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Anderson Cooper's journey

CNN anchor files 'Dispatches from the Edge'

By Todd Leopold

CNN's Anderson Cooper drew on recent experiences and his own life for "Dispatches from the Edge."


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New Orleans (Louisiana)
Anderson Cooper
Cable News Network (CNN)

(CNN) -- The cover subtitle calls "Dispatches from the Edge" "a memoir of war, disasters and survival."

Anderson Cooper is more succinct. He calls it "a memoir of loss."

Some of the loss is personal: Cooper, the CNN anchor and host of "Anderson Cooper 360," lost both his father and brother before he'd graduated college.

Some of the loss played out on the world stage. Cooper, who'd reported from Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia while establishing a career as a journalist, spent 2005 going from Sri Lanka to Iraq to Niger to New Orleans -- a roll call of tragedy and death.

It was the last, the city and region devastated by Hurricane Katrina, that finally prompted him to write "Dispatches" (HarperCollins), he says in a phone interview from New York.

"I was worried that one day people would come and forget what actually happened [in New Orleans]. It would only end up being the police and the citizens who were actually there, in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, who remembered. ... It's important to not let the slate be wiped clean. I started writing down all the things behind the scenes, which we couldn't get on television.

"And at the same time, there were so many instances in which my own past kept intruding on my present," he adds, "and memories that I'd had in those cities, in New Orleans with my dad when I was a kid. In many ways I had tried to push a lot of my past ... away, and [it] kept rushing back. ... So it's a journey through loss."

'Maybe it was all in my head'

For Cooper, it was also a journey through disparate worlds.

On the one hand, he is the son of Gloria Vanderbilt and a descendant of the Commodore himself, Cornelius Vanderbilt, builder of one of the great American fortunes and a man whose statue stands outside New York's Grand Central Terminal (near a street named "Vanderbilt Avenue").

"After seeing it for the first time when I was six, I became convinced that everyone's grandparents turned into statues when they died," Cooper writes.

But his father grew up in Mississippi and New Orleans, son of a poor family with deep Southern roots. Wyatt Cooper eventually journeyed to Hollywood and then New York; he became a successful writer. He and Gloria Vanderbilt had two sons: Carter, born in 1965, and Anderson, born two years later.

Anderson Cooper says he was aware of his mother's family's wealth growing up, but says he felt closer to his father's clan, a much tighter group.

"That felt more real to me than what I read in books about my mom's side of the family and my distant relatives on that side," he says. "That had much more reality and impact on my life than my mom's side of the family."

When Cooper was 10, his father died after a series of heart attacks. The family struggled to cope with the loss. Cooper writes of his mother moving to newer, bigger residences, changing to a new one just after redecorating the present place. Anderson withdrew into himself; his relationship with his brother, once very tight, grew distant.

It was with shock that he learned that his brother, who had been dealing with emotional problems, committed suicide by dropping from the family's 14th-floor balcony in 1988. Carter Cooper was 23.

"He was smarter than me, more sensitive, too," Cooper writes. "I thought we had a silent agreement, that we would both just get through our childhoods and meet up as adults on the other side. ... I'm not sure why he didn't keep his end of the bargain. Maybe he never knew about our silent pact. Maybe it was all in my head."

'The more you see, the more it takes to make you see'

"It's important not to let the slate be wiped clean," Cooper says of his stories from the Gulf Coast.

"Dispatches" is rife with painful passages such as that; one gets the feeling that Cooper was attempting some sort of emotional catharsis, though he says that wasn't the idea.

"At this age, I see a lot more of a through-line through all these experiences, and a path that I took and things that I've learned along the way that keep occurring. ... A lot of what one sees in these places that are on the edge, whether it's Katrina, or Sri Lanka after the tsunami, or Rwanda and the genocide -- they're very similar. I wanted to sort of honor the people I've met and the stories I've been told."

He admits to having mixed feelings about his job. "Dispatches" is full of self-deprecation, acknowledgements that preparing a news story is as much about separating your emotions from the story -- through gallows humor, tunnel vision or simple numbness -- as it is about investing your emotions in the story.

" 'I've become what I once hated,' I thought to myself -- sadly, not for the first time," he writes at one point, describing his presence at the scrum during Terri Schiavo's last days.

But he's taken care to hold on to his humanity, aware that it's something that's easy to lose.

"The more you see, the more it takes to make you see," he says. "By the time I got to Rwanda and was seeing a field full of bodies, I realized a couple days later that I wasn't even viewing them as human. I had become fascinated with the details of death. ... I was more focusing on the interesting way that the skin of their hands peels off after it's been sitting in the sun for awhile. And that's when I realized that I'd crossed some line and was no longer doing the job I should have been doing."

The book's reviews have been mixed, although sales have already put it on Amazon's Top 10. USA Today, though mostly favorable, noted the book's "disjointed narrative," while Publishers Weekly dismissed it as "self-involved."

Cooper's career has led him to an anchor chair at CNN, though he still likes to be "on the front lines of the story," he says. Becoming one of TV's familiar faces has provoked odd sensations -- Cooper has seen himself on billboards, named in stories about company politics, touted as one of Playgirl's sexiest newscasters. But he's still a guy trying to connect -- to others, and to himself.

"Anyone who has experienced loss at a very young age ... deals with it in different ways. I sort of cauterized my feelings, my emotions, withdrew into myself, and it's something I still wrestle with," he says.

"It was really in the wake of Katrina ... that made me realize that the past is never really in the past, and how those we've lost are in many ways so very present. And I found that very moving and something which has added great value in my life."

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