“There are people who are seekers and people who aren’t,” says the war journalist Janine di Giovanni. Her own quest has taken her through such battle-torn spots as Chechnya, East Timor, Sierra Leone—places she brings to hallucinatory life in a stark, electrifying memoir, Ghosts by Daylight: Love, War, and Redemption.
The phantoms of the title are di Giovanni and the man who became her husband, a French war photographer named Bruno Girodon. “We fell in love in chaos,” she recalls. Although their romance played out in disparate places, Kosovo and Algeria among them, its backdrop of unremitting violence and brutality was the same.
“Bruno and I thrived on a complicated life,” she writes. In Ghosts she documents their attempt, after numerous breakups over decades and continents, to build a peaceful, conjugal life. In 2003 they marry, settling in France, yet calm proves elusive. “Had I been too damaged?” di Giovanni asks herself. “Had I seen too much?” These questions thread, hauntingly, through her narrative.
Given the vivid memories she draws upon in her book—including most vividly one of corpses rotting in the Rwandan heat, their eyeballs melting in the sun—the answer seems obvious. Yet di Giovanni, who describes herself as “addicted to war,” seems unscathed. In fact, she’s something of a scientific curiosity: At least one doctor determines that she has no signs of posttraumatic stress syndrome at all.
That is, until motherhood comes along. At that point, “everything went pear shaped,” di Giovanni (a Newsweek/Daily Beast contributor) recalled by telephone from her apartment in Paris. Although she had no symptoms of PTSD during her years reporting from conflict zones, they emerged full-blown after the birth of the couple’s son, Luca, in 2004.
Her son “was very loved and very wanted,” she says. His birth took place in Paris in peacetime, not, say, in Sarajevo in war. Even so, “all the floodgates opened and fear, for the first time, became a factor in my life.” She hoarded water compulsively and was consumed with panic that her baby might not survive. And Bruno had his own protracted breakdown, racked by compulsions and poor health. He drank more and more until one day Luca, then a toddler, pointed to a bottle of red wine and said “Daddy.” It was a textbook wake-up moment—one that sent Bruno to Alcoholics Anonymous for help.
Although di Giovanni had longed to be a mother, she was “not a very natural” one, she avers. “I had him very late and I didn’t know what to do.” As the youngest in a family of seven children, “I’d never changed a diaper.”
She grew up in suburban New Jersey, in an island of conformity to which she never belonged. “From the earliest age I was just different. I think that’s part of every writer’s little revenge. You think, ‘I’m not a blonde, blue-eyed cheerleader but I’m going to get out of here and do something.’”
She headed off to college, then to the University of Iowa’s famed Writers’ Workshop, which she loathed. (The students were “super competitive,” she says. “It was brutal.”) Then it was off to another graduate program, this one at the University of London. She was based in that city for the next twenty years.
War entered her life easily. She had always been fueled by injustice—“My earliest memories are of the civil rights era. My earliest experiences were rage.” Her mission to right the world’s wrongs was partly inspired by her father, a principal at an inner-city high school in Elizabeth, NJ, who “had a huge amount of compassion for human beings.”
In the late 1980s she came across an article about Felicia Langer, the Israeli human rights attorney, who was defending Arab youths during the first Palestinian intifada. Di Giovanni traveled to the Middle East to interview her. “I was completely bowled over. Somehow, it changed my life forever. She took me to refugee camps and it so fueled a passion.” Her piece, written for the Sunday Correspondent, reflected that fire. An agent encouraged her to write a book: Against the Stranger was published in 1993.
When the Balkans erupted soon after she convinced an editor at London’s Sunday Times to send her there. War, needless to say, has cooperated ever since by breaking out all over the place. Di Giovanni, as often as not, has been there, too, reporting on countless conflicts for Vanity Fair, CNN, The Guardian, and more.
“I got a reputation for being determined to get somewhere where other reporters wouldn’t go. I spent a good part of the nineties roaming the earth writing about conflict. It was very grueling. I was beginning to find this way of life was, wow, addictive and deeply meaningful.”
At the same time, “I wanted to become a mother and live this life,” she adds, meaning the one she has now, at home in Paris, where she lives near the Luxembourg Gardens. Although she and her husband divorced, he remains a friend. “Bruno saved his own life with AA. He’s been sober for three years. I’m really proud of him. He’s a seeker, too.”
To speak with di Giovanni is to feel blessedly ignorant. Like most, I don’t want to witness the excavation of a mass grave or talk to children whose limbs have been hacked off or interview women who have been systematically raped in the name of “ethnic cleansing.” And yet, of course, how important that this work be done.
And continue to be done. Di Giovanni still travels to war, although for shorter periods — most recently a week in Libya — than before. Because of Luca, whom she calls “my biggest assignment,” she doesn’t like to be away for long. “He redeemed me,” she says.
“In a way, it was all a dream,” she adds, “leaving the wars and marrying the love of my life. We were both really looking for serenity. Instead, it all really cracked open.” But how lucky for the rest of us that, when this particular interior battle erupted, di Giovanni was there, once again, to report it.