One woman who has been a big inspiration to me, especially in the height of my idealism in my mid-20s is writer and war correspondent Janine di Giovanni. In fact, I was kind of in awe of her in an almost creepy way – reading everything she wrote and following the turbulent journey of her life online and in print as if we were related.
At the time, I thought what she did was the coolest and most important job in the world (well, maybe except for being a doctor who can save lives). She went into wars all over the world for weeks, sometimes months, at a time and reported from the front lines for the world’s most respected newspapers. I was enamored by her courage and bravery. I agreed with her wholeheartedly when in one of her books on the wars she covered, she wrote about a life changing moment, when, as a young, green reporter in Israel, an Israeli lawyer defending Palestinians told her to “go everywhere, write everything, and give me a brief, a blueprint for life; if you have the chance to give a voice to people who do not have a voice…then you have an obligation.”
She inspired me to start writing and one day, I found myself in a very lucky position as a web reporter for an NGO. I was able to travel to twenty countries around the world reporting on a range of different issues focusing on human rights. Although I never saw the dead bodies or had to find shelter from flying bullets and falling bombs like she did, I saw enough to know that the world is one very fucked up place.
The event that has always stuck in my mind is when I visited Malta. We went to a detention center where refugees and asylum seekers from war-torn and poverty-stricken countries in north Africa had accidentally landed on route to Europe, usually Italy. I hope to revisit this experience in more depth in another post. For now, I just want to say that I was shocked by what had happened to these men – they were being held against their will with absolutely nothing to do all day and had to find ways to pass the time. I saw the loss of dignity they had endured- these tall, strong, capable men were in limbo and weren’t allowed to work legally, and had very little self-determination. The Maltese government were punishing them and would not send them back to Africa, nor forward to Italy. In the meantime, they descended into depression, slowly wasting away.
Then I wrote a little article about it, raised a little bit of awareness but essentially, nothing changed. And really, I couldn’t expect it to. Still, it was a pivotal moment for me. And of course, reality set in, where I realized I did not have even one-tenth of the balls needed to do this on a regular basis, to bear witness to so much pointless suffering. There was also the princess factor – was I really going to go ten days without brushing my teeth, or live without a flushing toilet and no running water like she did? Or being in freezing temperatures without heat in Eastern Europe sleeping on a floor? How about not showering for a week and risking getting shot at, tortured, imprisoned and gang-raped? No thanks.
And now, years later, I have again delved into di Giovanni’s life as I recently discovered she had written a memoir about the disintegration of her marriage to another war correspondent – a French cameraman.
In this book, Ghosts by Daylight: Love, War, and Redemption, she writes very eloquently and poignantly about how all of her and her husband’s harrowing experiences of war catch up with them as they have a baby and start a new life as a married couple in Paris.
One reason this book is so compelling is that she is brutally honest about the messy, unflattering aspects of herself and her marriage. She weaves the narrative back into her personal and professional past (although she never really separates the two) and relives some of her most traumatic experiences and then moves back seamlessly to her domestic life, reflecting on how these experiences shaped and often, harmed her. In one instance, when she first holds her son in her arms after a difficult, high-risk pregnancy and birth, she asks the doctor if her baby is dead.
She attributes being able to write about her experiences as one way that she didn’t descend into madness and suicide like many of her colleagues who covered the same wars as her – in Sarajevo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and countless others. Her husband, however, wasn’t so lucky.
Bruno is portrayed in her memoir as a rugged, dashing and charismatic figure who protects his wife with his seemingly indomitable courage, a warrior who fights until the bitter end – always the last man standing – and thrives on excitement, danger and adrenalin. Slowly, their marriage erodes as it becomes apparent he is falling victim to PTSD and alcoholism. Eventually, he enters rehab and AA, becomes sober and saves his own life. However, di Giovanni finds that they have both changed too much – the wildness, turbulence, chaos and passion has gone from their marriage and they separate, although remain close and share the parenting of their only son.
I recently listened to an interview with the author on the radio talk about her work. She was being interviewed by her long-time friend and former war correspondent, a Canadian woman, who said, at one point during the interview (I am paraphrasing here), “You know, I thought you had it all. You did what I couldn’t – I left that work because I couldn’t handle it. But you thrived with the dangerous, globe-trotting journalism job, the husband, the baby, the beautiful apartment in Paris – it was portrayed as an enviable life. I coveted it.”
To which di Giovanni replied that she kept up appearances and didn’t talk to anyone about her own suffering because of how all the tragedy that her family experienced as she was growing up was swept aside. Nobody talked about her dying or dead siblings, the drug addiction or other sorrows that plagued her upper-middle-class existence in New Jersey. “But there was so much mystery. We never talked about cousins who disappeared and died, about the problems in our own home: the bags of dope stashed in the cellar; the boys’ grades slipping or the fact they stopped playing sports and spent more time with bongs…We never talked about growing up, about what would happen when I left the painted black front gate or our home and went into the real world,” she writes.
di Giovanni is not looking for sympathy or pity as she lays her life bare. As a journalist of the highest calibre, she is committed to truth and portraying reality in the most raw and honest way she knows how.
Partway through her narrative, as she is coming to terms with her husband’s addiction and the unraveling of their ‘perfect’ life together, she asks the reader these pertinent questions: “Why do we deny ourselves reality? When is the right time to suddenly see the truth?” Indeed.