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The Rev. Forrest Church, Living 'Love And Death'
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. Death is a central part of the definition of religion. For Unitarian minister Forrest Church, he says knowing that we must die, we question what life means. This question acquired a new sense of urgency when Church was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus two years ago. That was just a dress rehearsal for death. The cancer was treated, and he returned to his work.
But early this year, the cancer returned with a vengeance, and Church was given just a few months to live. Part of his response to the diagnosis was to write a new book called "Love and Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow." Church spent nearly three decades as senior minister at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in New York City, and he's now minister of public theology. One of his many books was about his relationship with his late father, Frank Church, who was a Democratic senator from Idaho. Reverend Church, welcome to Fresh Air.
Reverend FORREST CHURCH (Unitarian Minister): It's a great pleasure to be with you.
GROSS: First of all, I just want to say, I'm so glad you're well enough to be with us today.
Rev. CHURCH: I am delighted, too, I assure you.
GROSS: I want to start by reading something that you say in your book that really got to me, and this is right after you were - your thoughts about your life, and you thought imminent death right after your first diagnosis. You write, I embraced the diagnosis and started girding myself to die, no disbelief, no anger, no bargaining. In fact, if anything, I walked around in a pink cloud for a day or two feeling my death, getting used to it. Was my theology working or was I simply in denial or shock? Looking back, was your theology working or were you in denial or shock?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Rev. CHURCH: It was working. Every minister spends a lifetime preparing for this exam. The most important work we do is done with families in bereavement. But we really don't know, having given all of this advice and held all of these hands and walked all of this journeys through the valley, how we ourselves are going to respond. And it was a great relief to me that I was able to embrace my death. I sensed that, if you've made peace with your life, you can make peace with your death. But if you haven't, it's much more difficult.
The difference, all of us have ongoing business when were giving a terminal diagnosis. But the question is, do we have unfinished business? And I discovered I really didn't have any unfinished business, and that allowed me to be present for whatever was going to come. I didn't have to find myself bathing in regret or filled with anxious anticipation. I just sort of entered the zone, and I've been there for sometime.
GROSS: OK. So on the one hand, you feel like you reached acceptance of your death right after your diagnosis, and you can enter the zone.
Rev. CHURCH: Yeah.
GROSS: But at the same time, you write in your book, your wife was on the way to a trip to India when you were diagnosed. When she came home, she kind of knocked you out of that and said...
Rev. CHURCH: That's right. Well...
GROSS: Don't be so accepting of this.
Rev. CHURCH: She pointed out to me, in no uncertain terms, that this death was not mine alone. It was fine for me to splash around in the waters of acceptance and to say that I had no unfinished business, but there are lot of other people around me who had unfinished business. I mean, my children, my four children, my wife, and that shifted my - it sort of knocked the air out of my presumption and allowed me to focus on their needs and concerns, as opposed to sort of taking too great a pleasure in my own spiritual satisfaction.
GROSS: So, what did it mean to shift your attention back to them instead of...
Rev. CHURCH: Start listening. There's a tendency in the home of one who is sort of terminally ill for controlling of people's emotions, controlling of people's feelings, trying to keep things upbeat, trying to, in a sense, paper over what's actually happening. And what's happening is of great and lasting significance.
GROSS: You know, you write in your book, you know, again, about how you don't believe in an interventionist God, and you say, once you start praying to God to cure your cancer or asking God why he didn't answer you prayers, the questions never stop. And then you refer to, like, a bishop who said his faith was shaken by the tsunami.
Rev. CHURCH: Yes.
GROSS: And then you say, you don't like it when people say about a tragedy or about, you know, an illness or death, well, God has his reasons. It's just part of God's plan.
Rev. CHURCH: This is God's plan.
GROSS: What do you object to about that? Why isn't that the...
Rev. CHURCH: Well, I can see how it can give comfort. But God doesn't throw a three-year-old child out of a third story window or allow a drunken driver to kill a family crossing the street. This is not part of God's plan. These are the accidents of life and death. And if God, for instance, is responsible for a tsunami, that obliterates the lives of a hundred thousand people and leaves their families in tatters, then God's a bastard.
I cannot believe in such a God. For me, God is the life force, that which is greater than all and yet present in each. But God is not micromanaging this world. That is a presumption that we are naturally drawn to because of our sense of centrality and self importance, but there are 1,500 stars for every living human being. And the God that I believe in is an absolute magnificent mystery.
GROSS: Now, you're a Unitarian minister.
Rev. CHURCH: Yes, I am.
GROSS: You know, a lot of people condescend to the Unitarian Church and...
Rev. CHURCH: Yes.
GROSS: They feel, oh, it's so ecumenical, and it's so non-doctrinal that, you know, why bother?
Rev. CHURCH: Yes. Well, we do not have answers to unanswerable questions. And in some ways, the Unitarian faith at its essence is the most humble of faiths. We believe in deeds and not creeds. We live to save ourselves in the world and for the world, not from the world. And that means that there's a strong ethic involved in our faith and probably a weak metaphysic. The mysteries of being are so enormous that, in my opinion, by the time that we die, we're not going to have - we'll barely have gotten our minds wet. We're not going to have the faintest idea what any of this was about. So in the mean time, what we have to do is love one another to a fare thee well.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Reverent Forrest Church. For 30 years, he was the senior minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York. Now, he's the minister of public theology. He's been diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer. And his new memoir is directly about that. It's called "Love and Death."
Let's talk a little bit about your diagnosis. You've been diagnosed twice. You had the cancer...
Rev. CHURCH: Yes.
GROSS: Went into remission, and then early this year, it came back. It's cancer of the esophagus. How did you know that you had a problem in the first place? Were there symptoms before the diagnosis?
Rev. CHURCH: I was having trouble swallowing and finally went into the doctor, and it was a very - it was determined by a barium esophagram that I had what appeared at first to be inoperable esophageal cancer, which is why I was initially given so little time, but they were able to operate to take out the esophagus. That gave me about a year's respite from any indication that the cancer was still with me.
GROSS: So, when you awoke from the surgery, and for the period after that surgery, one of your vocal chords was paralyzed. You were...
Rev. CHURCH: Yes.
GROSS: You were unable to swallow. You couldn't talk. For how long couldn't you talk?
Rev. CHURCH: Well, I could squeak, but I couldn't talk for almost three months, which took me out of the pulpit, but I returned. I was - it was two years ago in November I had the operation. I returned to the pulpit by the end of January.
GROSS: Now, I think it's interesting that you couldn't speak because what you do is preach. I mean, that's part of who you are...
Rev. CHURCH: Yes, that's correct. This is a critical organ for a pastor or preacher.
GROSS: Exactly. And I'm sure you're somebody who's very, you know, expressive to your family about what you're thinking. I mean, you're a verbal guy. You're about communication. So, what was that period of three months when you really couldn't talk?
Rev. CHURCH: Well, I was just so grateful to have made it through the operation and to have made it through a kind of - well, my only time of fear was that I would not rise to the occasion in the hospital. I mean, there was probably some pride involved. I don't see myself as a valiant fellow. And I did really quite splendidly in the hospital, came out and did well at home, and I took such great pleasure in responding positively rather than negatively to what had happened to me that I probably blunted in my own consciousness the unfortunate fact that I couldn't talk. I could squeak. I certainly could - I could make myself known but - I could read, which is one of my favorite things to do in all the world.
GROSS: Was there a period where you thought that if you weren't right with the diagnosis, if you couldn't handle the pain or the recovery or the fear of death, the approach of death, that you would have been proven to be a fraud because here you've been, you know, making death a central part of your vision of religion.
Rev. CHURCH: There's no question about that, and that's why I was so relieved. And I tested my own acceptance because I was afraid that I could fool myself. I would so need to do well. I needed to ace the death exam having made death such a pivot of my own theology. Otherwise, there would have been a kind of most deeply felt I think by me, a sense that I have been a snake oil salesman of some sort.
GROSS: My guest is Unitarian minister Forrest Church. His new memoir is called "Love and Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.
My guest, Forrest Church, was the senior minister of All Souls Unitarian-Universalist Church in New York City for nearly three decades and is now minister of public theology. His new memoir, "Love and Death," is about how cancer has tested his faith.
So the first time around, you got through the diagnosis. You got through the surgery with your faith intact, with your sense of self intact. About a year later, cancer came back, several tumors. It really didn't look good. How did you deal with the diagnosis the second time around? How would you compare your reaction the first and second time around?
Rev. CHURCH: We, in a sense, had had a dress rehearsal, the whole family had. So, when we got this word, which surprised me because I was feeling so good, and heard that the cancer was incurable, that it could be held at bay by chemo, but it was ultimately incurable, the acceptance came without question. It was not a surprise. And we had done so much work within the family, and I'd connected so intently with my closest friends that it was not nearly as dramatic a moment. We simply moved into coping gear. And within a week, I was at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center having my first chemo treatment.
GROSS: You have been getting this experimental chemo?
Rev. CHURCH: Yes.
GROSS: And, you know, for anybody who knows about experimental medicine, I mean, you never know if it's going to work, well, not that you ever know anyway, but with these experimental drugs, it's particularly true that you don't know because they haven't really been tested yet.
Rev. CHURCH: Yeah, this is a first trial of Herbatox, which is the M clone drug for esophageal cancer, along with a number of other more traditional chemotherapies. And thus far, it has shrunk the tumors. There have been some serious side effects, but the cancer itself is - has been repressed by this. So, I have gotten another lease on life. I continue to renew this lease with great gratitude and a certain amount of surprise.
GROSS: So, you mentioned side effects. What are some of the side effects of the experimental chemo that you're getting?
Rev. CHURCH: Well, I have dead feet and hands, and there is the natural fatigue that follows all of these things. I have a burning mouth that I can eat just a few things. I've become aficionado of macaroni and cheese and cottage cheese. Those are two things that I can eat, but I never lived to eat anyway. So this has not been a great problem. And I have to stuff my face because I don't want to lose weight and lose strength, so.
GROSS: Before you knew that it was going to shrink the tumors, how did you feel about exposing yourself to chemo that risked ruining whatever quality of life you had left in...
Rev. CHURCH: Well, that was a question, and the doctors were very, very good about that. They indicated to me that, if this wasn't working, we end it. As soon as we discovered it wasn't working, we would pull the plug on the chemo. My father had had the same - he had a different kind of cancer - pancreatic. But after one chemo treatment, which took him for a loop with really no chance of recovery, he eliminated the treatment so that he would not compound his troubles during his final days. In my case, the treatment is certainly sustainable. I can handle it. And it has been very effective.
GROSS: When you were young, you romanticized death. You write that a lot of your heroes were writers and poets who died young. You even told your friend when you were 19 that you were confident you weren't going to live past the age of 25.
Rev. CHURCH: Past 25. That basically set me free from many, many responsibilities that I otherwise might have had to take on my shoulder.
GROSS: Like what?
Rev. CHURCH: Well, if I was going to die young, I simply - my obligation was simply to live absolutely fully, pull out all the stops, and not worry too much about minor things like careers and families and all of that. It was a very romantic notion that in some ways was dispensed with, was ended by the death of my closest friend to whom I'd actually boasted that I was going to die by 25, giving a kind of glamour or romance to my life it might otherwise not have had. He died at 19 of pneumonia when he was skiing.
And all of a sudden, death became real. It was no longer the exquisite angel of romantic poetry that was going to embrace you on the ship's deck. It was a hard real reality that demanded a response. Very slowly and very gradually, I crafted a response to my friendâs death, my father's death, my loved ones and congregants' deaths, and my own death.
GROSS: So, what was the difference between you before and after your friend's death? You said before - it sounds like it was very liberating to think about dying young because it was...
Rev. CHURCH: It was completely liberating. As I said, it removed the responsibility.
GROSS: Everybody has got their way or a lot of people have their way when they're young of finding a way to try to be free as you can in that moment.
Rev. CHURCH: Exactly. It was also an act of self-importance. I mean, I couldn't imagine outstripping my famous father and, you know, the only thing that I can do that would be dramatic would be to die young. That would take no particular effort on my part.
GROSS: Interesting. And then you wouldn't even have to worry about measuring up to him or anything, yeah.
Rev. CHURCH: I wouldn't have to compete with that or have live up to him if I compete with him. I am sure that was part of it, but part of it was just the romance. It was some - there is some narcissism and self importance about all of that. But it also was having sort of bitten the romantic bug, the Keats and the Shelly. These people were in some ways more in love with death than they were in love with life.
GROSS: There is something else you write about in the book, is that, for a while, you drank.
Rev. CHURCH: Yes. I self-medicated.
GROSS: Yeah. And I think, you know, anyone would wonder about a minister who drank, if you were in a good enough place spiritually to lead a congregation, then why would you need to self-medicate?
Rev. CHURCH: Well, it obviously was - there was a demonic dimension to it. It was in some ways a God substitute. It was in some ways driven by fear. It was not anything that anyone noticed other than myself and my wife. It was something that bothered me a great deal and had taken possession of a part of my soul. There is no question that I was beguiled by and distracted by the lure of the bottle.
And it wasn't until, I mean, I spent - I had so many attempts to stop, often successful enough to let me believe that I wasn't dependent. But it wasn't until 2000, when my wife basically told me that I could be her roommate or her partner, but she was not going to have someone who is not fully present at home, that I stopped drinking. And I haven't had a drink since. Itâs been a marvelous second life. I didn't change any of my views, by the way, Terry. It's what I've thought before, I now felt. My theology was now felt at a very deep level. My fear was gone. It's all been gravy since then.
GROSS: I want to get back to mortality. How much time would you say, in your typical day, you spend thinking about death?
Rev. CHURCH: At this point, Terry, I probably spend almost no time thinking about death. For the first time in my life, I am living completely in the present. I have, as I said about a terminal illness where you have time, in a sense, it allows you to sort of co-script your final act. To be able to write "Love and Death" was to be able to put a code on my life. I have been able to conclude my active life, as opposed to it just ending.
I am not yet at the point of being on my deathbed, so I am into sort of an in-between place. Each day is - I read. I chat with my friends who are ever more attentive. We take our friends for granted, as well. And when there is a short amount of time, they come out of the woodwork, old, old, old friends. And we spend lots of time together. And I am just in the present.
When the time comes, when I am closer to my deathbed or on it, I am certain that I'll begin probably even fearing, to some degree, the passage, but there is not fear in my mind now, and there is no preoccupation by death. It doesn't - I don't push my nose up against that dark pane in my window. I stand back and let the light shine on me.
GROSS: Reverend Church, thank you so much for talking with us, and I wish you the best.
Rev. CHURCH: Well, thank you, Terry. It's been a great pleasure to be on your show.
GROSS: Forrest Church is the author of the new memoir "Love and Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow." I am Terry Gross and this is Fresh Air.
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A Journalist's Take On 'An Ordinary Day' In Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. As the Baghdad bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal from 2003 to 2006, Farnaz Fassihi watched and documented the deteriorating situation in Iraq. She was there during the period when insurgents were attacking Americans about 87 times a day. She reported on this in the Journal, but as we'll hear, it was a personal email about life in Iraq that got the most attention and generated the most controversy.
That email is reprinted in her new memoir, "Waiting for an Ordinary Day: The Unraveling of Life in Iraq." The book includes stories about the challenges she faced as bureau chief. Fassihi is now The Wall Street Journal's deputy bureau chief for the Middle East and Africa and is based in Lebanon.
Farnaz Fassihi, welcome to Fresh Air. Let's talk about one example of what you had to deal with as one of the co-directors of the bureau, The Wall Street Journal bureau in Iraq. One of your drivers was kidnapped with his uncle, who was a well known surgeon in Iraq. So, here's somebody who's like working for you, he's kidnapped. What were his kidnappers demanding?
Ms. FARNAZ FASSIHI (Deputy Bureau Chief, Middle East and Africa, Wall Street Journal): The kidnappers demanded first half a million dollars, and gradually, as the family negotiated, they managed to bring it down to $20,000. But the first hours that we heard Nahid, who was our driver for the bureau, kidnapped were terrifying because we had no idea what were the circumstances, whether he had been nabbed because he worked for the Wall Street Journal, whether he had any evidence on him that associated him to an American company, and whether the kidnappers could trace him to our bureau and what kind of a threat it would pose for us and the rest of our Iraqi staff.
GROSS: So you had to help figure out how to get him released from his kidnappers, at the same time, how to protect you and the rest of the staff at the Wall Street Journal who might be vulnerable because he was kidnapped.
Ms. FASSIHI: Exactly. We consulted with a security company about what to do, and he first advised the family to negotiate to a price that they can actually pay. And then he advised us to take very extreme measures. For example, the Iraqi staff were ordered not to come to the house where we were staying or to the bureau with their own cars. They had to take different routes and get off at neighboring streets and walk to the bureaus so nobody could trace them. That we were ordered to hunker down and stay in the bureau for at least a couple of days and not take the regular cars out and particularly answering the phone. I was told I should not answer the phone. If anybody speaks Arabic, I should just immediately hand it over to my translator, the idea being that if the kidnappers would go through the phone of my driver and figure out that there were foreign names and would call, that we would be at risk. And eventually, we had to evacuate our house because we just didn't know what was going to happen.
GROSS: You were also warned that the kidnapped driver might give up your names under torture.
Ms. FASSIHI: Absolutely. This is one of the things that had already happened when another colleague - Iraqi staff had been kidnapped, that under torture, they make them give up some information about our whereabouts, the names, the security details that we had. In one instance, when an Iraqi translator was kidnapped, the kidnappers had asked him access to the house with the foreigners. And when Nahid was eventually released, we had to make the very, very difficult decision to terminate his employment because his security had been compromised, and thus, our security had been compromised.
GROSS: That's, I guess, one of the details that really got to me and made me think what difficult decisions you had to make because, while he was kidnapped, he managed to erase the phone numbers in his cell phone of the people who worked at the Journal, so that he was doing his best to protect you. And then, when he was released, you decided that he needed to be terminated. You know, that he can no longer work at the Journal because it would make everybody else who worked there vulnerable. That must have been such a difficult decision to make.
Ms. FASSIHI: Terry, it was very, very difficult. I, you know, couldn't sleep at night. I was very upset constantly, and we went back and forth discussing this with my other colleague at the Journal about what to do when it was, you know, I felt that it was unfair that this man had been put through this horrible ordeal, and now, he's out. And as you mentioned, he had done his best to protect us. I think the kidnappers couldn't figure out how to turn his phone on, so they had handed it to him, and he had erased our names quickly.
And, you know, to decide to terminate his employment was extremely difficult and, to some extent, unfair, but, you know, on one hand, I could let him come back. But then we thought, you know, the kidnappers could trace him back. They could figure out that he works for a foreigner. They could kidnap him again and demand ransom from the Wall Street Journal, or they could kidnap us. It was just too vulnerable of a position to be in, and it was in 2004, where security was slipping considerably.
GROSS: How did he take it when you fired him?
Ms. FASSIHI: He understood. You know, we gave him several months of salary in severance before we terminated his employment. He was out - he, you know, wasn't happy, but I think he understood. I think the thing about Iraq was that every Iraqi understood exactly what the circumstances on the ground were and the difficult decisions we had to make.
GROSS: So, do you know what he's doing now?
Ms. FASSIHI: He's still in Baghdad. He - after he left work for us, he moved back to Mosul. He was from Mosul. But I think he's recently come back to Baghdad. I don't think he has a job right now, the last I heard.
GROSS: The thing we've been talking about, the kind of decisions you had to make when someone in your staff is kidnapped, not the kind of thing they prepare you for in journalism school. Not the kind of thing you could possibly be prepared for when going to Iraq as a young reporter. Did you feel up to it? Did you feel capable of making these decisions that - I mean, you were a young journalist, first time in a war zone. How do you rise to the occasion with decisions like these?
Ms. FASSIHI: You know, I think I had been in war zones before in Afghanistan and in the Palestinian territories in Israel, but I had never been responsible to run and manage a bureau and to run the local staff, so in that sense, Iraq was new. And I think it was extremely challenging for anybody because you constantly were put in a spot where you had to make life and death decisions for not just yourself but also for the staff. You know, I had to, when I even demanded that the staff arrange an interview. Sometimes I had to think, you know, do I really want to send this person to this area? Is he at risk because he's a Sunni, and this is a Shiite neighborhood? Is it safe?
What's the security around each place? And I remember one time during the 2005 elections, Fallujah was an incredibly newsworthy story because the Sunnis had decided they were going to vote, and I couldn't get any of my staff to go and report from there. They just refused and said, we don't want to do it. We're at risk. And, you know, so I was put in a position where it was newsworthy, but I couldn't demand for them to do something that would potentially put their lives at risk.
GROSS: About how many times would you say you had to move because of kidnapping threats?
Ms. FASSIHI: I think, of the three and a half years that I was in Baghdad, I moved at least seven or eight times from different places, both kidnapping threats or a car bomb that happened outside our door twice. The Wall Street Journal bureau was demolished twice in Baghdad. Once our house in Mansur, once at the Hamra Hotel after a truck bomb, so there was a lot of movements, and it was very disruptive because it took a lot of effort to set up an office and to get the infrastructure going. And then we had to pick up and move and then pick up and move.
GROSS: My guest is Farnaz Fassihi. Her new book, "Waiting for an Ordinary Day," is about the period when she was the Wall Street Journal's bureau chief in Iraq from 2003 to 2006. We'll talk more after our break. This is Fresh Air.
If you're just joining us, my guest is Farnaz Fassihi, and she co-directed the Iraq bureau for the Wall Street Journal between 2003 and the end of 2005. She's written a new book called, "Waiting for an Ordinary Day: The Unraveling of Life in Iraq." She's now the deputy bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal's Middle East and Africa Bureau, and she's based in Lebanon.
While you were in Iraq in 2004, you wrote an email to friends and family in which you told what was going on around you from a very first-person point of view, as opposed to the more distanced kind of running that you did in your newspaper articles. And this email, which talked about what a disaster Iraq had become, ended up being circulated around way beyond friends and family, kind of went all around the globe. And it became very controversial that a Wall Street Journal reported had written something so subjective and so negative about the war in Iraq. So before we talk about the consequences of this email, I want you to read a couple of the most talked about excerpts of this email that you wrote.
Ms. FASSIHI: OK.
(Reading): I am house bound. I leave when I have a very good reason to and a scheduled interview. I avoid going to people's homes and never walk in the streets. I can't go grocery shopping anymore, can't eat in restaurants, can't strike a conversation with strangers, can't look for stories, can't drive in anything but a fully armored car, can't go to scenes of breaking news stories, can't be stuck in traffic, can't speak English outside, can't take a road trip, can't say I'm an American, can't linger at check points, can't be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can't and can't. The genie of terrorism, chaos, and mayhem has been unleashed onto this county as a result of American mistakes, and it can't be put back in a bottle.
GROSS: So, let's give one - as we hear this, this is written in 2004, and I think a lot of what you said in this email became more commonly known later on. So what was the reaction to this email?
Ms. FASSIHI: The reaction was just astounding. I was getting emails from people from all over the world, from Australia to South Africa and India, and people all over the world were writing to me asking, is it really that bad in Iraq? Are the circumstances that bad, and why don't we know this? This was the reader reaction.
There was also another reaction. It was September 2004, right before the presidential elections, and it was a very polarized American society back then. So I was kind of under attack from both sides, the far left saying, this is the truth that the media never tells us. Why aren't we hearing this? And, you sensor your pieces. And the far right was accusing of not being objective and of being biased and not fit to cover the war.
And I think that both accusations were untrue. If you, or somebody, had examined or went back and read my pieces for the Wall Street Journal or any other report, that they would see that we had reported all those terrible facts and the fact that Iraq was slipping and things were not going as planned.
And the fact that I was not objective was also not true because we're human beings. We have an opinion and feelings about things that go around us. But I had never allowed my personal feelings about the war to enter any of my published pieces for the newspaper. So it was a tough position to be in, and I felt like I had to constantly defend myself against both sides. But, of course, I think, ultimately, it was a good thing because it really opened the conversation about what was really going on and whether what we were doing in Iraq is kind of - the style of journalism we were doing was really resonating with the public home.
GROSS: Was the Wall Street Journal pressured to fire you or to reassign you to a different place?
Ms. FASSIHI: I don't think so. I never got the indication that they were pressured to fire me or to reassign me. I think that they were concerned. They definitely didn't want the paper to come across as having a non-objective reporter on the ground or someone or that their points of view weren't balanced. The editor then, the managing editor of the Journal, Paul Steiger, came out with a public statement supporting me and saying that my published pieces were a model of objectivity and balance. So they did support me.
GROSS: You know, you write, the emotional and personal tone of the email grabbed the public in a way that your published pieces for the newspaper seldom did. So what did that make you think about in terms of the pieces that you wrote for the newspaper? Did it make you think that maybe they should be more personal and maybe they would be more revealing of what was going on that way?
Ms. FASSIHI: I think so, Terry. And I think, after my email caught so much attention, a lot of reporters from Iraq started writing first-person dispatches and first-person pieces about what it was like to be there. I think that was - is an incredibly difficult and traumatizing and emotional experience to go through and to witness. And I think just having a distant voice doesn't necessarily convey the feelings of being on the ground, and I think that, when you write first person, you're a bit liberated. You can really reflect on what you're seeing. You can talk about what's happening to people around you. And what's happening to you as a person there. And I think it helps readers connects to the narrator.
GROSS: What has it been like for you to read about the relative improvement in Iraq in terms of safety and quality of life?
Ms. FASSIHI: It's been nice. It's been heartwarming to hear that things are improving in Iraq, that security is getting better for people, and that some resemblance of normal life is returning. However, I have to say that most of the Iraqi people that I'm in touch with, our staff and my friends, say that the situation is still very fragile, that the factors that have contributed to the security and stability are not long term solutions, that it could very easily unravel.
GROSS: One of the things you had to learn how to do in Iraq was to pray like a Sunni. What's the difference between how the Shia and Sunni pray? What did you have to learn?
Ms. FASSIHI: The prayer that Shias and Sunnis recite is the same. But what sets them apart is the hand gestures and the body gestures of the prayer. The Shias place their hands on the side of their body as they pray, and when they kneel on the ground and place their foreheads as a sign of submission to God, they place their foreheads on a compact soil. It's this round stone-shaped clay object.
In Sunnis, they do the opposite. They fold their arms across their chest, and when they go down, they place their forehead just on the bare ground. And also, in the call to prayer, they omit the words Ali Ammamali (ph), which is the successor of Muhammad in Shia belief. So my Sunni translator, Haki (ph), was trying to teach me how to pray like a Sunni because he thought, if we get kidnapped in the Sunni area, he would want them to think that I was a Sunni Muslim and save my chances of getting released.
GROSS: One of the things that you write about in your book is your relationship with your partner, Babak, and you have a lot in common. You met in a war zone in Afghanistan. He was covering the war in Iraq for Newsweek, you for the Wall Street Journal, and you both spent the first 10 years of your life in Iran and left with your families for the United States. After that, reading your book, I couldn't help but think, it must intensify a relationship to begin that relationship and continue it in a war zone while you're covering for the press - you for the Wall Street Journal, he for the Newsweek.
Ms. FASSIHI: It was definitely an intense experience to go through with my partner, Babak. It was interesting to be based in both Afghanistan and Iraq at the same time. We know we went through life and death situations together. We had to deal with a lot of the same emotional issues, difficult decisions and dealing with the staff in coverage. And I think it was also very helpful because there was a sense that your partner understands what you're going through, and you can relate to them. So, in that sense, I felt like I was very lucky to have him. Also, it was a crazy place to be, and it was just nice at the end of the day to be able to kind of relax and have your partner near you and have dinner or talk and have at least a little bit of a normalcy.
GROSS: Were you able to live together? Because he works with Newsweek, you with the Wall Street Journal, each publication had their own house or compound.
Ms. FASSIHI: Actually, our publications were very good in trying to join together. The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek have always shared the same compound because, I think, partly because of me and Babak, and it's just sort of that the tradition went on even after we left Iraq. So we lived together, and we were able to be in the same house, and I think that was very lucky because of security and because of curfew. If we weren't in the same house, we might have not been able to see each other as often or even visit each other for dinner because traveling after dark was very dangerous. There was often curfews in Baghdad, and security was a problem. So we were lucky.
GROSS: Did you do things to protect each other? Is there a story about that?
Ms. FASSIHI: We would definitely call each other up if we were out reporting, and there was an explosion or a car bomb or something, just to let the other person know that we were OK. We were also very good at telling one another where we're going, what road we're taking, when we're expected to come back home, just as a security measure.
I left Baghdad at the end of 2005, but Babak stayed there. He went back to be Newsweek's bureau chief and just left Baghdad about two months ago. And we spoke often. So in some sense, although I physically left Iraq, it stayed with me because I had now my loved one there, and I was talking to him a few times a day. So I was still very personally connected to the story.
GROSS: Did you worry about him any more or less when you were gone and he remained in Iraq?
Ms. FASSIHI: It was horrible, Terry. I really got a perspective of what I'd my put my family through when I was there. It was really hard to think that someone you care about is in the line of danger, and he's getting mortared, and he may get kidnapped or killed. I think, for a while, even when I was in Baghdad, I often worried about him and about my Iraqi staff more than I would worry about myself. And I think it was a just way for my mind to kind of handle the dangers we were in. The anxiety was not inward, it was outward.
GROSS: So where is he now?
Ms. FASSIHI: He's at Stanford doing the Knight Fellowship for Journalists this year.
GROSS: I guess you don't have to worry about him there.
Ms. FASSIHI: No. Thank God.
GROSS: Farnaz Fassihi, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. FASSIHI: Thank you so much, Terry, for having me. A pleasure.
GROSS: Farnaz Fassihi was the Wall Street Journal's Baghdad bureau chief and is now the paper's deputy bureau chief for the Middle East and Africa. Her new book is called "Waiting for an Ordinary Day: The Unraveling of Life in Iraq."
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A Chronicle Of Pregnancy - And Loss
TERRY GROSS, host:
Writer Elizabeth McCracken has racked up an impressive array of awards for her novels and short stories, including a National Book Award nomination for her novel, "The Giant's House." McCracken's latest book is a memoir called "An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination." Book Critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: The world is too much with us right now. Between an economy in free fall and a presidential election, I'm finding myself less receptive to any book, whether it be fiction or non-fiction, that tells a small, intensely personal story. Give me Dickens, Steinbeck, Robert Penn Warren, Tom Wolfe, writers of sweeping social narratives. These are the times that cry out for epics, not lyrics. Or so I thought, until I picked up Elizabeth McCracken's new memoir, called "An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination."
In it, McCracken recalls giving birth to a stillborn baby and the months surrounding this devastating loss. It's a small, intensely personal story, precisely what I haven't been in the mood for reading. But despite my initial resistance, I was riveted by McCracken's memoir, mostly because of her voice, rye, wrathful, and so intelligent. But ironically, also because the atmosphere of her book accords with the overall jittery tenure of our times. McCracken writes about having calm assumptions crumble, lightning strike, the rug cosmically pulled out from under your feet.
McCracken was 35, an acclaimed novelist and contented spinster when she met her future husband, fellow author Edward Carey, at a book party. For the next few years, they conducted themselves like a pair of lost generation vagabonds, subsidized by teaching jobs, fueled by red wine and a passion for writing. They lived in rented quarters all over Europe.
In 2005, when McCracken was two months pregnant, she and her husband settled into a shambling house, a former home for unwed mothers in the French countryside. As her pregnancy progressed, they did what expectant parents do, bought charming little clothes, prepared the nursery, and brainstormed about baby names, names for a boy, who, for the nonce, they called Pudding. One day, when McCracken was nine months pregnant, the baby stopped moving around as much, not an unusual development in late pregnancy. But at the end of a surreal day of false reassurances and denial, a midwife at the local hospital made a horrific pronouncement, se fine.
On the death certificate, McCracken and her husband decided to keep Pudding as the baby's given name, since she says a new name would've been only a death name. McCracken diffuses what she admits is the improbable sentimentality of this gesture by dryly commenting, I'm glad we were in a foreign country. The French probably thought it was an ordinary Anglo-Saxon name like William or Randolph or George.
McCracken's unflinching fresh takes on all the predictable consequences of this tragedy earn her memoir a place among other tough-minded meditations on loss, most obviously Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking." About the first raw months of enduring conversations with friends who were determined not to bring up the baby, McCracken says, I was a character from an opera who might at any moment let loose with an aria. And generally, people tried to cover it up with conversational ragtime. People changed the subject. They smiled uncomfortably. Some tried extraordinary juggling acts with flung torches of chit-chat and spinning scimitars of small talk.
Finding herself pregnant within the year with another baby boy who eventually was delivered safely, McCracken concocts titles for the kinds of cautious magazines she'd preferred to see in her obstetrician's office. I wanted "Hold Your Horses" magazine, she says, and "Pregnant For the Time Being Monthly."
A few pages into reading, "An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination," I began thinking of a wonderful former student of mine who'd fallen in love with the word liminal and would use it multiple times, no mean feat, in every paper he wrote. Liminal, meaning a threshold space, neither here nor there. The best thing about McCracken's memoir is that it vividly captures the confusion of being thrust into a nightmare that hasn't been categorized. When Mother's Day rolls around shortly after the still birth, McCracken wonders, was I a mother? It takes an extraordinary writer, and McCracken is one, to convey such an experience when words, let alone store-bought sympathy cards, don't exist for such a liminal state.
Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination" by Elizabeth McCracken.
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