Conversations With Her: Turning the Victim Narrative on Its Head: a Conversation With Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

July 28, 2015

For the last several years, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon has travelled around the world telling the stories of extraordinary women who are defying the odds.

Her first book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana (2011), tells the tale of Kamila Sidiqi, an Afghani woman who became the sole breadwinner in her family following the Taliban’s rise to power, which forced her father and brother to flee their home. Unable to access education and confined to her home, Kamila began a dressmaking business that did more than turn profits — it saved lives and created opportunities in her community.

Then this past spring, Gayle returned to bookstore shelves with Ashley’s War, a harrowing yet uplifting account of a group of pioneering women on the frontlines of the American war in Afghanistan.

The book recounts the achievements and challenges of 1st Lieutenant Ashley White and her fellow Cultural Support Team members, an elite group of women who worked on the battlefield alongside Green Berets and Army Rangers on sensitive missions in Afghanistan. Already a success on the New York Times Bestseller list, Ashley’s War is now being adapted for the big screen.

But this interview is not just about Gayle’s books. It is about Gayle herself. A resilient, entrepreneurial woman in her own right, whose story is every bit as interesting as those that live between the covers of her books.

A Woman Is the Sum of All Her Parts
Perhaps the reason that Gayle is so good at telling the complex stories of women whose experiences and identities don’t fit tidily into society’s pre-set boxes is that she herself contains multitudes that aren’t easily captured by a single narrative.

Gayle is a two-time New York Times bestselling author and a reporter whose works have appeared in The Atlantic and The New York Times. She is a former Fulbright scholar and holds an MBA from Harvard. She has worked as a producer at ABC, she has consulted for the World Bank, and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign relations. On top of it all, Gayle is a two-time TED Women speaker.

But Gayle is also the daughter of a single mother, raised in a lower-middle class home, and was the first person in her immediate family to finish college. At one point in her childhood, when Gayle’s mother fell ill, the family had to apply for food stamps.

Although these two elements of Gayle’s story may seem incongruous and hard to reconcile for some, they are in fact two inseparable parts of the same whole. No one fact is more true than another. And, perhaps more to the point, no one fact negates another.

“We grew up in a place that people thought they knew, which is the deadbeat single mom who is undermining American values,” she explained to me, “and the reality of our lives was that our mothers taught us the most American values: hard work, saving, sacrifice, integrity, doing what you have to do give your kids a shot.”

“Nobody told them how to be a mom on $19,000 a year, or how to raise girls who felt like they could do whatever it is that they wanted, or how to pay for gymnastics and piano on a service representative’s salary at the phone company,” she continued, “but they taught us how to go to work, which at the end of the day, is most of life. To do the work and not look for a way around it.”

Too often, Gayle argues in her first TED talk, when we speak about, write about, or report on the experiences of women that we deem to be ‘oppressed’, we reduce their stories to nothing more than their struggle and victimhood. In failing to acknowledge the multitudes that women contain — including a capacity for resilience that is often equal to, or greater than, the challenges they are faced with — we do women, and our communities, a disservice. For as long as we rely on incomplete narratives about the women that we hope to support — at a community or a policy level — we will only ever come up with incomplete solutions to the issues that we are trying to address.

For Gayle’s part, it is her commitment to telling stories that happen to turn this victim narrative on its head that has allowed her to avoid these traps and take stories like those in The Dressmaker of Khair Khana and Ashley’s War — about women under the Taliban and women in the military, respectively — and paint vivid, complex pictures of heroines that challenges our assumptions of womanhood.

“They both take everything you know about women as victims — women in Afghanistan and what our narrative has come to be about women in the military — and they flip that on its head and show what a one-dimensional and entirely insufficient view that those narratives give.”

“Both books are about communities of women that are bound by service, who want to make a difference, who were forever bound by what they experienced in an incredibly challenging time,” she explained to me, “they’re both underestimated from the outside.”

But despite the fact that Gayle is doing powerful work that is changing the way that we understand the role of women in conflict and post-conflict situations, she doesn’t identify with the term ‘advocate’.

“People will say, ‘oh you’re an advocate’ or ‘you’re an activist’ and honestly I see myself as a storyteller who shine a flashlight on good stories that people should know,” she shared, “I never go out and say ‘let me go find a good women’s story!’, I just think, let me find a story that takes everything that we think we know and turns it on its head. And the reality is that because so many of the stories told about women revolve around a victim narrative, and so much of women’s reality is so varied but dramatically different, there are lots of stories that are out there that haven’t been told.”

Writing the Fallen Back to Life in Ashley’s War

Although Ashley’s War is now a best-selling book and slated to become a movie, it wasn’t long ago that the story of 1st Lieutenant Ashley White and her sisters in arms was one of those untold stories that Gayle talks about.

So when Gayle happened upon the story — one that, to her surprise, no one else was telling — she knew that she couldn’t look the other way. “We’ve never met women like this, who have been recruited, trained, and deployed as a special operations team and who were changed forever by what they had seen and done,” she said, “but no one knew anything about it.”

“Knowing you were the only person who had that story at that moment and that you had to get it right — what a great motivator,” she continued, “You wanted everyone to know the story, because it matters, because it’s about who fights America’s wars and why. And it’s not about what women could do or should do, it’s about what they’ve already done.”

Although she was excited to tell the world about Ashley and the elite team of military women who served on the frontlines of the war in Afghanistan under the banner of the ‘Cultural Support Team’, Gayle admitted that the sense of responsibility that she felt being the steward of such an important yet unknown story was a heavy burden to carry at times. “I felt like, I just have to get this right, and people simply have to know this story,” she shared.

And writing Ashley’s story was not going to be easy because of one major complication — Ashley was killed in action in October of 2011.

In order to tell the story, Gayle would have to conduct countless hours of interviews with the other CSTs, Ashley’s friends and family, and members of the military community. “The reason why I was able to do it was because people did spend time with me and let me tell their story genuinely. They trusted me to tell this team story with Ashley at the center and the heart, and that meant everything to me,” she said.

Interviewing Ashley’s loved ones was a process that Gayle describes as “absolutely heart-breaking and wrenching at times, but so important.”

While Gayle said that no one ever stopped an interview, it was an undeniably emotional experience. “It was just obvious how very difficult it was, because they loved this person who has meant so much to them not because of her death, but because of her life,” she shared with me.

“It was very difficult, but you knew that it was important, you understood the weight of it immediately,” she recounted, “you never thought ‘oh, I shouldn’t do this’, but it was so hard sometimes to sit with someone and say ‘can you please keep going?’ You never think about stopping. If anything, you’re more motivated because you understood the urgency and the weight of what you were doing. And the importance of getting it done right.”

And in this case, getting it done right meant intentionally leaving politics out of a potentially politically charged story. “I didn’t want politics in this book, this is a story about service and about purpose, it’s not about politics or proving a point, for any of the people involved.”

For Gayle, Ashley’s War was not just another story. From reporting to writing to editing to marketing and getting the story out there, the process has been an intense two-year sprint. But she isn’t done yet: “I want it in the hands of every 17 year old girl who doesn’t know if she can take on the challenges in front of her, and everyone on the policy-making side who is engaging in this conversation about what women can and cannot do on the battlefield.”

“What I want it to do is shed light, like a small flashlight, on worlds that people didn’t know before,” she shared, “I wanted to make people think about something in a way that they hadn’t before.”

It’s Hard to Be What You Can’t See…But Don’t Let That Stop You
Although Gayle hopes that teenage girls looking ahead to their future will read Ashley’s War and be inspired, she argues that giving young women role models is only part of the empowerment equation.

“Quite honestly, sometimes I struggled with young women who ask for advice because I just want to tell them you don’t need my advice, you have it all within you,” she argued, “It’s all so very personal, and you’re building your own roadmap. Don’t look to other people to give you the answers because you have them. And we just have to help our girls understand that that is the case — that they know the answer already about what to do. We have to help them to tune out the noise and listen to themselves.”

Gayle agrees that visibility matters, but we need to encourage girls to learn to trust themselves and their own instincts. “That is essential,” she said, “and we don’t tell young women that enough.”

She added, “It’s all so very personal, and you’re building your own roadmap. Don’t look to other people to give you the answers because you have them. Nobody else is going to give you the answer about what works for you, and you have to be okay with that. It is your path to forge and your adventure to create.”