Who Owns A Story?

View from a helicopter, rural Afghanistan.
View from a helicopter, rural Afghanistan.

Tonight, I went to the Moth here in Seattle. It has me thinking about stories – how much time you need before you can tell one, how much exaggeration is required to keep it interesting, how much license we can take to sort our lives into these digestible, sharable pieces.

I’ve been thinking about one story in particular. It’s a story I have no right to tell. Because even though it impacted me greatly, it isn’t mine.

It just feels like it should be. See, Anne Smedinghoff was killed less than a year after I left Afghanistan, doing exactly the thing I had done while I was there – walking along a dirt road to a press event where books would be distributed to Afghan schoolchildren. It wasn’t that I wanted to react to the death of a woman I never met. It was that I could not stop reacting.

The news of Anne’s death came just as I had resolved to leave the Foreign Service, the career that had driven me for over a decade. I was just starting to feel like I could still reinvent myself, taking the best parts of my adventures with me into the next chapter of my life, but leaving the rest behind. I was in New York City visiting friends from graduate school. I was just starting to emerge from a trauma-induced depression that had held me underwater for over six months. The fact that I was verging on broke, while they were discussing fashion and furniture purchases, didn’t bother me. What got to me was the fact that no one seemed to understand why Anne’s death affected me so much.

When I stopped walking at the edge of Central Park and started to weep, they thought it was because I wasn’t confident in my ability to transition to the private sector. That wasn’t why. It was because I was thinking of a government building in a different province, where I had gone with colleagues and six or seven reporters to cover a book distribution. I was thinking of the little girls in the front row who smiled dutifully for our photo-op and tried to hide the fact that they could not yet read the colorful books they’d been given. I was thinking of the truck that blew up that building just days later, covering the books in a fine white dust. I was thinking of a colleague who’d been injured in the accident and the scar across his forehead, still red with fresh pain when he returned, determined to get back to work. I was thinking how little we understood the danger we were in.

I spent the days after Anne’s death in shock. It could have been me. It could have been any of us. Maybe it should have been me. I felt retroactively unsafe and suddenly guilty. I could not explain why, but I tried to in words that took so long to revise and rewrite and revise and refine and finally get permission from the Department of State to publish that by then, no one cared anymore. We had the Boston bombings. More bodies. Bigger things.

In the process of writing and revising that piece, I came to realize that there was no feat of communication within my powers that would make people understand who didn’t already. I went to Washington, DC for a memorial to Anne held at the State Department. It was for employees and family only. Without the black diplomatic passport I still possessed, I would not have been welcome. A mentor of mine found me in the audience, and when I confessed how hard on me Anne’s death had been, how hard all the months after Kabul had been, she just knew. “And you’re all alone out there in Seattle, honey,” she said. “The rest of us are here. We have each other.”

A close friend sat with me throughout the service. Anne’s father read the prayer of St. Francis. One of our former ambassadors asked everyone who had served in Afghanistan to stand. In the silent room, the sound of so many public servants standing was thunderous. All the emotions of everything – the fear, the anxiety, the desire to belong, the sense of duty, the drive to carry out her mission – overtook me. In that moment, without diminishing her unique and unfairly short life, the ambassador acknowledged what so many of us were feeling: that her story was part of ours, too.

I had hoped that my emotional essay, which I thought could prove a point post-Benghazi about the dangers of diplomacy and how willingly we embrace them, would also help others in my situation to heal. I understand now that emotions at the embassy were too raw. People who knew Anne and loved her personally didn’t think I had any business writing about her life, or her death, or what it meant. Fair enough. I stood down.

But these stories – all of them – no one can own them. Because truthfully, anything that happens to any human being in this world could happen to us, whether it’s in rural Afghanistan or the Boston Marathon finish line or the operating room. We must tell those stories, if for no other reason than to remind ourselves that we are all, all, in this together. And so that we have each other.

One of the only essays I’ve ever read that perfectly positions the writer as both participant and respectful observer of others’ grief, is Brian Doyle’s very brief “Leap,” about the people who jumped from the Twin Towers. It takes three minutes to read and the next three hundred, at least, to digest. Now there is a storyteller.


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