Memoir Writing at a Time of Pandemic

by Jim Laurie

It has been a very tough year. Many have died, been sickened, lost their jobs, or locked down as the world fights a global pandemic: a disruption like no other I can remember. For one old reporter, thankfully, it’s been more of an inconvenience. I have been grounded. For the first time in fifty years, I have not spent at least part of the year outside the United States; not travelling in China, Vietnam, Cambodia or other parts of Asia or Europe.

Instead, seven months in isolation on a farm in Western Maine allowed me to complete a book that has been festering for many years.

And books – in this case a memoir – do indeed fester. Memoirs exorcize ghosts, unveil old feelings of regret, guilt, success, failure, opportunities taken, opportunities missed. Old memories build up and eat away at you like blisters on the mind, until they burst.

“If you’re going to do a memoir,” my editor told me, “you’ve got to be willing to truly reveal yourself. Put aside your old journalist instincts. Tell your story! You cannot cloak yourself in invisibility.”

My account is that of my very first overseas encounters, at age 22, beginning in 1970 in Vietnam and Cambodia. My stories are those of war, youthful adventure, and early love for a remarkable woman.

The woman whose memories I weave together with mine provides an extraordinary narrative of being left behind, trapped in Cambodia in 1975, and struggling to survive the notorious “killing fields.”

She also represents to me a personification of the wider experience of America’s war in Indochina: one of involvement, supposed commitment and then abandonment.

Memoir, particularly of events forty or fifty years ago, is a tricky business. Memory is imperfect and selective. Diaries and recordings provide contemporaneous thoughts but are frequently incomplete.

Still, for the reader in 2020, what I hope my book conveys is a compelling and true sense of place and a time gone by. I sought to capture a traumatic period and some lessons that might be relevant today. Most of all I tried to preserve the memory of a person and her people who endured war and then one of the greatest genocidal periods of the 20th Century.

Personal history of dramatic events I think is important to tell, for the greatest enemy of history is forgetting.

Jim Laurie’s book, The Last Helicopter: Two Lives in Indochina, is available for purchase on Amazon here.

Laurie will take part in an OPC program via Zoom about his book and covering the Vietnam War on Nov. 12 at 6:00 p.m. Eastern Time. RSVP here to join the discussion.

Laurie was an NBC News and ABC News international correspondent from 1972 until 2000. His work in Asia earned him a George Foster Peabody Award in 1976 and the OPC’s 1983 Ben Grauer Award for best radio spot news for his coverage of the Philippines, as well as several Emmys.