I got to Guantanamo Bay with a notebook, a pen, and a plan to write immediately about the trial I was there to witness. Instead, it took me almost two years and became the hardest kind of embed, inside my own soul. For the first time, in that military courtroom at “Camp Justice,” I faced two things: the man who claimed to have murdered my dear friend Daniel Pearl, and my own failure to keep living after Danny’s slaying.
Danny and I had been friends since 1993, when he joined The Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau. Between story assignments we grabbed lunches together, played sand volleyball behind the Lincoln Memorial, and shared dating strategies.
Nearly 10 years later, Danny and his wife Mariane came to stay with me in Karachi, Pakistan, where I was based, while he reported a story. The afternoon of January 23, 2002, Mariane and I waved goodbye to him as he left for an interview. He never returned. Five weeks later, we learned that he had been kidnapped by Pakistani militants, videotaped, and beheaded.
For the next decade, I was as obsessed by his murder as I was detached from my grief about it. In Karachi, my rental house had become the center of the hunt for Danny. Later, when I moved back to the States, I founded the Pearl Project at Georgetown University with co-professor Barbara Feinman Todd. We and our students spent the next three and a half years investigating Danny’s murder in granular detail. In 2011, we published an e-book about it. Still, I hadn’t allowed myself to feel grief.
So in April 2012, when the Defense Department invited reporters to Cuba to cover the arraignment of confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, I was afraid, but wanted to go. KSM, as he is known to U.S. officials, had also bragged that he had killed Danny.
For the next decade, I was as obsessed by Danny’s murder as I was detached from my grief about it.
The editor of The Washingtonian said he thought I was the perfect person to cover the trial. One of his colleagues asked me: “Will you find peace?” I was so far from it then, I didn’t understand the question.
But in the weeks before heading to Guantanamo, I started to feel something. Out of the blue, I would break down weeping. I had violent revenge fantasies about KSM. On the predawn drive to Andrews Air Force Base for the flight that would take me to him, I lashed out at my dad over directions.
The next day, as I sat in seat No. 2 in the courtroom spectators’ gallery, waiting for KSM to arrive, I realized I was trembling. Then something unexpected happened. I started to feel things I had held at bay for 10 years: anger, sadness, grief, betrayal, and guilt. The next day, in a press briefing, the military prosecutor, Brigadier General Mark Martins, spoke about the “therapeutic effect” trials could offer “victims.” I realized that included me.
They say there’s really no such thing as writer’s block, only “thinker’s block.” For nine days after I got home, I couldn’t type a word. Finally, I managed a strange, searching note addressed to my son Shibli, then nine years old: “I don’t know how to start. In the courtroom? In my head? In my heart? Where?” The next day it grew into a file called “Wounds.” The day after that, I wrote for the first time about my earliest grief: experiencing a two-year separation from my mother when I was two years old. Slowly, more feelings emerged.
Three months after my trip to Guantanamo, I handed in a 24,279-word first draft that ranged from my childhood, to meditations on parenthood, to the pain of losing Danny and my years-long search for justice for him. My editor gently asked for more reflections on the trial, then gave me enormous gifts of time and understanding as I processed them. Into my second year of writing, “Wounds” became “Healing” – then, as I realized my limits, “Thawing.”
Into my second year of writing, “Wounds” became “Healing” – then, as I realized my limits, “Thawing.”
In the end, the editor who brought my piece to print was heroic. Before tackling my bloated manuscript, she interviewed me, then skillfully pared my overwriting. Reading her edit, I found myself asking a question that shocked me: could we weave more of my emotional journey into the piece? Over the past year and a half, something dramatic had shifted within me. Absolutely, she said.
We spent a day at The Washingtonian office, sitting together at her desk. As she edited and wrote, I reminisced and pored over Pakistani police reports, and Shibli drank one hot chocolate after another in the office beside us. I gave her copy, and she gave me a masterpiece, published this past February: “This is Danny Pearl’s Final Story.”
Emails flooded my inbox: a letter from the daughter of the former mayor of Kandahar, who’d been assassinated by a suicide bomber. A dispatch from a witness to Bosnian mass graves. Tweets from my fellow journalists in the trenches.
For 12 years, I had told myself I was doing the best I could for Danny by ferreting out the details of his death. Now, readers tweeted an unexpected snippet from my piece, a quote from my conversation with psychologist Steven Stosny: “How do you grieve? … You celebrate a person’s life by living your life fully.”
So I started to do just that. This spring, I entered PTSD therapy and started taking Zoloft. I laughed through Jon Stewart and South Park with my son. Shibli graduated from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts, and we started spending weekends trekking and camping with other scouts and parents, living the kind of life I’ve always wanted for us. I even took him to the Lincoln sand volleyball courts where Danny and I used to play – and promptly popped my knee out from an old ACL injury. Still, we had a blast with the sand between our toes.
Like on the volleyball courts, I’m stumbling as I learn how to have a new relationship with life. But at last, I am giving myself permission to experience simple joys, with my son as my guide.