My Journey Through War and Peace
In this memoir, a documentary filmmaker describes her dramatic journeys, both outward and inward.
In 1982, Burch (Vital Sensation Manual Unit 4: Miasms in Homeopathy, 2013, etc.) had just turned 21. Eager for adventure, she arranged a freelance assignment in Afghanistan to film the mujahedeen rebellion against Soviet invaders. There, she discovered a paradoxical peace amid war. As shells destroyed the building where, minutes before, she’d been filming, “I felt calm,” she writes. “I was pulled into a sense of timelessness, weightlessness, absoluteness.” Adventure helped numb Burch’s anxiety, much of it rooted in childhood chaos: a disastrous fire, parental conflict and divorce, and a brilliant, depressed, alcoholic mother prone to pronouncements like “If you don’t clean this couch now, I will kill myself.” (Sylvia Plath, “an icon in our home,” was her mother’s friend and college roommate.) Burch describes her bold ventures, including her return to Afghanistan, the creative vigor living in a SoHo loft with fellow artists, and exploring her sexuality. She forged a better relationship with her mother and filmed in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But Burch’s efforts were often attended by disillusion: broadcast news outlets wanted only footage that would bolster preconceived stories, and egos got in the way: “I was so caught up in the drama, I lost all perspective,” she says at one point. Realizing that achieving her external goals required an inward shift, Burch began working with a Gurdjieff spiritual guide, which brought her peace that didn’t require braving a war zone. Writing with sensitivity and vivid clarity about her evolving self, Burch is unafraid to expose times when she was naïve, self-centered, or judgmental. She’s also frank about her sexuality, such as her passionate encounter with Baba Fawad, a mujahedeen commander, as well as insecurities about weight. It’s fascinating, too, to read her insider details on documentary filmmaking in dangerous places, especially as a woman—for example, getting her period on horseback, without tampons or pads, while traveling with an all-male group of tribesmen.
An absorbing, well-written memoir by a brave adventurer who discovered her own life.
Burch’s memoir recounts her remarkable experiences over eight years as a photographer covering the war in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s and as a filmmaker, and also her own personal and spiritual journey as a young woman. It begins when she is 21 and working as a freelance photojournalist. She’s contracted to get footage of the war between the Afghan mujahedeen and Soviet occupying forces for CBS and BBC. She later returns to Afghanistan to interview an Afghan commander about the ceasefire he negotiated with the Soviet government. Her accounts provide revealing glimpses into the conflict, Afghan culture, and the dangers of war reporting, particularly for a woman. In the Soviet Union, she films a documentary about American teenagers meeting with their contemporaries in hopes of achieving more positive relations between their countries. The later part of the book describes her work in New York with Women in Limbo, a feminist group of multimedia artists, and her search for spiritual enlightenment in Sufism and the teachings of the mystic Gurdjieff. Burch’s honest reflections on her work, difficult relationship with her alcoholic mother, sexual encounters, self-doubt, fears, and path to peace and happiness make the book thought-provoking and compelling.
Reviewed by Michelle Anne Schingler
February 29, 2016
A poignant and informative feminist memoir that spans world landscapes, wars, and spiritual quests.
At twenty-two, Melissa Burch headed to Afghanistan with a camera and a vague internal directive, determined to film a war for CBS and to find herself in the process. She would have to traverse desert sands, Soviet landscapes, and several decades, though, before being fully ready to declare herself awake in the world. My Journey Through War and Peace is the dizzying and dazzling account of that journey.
The feminist underpinnings of Burch’s work have parallels in sister biographies, particularly Gloria Steinem’s: her mother was determined to have both a career and a family, and her father was better at dreaming than accomplishing. Family tensions informed her sense of well-being, and by adulthood she was ready to vacate home. Afghanistan, its war stories then only freshly unveiled by Dan Rather, called.
Her book puts her courtside for explosive battles between Soviet and Afghani forces, as a guest of the mujahedeen and in the company of leaders who would go on to shape Middle Eastern history. Uncomfortable treks across dangerous landscapes lead to blurry ethical questions and heady sexual encounters.
But disillusionment followed, particularly when no one back home wanted to buy a nuanced portrait of the Afghanistan conflict. Burch traded the Middle East story for Cold War landscapes, accompanying a friend-cum-lover to Russia to highlight the humanity of those declared America’s sworn enemies. When an intricate account of Soviet life proved no more salable than her previous ventures, Burch traded in showing for telling, helping to initiate a woman’s speaking collective which gave her and fellow feminists a literal stage from which to declare their truths.
Yet the particular enlightenment at the end of Burch’s Journey proves to be one that even those traveling with her may fail to anticipate: reconciliation with the mother who once seemed to make her life hell. As Burch grows into a woman who learns to embrace her particularities, she draws closer to understanding her mom, and to appreciating the pressures placed upon women both pre- and post-Friedan. Her conclusions, and spiritual awakening, serve to poignantly bely the notion that we must travel to the ends of the earth to find ourselves. A lovely and enlightening feminist memoir.
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★ ★ ★ ★ ★
NetGalley Starred Review
War & Peace in Afghanistan
by Davide Mana from Karavansara Blog
I got an advance reader copy of Melissa Burch’s My Journey through War and Peace. I got it not by some strange chance, but because I requested it. What caught me was the tag-line: Explorations of a young film-maker, feminist and spiritual seeker.I For the uninitiated, Melissa Burch was a young camera operator and reporter during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. So I expected the book to be about the sort of exploration that I like – a first-hand account of a war-torn sector of the map that has been war-torn for most of our history. What I got was much more.
Burch’s account is vivid and heartfelt – she was in the field with the mujahideen, she traveled through Afghanistan as the Russian army was getting deeper and deeper in the quicksand of the Afghan guerrilla. But the author is not simply interested in describing the events of the war.
The book shows us the ambiguity of journalism – that can be turned into entertainment, or propaganda. The ease with which the information can be manipulated by all involved parties has a sinister, and sometimes surreal feel. Burch is very frank in her depiction of the events – sometimes almost painfully so.
She’s also quite capable of describing the personality of the people she met with a few, precise and well-placed brush-strokes.
The events of the war are mixed with the events from the author’s life before and after the events – because the final purpose of the book, its actual exploration, is not an exploration of the Afghan territory, or of the Russian/Afghan conflict. Burch is exploring the development of her own personality, of her outlook and her spiritual awakening, together with the events that shaped these aspects of her life.
The spiritual side is very pragmatic, personal and almost dry at times, and it is devoid of any new-agey psychobabble or other artifice. It feels authentic, and once again, at times almost painfully so.
Personal growth, international events, the power of images and of individual experience, the long-time effects of the events in our past…
Burch’s Journey touches on a variety of subjects, showing how strange connections can shape the future, of both individuals and nations.
A great read, highly recommended – the book will be out in March 2016.