A Genuine sense of suffering: Anderson Cooper's reports are heartfelt

Montreal Gazette
Saturday, July 15, 2006
LEVON SEVUNTS

Dispatches from the Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival
Anderson Cooper Harper Collins, 212 pages, $32.50

I don’t remember the exact date I stopped watching CNN, but it must have been around the time the United States was gearing up for the last war in Iraq. The last straw for me was when my friend Kevin Sites parted ways with CNN because the network couldn’t stomach his hard-hitting personal blog (so much the better for Kevin, who is now Yahoo’s globetrotting Hot Zone SoJo, or solo journalist).

Somehow, the CNN I had grown to love and admire as a cub reporter in the former U.S.S.R. was no more. So when a former colleague told me, “Levon, you’ve got to check out this Cooper guy,” I was frankly a bit skeptical. The fact that Anderson Cooper was the son of New York socialite Gloria Vanderbilt and heir to a storied American money family was lost on me: I was more familiar with the offspring of Soviet Politburo members than the genealogy of American moneybags.

I couldn’t care less about Cooper’s pedigree: I wanted to watch somebody who could tell stories and ask hard questions and who wasn’t in love with his own voice. And Cooper surprised me.

Here was a guy who had grown up in Manhattan’s Upper East Side and from all appearances had lived a privileged and sheltered life. But his stories from famine-stricken Niger and the ravaged beaches of Sri Lanka somehow connected with me. There was something genuine, honest and empathetic behind his carefully groomed TV persona. And as Cooper’s memoir Dispatches from the Edge reveals, there was a great deal of personal tragedy under that appearance of happy affluence.

Dispatches from the Edge is a very well written and carefully crafted account of Cooper’s personal tragedies and his journalistic career, which started with stringing for Channel One and has taken him to the anchor’s chair at CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360.

It’s a career that has taken Cooper to cover some of the most tragic events of the last 15 years: the Somalian famine, the bloodbath in Sarajevo, the Rwandan genocide, the war in Iraq, starvation in Niger, the Boxing Day tsunami and, his most memorable coverage, Hurricane Katrina.

Without grandstanding, Cooper tells how he felt compelled to move from one war zone to the next, just hoping to escape his private demons brought on by the death of his father when he was 10 and his feelings of guilt for the suicide of his older brother, Carter.

“The more I was away, the worse it got. I’d come back and couldn’t speak the language. Out there the pain was palpable; you breathed it in the air. Back here, no one talked about life and death. No one seemed to understand. I’d go to movies, see friends, but after a couple days I’d catch myself reading plane schedules, looking for something, someplace to go: a bomb in Afghanistan, a flood in Haiti. I’d become a predator, endlessly gliding in saltwater seas, searching for the scent of blood.”

Along with heartfelt accounts of suffering, Cooper allows the reader a peek behind the curtains of the news business. But I wish he had dwelled a bit more on how the newsroom works and how he gets to do some stories and not others.

Cooper makes brilliant use of flashbacks to recreate his emotional state at each of these events, culminating in a near-meltdown in New Orleans brought on by converging memories of a childhood trip with his father to the South and the shock of the physical and emotional devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Cooper’s writing is engrossing and poignant, and Dispatches from the Edge will almost certainly touch the reader.

Despite its unflinching examination of festering psychological wounds caused by his father’s untimely death and his brother’s suicide, the memoir is very short on detail about Cooper’s friendships, loves, conquests and broken hearts. He jealously guards that part of his personal life, and one is left with the impression of a painfully lonely Anderson Cooper. Still, Dispatches from the Edge gave me a reason to tune to CNN again.

Levon Sevunts is a Montreal writer.

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