Writer Kathy Eldon

Originally aired on October 18, 2013
Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

The co-founder of Creative Visions Foundation shares her experience with power and strength in the face of tragic loss.

Kathy Eldon has enjoyed careers as a teacher, journalist, author and filmmaker, on three continents. She's also had her share of difficulties: eating disorders, divorce, illness and the death of a child. In honor of her 22-year-old son, who was killed while on assignment for Reuters as a photojournalist in Somalia, she co-founded a global foundation that supports creative activists who use media and the arts for positive social change. Eldon hosts the Huffington Post video blog, "Caught in the Act," and is the author of numerous books, including her memoir, In the Heart of Life, in which she shares lessons learned about the power of the human spirit.


Tavis Smiley: Putting your life back together after a catastrophic loss is at the center of a new memoir titled “In the Heart of Life” by writer Kathy Eldon. She struggled to create a meaningful and satisfying life for herself after her son, photojournalist Dan Eldon, was killed at the age of 22 while covering the conflict in Somalia for Reuters.

How she found, I should say, the ability to forgive her son’s assailants is just one part of an emotional journey that she recounts in her memoir with insight and, I might add, some humor. Kathy Eldon, good to have you on this program.

Kathy Eldon: Thank you. I’m glad you mentioned the humor.

Tavis: Yeah. We’ll get to some of that, I hope. Before we get into any of that, though, let me start, if I might, given that you lived in Nairobi, Kenya, with your thoughts on this, I think, still developing story in some way about this horrific incident at this mall in Nairobi. Your thoughts about that?

Eldon: There is not a single person that I’ve talked to in Nairobi that wasn’t directly personally affected by the killings. I feel particularly sad because it takes us right back 20 years to when my son was killed and the underlying causes of why Dan and his colleagues were killed as to why these young men are so angry and beyond evil. They’re really related.

Tavis: And underlying causes then and now are what, as you see them?

Eldon: I think it’s a lawless country. There’s a sense of desperation, hopelessness, helplessness. The fundamentalists, you know, way outsiders, who have been trained by Al Qaeda. And Al Qaeda actually was nurtured in the lawlessness of Somalia after the Americans were pulled out, after Black Hawk Down, which just was right after my son was killed.

So there’s this direct line to what’s happening now and I am so troubled because I can’t figure out what’s going to stop it. You know, the sense of vengeance, eye for an eye and the whole world is blind, Gandhi said. And right now it’s avenging and I don’t know what’s going to stop it.

Tavis: Help me understand the decision to cover news in a country that, by your own admission, is lawless, which means that anything in any part in time could happen.

Eldon: When Dan and his colleagues were there, no journalist had been killed. So it was a rather different situation than it is now. Now the only journalists who are covering Somalia are local journalists and they’re incredibly brave. And I’m in touch with a number of Somali journalists.

If we didn’t have any journalists there, we wouldn’t know what’s happening. We wouldn’t be able to respond or get behind or advocate for policies that might actually improve things. I am in awe of the journalists who actually take it upon themselves to cover conflict zones or places where their lives are at risk.

Tavis: You did a special for CNN at one point.

Eldon: We did.

Tavis: Talking about this very issue.

Eldon: Yeah. It’s called “Dying to Tell the Story” and my daughter Amy who was then 22 at the time, we went to seven different countries to try to understand why journalists do what they do and what that job does to them.

One particularly interesting incident, and this is in my book, when we visited Christiane Amanpour. And Christiane is one of the bravest people I’ve ever met, but Christiane is doing her job so that we as informed citizens can get engaged and involved in the world around us.

I’m very always saddened by the fact that people aren’t buying newspapers. They may be reading the news online, but the depth, width, breadth of what we really need to understand in the world, to be informed and engaged, I think that’s sometimes challenged.

Tavis: I’m seeing more and more women who are courageously putting themselves out. I mean, NPR has some courageous reporters. Laura Logan comes to mind at CBS when she was over there. Obviously, Christiane, but there are others. I’m not trying to pull names. I’m just making the point that there are women who are more courageous now than ever in getting these stories out. What do you make of that?

Eldon: I shared my office in Nairobi with Mary Anne Fitzgerald. And Mary Anne would come back with stories of kind of walking over bodies in Liberia. She was so insanely brave. She actually got more stories than the guys sometimes. She was beautiful and she was…

Tavis: That helps [laughs].

Eldon: Absolutely. Why not? I was a journalist myself in Kenya, but I wasn’t covering war zones. But, no. I mean, of course women are just as brave as men and often sometimes even braver.

Tavis: Tell me about your son Dan. I don’t want to color that question too much deliberately. Just tell me about Dan.

Eldon: Dan was a mischievous, creative, active spirit. He made everybody smile. He saw the light in people. He saw the potential and he was a kind of closet artist. He created journals that we didn’t even know about.

I was an art teacher, but after he was killed, we discovered about 20 journals that he’d sort of locked away and those we transformed into a series of books. And I’ve had the joy of watching those books inspire people all over the planet to really find their own creative spark and their own sense of activism.

Tavis: Tell me about his professional choices and decisions to do what he was doing as a photojournalist for Reuters.

Eldon: Dan, I suppose in a way, followed my footsteps, but way beyond. But he had been trailing around behind me when I was interviewing people in Nairobi for many, many years and taking photographs for me. So it was a very natural thing that, when he heard about a terrible famine in Somalia, he wanted to go and find out for himself what was happening.

He went in with a friend from Reuters. His photographs were among the first to awaken the world to the famine that was raging there. It helped launch Operation Restore Hope and bring in the Marines. So you know yourself, it’s very compelling when you have that power, your perceived power. He went back again and again for the next year and became the photojournalist for Reuters in that country.

He was not a cowboy. He was a very cautious person. Everybody wanted to be with him because he’s been brought up in Africa. So his decisions, I think, were very conscious. When he went in that final time, he was under protection and absolutely there was no reason to believe that he was going to be killed. But together with three other journalists, he was stoned and beaten to death.

Tavis: Stoned and beaten to death.

Eldon: It, in fact, interestingly enough, in the book – sorry. There’s an image three years before Dan was killed. He did that picture.

Tavis: After doing this, he ends up being subjected to what he drew.

Eldon: Exactly what he drew.

Tavis: What do you make of that?

Eldon: I don’t know. I’ve grappled with all of these questions. I believe that spirits have an enduring quality. Emerson always talked about the one thing in the world of value is the active soul. And I think that soul doesn’t necessarily die after we’re dead and maybe there’s a sense of sometimes we know more than we think we know about our lives and our demise.

Tavis: Emerson talks about an active soul. Your subtitle is “a Restless Soul.” I know that mothers – I mean, it’s not supposed to be this way. You know, parents are not supposed to bury their children. It’s the other way around. And I recognize, obviously, that you never close on the death of a loved one like you close on a house.

But how do you come to terms? I didn’t want to say find peace with it, but how do you come to terms with losing a son at 22?

Eldon: Yeah. I’m so glad you didn’t say the word closure ’cause I really don’t like the word. Right after Dan was killed, I realized I had to transform that horror into something that had purpose and value. Immediately we got very involved in Journalists at Risk. Over the years, we’ve created a foundation which is all about creative activism and it’s about those creative active people that I got to interview in Nairobi.

We focus on people using arts and media for good. So in every moment of every day of my life, I get to wake up and work with amazing people and nurture them in the way that I might have nurtured my son or my grandchildren that he might have had.

So I always encourage people who had a loss of any kind that you find something to focus on that takes you out of that horrific sorrow. And you have to go through it. No way out but through in the grief. But don’t remain in the grief. You know, find something that you can nurture as you would that being that you loved.

Tavis: Is that your way of saying that you’re no longer searching for meaning? That you’ve found what you need to be doing for the rest of your life?

Eldon: You know, I think that I will continue being an active and restless soul. I have found tremendous peace and joy beyond my wildest imagination in my deepest sorrow when I was there in the sense of possibility. And I think that what I do which is to help people nurture their potential not only for themselves, but also for the world, every day is magic. It really is.

It’s exciting and not every day is easy ’cause you have to figure out where are the fun things. But I’m never bored, not for a minute, and I get to continue being, you know, a curious soul like you, you know.

Tavis: Give me some sense of what it has meant to your life because you talk about this in the text, of course, but give me some sense, Kathy, what it has meant in your life as an American to have lived abroad.

Eldon: It’s the best thing ever. When I was 16, I was a foreign exchange student in South Africa, in apartheid South Africa, living in a family where the uncle was defending Nelson Mandela.

So seeing the contrast between people who were so tragically brainwashed about anybody of color as being, you know, you had to put them apart. So that initially to realize I’m from Iowa, you know. The world wasn’t exactly what I’d always been brought up to perceive, but it gave me a lust to learn more. And I’ve traveled to many, many countries.

It is in travel that we discover that which we’ve been maybe trained and taught. The scripts we’ve been given are really just scripts, you know. The other people are perceiving the world in a completely different way, and you know what? It may be way more clever or brighter than the one we’re perceiving.

Tavis: The American people are obviously a very caring people and all it takes is for some disaster to happen for you to see that kind of outpouring of concern. Yet I sometimes fret and fear that, as hard as photojournalists and foreign correspondents work to empower us with information, either because we’re jaded or cynical or nativist or, quite frankly, just busy trying to navigate our own lives in a country that where our own democracy in many ways is being threatened by poverty and other issues, that we don’t pay attention, that we don’t connect to what’s happening in places like Kenya or Somalia or whatever.

Say a word to me about how journalists navigate doing that kind of work, their calling, their profession, their vocation knowing that there are a bunch of folk back home that some are gonna get it and most won’t.

Eldon: It’s pretty tough. I think, just the converse part of that, I think if we can educate children, right now in America, it’s as though the world doesn’t exist, you know. And if we bring news into classrooms again, and I think it was there before CNN had a wonderful newsroom and maybe there’s still some attempt.

But I think the only way you can engage people when they’re older is if they caught the bug when they’re younger. And the Canadians do that way better than probably we do. And I think it’s engagement and the sense that you have the potential to do something. So it’s teaching people that they can be the creative activist in their own environment in the larger world.

Tavis: Thank you for sharing your story. I appreciate it.

Eldon: Thank you.

Tavis: As I’m sure readers will. The book is called “In the Heart of Life: A Restless Soul, A Search for Meaning and a Bond That Nothing Could Break.” It’s a memoir by Kathy Eldon. At the center of her story is the loss of her 22-year-old son Dan, photojournalist for Reuters in Mogadishu. Again, Kathy, thanks for the book. Good to have you on.

Eldon: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for tuning in. From Los Angeles, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: October 21, 2013 at 5:08 pm