Anderson Cooper pulls family skeletons but not himself out of the closet in new memoir
“Dispatches from the Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival,” by Anderson Cooper. (HarperCollins, 2006) 226 pps, $24.95.
The second son of actor-screenwriter Wyatt Cooper and fashion designer/socialite Gloria Vanderbilt, Anderson Cooper has forged an impressive television journalist career over the past 15 years. Now a highly respected CNN newscaster, later this year he will start filing reports for “60 Minutes.”
Cooper could’ve very easily led a cushy life among the glitterati of New York society. Instead, he plunged headlong into war-torn or disaster-stricken parts of the world that few sane people would willingly enter (and many inhabitants of which were generally fleeing or surviving as best they could).
“It sounds strange, ghoulish, perhaps, but it’s the truth,” Copper writes. “I want to be there, want to see it. Once I am there, however, I’ve quickly seen enough.”
His live on-air dressing down of Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina endeared him to the American public in a way that hadn’t been seen since Walter Cronkite denounced the Vietnam War on location.
However, as Cooper candidly acknowledges in “Dispatches from the Edge,” much of his relentless globetrotting to such locales as Somalia, Niger, Bosnia and Iraq was an effort to avoid dealing with his painful past specifically, the early death of his father from heart problems in 1978, and the suicide of his older brother, Carter, in 1988.
Anderson writes, “For years, I tried to swaddle the pain, encase the feelings. I boxed them up along with my father’s papers, stored them away, promising one day to sort them all out. All I managed to do was deaden myself to them, detach myself from life. That works for only so long.”
However, the twin catastrophes of the Asian tsunami (which killed almost 230,000 people) and Hurricane Katrina (which ruined New Orleans and the Gulf Coast) broke through Cooper’s mental barriers. His newscasts from the stricken Big Easy highlighted the degree to which the Bush administration had failed the American people.
He notes, “In Sri Lanka, in Niger, you never assume anyone will help. You take it for granted that governments don’t work, that people are on their own. There’s a different level of expectation. Here, you grow up believing there’s a safety net that things can never completely fall apart. Katrina showed us all that’s not true.”
With quiet, calm fury, he records the chaos in New Orleans as desperation grew and government agencies pointed fingers at one another. He compassionately chronicles the lives of everyday people affected by wars and natural disasters across the globe. In many cases, these will be the only record that these human beings ever existed. It’s an incredible burden that he’s proud to bear even though at times he’s worried that “I’m building a career on the misery of others.”
Cooper’s writing style is crisp, relatively unadorned and occasionally displays a dry wit. In Baghdad, for example, “I’d worried about getting my morning wake-up call, and though a rocket slamming into the building next to me wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind, it definitely got me out of bed in a hurry.”
He quickly draws the reader into the narrative. One can empathize with his losses, and his ability to relate them somewhat dispassionately while revealing the degrees to which they’ve affected him. After their father’s death, Carter and Anderson retreated from each other into their own private worlds, and their mother restlessly moved from apartment to apartment after she’d finished redecorating them.
However, it seems somewhat hypocritical for as esteemed a newscaster as Anderson Cooper to lay bare only portions of his soul. Why is it OK to discuss one’s brother’s suicide and one’s own brush-with-death experiences, but not one’s sexual orientation?
In an interview with Jonathan van Meter for New York magazine, Cooper said, “You know, I understand why people might be interested. But I just don’t talk about my personal life. The whole thing about being a reporter is that you’re supposed to be an observer and to be able to adapt with any group you’re in, and I don’t want to do anything that threatens that.”
While some will cite Cooper’s right to privacy (even though different rules seemingly apply to public figures like him), his statement to van Meter smacks of ingenuousness. Even though Cooper’s homosexuality appears to be a very open secret, he never once broaches the subject. The closest he comes is on page 212: In his Acknowledgments, he thanks “Julio for his support and calm counsel without which this book would not have been possible.”
This person is widely believed to be 25-year-old Julio Cesar Recio, reputedly Cooper’s boyfriend.
“Dispatches from the Edge” is a powerful book, packed with many disturbing images which will linger in one’s mind, whether they be painful memories of profound personal loss, the sight of corpses bobbing in African rivers, or anarchy on the flooded streets of New Orleans. There are near moments of poetry, such as his lament for Carter: “I thought he and I had a silent agreement, that we would both just get through our childhoods and meet up as adults on the other side. I imagined one day we would be friends, allies, brothers laughing about our past fights. I’m not sure why he didn’t keep his end of the bargain. Maybe he never knew about our silent pact. Maybe it was all in my head.”
Only Cooper’s lack of discussing “the rest of the story” keeps it from getting higher accolades.
15 minutes of pain
Augusten Burroughs plumbs all-too familiar territory in latest essay collection
“Possible Side Effects, By Augusten Burroughs, “St. Martin’s Press, 2006), 304 pps., $23.95.
In 2002, Augusten Burroughs burst onto the nonfiction scene like an inflamed pustule. “Running with Scissors,” his memoir of adolescence in his mother’s psychiatrist’s rundown Victorian mansion and altogether icky menagerie of family and patients, became a runaway best seller. So did “Dry,” his account of kicking the bottle, and “Magical Thinking,” a tart collection of essays.
However, the recent James Frey debacle has cast a pall over the memoir genre. No doubt as a consequence of this, “Possible Side Effects” has the longest Author’s Note to date in a Burroughs book. This clearly states that “Some of the events described happened as related; others were expanded and changed. Some of the individuals portrayed are composites of more than one person, and many names and identifying characteristics have been changed as well.”
While this is hardly surprising some have commented that Burroughs’ accounts of his childhood seem far too detailed even for someone who kept journals of that time this sort of disclaimer might signal the beginning of the end, that the jig, as they say, is up.
Others might say that Burroughs is close to mining out the rich vein of dysfunction that has so endeared him to thousands of readers.
In “Possible Side Effects,” Burroughs repeatedly returns to his shambles of an upbringing in western Massachusetts and his squalid den of an apartment in New York City, occasionally interspersing these with tales of relative domestic bliss with his partner, Dennis. Many of these essays previously appeared in “Details” magazine, which probably accounts for their somewhat choppy pacing and disjointed feel when compared to his other efforts.
Conversely, one could argue somewhat convincingly that Burroughs on autopilot is still more entertaining than many other writers’ efforts. Sure, everyone’s had a bad date at some point, but he manages to bring just the right amount of excess to the proceedings as he mistakenly gives a literal whirling dervish the benefit of the doubt.
Similarly, longtime Burroughs readers just know that he won’t have a typical reaction when Carolyn, his Southern paternal grandmother, tells him about the tooth fairy for the first time, but they’ll still eagerly read how he barricades his bedroom against “that creepy bug woman with her devil wand.”
And it’s seemingly obligatory for anyone who’s been to England to comment on the vast array of potato chip flavors available there. Burroughs is no exception, but somehow he makes even a stale and starchy subject like this burst with flavor.
It goes without saying that Augusten Burroughs is an immensely talented writer with a rare gift for pulling readers into his warped world. However, “Possible Side Effects” feels like a crossroads for the author.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, June 16, 2006.