In Extremis: The Life and Death of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum

Marie Colvin was, for the record, a preeminent war correspondent from the mid 80s to 2012. She led the charge for media coverage throughout the Middle East. Colvin was first. Everywhere and anywhere, and on multiple occasions, she’d be all alone in the middle of a war zone. For weeks on end, she’d sneak through militarized zones, hospitals, modern-day no-mans land, and trails of landmines and bombs. Most of the time, she’d get her story and maybe some shallow discomforts. But she did experience grave injuries. Having lost her eye, marriages, sanity, and finally her life, her bravery did come at a cost. Nothing she ever went through, however, stalled her story.

Knowing only that, Colvin is an admirable figure. And nothing I say will negate her work, but it might affect her person. Mostly however, I believe my criticisms fall onto the author. Lindsey Hilsum was a friend and mentee of Colvin. This made her somewhat blind when telling her story.

But not all readers share those blinders. On multiple occasions, it seems only the reader sees below the surface of the words. Taken at face value, this biography portrays Colvin as a dedicated war correspondent with an incredibly mean and vain personality. Throughout the biography, Hilsum describes Colvin’s relationships in a disturbing light. Such as how Colvin used rich men for their wealth and opportunities, even when she didn’t particularly like any of them. She’d force monogamy onto her partners, or they’d try to force it onto her, without ever having a real conversation about their relationship. It resulted in forced partnerships that neither side wanted nor had interest in with the other party. Considering only those ideas at their shallowest base, readers won’t like Colvin. Despite her work and everything she did for our global society, people don’t like being used or watching others be used.

And Hilsum missed that while writing. Hilsum, and all of Colvin’s nearest and dearest, willingly forgot that Colvin isn’t a caricature. While reading the biography, you can literally visualize the deterioration of Colvin’s psyche as a result of this. It obviously plays out in her relationships and how she handles her work. It’s like forgetting that people originally pick-up bad or unhealthy behaviors to medicate or soften something else that’s going on.

You see the first example of this when Colvin loses her father. She’s a young adult attending Yale University. His death shattered Colvin’s sense of strength and self. Rather than being Marie Colvin, she becomes her father. In a Freudian way to immortalize him, her life became his greatest aspiration and personality. He wanted to be a writer, she switched her major. He was a hard and steadfast man, personally and professionally. She became the same. In an attempt to negate his death, rather than grieve for him, she became reckless. Becoming her father and proving her immortality became her only personality.

We watch her being used by men. We watch her pining for people that treated her horribly. And we only ever see her happy when she was in the midst of a dangerous situation. If you were to describe a friend like that, what would you say or do? What would you think is going on? As a not-licensed, not-educated, just concerned person, I’d think my friend was clinically depressed and had severe issues with self-worth. But no one in her life seemed to see it. As obvious as it was as reader. It seemed as though Hilsum herself took great pains to not see it while writing.

And that was the most irritating thing while reading, this biography was less about her life and more about her myth. I believe Hilsum, and any friends trying to chronologize a beloved, should have made use of a psychiatrist. Love and admiration are thick blinders. But what also irritated me, not with Colvin, but with her friends and family was that they didn’t do anything. They hyper-focused on her actions but not on what caused them. For example, when she lost the use of her left eye, she had severe nightmares. At the urging of everyone around her, she went for treatment of PTSD at a facility for a few weeks. And that seemed to have been it. There was less urging to maintain the therapy than there was to get it. It’s not a band-aid.

Colvin’s alcoholism also grows with her portfolio. And by the time anyone decides to say something, she’s in her fifties. She’s also showing clear signs of early on-set dementia that she’s medicating and covering-up through alcohol induced blackouts. But her first signs of alcohol addiction stem back to the loss of her father. This woman did incredible things for the world. Yet every sign for help she put-up was ignored. The creation of her myth began before she was even a journalist.

It seems, even in death, Colvin is still just a myth. This book does a disservice to her character. And for that reason, I can’t consciously recommend it.

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