Review in Speaks Volumes, No. 35, June 2023, the journal of The Leeds Library
This is not a book to be “enjoyed” but it is a compelling narrative. I have always warmed to Fergal Keane’s reporting on BBC Radio 4 not least as he has the knack of linking a country and the often horrendous episodes therein with personal experiences on the front line, often including pictures of the individuals caught up in war. I have also been puzzled by his long absences from the airwaves in recent years. Now I know why. If any of readers have, like I and probably many other non-sufferers, have, been tempted to make light of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Fergal Keane’s memoir is a must read.
This memoir is both painfully honest and beautifully written. He describes the immediacy of war reporting, not from a distant command post but from the front line. He describes his addiction to war reporting and his immediate insistence of leaving for a war zone as soon as hostilities commenced at the expense of his family responsibilities and his promises to his advisors and his family. Bit by bit his reporting from a succession of war zones brought on cumulative symptoms of PTSD which he rode or ignored , even though he had journalist colleagues and local civilians killed and maimed around him. Perhaps inevitably he resorted to the abuse of alcohol to mask the effects.
It was being deeply involved in the Rwanda genocide in the Summer of 1994 that catalysed his eventual breakdown, even though it took many years to provoke the full crisis in his mental health. The acute effects of PTSD - vivid images in his mind, sleeplessness, nightmares and sudden and recurring instances of a complete inability to cope - led him to a succession of therapists until he found one who was capable of reaching the deep recesses where the terrors resided and enabled him to cope without the completely debilitating dependence on alcohol.
Finally, he realised that although he needed to continue to report from war zones it would have to be contained in the consequences and the aftermath of hostilities rather than the frontline. This realisation has, fortunately for his audiences, brought him back to the BBC airwaves in recent years.
The Madness - a memoir of war, fear and PTSD, by Fergal Keane, pub. William Collins, 2022