TBR: Tell Them I Didn’t Cry

When you read the headlines each day from Iraq, of bombings, elections, and daily life, do you think about what the reporters went through in order to file their stories?  In today’s book, Tell Them I Didn’t Cry: A Young Journalist’s Story of Joy, Loss and Survival in Iraq, Jackie Spinner of the Washington Post attempts to describe what it is like to be a reporter in Iraq.

This is war reporting without any bravado.  Where Michael Weisskopf writes in his Time cover story that Iraq was "a dream assignment, a chance to escape Washington and work in exotic environs on a big story," Spinner cheerfully admits that she was terrified almost every minute, even as she argued with her editors to send her to Iraq and let her escape "career death" in the financial section of the Post.  Spinner writes about the constant fear of kidnapping or assault, the frustrations of reporting through a security cordon, the vitriolic emails she got from readers, and her attempts to establish something resembling a normal life under totally abnormal conditions (she cooked dinner for the Post’s Iraq bureau every Friday night, rotating through a variety of world cuisines).

I heard Spinner talk at an event earlier this year, and she spoke about how common it is for war reporters to get post-traumatic stress disorder.  Reading the book, I got the impression that writing it was therapeutic for her, giving her the chance to tell all the stories she couldn’t tell her family while she was overseas, because they would have been too freaked out.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t always make for good writing — Spinner buries the reader in a sea of details, without providing much in the way of perspective or context.

Spinner writes with passion about the role of the Iraqi reporters, translators, drivers and other support staff who make the American reporters’ work possible.  She notes that they were in far more danger than the Americans, risking their life every day they came to work.  She points out that the Iraqi journalists valued their work enough to ask for, and receive, bylines in the Post, even though they made themselves targets in the process.  But in spite of Spinner’s obvious affection for her Iraqi colleagues, she doesn’t make them stand out as individuals, except for one young woman who Spinner is particularly close with.

Until I sat down to write this review, I hadn’t noticed that the subtitle emphasizes that Spinner is a "young" journalist, but not that she is a woman.  In spite of that absence, it’s clearly a big issue in the book. Being a woman in Iraq obviously affected some of the stories that Spinner could report — she was less able to interview Iraqi men than her male colleagues, but more able to interact with women.  But beyond that, it’s hard to imagine a male journalist writing this book, with its free admission of fear and focus on interpersonal relationships.  Even the title — which comes from an episode when Spinner is nearly abducted — is something only a woman, who is stereotypically expected to cry, would feel a need to say.

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