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Maintaining a front

A journalist at war with herself in a war zone

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There is something about Siobhan Darrow’s book, Flirting with Danger: Confessions of a Reluctant War Reporter, that left me feeling slightly uneasy, suspicious almost. This is not to say that I didn’t like the book and devour it in two sittings. Nor that I didn’t admire the former CNN reporter, her writing style and the persona she laid out on the page. Maybe it was the forced metaphor of being silently at war with herself when out in a war zone of Chechnya, Croatia, Israel, and Northern Ireland, feet running, hearts racing, bullets flying, bodies falling. Maybe it was the way the book was marketed—a bit too hyped and histrionic, like a sensationalized news story on MSNBC or CNN. Or maybe, above all else, it was the fact that the book has a happy ending. Like a Hollywood movie in which a tortured character finds complete, shiny, unmitigated happiness in the last 15 minutes, call me cynical, but I leave such a film with a slightly sour taste in my mouth. Give me a foreign film any day, a more open-ended finale, a more realistic mix of joy and struggle that reflects the bumpy journey.

Such criticisms aside, Flirting with Danger is full of information about war, political history, and the break-neck process of making a two-minute news spot. A star television correspondent, Darrow was clearly good at what she did. She had an eye for a story, for the people on both sides of a struggle, for the small details that humanize a situation. At the beginning of the book, she tells of her first experience with news coverage. On holiday in Maine with her family when she is 6 years old, the family comes across a beached whale. It is a baby whale and has been hit by a boat. It lies there, in the hot white sun of summer, blood and syrupy oil all over it. “The [TV] crew filmed the giant ocean casualty and then turned their camera on me. Now I realize what a perfect television image it was, a small girl weeping at the sight of this huge, wasteful death. Later, viewing the world through a TV lens became my way of life.” Later in the book, Darrow writes, “I had never planned to cover wars, but it was easier than confronting my own struggles.”

The idea of sorting out one’s own family baggage, struggling with inner demons, and ultimately accepting the past so as to live more fully in the present is honorable, something we should all strive to do. But Darrow’s book is supposed to be predominantly about her flak-jacketed adventures in danger zones, or so it was touted. As for Darrow’s litany of the “wrong boyfriend,” worries about her loudly ticking biological clock, and the old pain from a dysfunctional childhood, such self-reflection definitely has its place and can be compelling, but most of us have our own litany of past wrong guys, loud clocks, and messy families. I’m willing to hear about her affair with Ted Turner, her forays in the bubble bath with the hunky Italian hottie, and even her choice of number 3261 for sperm donation, but after a while, I say, let’s get back to the war.

Darrow is at her best when she is in the middle of the chaos. Like many of her colleagues, she realizes there is a certain addiction, a certain manic euphoric rush to being smack in the middle of danger: “Staring death in the face and surviving can be empowering, and some people feel more alive by coming close to death.” But this closeness to death can also have a numbing effect. She writes: “A strange thing happens when you look through a camera lens. The images so vivid to the naked eye are in fact black-and-white to the cameraman, somehow muting their impact. Just as we are numbed by the violence we see on television nightly, the photographers, intent on collecting their images, are severed emotionally from what they see.”

Just a step beyond the danger the opposite seems to happen. From her stories, it seems as if that sort of danger heightens the senses, intensifying the ability to hear and smell, touch and truly see the smallest of details, beautiful or raw. At one point, near Grozny, the CNN team finds refuge in a small kindergarten. They sleep in tiny cots in an abandoned classroom and write and edit the stories at the Lilliputian tables and chairs. It is the sight of these child-size chairs in the midst of a war zone that finally gets to her. “The tiny chairs upset me. I knew the scenes we were writing about threatened the future of their usual occupants. Their lives and their psyches would be scarred forever by what they were witnessing now. I struggled to find the right words to give meaning to what I was seeing.”

Darrow gives us lovely, vivid glimpses into place and time—from an afternoon watching Yeltsin and Gorbachev bicker like old biddies, to the dank beer bars of old Russia where dried fish innards washed down with cheap beer flowed as gregariously as the talk of Tolstoy and Lermontov. And in “new Russia” after the fall of the Soviet Union: “Vigorous entrepreneurs struck up bizarre alliances with old-style tenants to sell their wares…[A bookstore] on Gorky Street was doubling as a dealership for Chevrolets. A customer might come in looking for a Chevy coupe, and leave instead with Turgenev’s collected works or vice versa.”

Happy ending revealed and book closed, we take away some keen historical glimpses into the life of a war reporter. We may also be left to reconsider the validity of what has been known to send some single thirtysomething women into a tailspin—the fact that women over the age of 30 have a 50 percent greater chance of being killed by a terrorist than finding a husband.

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