Rachel Corrie: 'Let me fight my monsters'

Friday, April 8, 2005 2:20 AM

Jesus, Mary & Joseph.
The clowns in Washington,
at the White House and
on Capitol Hill, did not
raise a finger in protest
or seek an investigation
into the killing of this
innocent and idealistic
young American woman
by Israel's "defense" forces.
You figure out why.


'Let me fight my monsters'

Two years ago Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American protester, was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza. Since then she has become a potent symbol for both sides of the conflict. But who was the real Rachel? Katharine Viner, who has edited her writings for a new play, on an ordinary woman with an extraordinary passion

  1. 1

    1. 1Katharine Viner

    2. 2The Guardian, Friday 8 April 2005

Activist Rachel Corrie (bottom, photo: Lorenzo Scaraggi/Getty), who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer on March 16 2003 (top, photo: AP)

There is a particular entry in Rachel Corrie's diary, probably written some time in 1999, four years before she was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip trying to prevent the demolition of Palestinian homes. She is aged 19 or 20. "Had a dream about falling, falling to my death off something dusty and smooth and crumbling like the cliffs in Utah," she writes, "but I kept holding on, and when each foothold or handle of rock broke I reached out as I fell and grabbed a new one. I didn't have time to think about anything - just react as if I was playing an adrenaline-filled video game. And I heard, 'I can't die, I can't die,' again and again in my head."

Last year, I was asked by the Royal Court theatre to edit the writings of Rachel Corrie into a drama with Alan Rickman, who was also directing. I had read the powerful emails she sent home from Gaza, serialised in G2 in the days after her death, and I'd read eye-witness accounts on the internet. But I didn't know that Rachel's early writing - before she even thought of travelling to the Middle East, from her days as a schoolgirl, through college, to life working at a mental-health centre in her home town of Olympia, Washington - would be similarly fascinating, and contain such elements of chilling prescience. Nor did I have a sense of the kind of person Rachel Corrie was: a messy, skinny, Dali-loving, listmaking chainsmoker, with a passion for the music of Pat Benatar. I discovered all that later.

Rachel was killed, aged 23, on March 16 2003, by a Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer, a vehicle especially built to demolish houses. Three decades before, her father had driven bulldozers in Vietnam for the US army. Her death was the first of a string of killings of westerners in Gaza in spring 2003, as the war was taking place in Iraq: Briton Tom Hurndall, 22, shot on April 11; another Briton, cameraman James Miller, 34, shot on May 16. She and Hurndall were activists in the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), an organisation set up "to support Palestinian non-violent resistance to Israel's military occupation". Rachel was killed only two days before the start of the assault on Baghdad while the world was mostly looking elsewhere.

She became a martyr to the Palestinians, a victim of their intifada who had stood up to the mighty Israeli army; Edward Said praised her actions as "heroic and dignified at the same time". But many Israelis considered her at best naive, interfering in a situation she didn't understand. And to some Americans she was a traitor; websites blared that "she should burn in hell for an eternity"; "Good riddance to bad rubbish"; "I'm thankful she died."

Those close to Rachel would rather she had not become famous for being the blonde American girl who got killed. As her ex-boyfriend Colin Reese said in the documentary Death of an Idealist: "The person that I knew has been summed up as a bullet point... Everything that Rachel was, every brilliant idea she had, every art project she did, it doesn't matter, because she has become her death." Reese committed suicide last year.

In developing this piece of theatre, we wanted to uncover the young woman behind the political symbol, beyond her death. As Alan Rickman, whose idea it was to turn Rachel's work into drama, says: "We were never going to paint Rachel as a golden saint or sentimentalise her, but we also needed to face the fact that she'd been demonised. We wanted to present a balanced portrait." We hoped to find out what made Rachel Corrie different from the stereotype of today's consumerist, depoliticised youth. Having received permission from Rachel's parents to shape her words into drama, we were sent an enormous package - 184 pages of her writing, most of which had not been seen before.

The material revealed a woman who was both ordinary and extraordinary: writing poems about her cat, her friends, her grand mother, the wind; but also, from a strikingly young age, engaging passionately with the world, trying to find her place in it. The earliest material we have is political; aged 10, Rachel wrote a poem about how "children everywhere are suffering" and how she wished to "stop hunger by the year 2000". Her juvenilia shows, as Rickman says, that she "already knew what language was. She was witty, a storyteller, she had flights of fancy". It also shows a rather sweet seriousness, and an insight into the wider world and her place in it. Aged 12, she writes, "I guess I've grown up a little. It's all relative anyway; nine years is as long as 40 years depending on how long you've lived".

In her teens, Rachel started to write about the "fire in my belly" that was to become a recurring theme. She visited Russia, a trip that opened her eyes to the rest of the world - she found it "flawed, dirty, broken and gorgeous". And she engaged in a striking way with her parents, with writing that beautifully expresses ordinary anxieties about safety and freedom, which become particularly poignant in light of Rachel's violent death. Aged 19 she wrote to her mother, "I know I scare you... But I want to write and I want to see. And what would I write about if I only stayed within the doll's house, the flower-world I grew up in?... I love you but I'm growing out of what you gave me... Let me fight my monsters. I love you. You made me. You made me."

She stewed, in typical late-teens fashion, on her future, and wrote about men and sex, from falling "in love with someone who is perpetually leaving you... and tells all stories as if they are blues songs" to bumping into an ex-boyfriend with his "hoochie-ass" new lover. Her wit was of the sardonic kind, and is one of the main things her friends remember about her.

Rachel's political evolution gathered pace in her early 20s. She went to Evergreen state college, a famously liberal university in Olympia, itself a famously liberal town. She began railing against how "the highest level of humanity is expressed through what we choose to buy at the mall". After September 11, she became involved in community activism, organising a peace march, but questioned the wider relevance of what she was doing: "People [are] offering themselves as human shields in Palestine and I [am] spending all of my time making dove costumes and giant puppets." When she finally decided that she wanted to go to the Middle East, she explained her reason quite specifically: "I've had this underlying need to go to a place and meet people who are on the other end of the portion of my tax money that goes to fund the US and other militaries."

When Rachel arrived in Rafah in the Gaza Strip, as Rickman says, "the rhythm of the writing changes dramatically. She has less time to consider but you can feel the growing fear." The Gaza dispatches are hard-hitting and intense, representing a profound experience. On arrival in Jerusalem she was shocked to see the Star of David spray-painted on to doors in the Arab section of the old city: "I have never seen the symbol used in quite that way... I am used to seeing the cross used in a colonialist way". In Gaza, she carried the body of a dead man on a stretcher while the Israeli army shot in front of her, but mostly her activism involved protection: staying overnight in the homes of families on the front line to stop their demolition; standing in front of water workers at a well in Rafah as they they came under fire; "close enough to spray debris in their faces". (Before her death, Rachel believed, as did many activists, that her "international white person privilege" would keep her relatively safe.) Witnessing the occupation in action inspired in Rachel her strongest writing; in her last days her rage and bafflement at what she saw led to work of astonishing and cumulative power.

But the quantity of the material left us with a series of questions. How much of Rachel's life before she went to Gaza should we include? And should we quote other people? The trend in political theatre, from David Hare's The Permanent Way to Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo's Guantánamo, is journalistic: the use of testimony, of interviews and on-the-record material rather than invention. But for us there could be no re-interviewing to fill in the gaps. We had a finite amount of words to work with, as Rachel was dead. I was very keen to use some of the emails that Rachel's parents, Cindy and Craig, sent to their daughter while she was in Gaza. They are full of the kind of worries any parent might have if their child was in a dangerous situation, but because Rachel never came home, they have a devastating poignancy. Two weeks before her daughter's death, Cindy emailed Rachel: "There is a lot in my heart but I am having trouble with the words. Be safe, be well. Do you think about coming home? Because of the war and all? I know probably not, but I hope you feel it would be OK if you did."

And what about the voices of Rachel's friends? I interviewed many fellow ISM activists, most of whom have been deported from Israel since her death. We watched tapes of two of the moving memorial services: one in Gaza, which was shot at by the Israeli army, another in Olympia. We viewed documentaries on the subject, most notably Sandra Jordan's powerful The Killing Zone, and considered using video grabs. But in the end the power of Rachel's writing meant that, apart from a few short passages quoting her parents and an eye witness report of her death, her words were strong enough to stand alone.

The challenge, then, was trying to construct a piece of theatre from fragments of journals, letters and emails, none of which was written with performance in mind. It helped, as Rickman says, that Rachel's writing "has a kind of theatricality. The images jump off the page." As the process went on, the difference between my usual job, journalism, and theatre, became obvious: stagecraft is what makes theatre what it is, and there was no point creating scenes that read well on the page if the actor playing Rachel, Megan Dodds, could not perform them.

We've tried to do justice to the whole of Rachel: neither saint nor traitor, both serious and funny, messy and talented, devastatingly prescient and human and whole. Or, in her own words, "scattered and deviant and too loud". We chose Rachel's words rather than those of the thousands of Palestinian or Israeli victims because of the quality and accessibility of the writing: as Rickman says, "The activist part of her life is absolutely matched by the imaginative part of her life. I've no doubt at all that had she lived there would have been novels and plays pouring out of her." The tragedy is that we'll hear no more from Rachel Corrie.

· My Name Is Rachel Corrie is at the Royal Court, Sloane Square, London SW1 until April 30. Box office: 020-7565 5000.

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