In defense of Mac McClelland (And the view from where I’m standing)

The indignant responses to Mac McClelland’s personal essay in GOOD about how she used consensual, violent sex to ease the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder she developed while reporting on sexual violence in Haiti are extreme examples of the limiting, self-defeating call-out culture in both journalism and American feminism.

That 36 well-respected women working as journalists, aid workers and researchers deemed it necessary to endorse a letter that shames a reporter grappling with PTSD for things she did not even write is evidence of just how widespread support for self-censorship is among a network that, were it to live up to its ideals, would encourage bold self-expression, but instead mobilizes to stamp it out and sow fear of independent thought. As Jill at Feministe put it in a piece about calling-out in the feminist blogosphere: “We have increasingly focused on shutting down voices rather than raising each other up.”

The letter:

To the Editors:

As female journalists and researchers who have lived and worked in Haiti, we write to you today to express our concern with Mac McClelland’s portrayal of Haiti in “I’m Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease my PTSD.”

We respect the heart of Ms. McClelland’s story, which is her experience of trauma and how she found sexuality a profound means of dealing with it. Her article calls much needed attention to the complexity of rape. But we believe the way she uses Haiti as a backdrop for this narrative is sensationalist and irresponsible.

The issue here is that McClelland re-tells the story of the gruesome aftermath of the rape of a Haitian woman, an aftermath McClelland herself witnessed, at the beginning of her piece. But she doesn’t bring up the story to make her piece more shocking –she brings it up because it was the event that set her on a collision course with PTSD. In other words, without telling that story, the rest of the essay wouldn’t make sense. It is a deeply disturbing, completely necessary part of McClelland’s narrative of her own trauma.

Between the 36 of us, we have lived or worked in Haiti for many years, reporting on and researching the country both long before and after the earthquake. We each have spent countless hours in the camps and neighborhoods speaking with ordinary Haitians about their experiences coping with the disaster and its aftermath.

We feel compelled to intervene collectively in this instance because, while speaking of her own personal experience, Ms. McClelland also implies that she is speaking up for female “journalists who put themselves in threatening situations all the time,” women who have “chosen to be around trauma for a living,” who she says “rarely talk about the impact.”

In writing about a country filled with guns, “ugly chaos” and “gang-raping monsters who prowl the flimsy encampments,” she paints Haiti as a heart-of-darkness dystopia, which serves only to highlight her own personal bravery for having gone there in the first place. She makes use of stereotypes about Haiti that would be better left in an earlier century: the savage men consumed by their own lust, the omnipresent violence and chaos, the danger encoded in a black republic’s DNA.

“This is what a hit piece reads like when it’s cloaked in liberal arts school vernacular,”
Conor Friedersdorf wrote in his response to the letter at the The Atlantic.

I couldn’t agree more.

Nowhere in McClelland’s piece are the terms “heart-of-darkness dystopia,” “savage men consumed by their own lust,” or “danger encoded in a black republic’s DNA” used. And since when is it verboten to call men who gang rape homeless women “monsters”?

Sadly, these damaging stereotypes about the country are not uncommon. But we were disturbed to find them articulated in Ms. McClelland’s piece without larger context, especially considering her reputation for socially conscious reporting.

McClelland’s piece for GOOD is not a scholarly article about Haitian history. It is not even a reporting piece about Haiti today. It is a personal essay about one reporter’s literally physical battle with her psychological demons. (How difficult is it for other media professionals to distinguish between these?) McClelland isn’t obligated to fill her essay with any more context than is necessary to make sense of her own actions.

Ms. McClelland’s Haiti is not the Haiti we know. Indeed, we have all lived in relative peace and safety there.

The Afghanistan I know is not the Afghanistan many of my friends who have lived with more safeguards (and those who have lived with fewer) know. In fact, my Afghanistan –that is, the entirety of my experience in this country up to this moment– is known only to me.

Expats in places like Haiti and Afghanistan are not a uniform group. Some of us take more risks than others, live further outside the parameters of what is considered a sensible foreigner’s lifestyle and break more rules, both spoken and unspoken.

Those who live closer to the edge and those who do not stay long enough to experience the very real bursts of joy and love amidst the suffering, are struck more deeply by trauma. (McClelland definitely falls into the second category, and probably the first as well.)

When discussing the rampant, menacing sexual harassment on Kabul’s streets with other expats, I have actually been told that the problem is not serious, that I am being hypersensitive, that I am exaggerating and overreacting. The people who have said these things are, for the most part, people who do not walk alone, have not stood as frozen witnesses to men trying to drag a screaming woman into a car, have not been groped and cornered by Afghan men, do not have female Afghan friends and do not understand when a man shouts “Hey, foreign pussy!” at them in the local language.

But the women who responded to McClelland’s essay aren’t like that. They’ve lived in Haiti for years, even decades, a fact that makes statements like this even more baffling:

This does not mean that we are strangers to rape and sexual violence. We can identify with the difficulty of unwanted sexual advances that women of all colors may face in Haiti. And in the United States. And everywhere.

Now that is just college freshman bullshit. Again, I have to agree with Friedersdorf:

It isn’t fair to say that this paragraph is loaded with the pathologies of left-leaning political discourse. A journalist writing in The New York Review of Books or The Nation or The American Prospect would seek to correct alleged misinformation about the prevalence of rape in a country by providing the most accurate available statistics about the prevalence of rape there.

And this makes no sense whatsoever:

Unfortunately, most Haitian women are not offered escapes from the possibility of violence in the camps in the form of passports and tickets home to another country. For the thousands of displaced women around Port-au-Prince, the threat of rape is tragically high. But the image of Haiti that Ms. McClelland paints only contributes to their continued marginalization.

Actually, the image of Haiti McClelland paints, mostly in her reporting pieces for Mother Jones, is of a place where the threat of rape is tragically high for thousands of displaced women. It’s not at all clear what the authors are taking issue with here, besides McClelland receiving a great deal of attention while being a relatively new name in mainstream journalism and not a Haiti beat long-termer.

While we are glad that Ms. McClelland has achieved a sort of peace within, we would encourage her, next time, not to make Haiti a casualty of the process.

Oh, come on. Haiti has survived worse.


One day, when my time in Afghanistan is over, I intend to write about my life here. I do not intend to write a history of the Afghanistan war or a book about the intricacies of Afghan politics. Other people will write those books. Instead, I will write about the things that happened to me, the choices I made, the people I knew, and how my experiences affected me. Will it be self-indulgent? Absolutely. Because that’s what all personal writing –-including every male war correspondent memoir ever written– is.

I have male Afghan friends I trust with my life, but I have been cornered enough times by both strangers and personal acquaintances to fear the footfalls behind me and the grin of the average man on the street. I have learned to distrust before I trust. And when the time comes for me to write about my traumatic experiences with some Afghan men, I do not want to be told that I am marginalizing Afghan women, whining, or being racist.

Those of us who choose to go to work in places like Haiti and Afghanistan do just that –-we choose to work in extremely troubled places where we are outsiders. But the fact that we made that choice while others had it foisted on them at birth shouldn’t mean we aren’t allowed to write honestly and without shame or self-censorship about how we cope with the mental health issues that are among our occupational hazards.


And a few more points: Continue reading

How prey feels

From the early fall of last year:

The city is quiet, sleeping.

When it’s quiet, I hear more. Every now and then, the water tank on my roof rattles. My ears pick up something far away and strain to catch the sound. Gunfire or my imagination? The wind blows gently through the alley in my compound as I bring the laundry in. My neighbor’s baby wails and then goes silent.

Eid is over. Kabul is resting. But this calm will be, like everything here, short-lived. Somewhere in this vast and dusty city of 5 million there are young men plotting under bare fluorescent light bulbs while their sleeping comrades smile unconsciously through dreams of mass murder yet to be enacted in the real world.

Scenes from a more innocent time

I find it hard to believe these photos were taken not much more than a year ago. Kabul is a different place now.

Afghan housemate during a night on the town (Kabul). March 2010.


Forcing Zaman onto a horse at Qargha. April 2010.


Podcasting and smoking shisha on the roof of the old Kabul Inn. I don't remember exactly when this was taken or by whom.

The fruits of war

From Jalalagood, my friend Peretz’s kickass Afghanistan travel blog, which you should definitely be reading.

Two representative symbols of Afghanistan, grenades and pomegranates, come from the same etymological root. We discovered yesterday that the word “grenade” is taken from the French “pome-grenate.” French soldiers gave the handheld explosives their name because they looked like the seeded fruits, both in their round shape topped with a crown, and in their inner workings consisting of lots of small seeds, prepped for activation.  We keep a stock of both at the Taj.

Last summer, I ate pomegranates from trees in Kabul whenever I got the chance. My friends found this disgusting. “But…those are urban pomegranates!” the Citizen Reporter exclaimed. “Their roots extend into the sewer drains.”

I shrugged and popped more tart, blood-colored seeds into my mouth.

Four walks at night

Walk 1.

May 1, 2010. Yakawlang district, Bamiyan province. Excerpt from a never-finished travel series.

The minibus stops in front of a river. A low yellow moon hangs above. I can just make out buildings. A young man who introduces himself as Salim, another AHRDO theater trainer, helps me carry my bags. I follow Bisharat, Salim and several others over a footbridge and through woods. We reach a dirt trail leading up a mountain. Bisharat points to lights high above. “That’s the Yakawlang Shohada  guesthouse, let’s go,” he says.  We hike up a mountain in the moonlight. The air is so clear it stings my lungs, which have for months been choked by dust and diesel from the streets of Kabul.

In the guesthouse, I find several men sitting on the floor of a livingroom dimly lit by a single fluorescent lightbulb. Yakawlang has a few hours of weak electricity at night thanks to a small hyrdo power station the valley residents built when they realized no one was coming to help them.

I sit down and Salim pours me some tea.

Walk 2.

September 14, 2010, four days before Election Day, from a journal entry titled “The fear.”

It is after midnight and I am sitting alone in a bright hotel conference room, typing a report that speaks to the corrosive effects of leaving killers in power for reasons of political expediency.

My phone rings. I pick it up. The question of who could be calling so late briefly flickers across my consciousness. Garbled Dari mixed with English. I can’t understand the words, but I understand the tone. I hang up.

Ringing again. Same number. Finally it disconnects. I turn back to the screen, to deleting the last two letters in a name that, when Googled, returns accounts of captives being crushed beneath tank treads. I replace the name with my favorite Afghanistan euphemism: “local powerbroker.”

Ring. Ring. Ring. The same number again, ending in 28.

I leave the phone. There’s no connection between the calls and what I’m writing. To think otherwise would be silly.

Josh walks into the room. I tell him I’m getting harassing phone calls again. He arches his eyebrows and asks, “Again?“

Checking my email inbox, I tell him about the calls, and about the time I received a text message from someone threatening to kill me by knocking out all my teeth and letting me bleed to death.

Josh tells me we will take taxis to work while he is in Kabul. The office carpool is fine, I say. He asks me how I can trust the drivers.

For a moment I puzzle over the question.

I just do, I tell him, shrugging. I have trusted them for months. Josh tells me that’s a poor justification for trust and the conversation ends.

It is nearly 2 am when I walk the 1/4 block home, alone. The street is dark when I leave the hotel. The faint light of a guard hut illuminates a soldier’s shape.

The soldier begins walking in my direction. No one else is around. My heart pounds. I reach for the comforting handle of my knife, and then remember that I gave it to my housemate.

The soldier picks up his pace. I freeze in the alley that runs alongside my compound. From probably 60 feet away, the soldier calls out, “No danger! No danger!”

My key tuns in the lock and the heavy gate opens. Hands shaking, I throw the deadbolt and run to my front door.

Walk 3.

October 2, 2010, from a journal entry titled “24 years; blood and vodka.”

My red scarf clings tightly to my face, showing only my eyes and the tips of my bangs, as I hurry through the nighttime streets. Passing cars honk, and guards call to me in singsong voices and then laugh heartily amongst their compatriots.

The dark hours belong to men in this country. A woman’s presence on the streets after sunset is treated as both an infraction and an open invitation.

I try to ignore the leering and whispers. Then a van swerves and slows next to me. Young men open the door and call to me. I leap clumsily across the open sewer and slide into a pile of rubble. The van drives on.

Waiting outside the gate of the UN guesthouse, I feel tacky wetness under the toes on my left foot. I look down and see my shoe covered in dark blood.

Walk 4.

January 4, 2011, Adams Morgan, Washington, DC.

A and I linger in the diner after Solmaz leaves. We finish the last of the cider and get the check. The air outside is full of cold and electricity. We decide to stay out a while longer. The apartment I’m subletting is at least a mile away, but I don’t mind walking, and neither does A. I see it as such a luxury now, I tell him. He gets that.

We leave the bright lights behind and hope we’re headed in the right direction. I have the urge to skip along the sidewalk like I did as a child. I want to twirl in the crosswalk. I love these benevolent streets. My luck at being able to call them my own is incalculable.

Return of dreams

As far back as I can remember, dreams came easily to me. Every night, beginning in early childhood, I would land in a vivid scenario with a well-developed  plot and few if any fantastic elements. As a lonely child, I dreamed of having different parents and living in a house with a white-tiled bathroom, a happy mother and a VCR. I also dreamed of burned farmland and fishermen drowning in beer-colored waves.

In my teens and early twenties, dreaming became a hazard of my field of study, and then of my profession. My mind began constructing my dreams of whatever I read, watched or agonized over during the day. When I was studying the UN tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for my international law class, I was shot at point-blank range by paramilitaries and bled to death on my grandmother’s favorite rug. When I was working in Bosnia, I stood trial for war crimes and squirmed under the judgmental gaze of tribunal interns. During the nights of my time resettling refugees in Upstate New York, I was recruited into an Afghan civil war militia and froze to death alone in a bombed-out building during the winter of 1994.

Happy dreams were few and far between then, but compensated for their infrequency by brilliantly outshining anything I had experienced in my waking life. They fulfilled not only personal-life wishes for romantic love and belonging, but also desires for large-scale, history-turning progress. In one shimmering dream, I attended the ceremony marking Bosnia’s integration into the European Union.

My dreams stopped for the first time early this year, when I moved to Afghanistan to work. Sleep became a pool of black quicksand I fell into at night and during long car rides. It became an off switch. Instead of feeling relieved, I was disturbed. Reality had finally overtaken my imagination. My hands and feet touched the places I had visited so many times in my mind. I picked up old shells from the floor of the building I succumbed to hypothermia in as a teenage militiaman.

About a month ago, the dreams returned at full volume with the strong antibiotics I began ingesting to reclaim my body from two raging bacterial infections. Now, I dream mostly about the forking paths before me, and along them the alternate futures that share a single commonality: they all remind me that life is short and impatient, and this will be another winter of hard choices.

Inspiration for this post courtesy of Natalia Antonova, who just wrote a lovely little post about sleeping and dreaming during turbulent times.


Thanks to a parent who never understood how to function in society with other people, I started my life over enough times during childhood to fuel a lifetime’s worth of death dreams. But the most altering reset was one I freely chose as an adult: moving to Afghanistan. As my first year in this country winds down, I can’t help believing that the girl who boarded that first connecting flight at JFK isn’t the same person who will depart Kabul, bound for the United States, next month. In my head, a gulf of a decade yawns between those two points in time. My mind lurches when I close my eyes and try to recall everything that has happened. The light from the hallway in my old house the morning of that first big attack and the blur of my housemate rushing to the gunbattle with his camera. Dancing at the last club in the city just before it closed. Beggar children with faces half-eaten by leishmaniasis tugging at my coat. Delicate indigo facial tattoos over the pale skin and freckles of a high school girl in Bamiyan. Arcade Fire’s ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ playing in M’s car after we were detained at gunpoint in the middle of nowhere. The no-going-back look in S’s eyes after that day on the Jalalabad-Torkham Highway when everything changed. The temperature in the room the exact moment I heard J was dead. The smell of the desert outside Herat at sunset. Tall soldiers patting me on the head, squeezing my shoulders and telling me I looked like a little doll. An electrical storm over the central highlands. Thousands of kites in the Ramazan sky.

I don’t want to hit reset; I want to preserve all of it —everything. Before the memories degrade.

How to begin?

A story from the other side of the world

A Twitter link led me to Blog-a-stan, the blog of an American Ph.D student doing her dissertation research in Kazan, Russia. Immediately, I was hooked by the author’s dark humor and storytelling. And when I came to the half-way point in a post titled Sud’ba (“Fate”) I stopped, and shivered, because I knew the story already.

Read, and then I’ll explain.

Tanya was sitting wrapped in a goat fur blanket rocking herself back and forth. It was only 8pm but they seemed to have already finished off a bottle of vodka and Valeria was now opening the second. “Leslie, come, sit, eat with us” she said. “Oh I just ate” I said but sat down for conversation. Tanya was moaning and crying and Valeria began to explain that her only daughter had just died. “It was a stomach illness. They did an operation but 100 days later, two days ago, she died. She was 37 years old.” Tanya sobbed and shook. I said how sorry I was to her, my eyes wide, slowly becoming conscious of the fact that I was rocking back and forth on my own chair empathetically. “Sud’ba” Tanya shook her head, “Sud’ba,” she sobbed as she tightened the goat hair blanket around her. I tried to remember the word, which I knew I knew but couldn’t find in my head at the time, only to look it up in the dictionary later and remember it: “Fate.” Valeria explained that Tanya’s husband had died five years ago of cancer so now she was all alone in her house. And she continued, hesitantly, touching my arm as she explained, “Tanya can’t sleep at her place any more. It’s just too sad for her there. Would you mind if she stayed here with us for awhile?” For a moment, and I know this is awful, but for a moment the thought crossed my mind that the dead daughter was an elaborate ruse and that they were together and felt they needed to come up with an excuse for Tanya sleeping over all the time. “Of course I don’t mind,” I said with the utmost sincerity, whichever story was true I was happy to have Tanya stay. From then on I became accustomed to walking in to find Tanya with Valeria at the table, a bottle of vodka by her side that they would stay up late drinking rocking back and forth and talking about “Sud’ba.” Valeria too is a victim of Sud’ba at the moment as her ex-husband is currently insisting she sell the dacha she uses on the weekends and there’s nothing she can do about it. Both situations strike me as things we would deal with not just emotionally but practically through lawyers in the States to regain our control over the situation. We would find a pretense for suing the hospital for the botched operation, take the husband to court to insist on our right to half the property, maybe even the whole thing. And while this wouldn’t take the pain away, particularly in the first case, it would at least give us a feeling of some agency over this damn Sud’ba.

Yes, I know this story, with some slight differences. My version has loose leaf tea instead of vodka, an old comforter from Bagram Airbase instead of a goat hair blanket, and a young Afghan man in the place of a middle aged Russian Tatar woman.

But the grief-stricken rocking, and the wide-eyed American, and the very real, physically wrenching absence of justice, the rule of law and human agency are the same. So is the sud’ba.