Review: “You Don’t Belong Here” by Elizabeth Becker
A brilliant profile on the three most important Vietnam-era journalists you’ve never heard of. Part of my Pandemic Reading series.
Francis Fitzgerald, Catherine Leroy, and Kate Webb are heroes of journalism. Elizabeth Becker’s enthralling book details how these three very different women arrived in Vietnam as uninvited nobodys’ and left as some of their generation’s most accomplished and influential journalists.
While I came away from “You Don’t Belong Here” inspired, it is easy to also read this book as a cautionary tale of war and personal trauma. The price these women paid for the career-defining work was a high one. They experienced many of the hardships one would expect from any war. They suffered the traumatic repercussions of those experiences. From shrapnel in their bodies, the alcohol in their blood, to their traumatized minds, they paid the exact toll many soldiers who fight in and journalists who cover war ultimately paid.
Catherine Leroy, a young French woman who rebelled against her petite bourgeois Catholic family background, decided to become a photojournalist one day. In an interview with WYNC’s “On The Media,” Becker described Leroy’s career transition, saying,
“I’m serious there was no more to it than that. She had no reason to think that she could take a photograph, but she got one of those boring jobs in an employment office in Paris, bought a Leica camera and a one-way ticket to Saigon, and arrived, the Leica camera around her neck tied with a shoelace.”
Francis Fitzgerald was the daughter of CIA officer Desmond Fitzgerald and socialite Marietta Peabody Tree. Becker describes Fitzgerald saying,
“This is a woman who grew up with limousines, chauffeurs, servants, stables full of horses and she lands in Vietnam, of all of the three, she’s never seen anything like the horror, the destruction, and immediately Vietnam gets inside of her. It’s a story that moves her like nothing else in her life. In fact, it’s her privilege that was held against her oddly enough. Of course, she’s going to do well.”
Finally, there’s the Aussie, Kate Webb, whom Becker describes saying,
“Kate comes in 1967. She’s from Australia, intellectual family. She has a horrible experience where her best friend commits suicide in front of her using a rifle that Kate gave her. Kate’s charged with homicide. The charges are dropped, but you can imagine what that would do to a sensitive 15-year-old. Then a few years later, while she’s in college, her parents are killed in an automobile accident.
By the time she arrives in Vietnam, again, with no resume to speak of one-way ticket a portable typewriter, she’s already had more trauma than most of us will ever have in our life. In some ways, that made Kate more sensitive, but also more vulnerable.”
The details of how these three very different women navigated the politics, and the war are nothing short of spellbinding. Like her subjects, Becker is a brilliant journalist. Like her subjects, she was also ensorcelled by Southeast Asia- having cut her teeth in Cambodia in the ’70s. Her writing leads the reader with heart and clarity through the incredible experiences of these three reporters. From Leroy’s photos taken while parachuting during the first and only airborne assault of the war. To Francis Fitzgerald’s keen insight into the importance of the Buddhist movement against the Saigon government. To Kate Webb’s capture and 23-day confinement by the North Vietnamese inside Cambodia. The stories roll thick, one after the other, growing in danger and each time leaving the reader awestruck at the resilience and professionalism displayed by these reporters.
“You Don’t Belong Here” is a brilliant and essential book. Kate Webb, Catherine Leroy, and Francis Fitzgerald are the kinds of heroes every young outsider can draw inspiration from. If belonging is cool, then count me out. I want to be like Kate, Catherine, and Francis when I grow up.