Zibby interviews Jane Ferguson about NO ORDINARY ASSIGNMENT, a fascinating memoir that chronicles her career as a Middle East and South Asia war correspondent spanning thirteen years. Jane writes candidly about her industry and her motivations for choosing such a perilous career, linking her unpredictable home life, childhood anxiety, and constant sense of displacement to her ability to handle fear and chaos in conflict zones. Jane also details her transition from fashion and lifestyle stories to frontline reporting in war-torn countries. She reflects on the emotional toll of her work, particularly her experience in Syria, and the lingering effects of trauma. Tune in if you’re interested in journalism, the complexities of conflict coverage, and personal resilience.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jane. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss No Ordinary Assignment: A Memoir. Congratulations.

Jane Ferguson: Thank you. Delighted to be here.

Zibby: Jane, can you tell listeners why you decided to write this memoir?

Jane: I write at the very, very start of it that what I wanted to do was write a memoir that was brutally honest about my industry and about why we do this kind of work. I get, sometimes, uncomfortable with — journalists today, we’re often demonized or totally lionized as these grand heroes. I wanted to answer the question that I get asked all the time. Why would you do this kind of work? War reporting, what makes someone do that? I ended up kind of joining the dots backwards and backwards and backwards right to the earliest days of my life to try to understand and get under the skin of it. I’ve read a lot of memoirs by — I grew up reading them. They inspired me to become a journalist, these memoirs. Very often, they, A, had a flawless upward trajectory in everyone’s career. B, we lean into, sometimes, a lot of the noble reasoning behind what we do, which is absolutely real and true, but there’s a duality. There’s also a second storyline that’s usually very personal that causes people to run towards chaos and somehow seem how to be able to perfectly function in it.

Zibby: Amazing. You start out by telling us a lot about your upbringing during the Troubles. You write about it rather swiftly, but it sounds deeply traumatic, the relationship with your parents. You tell a story of when you were dressed up for confirmation, I think it was, or some holiday. Your mom is just kind of ripping you to shreds. I felt so bad for the little you in that situation. This is not a small thing, having parents who are unpredictable. When you can’t count on the person who’s supposed to love you the most, what does that do to you as a person? Speak to that a little bit.

Jane: Two things you say there really strike me. This is not a small thing. It’s not. It’s everything at that age. Our entire self-image, our entire sense of ourselves in the world is shaped by how we feel as little children. For me, it was an extremely turbulent environment, really unpredictable, and certainly, not a loving one; one where I was encouraged to be brilliant, to be the best, but at the same time, often motived by a sense of inner shame and a deep inadequacy in me as a little girl. Also, I would argue that it seems, over the years, it really did inspire a stronger sense of empathy and compassion. It made me softer as well as harder. That was something that I put to good use. It actually made me this extraordinarily anxious kid. I had extreme anxiety. I write in the book about how the physical sensations of anxiety — it’s essentially walking around in the world in fear.

I thought that was totally normal. It’s like the fish doesn’t see the water. Then I find myself having to have a relationship with fear when I’m in extremely dangerous places and having a much more familiar sense of it. Strangely, that became a strength. I think it also increased my sense of not quite belonging. Throughout the book, there is a theme of searching for a sense of belonging and that being something that leaves me, emotionally, totally open to the places that I’m in. In a weird way, being unmoored geographically in your life and sometimes emotionally not really feeling like you have a home to go to makes me commit more to the places that I’m in, sometimes to a fault. I’ll look around and think Afghanistan is my home or think Yemen is my home. It opened me up completely when I’m in those places. I do write that many of us in the industry are wandering souls. I would argue there’s probably a fair few unhappy childhoods in there too, but people who have found their purpose and turned these things into alchemy on the road.

Zibby: It’s like if your own home isn’t your home, then any potential other place could be it. You have to try them out. It’s like Goldilocks, essentially. Is this it? Is this where I’m going to really find my place? It should’ve been there, but it’s not. It must be here.

Jane: Right, exactly. Conversely, you are totally used to feeling out of place. People ask me all the time, what must it be like, someone who looks like you showing up in the street in Kabul or or anywhere? I’m always like, well, I’ve just become completely used to being the outsider, who is actually treated with great hospitality. Partnered alongside that personal story in the book is the story of these places that I do make home and unfortunately, their tragic decline over the years that I was in the Middle East. Many of the places that I came to know and love have had the most devastating fifteen years since I first started traveling there. There’s a sense of loss with each nation that struggled post-revolution or civil war. That’s happening at the same time.

Zibby: Wow. Yes, you’ve come a long way from feeling out of place at your boarding school to world wanderer. That’s a huge, huge shift. I was reading really carefully about how — what you said is so true. Why do people take these jobs? Why does someone like you end up there? I was like, where is the answer in her childhood? Where is it in growing up? When you take these assignments, you see, of course, all of it is a combination of timing and luck and opportunity and direction. You see that here so much when you are covering Victoria Secret fashion shows and dressed for an Usher concert or whatever you said and feeling like, well, this isn’t it. This is not quite where I want to be. How do I get to the next step? Then the fact that you were just like, you know what, all of this is wrong, I’m just going to buy a plane ticket and go check out these remote, far-away worlds and see what happens, I was like, she did what? Tell me a little bit about that period of time.

Jane: I often tell people the story of getting out of college, what it was like. A lot of people forget what it was like to graduate in the financial crisis. For every single industry, no matter what, it was catastrophic. For my generation, we get out of college — I had known I wanted to be a journalist my whole life. That was a real blessing. I wasn’t unsure about my future, about what I wanted to do. Just desperately struggled to find work. I certainly wasn’t someone who could afford to wait around. I didn’t have an income. I was lucky enough to get a job in Dubai working at a newspaper. I didn’t care what I would be covering at that stage. This was a paying job in a newsroom where I could actually, eventually, after being a very, very, very lowly subeditor correcting spelling mistakes, I could be a writer. This is great. Again, like you say, I would try to fit into everywhere, every role that I had. I didn’t want to be ungrateful. It was a great opportunity. I was a business reporter. I had a nice life in Dubai, but it was absolutely nothing like what I had dreamed of when I was a little kid watching the BBC. Every day in the newsroom at this newspaper, we’d have the TV screens all up. It would be CNN International, BBC. I would just see all these reporters doing exactly what I had wanted to be doing, but here I was reporting on car prices and bank and credit card offers. That was great, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I didn’t really care that it paid well for a twenty-four-year-old. I had this one moment in a Mazda car dealership where I was just totally exhausted. There’s nothing more exhausting than being someone you’re not.

Zibby: Okay, wait. I have that section right here. Here, let me read it to you because I loved that. “I looked around at the faces in the room and wondered what it would be like to go on embed in Afghanistan with American forces. Maybe I can just go there for a couple weeks and see about finding a freelance post, I thought, pushing chunks of blackened cod around on the plate in front of me with my chopsticks. Two weeks later, I had a moment. I was sitting on a folding chair inside a Mazda showroom among a group of about a dozen reporters and Japanese car executives watching a promotional video for their latest car release. I had been tasked with grabbing one of their executives.” Then you say, “I was utterly miserable and late but stopped out for a cigarette nonetheless. I don’t want to be here, I thought. Part of me felt deeply uncomfortable and uneasy that day, and I just couldn’t put my finger on why.” Then you say, “The sooner I got it over with, the sooner I could go home.” Then you said, “The feeling of wasting time crept through me. This spot is close to the airport, I thought. Terminal two, that’s where all the flights go to Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan.”

Jane: I think that what really permeates the story of my young career is this idea that there was no roadmap. It’s sort of like, you get out of college, and you’re not hired by a graduate program. Therefore, you’re kind of your whole career. You’re trying to figure that out. The only thing I knew was that if I at least just acted — I had to do something to move forward. I couldn’t wait around. My whole life, I’ve known I couldn’t wait around for someone to give me a job. Throughout my whole life, I’ve found that the one thing that has worked has been to take some sort of action and then see what happens and take the next step, and the next step, and the next step. I thought if I could just go there, then I would somehow figure it out. People are like wow, that’s absolutely insane. The reality is that if you are very young and you don’t have any dependents or a relationship and you just have this one massive dream, then you’re not really risking anything. The only risk is to sit around and let it die.

Zibby: Wow, that’s powerful. Meanwhile, then you do go. You’re in the most horrific situation. Next thing you know, your PTSD — maybe not diagnosed. Let me read your first really emotional reaction where you’re talking about — this is in Syria. You said, “The moment was what I always wanted, but I felt like a fraud. Staring at my reflection in the mirror as a staffer blew out my hair, I was haunted by questions. If I had stayed longer, perhaps done more stories, would it have made a difference to the UN vote? Did I take this assignment for my career or a way to tell the story? Maybe it was just vanity and foolhardiness that sent me into Syria. What if I was not the right person? What if a better, braver reporter had gone in and stayed longer? All the while, I continued to feel fear physically. In the frantic swirl of edits, hair and makeup, on-set appearance, and meetings with management, I vibrated with fear. I had yet to come down from the adrenaline, and I knew that after several days, this was not normal. PTSD is flashbacks, psychosis, I thought. This is not that.” I’m almost done. “I perched on a desk in an unused meeting room, and easing my sore feet out of high heels, I dialed the number for Al Jazeera’s tele-therapist service. ‘Do you feel suicidal at all?’ chirped a female voice on the other end. ‘No, I don’t,’ I answered. ‘I am not really getting much sleep.’ She told me to rest up and call back if it didn’t go away. Even in 2012, the thin line between fine and suicidal in front-line journalists was not something news organizations were ready to contend with.” Tell me about that, how your own emotions — how to manage them and those services received and how to cope and all of that.

Jane: Syria is such a big, pivotal moment for me. I was twenty-seven. It’s a moment where I changed. I grew up. I understood more about fear and that it wasn’t always just some sort of thing that I could overcome and that my only value in this work was the fact that I was brave. That was the only thing I had to offer, I thought. I had had a moment — I suppose psychiatrists call this existential dread — in Syria where I wasn’t just afraid, but I was quite certain I was going to die. It was really, really a feeling I would not wish on my worst enemy. I had had run-ins trying to get out of the country. My whole time there, an alarm had gone off in my body that was just like, you need to leave. I know that people would say, yeah, of course. I had gone through the Battle of Mogadishu. I’d been reporting in many, many dangerous places, but this was different. The interesting thing was — I got back to the headquarters. I’d done this reporting which was pretty groundbreaking because not a lot of people had been able to do this. I brought the footage back. We put together these stories. It was very, very timely and important as the Assad government was increasingly cracking down on his own people. I was so ashamed because I’d left early. I had meant to spend up to a week in Syria. I had left early. I felt like a failure. I thought that I should’ve just toughed it out and stayed longer.

I get back to . I’m in my hotel room. I just can’t sleep. The feeling, it’s not flashbacks. It is an extraordinary level of physical fear at all times. I’m still able to talk like I’m speaking to you. I look fine, but I’m also utterly paranoid. I think that there are Assad, Syrian regime agents out there to get me, bearing in mind I’m in a totally different country by this stage. I can’t sleep. At one stage, I get up in the middle of the night and check my wardrobe for agents. That’s when I’m like, okay, I am not okay. I think that speaking to a tele-therapist at the time, the issue was that — I don’t think we had, and I still think we have a lot of work to do, an idea in the industry of how people need to come down from these experiences to decompress. I had a terrible, really, really horrible fright. I needed support. I needed to talk about it. I didn’t need a clipboard person saying, what are your symptoms? Do you have this? Do you have this? Do you have this? If not, you’re probably okay. No problem. It wasn’t a rash. I really needed to come down. As soon as everybody had said, “Okay, it’s not PTSD, so you probably just need to rest up,” I was lucky enough I was able to fly to Istanbul and spend some time with my partner at the time.

That’s when we really, really, really decompressed just sitting in a café on a chilly winter’s afternoon talking about what had happened to someone who has done similar work who understood. I could literally feel the adrenaline start to drain out of my body. I was still pretty jumpy for months afterwards, but I was okay. I knew I’d be okay. Just to end, what actually ended up happening in Turkey, in Istanbul, was that I found out that the next journalists who had gone in — I knew who it was. It was Marie Colvin. I’d actually read her final dispatch in a newspaper — I was able to pick up a newspaper at a newsstand in the airport — and that she had been killed. I learned this in the news. Then very quickly, the activists called me on Skype crying and saying, “How do we get her body out?” It was just such a dreadful way to learn this. Awful. I learned in that moment to trust my gut. Somehow, inside of me, I knew this was too dangerous. I had to leave early. I guess the foolhardy young female who wanted to prove herself to all the guys had almost learned the hard way. Sometimes things really are too dangerous. Sometimes you do have to get out.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Fast-forward to now. Even post-book, how did you get from there to here? What is your daily life like now?

Jane: Right now, my daily life is a little bit different. There’s no set routine because I feel like I’m taking life in chunks. Since the book came out this summer, the whirlwind around book promotion, I’ve actually started teaching at Princeton. I’m there as a professor for the fall semester in the journalism department. I am lucky enough to teach these pretty amazing undergrad students. I need to stop calling them kids. They’re not kids. I actually teach a course on conflict reporting. Obviously, I can’t take them to conflict zones. We look at the old . I bore them to death about Edward R. Murrow and Martha Gellhorn. Then we looked all through Vietnam and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and then also reporting today. I bounce between my home in New York City, where I’m married to a very, very nice New Yorker, which is probably going to be a little bit of a spoiler in the book, and Princeton. That’s going to be my life until Christmas. I do a lot of public speaking, as much as I can. Right now, that’s where I am. I still write as much as I can. This all ends come Christmas. I need to figure out either heading out on the road again or probably trying to build the next chapter of my career, which I hope remains in media but might be off camera.

Zibby: Interesting. Things that are going on in the news now, do you feel that itch to be out there and to talk to people and report and all that? Do you look at all of the reporting in a much more critical way and think, this is skewed, or this or that? How do you intake media at this point?

Jane: Both of those things are true. It has been very hard to be here and not there. I was messaging with another much, much more famous war reporter than me who retired from that work yesterday. He was reassuring me it’s okay, the sense that you’re kind of breaking free from that life. There’s always one more war. There’s always one more big story that needs me to be there. It’s very hard to break away from that muscle memory of, if I was there, here’s what I would do. We’d need to call this person and this person. We’d need to get access through there. These people are not being interviewed. Yes, it’s hard not to view the media — I want to be careful because I don’t want to feel like I’m judging from a distance. The early days of conflict and war are always some of the worst reporting. It’s always where misinformation gets picked up. It’s always where journalists are under pressure. They’re live. There’s a real scramble to be the first to break this story.

I feel like that has been very much so magnified by social media. This current situation, just tragedy, is happening at a time when social media is actually at its worst in terms of fact-checking, in terms of trying to mitigate hate. I worry about that a bit. I also think it’s worth pointing out that the industry, certainly the TV industry, has been for quite some time, and now it’s really, really ramping up in pace, is an existential crisis. The business model does not work, hasn’t worked for quite some time. We’ve seen the coming collapse starting, effectively, this summer. That’s all happening in the background of a lot of the coverage. It’s very, very difficult. I do have this weird, through pure luck, have this new role where I’m actually teaching young people. I’m like, okay, here’s what we’ve seen. What do we know is confirmed? Is this additive? Is this good quality reporting? Is this balanced? How are they sourced? Why would those sources have told them that? I think that that goes some way to making me feel like I can be additive to the situation.

Zibby: That’s a hundred percent additive. It’s all additive. Otherwise, no one has that perspective. Someone like you has to teach everybody else. I feel like you should teach more people. I feel like you should teach a masterclass and an analysis and take us through what’s going on and point out things that you would notice that we as lay consumers of media might not notice to help us become more critical thinkers of what is being fed to us.

Jane: That’s a good idea. People ask me all the time. They’re uncertain. They’re like, I don’t know what to believe. I don’t know what’s true or what’s at least exaggerated. Who should I be hearing from? Who can I trust? It is great to be able to say to students, what you want to look at is sourcing. Do they have named sources? Do the sources they have have ulterior — do we think they vetted those sources? Have they been there themselves? Did they see it themselves? Are they quoting someone else? To be honest with you, I empathize with the public. They shouldn’t have to do our jobs for us. That’s where the trust that was built up over decades and decades is supposed to be. You’re supposed to trust that the journalist checked. Also, I think there’s a huge amount of emotion in reporting at the minute. We’re living through an era where, understandably, people want to feel more connected. They want to feel like there’s more of an authentic emotional connection. People share more.

There used to be, when social media started, a bit more of a line in the sand between what you might put on social media and what would be the report. You might do some reflections on your phone. You might talk about, this is how it felt. Here’s a person that I met. Here’s some more backstory to them. Here’s the team. Here’s what we’re going through and what it’s like to report this. The actual report that you would present to the public, your additive work, would be quite different. It would be a factual, up-to-date story. I think that those lines have become quite blurred where it’s sort of like an experiential type of reporting, which can actually be very, very effective when you’re doing certain stories. If you’re doing highly emotional, divisive, a terror attack, I don’t think that’s always quite as additive. I think that we’re learning as go along as an industry.

Zibby: You’re absolutely right. This is the first — is it the first time? I feel like I’m getting most of my news from social media, for sure. My husband will tell me what he saw on social media. Everybody’s feeds are different. I’m like, I didn’t get that. You got that. Even watching people like Matt Gutman, who’s over there now — he was on my podcast recently. Seeing him, I’m like, oh, my gosh, what is he doing? Careful. You just want to be like — I know you know that feeling on the other side. The process of writing this memoir for you, by the time you got to the end, how were you feeling about the whole thing? Did you feel like you left the process with a newfound understanding of your own motivations?

Jane: Absolutely, beyond description. I found it unbelievably cathartic and kind of beautiful. What I loved about the experience — my writing experience is very intense. I would go to a library that was dark and wood-paneled and had very strict rules against phones and stuff. I would really, really get immersed in the writing every day last summer. What was beautiful and very emotional for me was that I would look at this young girl, and over the months of writing, there would be separation between me and her. It doesn’t feel like you’re writing about yourself anymore. You can have an incredible amount of tenderness. You look at this young person. You’re like, my god, she was just trying her best. She was so hard on herself. I did enjoy being able to make peace with things that I think, for years, I’ve maybe felt insecure about. You grow up uncertain of yourself and trying your best and trying and falling down and getting back up again. It was lovely to look back and celebrate that as opposed to feel like, well, that was scrappy, I suppose you did okay. I really loved that.

By the time I got to the end, I was so exhausted. It’s amazing how physically exhausting it is to walk through the corridors of your mind and your memory and to figure out how best to communicate those experiences. It felt incredibly cathartic. I handed it in to HarperCollins. We did our edits over a period of a couple months. Then it goes away for six months. In those six months, panic grows. I was like, oh, my god. I was so open about everything. From basically January to July was just a growing code red of utter panic about how this book would be received. I was absolutely petrified. I’ve said to quite a few people in the last few months that writing the book was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Publishing it was, by far, the most frightening thing I’ve ever done in my life, and I’ve done some stuff.

Zibby: I find that hard to believe having read some of the frightening situations you were in. Wow, that’s saying a lot. Jane, thank you so much. Thank you for coming on. Thank you for sharing and being so open. Of course, that’s how we’re able to connect with you so much and root for you. That’s why I’m like, what now? I just want to keep this story going. Congratulations. Great job.

Jane: Thank you. Thank you so much.

NO ORDINARY ASSIGNMENT: A Memoir by Jane Ferguson

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