Leslie Cockburn: mother, journalist, filmmaker, professor, environmentalist, grandmother and novelist.
Born in the 1950s to a thriving American family in the suburbs of San Francisco, my mother could easily have settled in and lived a comfortable life among the citrus trees and tennis courts. Instead, she leapt across the country to New Haven, Conn., to attend Yale — in only the second female undergrad class — eventually becoming one of the most formidable investigative journalists in the world.
A mother of three, she defied the lonesome cowboy cliché of a high-risk war correspondent, darting through minefields and hopping military planes in Somalia while pregnant with my little brother, Charlie.
Thanks to her fine example of fearlessness, I grew up thinking it was actually possible to achieve my own dreams. This despite the fact that nearly every single person, however unsolicited, advises a young actress she better think of a backup career.
But my mom dismissed all skeptics, hers and mine, with a laugh. “Don’t believe a word of it. Just ignore everyone who says it’s impossible.” Somehow she made it seem that easy.
She also told me to be grateful for every unpleasant teacher, bully or agent I encountered. “They’re all material. Write it down.” Thanks to this advice I survived both high school and Hollywood.
But why stop at success? At 60, she switched tracks, embracing a new career and doing a damn fine job of it, too.
Her first novel is called “Baghdad Solitaire.” It is juicier than a particularly shocking episode of “Homeland” and more accurate than most pieces in the world’s most trusted newspapers. Following an intrepid young doctor as she searches for her kidnapped friend in war-torn Iraq, the story swoops past blasted-open ill-equipped Humvees, through depleted uranium-contaminated streets painting a picture both lyrical and frighteningly true. Using fiction to speak truth to power, my mother took advantage of her knowledge as a journalist to write a modern parable about war that will reach many more people than just the news junkies.
She did what many of us believe impossible: She decided to shift gears and exercise a completely different muscle. How terrifying! We often assume we get one chance to choose our paths, and, particularly if we win all the awards that path has to offer, we don’t dream of off-roading. Achieving greatness is one thing, but embracing personal evolution is quite another. That takes real bravery. It stems from the same audacity that inspired her to travel into “officially off-limits” territories to break major stories on the Contra war, U.S. support of the Arab mujahedeen during the Russian war in Afghanistan, the American covert operation that nearly brought the murderous Khmer Rouge back to power in Cambodia, the Colombian cocaine cartels and the devastating effects of sanctions on Iraq. She also decided to learn Arabic a few years ago, around the same time she aced a University of California Davis course in viticulture, in case she decided to grow a vineyard.
All this while being a dedicated family woman, raising three ballet-dancing, horse-riding, fencing, acting, painting, happy kids. Thanks to her, I have never feared motherhood as an impediment to success.
I admire my mother. How many of us can say the world is a better place because of what we have achieved? She has done so by seeking answers to questions the rest of us are not near brazen enough to ask, and she will continue to do so.
I feel lucky to share her genes, and I hope to have some of her courage (not to mention energy). I act, write, direct, and produce, but maybe I’ll jump tracks one day too, and finally become the break-dancing, opera-singing chef I’ve always secretly felt I was meant to be.
Here’s to laughing off your inner skeptic.