Friday, August 19, 2016

World Humanitarian Day 2016: South Sudan and Rape and Being an AidWorker




I just wrote about this in the Cassandra Complexity, a blog I help co-edit with friends but here's a rougher more personal account.
August 19 is World Humanitarian Day where humanitarian aid workers like me remember our colleagues who were killed in the line of duty. Today, I am also now thinking about the particular vulnerability that women face: being raped in the line of duty.  
A few days ago, the AP published a report about the South Sudanese army's attacks on a popular expatriate lodging, "Terrain House", in Juba, Sudan where three female expatriate aid workers were raped by multiple soldiers. The rage and sadness I felt about the UN's refusal to deploy peacekeepers to protect these civilians threw me into a sad dark place. I'm currently on sabbatical in Sarajevo, Bosnia and this sadness was compounded by all the dark European movies I had been watching at the Sarajevo Film Festival.  I cried through the movie Cameraperson because it had a lot of scenes that hit close to home - women chopping wood in Zalingei (reminded me of almost getting shot on my way to Kass in South Darfur), a baby being born and dying in Nigeria (reminded me of dying babies in Haiti post-earthquake in MSF's obstetric hospital, Afghanistan (the fear I felt there driving around at night), and scenes from Liberia (where I had my first security fright thanks to a dumbass Congolese man that I was traveling with). I was already feeling raw when I read this report. 
I then learned that the US Embassy (my Embassy!)  had also failed to do ANYTHING to protect these American citizens and had "made some phone calls." Eventually the Government of Sudan sent in someone to rescue the people but the local staff of the hotel and 3 women were left behind to be rescued the next day by a private security force. What must it have felt like to be the people "left behind"? I couldn't stop myself from instantly imagining myself as one of the three expatriate women left overnight with the rapist soldiers. It's every woman's worst nightmare. For my sanity, I had to stop. 
Aid workers started lamenting this issue and expressing our rage and sadness.  Female aid workers everywhere are deeply shaken by this event. Some are privately expressing how afraid they feel but that they feel worse for abandoning South Sudanese women who bear the brunt of the sexual violence. The most frustrating part was the false sense of security that being nearby the peacekeepers provided. Our so-called "safety and security systems" (including useless TRIP forms filled out on line) are not always going to be there. It's obvious that we, as women,  are usually alone out there sometimes, and as every woman everywhere in the world has learned since puberty, you have to take responsibility for your own safety and security.
Our "security professionals" are often ignoring women's needs or have REALLY outdated viewpoints on how women can protect themselves. In Bangkok, at the recent women's day- our security personnel at the UN told women that they should "smile more" and in Jordan, the UNHCR security personnel who was giving me a brief there said I should "dress decently" (to which I responded, since I'm a decent person anything I wear is, by definition, decent). 
I'm too angry and sad to write a more professional polished piece - so I give you instead, a piece that i wrote about this in 2012. It was inspired by events that took place in 2012 after I had finished a year working in Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan for the UN.  I took a Hostile Environment Awareness Training course before I went to Libya with the British government for the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. I was really nervous as in mid 2011, there had been an attack on the hotel where i had worked in Kabul right after I left and I realized I had never felt safe in that country. I didn't know how I would react to the simulated situation. I was most nervous about the "fake kidnapping" part - and as it turns out - I was fine, but one of my colleagues was not. She was a survivor and experienced a flashback during this section of the training. Our mostly male trainers had no psychologist on standby and were not prepared to support her so I was called in. In order to deal with it, I decided to take action and become an activist on this issue. 
Gender-based Violence and Security
This blog post was published by USAID to coincide with the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence event, “Who Takes Care of the Caregivers?  Providing Care and Safety for Staff in Gender-based Violence Settings,” taking place on Thursday, Nov. 29th 2012 in Washington DC, hosted by the Inter-Agency Gender Working Group, funded by USAID. It is no longer available online but a copy of it can be found hereThe Tips that I wrote for travelers can be found here
Gender-based Violence (GBV) is an issue that impacts aid workers – not just beneficiaries and not just staff that works in GBV settings. This post examines agencies’ duty to care for their workers by preventing and responding to GBV. 
“Keeping International Workers Safe:  Preventing and Responding to Gender-based Violence”
Sarah Martin, Consultant and Specialist on Prevention and Response to Gender-based Violence
The sexual assault of the journalists Lara Logan, Mona Eltahawy and two unnamed British and French journalists in Egypt shocked the world and brought the issue of gender-based violence (GBV) against Westerners working in conflict areas to the forefront. Clearly GBV does not only affect the "locals" in these areas. Not only are journalists at risk but also aid workers–and not just in conflict settings or in GBV program areas.
I recently interviewed a large cross section of women travelers who work in a number of fields (including international development, human rights, humanitarian action and international business) about their experiences as women while traveling and working overseas*.  Many of them brought up their frustration that sexual harassment and sexual assault were never raised in security trainings and that agencies refused to address this as a real security concern. Increasingly, aid agencies are providing more “realistic” security trainings that simulate “hostile environments to prepare their employees for gunfire, kidnappings and other events in the field.”  While some of these trainings talk about sexual assault, there are no discussions of how to prevent sexual assault or how to react or support colleagues if they are assaulted. Sexual harassment in the workplace as a security issue is often ignored. In addition, the purveyors of these trainings are mostly male and show little awareness to the issue of sexual assault or the gender concerns of female trainees. I recently attended one such training where one of the participants relived her own sexual assault from years ago while undergoing a simulated “kidnapping.” While they took her out of the simulation, there were no psychologists or female trainers available to talk to her. 
Female development and aid workers have the same security concerns as their male counterparts: crime and landmine accidents and armed robberies do not discriminate. Security measures, trainings, and manuals are the same for men and women, and most agencies take a ‘gender-blind’ approach to security. Most security officers are men, and many of them come from a military background. This gender-blind approach to security, however, leaves out a major issue.  Women also face another security threat that most men do not encounter – gender-based violence, namely sexual harassment and sexual violence.
Rape myths promote the false idea that women are only sexually assaulted by strangers. While this can happen, women are much more likely to be attacked by someone familiar to them – a co-worker, a driver, or a friend. Most of the women I interviewed shared stories about fending off sexual harassment by colleagues or actual cases of sexual assault in the field. 
Rarely is their organization prepared to handle these issues. While there has been some action taken on “building safe organizations” – the focus has been preventing sexual exploitation of our beneficiaries by our staff. But there is not sufficient attention paid to sexual harassment of our staff by our staff or adequate support for staff that have been sexually assaulted. There is little information in the security manuals that I have reviewed about what medical care a survivor may need or what rights a sexual assault survivor might have. Nor is there guidance on reporting to local authorities, human resources or guarantees of confidentiality. Responsible employers must be prepared to understand and deal with the fact that their employees might become victims of sexual assault [1] and should be prepared to support them. This means bringing the issue of sexual assault up in security trainings and sensitizing the trainers and security personnel on how to address the issue – but not by restricting women’s access to “dangerous areas” but by making sure female employees are informed of the dangers, provided with information on how to protect themselves, and given sensitive and adequate support by their organizations in case the worst happens.
[1] Global statistics show that 1 out of 3 women has experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault.
 * From the chapter I wrote entitled “Sexual Assault: Preventing And Responding As An International Travelers in the book Personal Security: A Guide for International Travelers, by Tanya Spencer, ISBN: 9781466559448 commissioned and published by Taylor and Francis, LLC.



Saturday, May 21, 2016

Spring time in the Balkans with Syrian and Afghan Refugees



So in April, I quit my job as the Regional GBV Advisor for the global GBV Working Group in Bangkok. I wanted to work on the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe and I had a great opportunity to do so by working with the International Rescue Committee as the "Initiatives Director for Women and Children's Protection" - sadly, by the time I had resigned and got here, the EU-Turkey deal was in place and the large migration had halted so there are far fewer migrants moving through Europe. But the job is still great and super interesting.

I'm living in Belgrade, Serbia (a place I never thought I would ever go) and I'm working with a small nice team of people here. They just found me an apartment that overlooks the big park here and I can walk down to the Danube. The beer is good, the meat is heavy and tasty, and I had better find a gym immediately or I will become as wide as I am tall. My job involves going to the different countries in the Balkans and looking at the needs of women and children migrants and seeing if IRC should open up programming and how to do it to support them. So it reminds me a bit of my Refugees International life where I go someplace for a short period of time and do intensive interviews with refugees, NGOs, and government officials and taken in vast amounts of information trying to understand the situation. But I then get to help design programs to address the needs which is wonderful. 

First up: I went to Berlin for 2 weeks and met with local volunteers, the government, German NGOs, and toured many of the shelters where Syrian and Afghan refugees are living. It was both super heartening to meet the German volunteers who were devoting time and resources to helping the refugees understand the really intense bureaucracy of German life but also really depressing to see that all the same problems we see in camps in Liberia, Jordan, Sri Lanka, and Haiti are happening in a rich Western country - no segregation of vulnerable young women from the men, rape of children by "volunteers" and attacks in toilets because of lack of lighting or locks on doors. People who are interested in volunteering are also naive and soon become angry or depressed at the "ingratitude" of Syrians who are often middle class educated people who would like to just have a job, thank you, so they can buy what they need and get on with their lives rather than throwing off their veils, putting on ripped jeans, and becoming Germans. I interviewed young adolescent girls, lesbians, single mothers, and women with three children. Every single one of them discussed some aspect of groping, sexual exploitation, assault, and harassment on the journey - from the sex-starved young men of Syria and Afghanistan but also from the authorities along the route but mostly by the smugglers. The men who they had entrusted their lives with to make the dangerous journey.

For my next assessment, I went to Albania - a country that I really had very little knowledge about. I hadn't seen "Taken" in which Albanian mobsters apparently play a huge role. I had vaguely read some information about their terrible communism. But mostly I knew them from a Simpson cartoon.  I was blown away by the kindness, the beauty of their country, and the cultural heritage they have. i read a fantastic book called A Chronicle in Stone by Ismael Kadare and fell in love with his hometown of Ghirokastra. However, I did not meet nor see a single refugee. I did spend 2 hours stuck on the Greek-Albanian border and driving through some seriously high mountains and eating some good food. 

Now, I've just visited the third country for my assignment - It's been very interesting in Bulgaria - we were inside all the camps. Apparently the Afghan men (and its thousands of them) have been instructed by the smugglers to destroy the lodgings for them and take photos so they can show how discriminatory everyone is against Afghans and it will "help them in their asylum cases." It won't. All it is doing is making everyone think they are animals. I keep hearing all these terrible things about them. It makes me sad. I fight back and say I've been to Afghanistan and the people there are kind, have lovely homes, and show amazing hospitality. I remind them that its not safe there and the war still rages on despite the lack of interest from Western media. 

There are SO MANY OF THESE YOUNG MEN. Young men - ages 15-17 (some younger but lying about their ages) with no future in Afghanistan, climbing through forests, swimming in rivers, and sleeping in these old Bulgarian army barracks. they only stay for one or two days and then they are off - looking for the promised land of Germany. Where Afghanistan is considered "post-conflict" and safe so they will be denied asylum status and  will probably disappear into the "illegal" sectors living in the shadows. The same "smugglers" who lie to them and bring them across the continent also move the illegal drugs and traffic people into sex work. The young men are bored and restless, there is nothing for them to do in the asylum centers so they smoke and loiter around. Still, they are children - when you talk to them about sports or games or their favorite food - you see the young boy inside. there are still girls here too - and because they are fearful of all these young men, they are trapped inside the centers - not allowed to really go outside and enjoy the spring, kept inside for their safety. I will be pushing for women's centers where we can bring them together to chat, meet each other, possibly form some friendships or alliances where they can open up and find support for the troubles they have. And trying to think of ways to reach these young men. Because we know they are also vulnerable and there is a trade in sex trafficking for young men too. Behind their bravado and their male posturing, they are also vulnerable children. Some of the nights, after spending all day in the asylum centers and processing all the information, we were so tired.  But as I drove through the countryside and saw the poppies and waving fields of grain and mountains, and elderflowers and breathed in the fresh air, I also felt pretty happy. 

Back to Belgrade tomorrow after a weekend in Sofia, Bulgaria and next up - Macedonia? Greece? Hungary? Stay tuned. 

My contract is only til July 1 but I have the opportunity to do this for a year, I'm still mulling it over but it looks like a move away from Asia may be in the books. I hope Simon Le Bon likes beef and loud Serbian music! 

xoxox

Monday, April 25, 2016

My Review of Guapa: My favorite book of 2016


GuapaGuapa by Saleem Haddad
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was written by my good friend Saleem Haddad - I met him when we worked together at Medecins Sans Frontieres and I recognized a special guy in that crowded London office. My review: I still think about things in this novel 10 days later - something that hasn't happened to me in a while. I recognized so many things in it that called out to me: Rasa's relationship with his Teta- their morning rituals, the silence around his father's fate, the living in a type of mausoleum but also the pain he felt around his mother and the suffocating silence. I'm not Arab but I grew up in a British household and felt many of those same emotions choking inside of me which I think is what makes me so hellbent on being open and speaking about all my taboos now. It made me really thing about the burden of being closeted and what it does to your emotions.

Things I loved: I felt so frustrated and angry at the scene in the wedding. it was so realistic - the whispered drunken asides from his shallow female friend, the mess of angst and emotion and love swirling around inside Rasa as he steadily drinks and argues with the waiter over his change. I just wanted a Hollywood happy ending - run off together! Be together. But that's not life. And the chaos towards the end was necessary. His mother crying as she chopped onions. His self-centered French friend and being forced out of embarrassment to accept the homeless man as his roommate.

Like some other reviewers, I think I would have liked more life inside Guapa. His friend Maj was the most uplifting character but I also wanted more of everything - more lush descriptions of falling in love, more lazy nights tangoing in a sequestered bedroom, more driving around tense parts of town, more revolution. I guess we can't have it all.

I also felt as if I shared Rasa's fatigue at the end of the novel - and that makes me think that the author did his job. My emotions were everywhere as I read it. And to me that is what I am looking for in reading - plunging into another world.

Thanks Saleem- for a fantastic novel. Can't wait to read number 2.




View all my reviews

Saturday, March 05, 2016

A little creative writing....

After years of ridicule, a gossip columnist receives a very important phone call (a writing prompt)

It wasn’t supposed to end up this way. Originally, I was to become the female Bob Woodward – investigative journalist, truth teller, defender of the free world, protector of the innocent. But after years of slaving away at the Metro section and never uncovering a true scoop, I started idly entertaining myself with catty, snarky, observations of the politicians I covered. I started a blog about the foibles of the Washington DC policy wonks I continuously ran into at parties and events that I covered for the lesser known of the big city dailies in DC. My mean “mot juste” from “CYNICAL INSIDER” hit a certain chord in a city not known for its compassion.

I got picked up by the larger DC gossip column – “Wonkette” and my pieces got more attention. I loved hearing that people were quoting me at parties. “Did you hear what Cynical Insider said about Clinton? How getting more botox might help her win over Pakistan more than wearing those unflattering pantsuits?” – I got a rush… that was me! But of course, I couldn’t tell them that. I was still incognito and it wasn’t like Wonkette was paying much. I got $50 an article and a percentage of the ad revenue from clicks driven by my page. I relied on my daily job at The Washington Daily Star covering committee hearings to pay the rent in my one bedroom in Columbia Heights.

Then it happened; I got drunk one night and decided to brag to my latest conquest from Match.com. Adam was a typical arrogant Washington DC guy who worked for Representative WhoCares from BumFuck, USA and full of himself. Over dinner at an overpriced Ethiopian restaurant on 18th street, he bragged about his influence and how he knew Senator so and so and Congressman this and that. I had had too much beer and the lentils and injera were swelling unpleasantly in my belly. I wanted to get out of there. It didn’t look like I was going to get laid so I just decided to cut to the chase. “Yeah – you’re very important.” I said sarcastically. “But you don’t know the real shit going on in DC…all you see are unimportant nobodies.”

“How would you know?” he demanded, his fragile ego wounded.

“Because I know your Rep is known as an idiot do nothing and is sleeping with her intern. And everyone laughs at her behind her back and no one invites her to the parties with the big dogs.”

“What?!”  He shouted. Other diners looked over from their tables as he started to struggle to his feet from our “romantic table with the stools.” (DC Asshole characteristic number one… sensitive to other cultures so thinks eating Ethiopian food is a sign of sophistication. No one eats Ethiopian food if they want to have sex later that night. It was just too filling.)

“I read about it on Cynical Insider the other day.”

“That shit! They don’t know anything. I think that guy is a dick anyway. He’s so full of himself. Half his stories are shit and no one really reads that shit.”

“Guy? Why do you think it’s a guy?”

“Well only a man would have the balls to say that shit. Women are too smart to write like that” (DC Asshole characterization number two… the “pretend feminist/sensitive guy” who says what he thinks are the right things about women to win us over but is as big a sexist as any Republican. Give me a sexist Republican any day. At least they are honest.)

Well that was it for me… my inner feminist rose up.

“A guy, huh? Well I’ll have you know that I fucking know for sure it’s a woman.”

“You are full of shit. It is not a woman. You don’t know anything. You’re just some low level journalist at the fucking Washington Daily Star! You couldn’t even write a proper press release.” (DC Asshole characterization number 3 – assume everyone wants to work on the hill and those who don’t just couldn’t get a job there.)

“Oh yeah – what if I told you that Cynical Insider was me?”

“Bullshit.”

“For real.”

“Bullshit.”

“I’ll prove it.”

“How? “

“Read tomorrow and see if there is anyone you recognize in it. “

And I stormed out after rising gracelessly to my feet and throwing down some cash on the table. Thank god I had cash. Its impossible to storm out when you have to use your debit card to pay your half. And because I’m a DC woman, I always pay my half. (See DC Asshole characterization number 2… no “sensitive guy” wants to offend your feminist sensitivities by offering to pay for dinner.)

That night, I stopped by the liquor store and bought a shit bottle of Chilean red and sat miserably at my computer. “Dating in DC aka Hollywood-for-Ugly-People” I started. And then I was off. The bottle finished around 2am and I had my guide to dating in DC. How to tell apart the types: the congressional staffers who were in love with themselves, the power gays, the closeted gays, the want to-be punk rock NGOers, the euro-trash World Bank guys, the military married man, the surprisingly hung wonks at the think tanks, the impotent student body presidents, and the perverted bicycle messengers.

I starred Adam, my thwarted date as the star… typical grade A  DC asshole. In love with the sound of his own voice minor-level Midwestern wanna-be power-player who would wine and dine you with cheap food that you had to pay your half for, show his knowledge of foreign affairs with some boring anecdote about what someone from the foreign relations staff (who he would only refer to by their first name) said to him in the ‘halls of power’ and how the evening usually ended with lackluster dry humping and grinding on the dance floors of Habana Village and if you were lucky, he could keep it up long enough to go a couple of minutes in your room later that night before passing out and trying to sneak out in the middle of the night.  DC: the land where sex goes to die.

As I hit “post”, I thought… maybe I shouldn’t do this. Fuck it. And up it went. I passed out and the next morning my phone beeped. My friend Annamaria was texting. “Had a bit too much to drink last night?” she said with a winky smile. Brunch at Lauriol Plaza? I hated going there. For some reason, she liked it even though me and the rest of my bratty friends referred to it as the “Bridge and Tunnel Crowd”. But the salmon salad was delicious and the chips and salsa good. If you went early enough on a Sunday, no one else would be around.

She and I met outside and she taunted me lovingly about my post from the night before. I told her in long boring detail about the date and she sympathized. Single dynamic women were a dime a dozen in DC. The men were shit and we were never going to get married. Same old Sunday morning.

When I got home, I checked my email. There was an angry email from Adam, my Match.com date. “You bitch” it started and went downhill from there. “You’ll pay for this. I’ll make sure you never get a job in this town again.”  I should have added more about the petty tyrant Napoleonic complex in there. I thought. And the fact that every dickhead in this town thinks that he has power and is some sort of mover and shaker. I was unconcerned. I logged onto Wonkette and the comments were running hot and heavy. Women from throughout DC were adding their own miserable anecdotes about the lackluster sex they were getting and the Men’s Rights Activists were calling us all castrating bitches and threatening to go to Thailand to find “real women” who “treated them right”. But… wait… what was that? There was a comment from “DEM69” saying “Yes, I know who this bitch CYNICAL INSIDER is… I went on a date with her last night. What she’s not telling you is that she is 15 pounds overweight, 34 but looks 44, and an angry bitter feminist. When I wouldn’t fuck her, she got nasty.”

This must not stand! So I blasted back in the comments some of last night’s choice brags/quotes from Adam. “Rep so and so is one of the leading candidates to be Secretary of State. The President calls her regularly!” and the catcalls and the nastiness swarmed around him. Finally, he pulled out his only trump card. “Well why don’t you go out with CYNICAL INSIDER yourself? Her profile on Match.com is bookish babe.” And there it was, I was outed.

Shit.

What am I going to do now? Lay low, disable my Match account? Or maybe this could work for me? I wasn’t sure. Let’s brazen it out and see what happens tomorrow.

Monday morning – Reliable Source in the Washington Post has picked it up. There is my profile picture in the Style section with a witty little “he said, she said” date summary from the comments on Wonkette. But they lay heavily down on my side. Dating in DC sucks… lots of women have weighed in on my side with anecdotes of miserable blind dates. I walk into my office and hope my editor hasn’t seen it. But no, there it is on my desk with the dreaded post it “SEE ME” next to it. I walk into the editor’s office. He chews my ass off, tells me my gossipy ways are inappropriate and have no place in a serious newsroom, suspends me for two weeks to think over my sins. I walk home, log onto Wonkette… tons of posts still coming in as the worker bees of DC fight it out in the comments. I’ve struck a nerve. And in my in box, a note from the mother ship “Gawker.com” – let’s talk. Maybe we can hire you full time. I’ve got 2 weeks off work, let’s see what they have to say. Boom – I’m a gossip columnist.

So for three wonderful years, it was the glory days of Gawker.com. People were being swept up into the “new media” – snarky gossipy “news” was in and people were jumping from Gawker.com to amazing jobs with the Atlantic, Huffington Post, and the Washington Post. They were moving from gossip to real news and respectable “old media” jobs and some were even talking heads on TV!
I jumped ship and never looked back. I wrote ferocious, bitchy short little gossipy pieces about the “movers and the shakers” in DC. I was paid well, the meaner my piece, the more clicks I got. I moved into a bigger place and began thinking about moving to a magazine. Us Weekly came calling. I moved to NYC. I went to great parties with “literati” and I started writing about movie stars.

But then the economic downturn came and it was more about “the Real Housewives of NY”, “Teen Mom” and Snooki and their latest shenanigans. It was hard to be bitchy or snarky about these clueless fame whores and I started to feel sorry for them. The colleagues at the magazines and websites started to get younger and younger. My posts were getting less prominent and I found myself moved to the online subsidiary of Us Weekly, then laid off. I got a position with TMZ.com but it was for half the money I used to make. I started hustling part time with pieces in different gossip columns and puff pieces for other gossip weeklies including “best bikini bodies” and “worst tattoos”. 

Luckily, I had married Nick, a man with a real job as a lawyer and he paid the bills and I was allowed to continue my “career” as a gossip columnist. He encouraged me to put it aside and write a novel. “You know you have it in you! You are a great writer! Put this junk food writing away and plug into it!” he would encourage me. And I would feel ashamed and make promises and say that I was working on a draft. But I wasn’t. I was reading gossip columns and killing time in my “office”. We had moved back to Washington DC – land of the “intelligentsia” and networkers. Everyone there was running an association, a NGO, or working for a congressman. The others were lobbyists, diplomats, and scholars. But I was ashamed to tell people what I did for a living when we went to parties and when his lawyer friends found out, the raised eyebrows made me feel ashamed so I became more brazen and ridiculous and told ridiculous made up stories about movie stars. I was their “dancing monkey” and I felt less and less happy to go out and socialize. But I still wrote – unable to envision a job that wasn’t writing pithy little snarky bits anymore. Unable to shake my self-loathing and continuing to write catty bits about the latest celebutante’s std.  Who was I kidding? I was no novelist. There was no draft. There was me and my internet connection and a big cloud of shame sitting in that “office.”

One day, I was making coffee in the morning and firing up the computer. I had recently got a ‘position’ as a stringer putting together gossip bits in the morning and supposedly working on my novel in the afternoons but really, I usually played ‘Angry Birds’, read gawker (now mostly staffed by former commenter’s being paid peanuts to re-word Reddit pieces), and browsed facebook. My phone rang and I walked over to find it – hidden under some magazines. It was a blocked number. Hmmm… I pressed silent. No good comes from blocked numbers. I opened up Crazy Days and Nights … it was time to find out the answers to last weeks Blind Items. The phone rang again. Blocked Number.

So this time, I ignored my rule and I answered it. “Hello?” “Lindsay it’s me” came the answer. “Who?” “Me!” and I realized who it was. It was my former editor from Gawker – Sadie Smith. “Look, I’ve got a great offer for you. I’m starting my own website. I need a DC columnist. I immediately thought of you. It’d be like the good ole days! Would you like to join?” “Oh wow! How are you? It’s been a long time!” “Yes! But this website, its perfect for you… I want to bring us back to the glory days of Gawker… some expose, some irreverent news, some gossip, but not this crap that you are writing nowadays, what do you say?” What could I say? It would be awesome, I’d been so ashamed of my old life… so why not? Reader, I said Yes. And that decision changed my whole life.

About three months later, I was working on a story that seemed to go nowhere. I had a lead that there was a video out there of a popular young congressman smoking crack cocaine. I had called around, punched into some pretty awful people who were willing to make it available to me, sight unseen but for $10,000. I was ready to pull the plug on this “scandal”. I had no proof and basically this guy was alright -he seemed to be doing a good job bringing jobs home to his constituency – a hard scrabble bunch of shipbuilders in Delaware. He voted consistently against the crazy Republican pro-lifers and pro-war crowd. He was fiscally responsible, not introducing any weird bills and seemed well liked. He was young-ish, known as a bit of a party guy but that’s probably what his constituents liked about him… the famous “can you drink a beer with this guy?” factor.

It wasn’t going anywhere – I didn’t have $10,000. I didn’t think it was right for a newspaper/web magazine whatever we were, to spend $10,000 on a video for “news”. And if we did purchase it, it would be from drug dealers – people who sold crack cocaine. Washington DC was not the sort of place that one wanted to encourage crack cocaine dealers. So I dropped my inquiries.

Two days later, I was chatting with Sadie on the phone. “What happened with that Congressman Crackhead story you were working on?” she asked. “Oh, I dropped it. I couldn’t get my hands on the video. It probably doesn’t exist and if it does, its probably so blurry and smeary that you can’t even tell who it is. Besides, I like Congressman Crackhead. I don’t think this is worth ruining his life.” “What! That’s not your call!” she said, “how much do they want?” “ummm 10K” I answered, a bit shocked. “Look – this could crack us wide open, pardon the pun. We’ve not been getting the hits we need to generate online advertising revenue. We need to play with the big boys. We need a big story, even if it is one that goes nowhere to generate clicks. Start writing about it. Leave the 10K to me.” “I don’t think this is a good idea…” I started. “Do it, “she said. “I don’t pay you to think. We need to make sure our site takes off. We need to play with the big boys. We need our “Faith Hill” moment. ”

She was talking about the famous moment when Jezebel.com, my former favorite website, got someone to forward them the untouched cover photos of Faith Hill, a country singer so they could compare them with the photo-shopping that took place when they were published. Poor Faith Hill was embarrassed but Jezebel became famous for “uncovering” the vast amounts of photo-shopping and cover-up and moving around of limbs, shaving of waists, and blasting of wrinkles that goes into making a superstar look like an un-aging, perfect demigod. In the name of good “feminism”, Jezebel exposed the ruthless photo-shopping of magazine covers and got on the national radar and people talked for about 5 minutes of outlawing Photoshop. Then it was back to the same old same old. No truth in advertising.

I thought about it. Was it so wrong? If this guy was smoking crack, that was illegal and destructive and he needed to be exposed. But what if it wasn’t him? What if the video didn’t exist? Then what? Well, that’s today’s news cycle. I thought. He has press officers, they’ll cover this for him. It’ll be on the news for a couple of days, people know about him –its good for his news coverage, he can become a “comeback” kid and he’ll get eve more exposure. So I wrote up my first story on it… I spoke about the possible existence of this video and I hinted around about who Congressman Crackhead might be.

About 20 minutes after it hit the webpage, there were a flurry of hits. Click Click Click… click bait it was indeed. And I got lots of comments. Readers were outraged. Calling for full exposure of this lying hypocrite. There is nothing America likes more than a good hypocritical church-going mama’s boy being brought down by drugs. Unless its sex. That makes it better. We scold them, we put them in the stocks and throw rotten tomatoes at them. They sew the scarlet letter on their chest and make the rounds of the talk shows apologizing with their wife grinning next to them. Then we forgive them like the good hypocritical Christians that we are and they run for a different office and then its all forgiven. Look at Anthony Weiner! Look at Eliot Spitzer! There are more gay republicans than one can count on both hands and feet who have survived their forced “outing”.

My inbox started filling up with emails. And in there was an interesting name I hadn’t seen in a long time. It was my date from way back in the beginning. The man who pushed me into this career fulltime - Adam. And it appeared he was now Congressman Crackhead’s Legislative director.

“CEASE AND DESIST” was the opening line of his email. Infuriating. He was still a loathsome smug asshole. “Look, you aren’t as good a writer as you think you are, you two bit gossip. You haven’t changed a bit. I know you are hinting around about the congressman but this is libel. You need to stop this. WE WILL SUE.” Unbelievable. I puffed up in righteous indignation thinking about the first amendment and the right of the public to know the truth about their congressman.  He is a PUBLIC SERVANT! I thought – how dare he take that sacred trust and waste it!

I called Sadie. She was thrilled… “Lindsay, this is awesome! Look – I’ve got a great idea. I’m going to launch a “kick starter” to see if we can get readers to raise the 10K that we need. If we don’t’ get it, no one is out of money but if we do – what a score! We’ll change the way journalisms is practiced and be legendary!” Her enthusiasm was infectious. I was in.

I upped the ante with the next post. I had contacted the drug dealers again and told them that we were definitely interested. To increase page hits, I took it a bit further. Congressman Crackhead acquired some initials. I described him as a young ‘family man’ from a working class district. I all but named him. Other websites picked up the hunt. Photos of the young congressman coming out of the Home Depot with his young children on a Saturday morning accompanied a “Is it him?” style post. His wife was photographed coming out of an SUV in sweatpants and looking a bit overweight. I felt bad for her. She had just given birth to twins 8 months before and unlike the Hollywood bimbos that we covered, had no personal trainer and nanny and 8 hour a day job that consisted soley of working out to get back that “pre-baby body”. She was an ordinary woman who didn’t expect paparazzi. She looked a bit like me.  But you know what – that’s politics. “Why the congressman has to smoke crack” was the quip underneath a photo of her generous derriere not quite covered by her sweatpants and exposing her “plumber’s crack” as she bent over to pick up the baby’s car seat. America loved it. We linked to it, the page clicks kept coming.

The kick starter was making money. We were up to $8k. I kept writing little snippets of gossip about congressman Crackhead and his run-ins with the law when he was 15. The phone calls from Adam were starting to get frantic. Finally, I took one. “Look you bitch,“ he snarled, “ this isn’t funny. The congressman does not smoke crack. That video will not be of him. And you are not playing with amateurs here.” “Bring it on, Adam,” I said coolly, “There’s this thing you seem to have forgotten about called the First Amendment and I’m covered. I have never mentioned him.” And the clicks just kept coming. I had daily conversations with the drug dealers as they tried to negotiate a higher price. They were in conversation with our rivals who said they would offer them $12K. Would we match it? “A deal is a deal!” I pleaded –imagine that trying to appeal to some sense of honor that I imagined that crack dealers who record their clients getting high might have. “Plus –we’re almost there with the money. If we give it to you first, you have to give us the video”.  Meanwhile, I typed up an “expose” of a friend of Congressman Crackhead from high school who talked about the time they got high on pot behind the movie theatre one time. Damning evidence.

We hit our $10K. Sadie was talking to the publisher to figure out how to turn this into a payment to some drug dealers without having to disclose on our taxes who the drug dealers were. It was pretty murky and unclear. My husband was out of town for the night – business trip to NYC. I was pulling a late night session putting the finishing touches on the article I was going to run, keeping in mind, I had not ever seen the video but Sadie had and she was sure it was him. I got another blocked call. “Shit, it must be Sadie calling from skype.” I thought so I answered.

“Is this Sadie Smith?” came a voice of a man. “Yes – who is this? Who am I speaking to?” “Its Congressman Joe DeCosta.” I was silent. What was I supposed to say? Finally, I answered, “Yes? What can I do for you, congressman?” “Look. I just wanted to talk to you and ask you why you are running with this? What have I ever done to you?” he sounded sad. Sad and a little drunk. “It’s nothing personal Congressman… I’m a reporter, I report the news.” I said a bit nervously. “Its not news… how could it be news? It’s not me. I swear to god it’s not me.” He said. “Well congressman, we’ll have to play the video and let our readers be the judge of that.” “Look, my family is freaking out. My wife thinks it is me. I used to have a coke problem when I first met her. She made me go to NA and promise to keep clean before she married me. I did it. I’ve never touched anything since then. I’ve been clean.” “Well why have you never mentioned this before, Congressman? Surely a savvy office staffer should have told you to make a statement!” I said thinking of Adam and his arrogant smug face. “Is this on the record?”

“Oh they have begged me to do this but I’m not going to. This is off the record, I’m going to take the higher ground. I’m not going to comment on your work. This is America. I still believe that everyone is innocent until proven guilty and I’m sure that my constituents do too.” “Well then you should be fine, congressman. Think of all the good publicity you are getting. This might even take you to governor or senator from Delaware.” “No – I’m appealing to you and your sense of decency! Its not my political career I care about. It’s my wife, I think she’s going to leave me. She doesn’t even care what the video shows. She believes that I broke my promise to her. My vow. She’s packing up the children’s clothes now…”his voice shook, “I…I can’t live without her. I can’t do this.” “Look, congressman, why don’t you have Adam Smith talk her out of it. You’ll need her by your side tomorrow on the morning talk shows. She’ll know the drill. All political wives do.” I said snarkily as I looked at my blinking “inbox” indicator. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m on deadline. I think the video is here.” And I hung up.

Finally I was uncovering a big scoop. It was going to be my “Watergate”. I would be able to hold my head up at the next dinner party full of intellectual snobs. It would put me back on the map as a legit journalist. I opened the in-box. The first message was from Sadie - “Lindsay- been trying to call you. Can’t figure out a way to legally buy video. Plus when you look at it, it’s just not clear whether its him or not. So spin your article that we’ve decided the ethical thing is not to run the video. Let Gawker have it. There’s nothing really incriminating on it.” Shit. Oh well – the congressman will have what he wants – publicity and his name cleared. My name will still be in the byline. Maybe he’ll be relieved tomorrow. I’ll call him and see if I can get him to give me his NA story on the record. So I wrote up the story and hit send. Nick was out of town at a conference. It was 1am. I decided to take a sleeping pill so I could pass out and I put the phone on silent.


Around 10am I awoke. I felt groggy. The pill had been too strong and I wasn’t used to them. I went to make some coffee and turned on the TV. The stats from last night’s football game were up, Redskins lose again. And then “Coming up next, the tragic death of a congressman. Was new media to blame? Where do we draw the line at gossip?” What? Fuck! I sat down and watched the 3 minutes of commercials silently gripping my coffee cup as if it were a life preserver. The distinguished looking greyhaired newsman came on with his deep sonorous drone -“Congressman Joe DeCosta is fighting for his life in Sibley hospital this morning.” He started. “The congressman was tragically driven to the edge by gossip mongers spreading stories that he was smoking crack cocaine, Congressman De Costa appears to have taken a weapon and shot and killed his wife and two 8 month old twins last night before turning the weapon on himself.  Police are investigating PRIVATE EYE website, a notorious new gossip site that promised an illegal video of a man who appeared to look like Congressman DeCosta smoking crack cocaine. The video was posted by rival Gawker.com last night and is too blurry to definitively tell if its Congressman DeCosta or not. Police will be looking into this further.” I looked over to my iPhone. It was vibrating with a blocked call. I dismissed the call. 35 missed calls. Some from the DC police.  And one from my husband. And one from my lawyer. And one – from about 5 minutes after I put the phone on silent from Congressman DeCosta. Life was never going to be the same again.