I stayed up late last night listening to Diary of a Bad Year: A War Correspondent’s Dilemma. The piece, produced with Jay Allison and Transom.org, is NPR reporter Kelly McEvers’s remarkable, hour-long audio documentary about her struggle to justify covering deadly war zones while raising a toddler.
McEvers’s choice – and her agony over her choice – is specific and universal. Not many of us civilians are in lines of work where a tenth of our colleagues have been murdered or killed in crossfire the past year. But most of us struggle with the complex emotions of wanting to succeed professionally in jobs we love and also wanting to be with our spouses and kids.
An avowed gung-ho thrill seeker, McEvers came to parenting late. As best I can figure, she gave birth to a daughter at about 40, the peak of her journalistic career. NPR assigned her to cover the Middle East. Her job got dramatically more dangerous when the conflict in Syria heated up. As the roll call of fallen journalists in and around Syria lengthened – Tim Hetherington, Marie Colvin, Remi Ochlik, Rami el-Sayid, Anthony Shadid, Ferzat Jarban, Gilles Jacquier, Mazhar Tayyara, Mika Yamamoto — McEvers found herself increasingly unhinged. She sought the counsel of a former war correspondent turned psychotherapist. He suggested she examine her motives and begin to imagine what life after covering war might be like.
McEvers shared her turmoil in 2011 with Cape Cod-based radio wizard Jay Allison, who encouraged her to keep a diary. The resulting piece is emotionally and intellectually profound. It’s also a masterful example of audio storytelling. McEvers used her phone to record her musings. She taped interviews with other war correspondents as well as a Canadian researcher running a study on journalists who cover foreign conflicts (*more on this last below). Ambient noise of shelling and machine gun fire, sotto voce comments about the disgustingness of tear gas, the chatter of McEvers’s daughter all provide an evocative sound bed for the heart of McEvers’s dilemma. “Should I quit my job?” she asks the likes of Sebastian Junger and Christiane Amanpour. McEvers knows, even as she asks, that the only person who can really answer is she, herself.
McEvers admits that the most difficult conversation she had was with Anna Blundy, the grown daughter of British war correspondent David Blundy, who was killed in 1989 at 44 by sniper fire in El Salvador. McEvers writes that she felt she was interviewing an “adult version of [her] own child.” Anna Blundy, 43, speaks as a grieving child whose father chose work over family. Blundy’s words defeat and deflate McEvers, until, somewhere around 26:30, she claims her right to follow her path. The decision, McEvers asserts, isn’t about her daughter. “It’s about me.”
And don’t we all – all of us women who want kids and career – find ourselves trying to figure out how much to give to “them” and how much to give to ourselves? Men may ask themselves such questions, but I don’t know many who would allow others to listen in so publicly. By the time McEvers reads the letter she’s written to her husband and daughter in case she is killed on the job, she has me in tears. Spend an hour with this documentary, and you will weep for all parents who have fallen in the line of duty as well as all who, day in and out, struggle to find the best way to do right by themselves and their kids.
*A NOTE on the explanation McEvers offers about the role dopamine plays in war correspondents’ career choices. She interviews Toronto academic and medical doctor Anthony Feinstein. Here is the summary of Dr. Feinstein’s work on his website: “Finally, Dr. Feinstein is involved in a series of studies unrelated to Neuropsychiatry but nevertheless of relevance to current issues within our society. The questions being addressed are: How are journalists affected emotionally by their work in war zones and what motivates them to pursue such dangerous occupations?” He presents his findings in Journalists Under Fire: The Psychological Hazards of Covering War (Johns Hopkins Press, 2006).
I haven’t read the book and am not familiar with Dr. Feinstein’s work, so I don’t know if McEvers reports his findings accurately. She says that Dr. Feinstein believes journalists who take extraordinary risks have higher levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine than the rest of the population.
McEvers is correct in describing dopamine as a substance that conveys a sense of wellbeing, but she’s off a little bit in her understanding of what high levels of dopamine may suggest. Most researchers have concluded that those who seek out risk and thrill crave more dopamine. That is, for physiological reasons, their bodies either don’t produce enough or don’t use well enough the dopamine they create.
If it’s true that war correspondents have more dopamine than the rest of us, it may be that their dopamine receptors are inadequate and that their bodies produce more dopamine to flood dopamine-hungry receptors. They may therefore gravitate towards putting themselves in the middle of battlefields to produce the dopamine they need to feel OK. Some of the best research on this topic comes out of studies on families that have high numbers of members with Attention Deficit Disorder. See especially the work of Russell Barkley, Ph.D. here and here.