Dispatches from the Edge

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A Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival


To my mom and dad, and the spark of recognition that brought them together




Tsunami: Washed Away 9

Iraq: Inkblots of Blood 47 Niger: Night Sweats 83 Katrina: Facing the Storm 121 Photographic Insert Aftermath 165 Epilogue 203 Author’s Note 209 Acknowledgments 211 About the Author Credits Cover

Copyright About the Publisher Introduction


WAS TEN WHEN my father died, and before that moment, that slap of silence that

reset the clock, I can’t remember much. Th ere are some things, of course—fractals, shards of memory, sharp as broken glass. I remember an old globe that sat on the table by my bed. I must have been five or six. It was a present from my mother, who’d received it from the author Isak Dinesen, long after she’d written Out of Africa. When I couldn’t sleep, I’d touch the globe, trace the contours of continents in the dark. Some nights my small fingers would hike the ridges of Everest, or struggle to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro. Many times, I rounded the Horn of Africa, more than once my ship foundering on rocks off the Cape of Good Hope. Th e globe was covered with names of nations that no longer exist: Tanganyika, Siam, the Belgian Congo, Ceylon. I dreamed of traveling to them all. I didn’t know who Isak Dinesen was, but I’d seen her photograph in a delicate gold frame in my mother’s bedroom: her face hidden by a hunter’s hat, an Afghan hound crouching by her side. To me she was a mysterious figure from my mother’s past, just one of many.

My mother’s name is Gloria Vanderbilt, and long before I ever got into the news business, she was making headlines. She was born in 1924 to a family of great wealth, and early on discovered its limits. When she was fi fteen months old her father died, and for years afterward, she was shuttled about from continent to continent, her mother always moving off into unseen rooms, preparing for parties and evenings on the town. At ten my mother became the center of a highly publicized custody battle. My mother’s powerful aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was able to convince a New York court that my mother’s mother was unfit. It was during the Depression, and the trial was a tabloid obsession. The court took my mother away from her mother and the Irish nurse she truly loved, and handed her over to Whitney who soon sent her away to boarding school. My brother and I knew none of this as children, of course, but we’d sometimes seen a look in our mother’s eyes, a slight dilation of the pupil, a hint of pain and fear. I didn’t know what it meant until after my father died. I glanced at myself in the mirror and saw the same look staring back at me.

AS A BOY looking at that globe, I grew up believing, as most people do, that the earth is round. Smoothed like a stone by thousands of years of evolution and revolution. Whittled by time. Scraped by space. I thought that all the nations and oceans, the rivers and valleys, were already mapped out, named, explored. But in truth, the world is constantly shifting: shape and size, location in space. It’s

got edges and chasms, too many to count. They open up, close, reappear somewhere else. Geologists may have mapped out the plan-et’s tectonic plates—hidden shelves of rock that grind, one against the other, forming mountains, creating continents—but they can’t plot the fault lines that run through our heads, divide our hearts. The map of the world is always changing; sometimes it happens overnight. All it takes is the blink of an eye, the squeeze of a trigger, a sudden gust of wind. Wake up and your life is perched on a precipice; fall asleep, it swallows you whole. None of us likes to believe our lives are so precarious. In 2005, however, we were reminded just how quickly things can change. The year began with the tsunami and came to a close with Hurricane...
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