a compelling tale. And what about the missing puzzle pieces, the police reports that were kept hidden, the people there in 1968 and 1969 who had died? We can never really know all there is to know. But hopefully we can, with the evidence we are able to gather, get close enough.

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Richard Michael (Mike) Gramly (many years later, obviously) not only knew Jane at the time of her death, but was also on an expedition when another young woman vanished mysteriously – he was known to have serious anger issues

There were rumors bouncing around Jane and her death like neutrons in a nuclear reactor. Many of the people with whom Cooper spoke had a favorite suspect they believed guilty of the crime, offering what they knew or, maybe, had heard or suspected as supporting evidence. Did Ed Franquemont beat her? Was Mike Gramly guilty of maybe two killings? Did Jane have an affair with Karl in Iran? Did Jane threaten to expose a professional lie Karl had told? Did she blackmail him to gain an advantage in her exams, and a place on the next dig? Was Karl a plagiarist? Was Karl a murderer? Did rumors surround him because of his arrogance or because he might be guilty? How about Lee Parsons [sorry, I was unable to find a photo, but Lee is a prime suspect]? Something happened between Lee and Jane at a notorious “Incense Party” at his place. But what? Did Lee confess to killing Jane many years later? In Cooper’s investigative travels she crosses paths with an expert in such things.

As I thought more about [medical anthropologist] Mel [Konner]’s assertion that the rumors were a form of punishment, I found myself reading scholarly work on the social functions of gossip. I eventually worked my way to Chris Boehm, a former classmate of Jane’s who’s studied how gossip works in small-scale societies. He had, in fact, used Jane’s murder as an example in his paper about gossip as a form of social control.


According to Boehm, social groups necessarily have a certain amount of “leakiness“ built in. These are the whisper networks; these are the stories that get swapped in the field and passed quietly between graduate students. Their job is to limit outlier behavior and to keep members of the community safe when what can be said out loud is constrained. Gossip, in other words, is punishment for people who move outside the norms.

There is so much going on here, and it is so accessibly presented that you will be rewarded with much more than the knowledge of who killed Jane Britton. You will learn a lot about Harvard, how academia treats women, how gossip works in the world, and how one might go about solving a very cold case. You may or may not want to read this book in the somewhat OCD manner I pursued, focusing on solving the mystery. That way does add considerably to the reading time, as well as the filling feeling one gets from such activities. But whether you dust off each piece of information as it emerges, or speed through Cooper’s excavation on a mud-spattered Jeep, you will be well rewarded. Once you dig out We Keep the Dead Close from your bookseller’s shelves, you will definitely want to keep it close until you finish reading, exploring, and learning. This is an expedition well worth signing up for.

…the act of interpretation molds the facts in service of the storyteller. I have been burned enough times to know. There are no true stories; there are only facts, and the stories we tell ourselves about those facts.

Review posted – January 8, 2021

Publication dates
———-November 10, 2020 – hardcover
———-September 14, 2021 – trade paperback

I received a copy of the book from Grand Central in return for an honest review, or at least, as honest a review as might be possible given the materials I was able to excavate. Thanks, folks.

And thanks to MC. You know who you are.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–This is an EXCELLENT interview – Wellington Square Bookshop – We Keep The Dead Close by Becky Cooper | Author Interview with Sam Hankin – video – 41:15
—–Grand Central Publishing – Becky Cooper & editor Maddie Caldwell in conversation – video – 56:16 – safe to skip the 2:13 intro

Items of Interest
—–Wiki – Murder of Jane Britton
—–WebSleuths.com

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Filed under American history, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, History, Non-fiction, Reviews

A Higher Loyalty by James Comey

book cover

All bullies are largely the same. They threaten the weak to feed some insecurity that rages inside them. I know. I’ve seen it up close.

James Comey is a lawyer, and in A Higher Loyalty he has presented a case to the jury of American public opinion. He lays out the steps of his interactions with Swamp Thing, from introduction to long-distance buh-bye. This is what happened, here, here, and there, on this, this, and that dates. This is what was said. This is what I understood those words to mean. And really, who are you going to believe, a public servant with a decades-long reputation for, among other things, honesty, or a feckless serial and possibly pathological liar?

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James Comey – image from the NY Times

One can argue that it was not Swamp Thing’s clear collusion with Russia that constituted Ground Zero for what would become, in effect, a large-scale impeachment inquiry. Given the spinelessness of GOP legislators and the toadying nature of most of Trump’s appointees, given the clear intention of the Trump administration to install such creatures in as many positions of power as possible, it is a distinct possibility that there might have been no Special Counsel investigation but for a single action, taken by Swamp Thing, and his childish inability to keep his lies straight. We would still have the Quisling sorts like Devin Nunes, who could be counted on to cover their boss’s and their own butt cheeks instead of doing their constitutionally defined job of overseeing the executive branch. The hyper-partisanship and cowardice of most Republicans in the federal government have made a laughing stock of our democracy across the planet. That would have been there in any case. But on May 9, 2017, after having failed to gain a personal loyalty pledge, Swamp Thing fired James Comey as the head of the FBI, with the laughable excuse that Comey had mishandled his job of investigating Hillary Clinton, which is not to say that Comey managed it well, of which more later, but that Swamp Thing had previously praised Comey’s actions as courageous. ( Those who support his dismissal by Swamp Thing will likely succumb to right-wing talking points, preposterous though they are, that Comey was a secret Hillary supporter, whose actions strove to bolster her candidacy. If you believe that, please stop reading now. Your brain has ceased functioning and nothing written here will make any sense to you. Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.) When he subsequently admitted on a nationally televised interview that his reason for doing so was “the Russia thing,” he opened the door to a world of hurt. In the absence of the Comey firing there may never have been a Special Counsel investigation into “the Russia thing,” but by so blatantly obstructing justice by firing Comey, Swamp Thing placed the target, in flashing neon, on his own back.

That is the true starting point of Comey’s book. But, like most well written legal documents, there is considerable backstory, and in a very well written case, there is a central thrust. The tale told here is not just about his few months of interactions with the president. He offers pieces of his life story to let us know the kind of person he is, or at least the kind of person he wants us to see him as, the experiences that molded his character, the personal motivations that informed his adult decisions, and what he portrays as ethical choices made in challenging situations in his career. He wants us to understand that he believes he acted properly, both in doing what he did during the 2016 presidential campaign, and in refusing to do what the tainted president demanded of him. And, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the decision will be yours.

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Image from SusieMadrak.com

Here are the charges

—–Did Director Comey tell the truth when he testified that the president had pressured him to drop the case against Michael Flynn?

—–Is Director Comey an egotistical prima donna who put his personal needs and perspective above the needs of the nation and his bosses?

—–Did FBI Director Comey, with forethought and malice, and by choosing to break with FBI protocol, deliberately affect the 2016 presidential election in such a way as to damage the campaign of Hilary Clinton?

Questions

—–Does Swamp Thing really run his White House as if he were a mafia don?

—–Does a guy who’s 6’8” really think he can fade into the woodwork by getting up close and personal with White House drapery that sort of matches his suit?

—–Has Comey behaved in a non-partisan manner in the jobs he has held, in the decisions he made in those jobs?

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Image from @dumptrump33 – Of course we may be raising our expectations a tad high for RM

As for that central thrust thing, it is alluded to in the opening quote. Comey bloody hates bullies. He had to contend with them as a not-nearly-oversized teen. He was thrilled, when pursuing his legal career, to have an opportunity to go after some of the uber-bullies of our society, members of organized crime. He was also on the scene when one of our major political bullies, Dick Cheney, tried to wrest a signature from a man in a hospital ward, just so he could continue an expiring domestic surveillance program of questionable legality. In a way, all his life had led up to his dealings with Swamp Thing, a person who is the very personification of the coward as bully. Comey knew what he was facing when Swamp Thing was elected. He hoped to be able to avoid conflicts with him, and see out his ten-year term as FBI head. He knew the odds of that happening were small.

We are offered a look into Comey’s upbringing in Yonkers, and then New Jersey.

Being an outsider, being picked on, was very painful, but in hindsight it made me a better judge of people. In my life, I would spend a lot of time assessing threats, judging tone of voice, and figuring out the shifting dynamic in a hallway or locker room crowd. Surviving a bully requires constant learning and adaptation. Which is why bullies are so powerful, because it’s so much easier to be a follower, to go with the crowd, to just blend in.

He walks us through some of his career steps and big moments. These include the successful prosecution of a large chunk of the New York area mafia, prosecuting Martha Stewart, prosecuting Scooter Libby, and the event that made his reputation. He was the acting Attorney General at a time when the Stellar Wind program, an illegal domestic spying undertaking, according to DoJ analysis, was up for renewal. The administration needed a sign-off by the AG, and acting AG Comey refused. Getting wind that Presidential counsel Alberto Gonzalez and Chief of Staff Andy Card were on their way to the hospital to wrest a signature from the barely conscious John Ashcroft, being treated for a life-threatening condition, he dashed to the hospital himself, sirens howling and lights flashing, calling Robert Mueller, then the head of the FBI, to join him in preventing this blatant malfeasance. It is the stuff of legend. And secured him a place in the pantheon of political heroes for his courage under such withering political fire. The passage could have been written by any of today’s best-selling writers of political thrillers, leaving one breathless, even though we know the outcome. Though the broad strokes are at least somewhat familiar to folks who pay attention to the news, there are details I bet you do not know and will be very surprised to learn. The book is worth it just for that section alone.

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Attorney General John Ashcroft – image from US News

Throughout, Comey talks about trying to do the right, the moral, the ethical thing when confronted with difficult decisions. He is certainly persuasive when he writes about the lessons he has learned over his life from people he has known and respected, and from important people and writers whose work has informed his growth as an ethical person. He cites as a particular influence the writings of religious philosopher Reinhold Nieburh, someone many in government, from both parties, have looked to for inspiration. You may be surprised at some of the other people he notes as influencers.

Also a bit of a surprise is his take on various people he has been connected to, most of whom will be familiar. Rudy Giuliani, who had held the US Attorney position for the Southern District of New York when Comey was a prosecutor there, comes in for a look.

Though Giuliani’s confidence was exciting, it fed an imperial style that severely narrowed the circle of people with whom he interacted, something I didn’t realize was dangerous until much later: a leader needs the truth, but an emperor does not consistently hear it from his underlings. Rudy’s demeanor left a trail of resentment among the dozens of federal judges in Manhattan, many of whom had worked in that U.S. Attorney’s office. They thought he made the office about one person, himself, and used publicity about his cases as a way to foster his political ambitions rather than doing justice. It was a resentment that was still palpable when I became the chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan—and sat in Giuliani’s chair—a dozen years later.

Hizzoner’s fondness for the limelight has not faded a single watt. Comey also talks about his dealing with former AGs and others in government. His meetings with President Obama make for fascinating and surprising reading.

As with anyone who is presenting himself as ethical, and better than the pack in that regard, he offers up some specifics of errors he has made, including one fairly meaningless lie that he told as a young man, which made him feel particularly guilty. He points out an error of insensitivity he had made when addressing the Michael Brown case, but it is presented in such a way as to show how receptive he is to learning something new. It’s a bit like a job interview when the applicant tries to skirt the “What’s your worst quality?” question with how he works too hard for his own good. Eye roll please. Comey offers fleeting mea culpas on having an outsized ego and an eye for the dramatic, then notes several examples of what a wonderful, thoughtful boss he is. It is clear that he wants us to like, and respect him, and take his “aw, shucks,” demeanor at face value. But it is also quite clear that he is a well-armed, and well armored political in-fighter, familiar with his home turf, sharp-edged, and deft in the art of manipulation.

It is a clear thread throughout Comey’s book that his literary RPG is locked, loaded, and aimed at one Donald J. Trump. The things that disgusted him throughout his life, from childhood and in his public career are epitomized by the man who fired him for doing his job. A secondary, related, core is centered on defending his actions in 2016 and 2017, making the case that he should not have been sacked.

So what about the charges and questions?

I’m almost there. But before that, you should know that James Comey, whatever you think of him as a public official or as a political person, is a wonderful writer. He is able to paint a picture and bring you along with him with seeming effortlessness. No doubt this talent has been honed by his many years of preparing and presenting cases. This book is his case to all of us.

Ok, down to the end

—–Does Swamp Thing really run his White House as if he were a mafia don?
Really? Have you heard anything to offer a more accurate description? I haven’t. Spot on, JC, particularly given his familiarity with less powerful dons as a prosecutor in the SDNY.

—–Does a guy who’s 6’8” really think he can fade into the woodwork by getting up close and personal with White House drapery that matches his suit?
Yeah, he kinda thought he could. The drapery is taller than he is and the color matched his suit somewhat.

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Darth on Twitter had a bit of fun with this

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As you can see from this image from War News Blogspot, Comey was sure to be spotted

—–Has Comey behaved in a non-partisan manner in the jobs he has held, in the decisions he made in those jobs?
As for being non-partisan, I call BS on that. Comey is a Republican, and, while there have been notable instances in which he has risen above purely partisan perspectives, that bias has, I believe, interfered with his ability to remain consistently above the political fray. He writes, for example,

I wanted to find a way to help Bush. This man, whom I liked and wanted to see succeed, appeared not to realize the storm that was coming. The entire Justice Department leadership was going to quit, and just as he was running for reelection.

A politically disinterested official would have given such a concern zero consideration.

We all bear responsibility for the deeply flawed choices put before voters during the 2016 election…

Rather a false equivalence, no? It is pretty obvious how flawed the Republican candidate was, but the Democratic nominee was one of the most qualified presidential candidates in modern history. The deep flaws some insist on seeing were primarily made up of lies that had been broadcast about her for decades by a well-financed and relentless political attack machine. Like one of those augmented reality games that let you superimpose imaginary characters onto a real-world scene. (Pokémon GOP?) So BS on that, too. Opting to go public with a re-opening of the investigation of Hillary so late in the election season, against protocol, and without the prior knowledge of his AG, knowing it would likely impact the election, while simultaneously keeping under wraps the ongoing investigation of Trump for collusion with Russia was really the kicker. I believe this revealed his partisan stripes, however well he may have tried to disguise them in the tall grass of self-justification. Many will find his explanation persuasive. I am not among them. Bias revealed.

—–Did Director Comey tell the truth when he testified that the president had pressured him to drop the case against Michael Flynn?

Here is piece of how he describes that interaction

He then said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
At the time, I had understood the president to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December.

The preponderance of news coverage, confirmed by Comey’s reporting here, makes it abundantly clear that Swamp Thing did indeed ask for special treatment for his guy, a glaringly illegal no-no. Comey was right to continue with business as usual after getting this appalling directive, which is exactly what it was.

—–Is Director Comey an egotistical prima donna who put his personal needs and perspective above the needs of the nation and his bosses?

IMHO, Yes, but with significant asterisks.

Even Comey’s close friends acknowledge that his great strength is also his great weakness: a belief in his own integrity. “He believes this in a way that creates big blind spots, because he substitutes his judgment for the rules,” says Matt Miller, a former director of public affairs for the D.O.J. – from the Vanity Fair Article

See more on this below.

—–Did FBI Director Comey, with forethought and malice, and by choosing to break with FBI protocol, deliberately affect the 2016 presidential election in such a way as to damage the campaign of Hillary Clinton?

Yes and No. It seems to me that Comey’s identification with the departments to which he has belonged or which he has headed, whether temporarily or long-term, is extremely strong. Not a bad thing, per se. But I believe there have been times when he has proven himself unable to separate where James Comey ended and the FBI or the Department of Justice began, leading to situations where Le département est moi. I believe that in some of his actions, Comey, knowingly or unknowingly, became, in his head, one with the department. Therefore, it is impossible to differentiate where actions intended to protect the reputation of the FBI or the Department of Justice leave off and become actions to defend the ego and reputation of James Comey. And there is a considerable ego involved. I would not be surprised if Comey, at some not necessarily conscious level, saw himself as a sacrificial figure, a Prometheus who gave the nation the fire of just cause to investigate Trump’s Russia dealings, or even a Christ-figure, sacrificed, if perhaps not as intentionally as the original, for the greater good.

Bottom line is that if you have not read this book, really, what the hell are you waiting for? It is a beautifully written picture of one of the most compelling political stories of our time. Even if you have strong party-based feelings about Swamp Thing or Comey, even if you may (as I did) roll your eyes on occasion, it is worth hearing the story from the horse himself. You will learn some things you did not know and be entertained while doing so. You don’t have to swear a loyalty oath to read this book, but you would be doing yourself a disservice to let it slip.

Review first posted – May 11, 2018

Publication date – April 17, 2018

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Comey on Twitter

Items of interest
—–Vanity Fair The True Story of the Comey Letter Debacle – by Bethany McLean
—– Wiki on Reinhold Niebuhr
—–full transcript of Rachel Maddow’s interview with Comey
—–Stephen Colbert’s interview with Comey
—–The Comey Memos
—–6 Takeaways From the James Comey Memos – by Michael S. Schmidt
—–March 21, 2019 – NYTimes – James Comey: What I Want From the Mueller Report
—–June 14, 2018 – Vox – The long-awaited inspector general report on the FBI, Comey, Clinton, and 2016, explained – by Andrew Prokop

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Filed under American history, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, History, Non-fiction, Public policy, True crime

It’s What I Do by Lynsey Addario

book cover

“Sahafi! Media!! He yelled to the soldiers. He opened the car door to get out, and Quadaffi’s soldiers swarmed around him. “Sahafi!”
In one fluid movement the doors flew open and Tyler, Steve, and Anthony were ripped out of the car. I immediately locked my door and buried my head in my lap. Gunshots shattered the air. When I looked up, I was alone. I knew I had to get out of the car to run for cover, but I couldn’t move.

Click!

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Lynsey Addario – from CBS News

You may not recognize the name Lynsey Addario, but if you read newspapers, check out magazines, or are aware at all of the imagery that accompanies major events in the world, you have seen her work. Addario is one of the premier photojournalists on the planet and has the portfolio, the Pulitzer, and a MacArthur award to prove it. In 2014, American Photo named her one of the five most influential photographers of the last quarter century. In 2012, Newsweek magazine cited her as one of 150 Women Who Shake the World. Thankfully, she does not shake her camera when she is shooting (unless of course it is for intended effect). Although no one could blame her if she did. Addario has spent a large portion of her career as a conflict photographer, working for extended periods on the scene in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Congo, Sudan, and other garden spots. Wherever people have been shooting at each other in the last two decades there is a good chance that Lynsey Addario has been there. The one place she declares she will not go these days is Syria, which says something. She has been kidnapped in the field twice and has felt her life to be in danger more times than that, so when she says she won’t go to a place, it must be something really special.

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US Soldiers in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan

It’s What I Do is Addario’s tale of her journey from growing up in a Connecticut suburb as part of a Bohemian family, to finding and developing a talent for capturing life through a lens, to pursuing a career in photography. While working in New York in 1999, she got a big break, being asked to work on an Associated Press project looking into transgender prostitution in the city, and the spate of homicides with which that community was being afflicted. It turned into a months-long undertaking and brought her work to public notice for the first time. Click!

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A shot from that series

In 2000, a family friend invited her to go India.

Everything that made India the rawest place on earth made it the most wonderful to photograph. The streets hummed with constant movement, a low-grade chaos where almost every aspect of the human condition was in public view. Click!

It was while there that she was encouraged to go to Afghanistan to shoot the lives of women living under the Taliban. She was able to gain access to a half of Afghani society barred to her male counterparts. Click!

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Women and girls study and recite the Koran in Peshawar, Pakistan, 2001 – from the Women’s Eye

9/11 brought on a whole new era of conflict. Addario was on the scene when the USA invaded Iraq, having set up shop in Kurdistan when Saddam Hussein was toppled. Of course that required some extra planning. At the time she got the assignment she was in South Korea covering refugees from the north, and enduring the extraordinary humanitarian horrors of the extended karaoke the refugees enjoyed. She needed to get tooled up for the job and it proved challenging. One thing she had to arrange for was body armor. She found herself befuddled by the on-line offerings. She wrote to her editor.

I have checked out the websites you recommended, and am not sure if I just tried to read Korean. Basically, I have no idea what I am looking at—ballistic, six-point adjustable, tactical armor, etc. Please understand that this language is not familiar to me—I grew up in Connecticut, was raised by hairdressers.

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A woman prays at dawn after the 2010 earthquake that nearly destroyed Haiti

She was kidnapped for the first time while en route to Ramali with other journalists. And was subsequently jarred when Life magazine declined to publish her photographs, because they were too real for the American public. (The New York Times Magazine would later publish some of the work.) The experience of working in the Iraq war zone and coping with the politics of news publishing provided valuable life lessons.

…something in me had changed after three months in Iraq. I was now a photojournalist willing to die for stories that had the potential to educate people. I wanted to make people think, to open their minds, to give them a full picture of what was happening in Iraq so they could decide if they supported our presence there.

Her work has often demonstrated the power of the image. When she got shots of a Sudan massacre she made it impossible for President Bashir to continue denying that the war crime had taken place.

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Addario’s image of armed boys and men near the Afghan border won her a Pulitzer – from The Women’s Eye

Addario pooh-poohs any notion that she is an adrenalin junkie. She says that she has come to recognize that the photos she takes have the power to inform the public and influence people, so feels a responsibility, a calling to bear witness to much of the awfulness of the world in order to shine some light on it, to bring it to the world’s attention.

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Addario stopped to help when one of these women was in labor, miles from a hospital. She gave them a ride. – From Itswhatidobook.com

When Addario first submitted her manuscript, she was advised to make it more personal, as in writing about her off-the-field life as well as her experiences behind the lens. She includes in the final version a bit of her love-life history, which entailed some admittedly bad choices. As a dedicated career-woman, sustaining relationships has always taken second place to her work. She says she even walked out on dinner dates when she got an assignment.

Recently, a young photographer asked her how to get into the business. She told him to start traveling, shooting and contacting editors for assignments. When he told her that he didn’t want to travel much because of his girlfriend, Addario told him to break up with her.
“He thought I was insane,” says Addario. “I told him you have to decide what your priorities are. If you are not willing to make that sacrifice, there are 10,000 young photographers who will.”
– from Photo District News article

The book contains many amazing shots Addario has taken over the course of her career. They add significantly to the aura of outsized accomplishment that Addario has earned. One significant thing about the shots Addario takes is that they are not only journalistically effective but expose an impressive artistic talent. She is able to tell troubling stories while at the same time making outstanding art. The book is printed on very high-quality paper, images and text, which adds a very tactile richness to both the visual power on display and the engaging text.

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An Iraqi woman fleeing a massive fire in Basra in 2003

Although one can piece together information by reading diverse articles about her, and watching sundry videos in which Addario does presentations and is interviewed, those connections are not always spelled out in the book. Particularly in the earlier parts of her photographic sojourn, it was somewhat murky why and how she decided to uproot and move to Argentina, and later to India.

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Syrian refugees in Northern Iraq

It’s What I Do is not a photography book. You will not get any technical tips there. While you will see some very nicely printed photographic images, those are there to enhance, to illuminate the text. The main thing here is her story. Lynsey Addario is a rock star in the world of photographic journalism. She takes us frame by frame on her journey from suburban origins as the child of hairdressers to becoming a world traveler covering important events everywhere on the planet in an attempt to illuminate the darkness. It is quite clear that her achievements have come at considerable personal cost, and that she is possessed of a rare personal fire that has driven her to take large risks in order to fulfill what she perceives as her mission in life. For those of us not familiar with the names that appear under all those news photos, It’s What I Do offers particular insight into just how important it is to have photographic boots on the ground wherever important events are occurring. Real-world photography is Addario’s contribution to the world. We are all enriched by her efforts, her sacrifices, her courage and her talent. This book will be an eye-opener for many. It is a perfectly focused, well-framed look at a life well lived, a life that has benefited and promises to continue to benefit us all. Click!

Publication
———-2/5/2015 – hardcover
———-11/8/2016 – paperback

Review first posted – 4/22/2016

BTW, a deal was struck at some point to turn this into a major film, with Jennifer Lawrence as Addario, to be directed by Steven Spielberg. As of 2022, we are still waiting, so who knows?

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

She has a separate personal site specifically for the book

Every time I leave my family I wonder why I’ve chosen this life. I leave my two-year-old son and I come home and he won’t speak to me for a few days. And it’s lonely on the road. And I’m in these strange hotel rooms, or tents. It’s not a luxurious life. It’s something that people think that you’re out there for the adrenalin rush. They think you’re out there because it’s glamorous. But it’s not. You’re out there as a photographer who has chosen to cover conflict. It’s a calling. It’s something that sort of takes over who I am. People ask me why I do this and it is what makes me most alive. It is what I believe in. it is my happiness and It’s what I do.

Videos
—–This is must-see – Addario’s presentation, followed by an interview, at Arts and & Ideas at the JCCSF
—–National Geographic – 26 minutes – Lynsey doing a presentation, with focus on her NG assignments. Much info from JFFC presentation is repeated, but there is a lot that is different so this one is also definitely worthwhile
—–The Annenberg Space for Photography – focus on her kidnapping – 10 minutes
—– Item on CBS This Morning linked from LA‘s site
—–Time Magazine – This opens as text, but there are videos embedded

Interviews
—–Photo District News. Among other things this has a lot on breaking into the business
—– The Literate lens – In Love and War: An Interview with Lynsey Addario
—– Photojournalist Lynsey Addario On Her Relentless Pursuit of Truth – from The Women’s Eye

Articles
—–From American Photo – THE INFLUENCERS: LYNSEY ADDARIO
—–National Geographic – December 19, 2017 – Inside a Female Photographer’s Experience Documenting War – by Daniel Stone – Regarding the documentary series The Long Road Home, about the Iraq War

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Addario watched as Iraqi Shiite followers of Muqtada Al Sadr stood amidst burning tires in Sadr City moments before American tanks opened fire on the area in Baghdad, Iraq April 4, 2004
Image and image text from NatGeo article – Image by Addario, of course

—–July 10, 2020 – A new article by Addario in National Geographic – In the U.K., families of the dead still wonder: was it COVID-19?

—–August 27, 2022 – MSNBC interview with Addario – Photographer Lynsey Addario reflects on 6 months of the war in Ukraine

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Filed under Afghanistan, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, History, Journalism, Non-fiction