Writer took lessons from life growing up in Liberia

| Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, 7:04 p.m.

The roots of Helene Cooper's career in journalism were sown on the worst day of her life. Her family, part of Liberia's ruling class, was torn apart in 1980 when a coup took place in the West African nation. An uncle, a minister in the government, was executed. Her mother was raped in the family's basement while Cooper and her sisters quaked in fear upstairs.

Cooper, only 14, was until that day oblivious to the portents that indicated Liberia was in the midst of change.

“One of the things I remember is the surprise, the complete shock,” says Cooper, who speaks Feb. 10 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures. “And I don't like being shocked like that. That is, in part, why I like being a journalist. You're forced, almost, to absorb what's going on in the world. Not just your little world, but the bigger world around you.”

Cooper, who covers the Pentagon for the New York Times, wrote about Liberia in her memoir, “The House at Sugar Beach” (Simon & Schuster, 2008). She'd been reluctant to write about her childhood until 2003, when she was injured while covering the Iraq war for the Wall Street Journal. Cooper's injuries were minor, but the incident inspired her to revisit her childhood.

“It's much more than a memoir; it's my life and family history,” says Cooper, whose ancestors, Elijah Johnson and Randolph Cooper, were freed American slaves who helped found Liberia in 1820. “I had to negotiate all sorts of things in our family to come out with a book that is honest and truthful.”

As a reporter, Cooper often found the negotiations for truth to be just as difficult. Whether in Iraq or at the White House (her beat before recently being transferred to the Pentagon), she constantly worried about getting a complete and accurate story for readers. Did she have the right anecdotes, the right sources?

That pressure occasionally evaporated when her job put her in a position to witness history. After Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, Cooper, then at the Wall Street Journal, followed the new commander-in-chief as he visited four cities the next day.

“You're seeing stuff up close and personal,” Cooper says. “All the president's advisers were on the trip. There was excitement on the trip. ... Every once in a while you need to step back and think ‘I'm here watching this, I get to see this.' And that helps an enormous amount.”

Cooper is working on a book that features Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia and the first female elected as an African head of state. Johnson Sirleaf, 75, who previously served as Liberia's minister of finance from 1979 until the 1980 coup, is emblematic of the resiliency of women on the African continent: often overlooked, but not to be dismissed or taken lightly.

“You want to talk about backbone, these women have it in spades,” Cooper says. “But, at the same time, they are really complex. They're not perfect women; they're not these caricatures or figures who have suffered and are now persevering. They're crafty and they do all sorts of sneaky stuff. They're survivors, and they will do whatever they need to do to survive in a place that's been inhospitable to them.”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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