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For a veteran NewsHour journalist, an early loss defined her life’s journeys

March 23, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Elizabeth Farnsworth traveled the world for years as a foreign correspondent for the NewsHour. Her new book, "A Train Through Time," examines her experiences in hotspots such as Latin America. But it's more than a story of her reporting, as she details her childhood and the loss of her mother, and also blends fact with fiction. Farnsworth sits down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss her work.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: how memories can shape a life.

That’s the lens through which a new memoir unfolds.

Jeffrey Brown has the latest add to the NewsHour Bookshelf. And it’s from a member of our extended family.

JEFFREY BROWN: For years, Elizabeth Farnsworth traveled the world as a foreign correspondent for the NewsHour to hot spots such as Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, and Latin America.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH, Author, “A Train Through Time: A Life, Real and Imagined”: I very much wanted to be reporting where a lot was on the line. I think — you may share this — I think that that’s what reporters like to do and want to do, and where it’s really important that you get the story that’s the truth.

JEFFREY BROWN: She’s written about this in a new book, “A Train Through Time.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I’m somewhat obsessed with the disappeared. I had worked in Chile, and I know people that were disappeared.

And the book is partly about people who you don’t know what happened to them. And I think I want people to pay attention when other people are suffering. When people die, I think I really care that people pay attention to that.

I was so lucky to get to work in a way that I could call attention. When I first reported from Chile or reported from Guatemala, a lot of people didn’t realize what was happening. And I was so lucky to be able to say, pay attention to this.

JEFFREY BROWN: But this is more than a story of her reporting. It’s also about her childhood in Kansas, and dealing with the loss of her mother when Elizabeth was age 9.

Soon after her mother’s death, she took a train ride with her father on the Union Pacific’s Portland Rose from Topeka to San Francisco, which becomes the spine of her new book.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Her death was a mystery. I didn’t know that she really was dead. They didn’t use the word: She died. She’s gone. We don’t have her anymore.

She’d been sick. But, in those days, I have what I call very good bad luck, in that I had a wonderful father, wonderful aunts, grandparents, but they didn’t think to ever tell me that my mother was dying of cancer.

And the fact that they didn’t tell me that made me believe that she disappeared. And so I looked for her from that train, and I think that that’s part of solving the mystery. Why did I look for her? Why is that memory so vivid?

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, we have been friends a long time, but I realized in this that I don’t know how much you tend to look back at your young self. And I wondered, when you did, what did you see? Who was that person? Does it feel like the same you, or…

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes, it does very much. It’s interesting you should ask that, Jeff. It does.

And it has partly to do, I think, with losing a parent. I think it — I think, in my experience, it made you both empathetic with people who are losing something. But I also think it makes you tremendously appreciative of life, because the person most important to you, her life was so fragile.

And so I see a person who had some sadness, but who also wanted to live life to the fullest, and that pretty much is who I am now too.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the other themes here, of course, is the passage of time, right? And you even refer to you as a young girl on the train, when you’re saying, does it change depending on how fast we’re going, that metaphor of the train again, right? The train’s going so fast.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What time will it be?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes. Will we get ahead of time?

I’m sort of fascinated by time in general. And I think listeners will share this. I think we all have moments when we’re living in about four times at once, when something reminds us of something or when we realize we’re reacting to something because it comes from that past time.

JEFFREY BROWN: The train ride amidst great loss is the touchstone for one of her biggest concerns as a reporter, the role of fixers, the local producers who help us do our work, sometimes at great risk to themselves.

One man in particular, Fakher Haider, worked with Elizabeth in Iraq. He was later killed while working with another news organization.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I realized in about — it started really in about 2000, before 9/11, but really after 9/11, when I spent quite a lot of time in the Middle East, that the shoots that we were on were far more dangerous for the cameraman, the soundman and the fixer than for me and for the producer.

And there are reasons for that. It has to do partly with having a camera, which means that it looks like a gun sometimes. We had people point guns at us because they thought that we had a gun.

And then fixers are local people who interpret and do a lot more for us too. And we all are probably going to get helped in going back home if something bad happens.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have somewhere to go to.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes. And the fixer doesn’t.

And I won’t take the time here, but I could tell you stories of ways in which correspondents hurt fixers by not being sensitive to them.

And that is not what happened with Fakher. People were quite sensitive to him. But he was such a good reporter and doing such great work, did great work for us. He did great work for The New York Times.

And, as I say in the book, he joined the ghosts that wake me up at night sometimes.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is an interesting blend of fact — that’s all we’re talking about here — and fiction, of deeply reported events and your imagination.

And I wonder how you thought about that line.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s funny. I asked Jim Lehrer about it. Can I do this?

And he said, as long as you tell people what the fiction is.

And that’s what I do in the afterward.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I think, any time you remember something, one can write a memoir — and I know people that have done this — that everything is researched. You don’t say anything just from memory.

But I didn’t want to do that, because part of what I was trying to do was recover the imagination that created who I am now. I was very imaginative as a child, and I wanted to see what it was that I thought about my mother’s death, not what the facts were.

I could’ve gone to try to find the medical records. But I wanted to be in her mind. And I understand that you take chances when you start. I started imaging this on the train in a certain way, which we won’t reveal, and certain things happened on the train which are a mystery.

And I just went with it. And I do explain that that part isn’t true. And I think that there’s a reason why I did go with it and the role it plays in the book. And we will let other people decide what they think.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, as you say, memory and imagination are closely linked. You just decided to allow the linkage to happen.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I think of imagination as really a way of seeing things that you cannot see any other way.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is “A Train Through Time.”

Elizabeth Farnsworth, thank you very much.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thanks, Jeff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we are so proud of our former colleague Elizabeth.

You can watch Matthew Moyer’s tribute to Fakher Haider. That’s online at pbs.org/newshour.

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