July 18, 2017
A Q&A with Lynda Schuster: “There’s a saying that journalism is the first draft of history…”
by Melville House
Today, we’re celebrating the release of Dirty Wars and Polished Silver, Lynda Schuster’s heart-racing memoir of her life as a foreign war correspondent, with astounding scenes in the nations of Latin America and the Middle East. Her first husband, LA Times reporter Dial Torgerson, is killed on the job near the Honduras-Nicaragua border. Later, she attends a rarefied State Department “Ambasstrix School,” and starts a new chapter as the wife of a US ambassador.
In short, Lynda Schuster has led some life, and she was kind enough to sit down with us and answer some of the questions that came up as we read about it.
You knew at a young age that you didn’t want the same life your mother had, raising kids in suburbia. Why?
The motto on the Indiana license plates back then was “Wander” — which I took as excellent advice for anyone raised in the region. Grow up and leave. Rejecting my mother’s life, which seemed beyond boring to me, was part requisite youthful rebellion, part desire to see the world. That desire was fueled by a stamp collection I had as a kid, which piqued my interest in far away places. Parents, be warned: keep those stamp collections away from your children! They can lead to all sorts of subversive ideas.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a journalist and war correspondent? Was it what you imagined?
As I write in my book, I ran away from home at age sixteen and landed in the middle of Israel’s Yom Kippur War — which should have scared the daylights out of me, but instead whetted my appetite for adventure. So I knew I wanted that sort of a life, but getting there was another matter. I fell into journalism by default when trying to figure out where to go to graduate school. Having decided on the career, though, I was determined to spend as little time as possible working domestically. I was very lucky in that respect, first to be hired by the Wall Street Journal directly out of journalism school, and then to be assigned within a year to cover Central America, one of the hottest foreign stories at the time.
Being a foreign correspondent is one of the most fantastic and rewarding professions imaginable. You get to travel to weird and wonderful parts of the world, meet all manner of people, and write about it. And someone pays you to do this! Being a war correspondent is another matter entirely. Many reporters become addicted to the adrenaline thrill of covering such stories and turn into action junkies who can’t keep away from the bang-bang, as we call it. You see a lot of alcoholism and broken marriages among war correspondents. As I explain in my book, I ultimately decided that this life wasn’t for me, that I wasn’t cut out for the frontlines.
How has journalism changed since the days of your foreign reporting?
The biggest change, undoubtedly, has been the advent of the internet and the rise of social media. Back when I was reporting, journalists were the only means to get your message out to the public. Being that sole conduit of information ensured a certain amount of safety for reporters covering dangerous stories — and a certain amount of respect for the profession. Not so today. Today, everyone from presidents to terrorists have their own Twitter accounts and Facebook pages. Journalists are often seen, at best, as superfluous — if not downright impediments.
Was being a woman on the frontlines in any way a disadvantage? Advantage?
Because I worked mainly in the developing world, I mostly found that being a woman was an advantage. These were traditional societies that were generally very solicitous toward women. So I could often get a foot in the door for interviews that my male colleagues couldn’t. Having gotten there, however, I wasn’t always taken seriously. It was thus incumbent upon me to convince the interviewees that I meant business. The only real disadvantage I ever experienced had to do with bodily functions; those were much easier for my male counterparts to deal with on the frontlines.
You faced a lot of danger and, of course, the tragic death of your first husband, while on assignment. Were there times you regretted your career choice?
Never. Yes, my husband, a fellow journalist, was killed by a landmine while on assignment in Central America. But if I hadn’t been a journalist, I would never have met him. Nor would I have had the chance to witness crucial world events and disseminate them to the public. There’s a saying that journalism is the first draft of history, something that I still think is a necessary and noble venture. And while it’s true that you are, at times, forced to witness the worst of humanity, you are also sometimes privileged to witness the best of it.
Tell us a little bit about Ambassatrix School. What were some of your duties? Was it hard to adjust to the constraints of being a diplomat’s wife? You had to give up your career while your husband was an ambassador; was there anything else you couldn’t do that you would have liked to?
First let me say that Ambassatrix School is my own, made-up name for the two-week training session the State Department requires its envoys and their spouses to take. The course may have changed since I experienced it, twenty or so years ago, but back then it felt like a throwback. As I write in my book, all the ambassadorial appointees were men, and it was assumed that none of the wives had careers. Or that if they did, they’d gladly jettison them for the chance to help their husbands represent the US abroad. During the course, while our husbands got juicy, classified briefings, we women got such scintillating lectures as, “Your China Patterns and You!” It was like someone forgot to tell the State Department that Mamie Eisenhower is dead.
As far as being the wife of a US ambassador abroad, it was kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, because of my husband’s position, I got to meet people and experience things that I never would have as a journalist. On the other hand, at that level, you live in a rarified bubble. It’s all cocktail parties and diplomatic receptions and state dinners. When my husband was ambassador to Peru, we lived in a 22,000-square-foot mansion with cooks and butlers and upstairs maids. A place that size has its own microclimate. You rarely get to meet and interact with ordinary citizens, something I greatly enjoyed as a journalist and that gives you a broader understanding of the country you’re living in.
You’ve spent a lot of time in war-torn countries. Do you think you see the current world situation, with civil wars and a refugee crisis, differently than you would have without all of your experiences?
Definitely. I was able to witness, first hand, the unspeakable devastation of war. As I describe in my book, beyond the obvious and tragic toll represented by the dead and wounded, I came to understand the day-to-day travails that drive people to flee their homes in conflict zones and seek a better life: the desperate search for food, water, shelter, medical care. To say nothing of safety. Those people you see being rescued from little boats at sea, who risked everything trying to get to a more secure place — they all have backstories of lives and livelihoods exploded by war.
Now you find yourself with a husband and daughter, living a life much like the one your mother had. Does that surprise you?
If someone had told me when I was younger that I would ultimately come to cherish a more traditional life, one that values family and friends and community — I would have said I had a better chance of growing a dorsal fin. I think most people figure these things out in early adulthood. For a slow learner like me, though, it took a few well-aimed rockets to get there.
Tell us about your life now—Is your husband still working?, Are you still dabbling in journalism?—and what’s next.
My husband’s posting as ambassador to Peru was a killer, almost quite literally. As I describe in my book, because of terrorism we had to travel in a three-car, bulletproof convoy with ten armed bodyguards anytime we set foot outside our front gate — even just to get package of disposable diapers. I didn’t want our daughter to grow up like that. So after Peru, and a short stint at the Carter Center in Atlanta, my husband left the Foreign Service for academia. We lived in a few college towns around the U.S. until finally settling in Pittsburgh — a fabulous place.
As for my next project, it’s still very much in the embryonic stage. I will only go so far as to quote Monty Python: And now for something completely different! It’s a true story that, happily, has no war in it. Power, money, love, sex — yes. But no war.
Dirty Wars and Polished Silver is on sale today. Buy your copy here, or at your neighborhood independent bookstore.