By Megan E. Doherty, PhD’10
Courtesy of the Associated Press

For six awful weeks last spring at the height of the Libyan conflict, Clare Gillis, AB’98, lived at the whim of the Qaddafi loyalists who had imprisoned her and two other journalists after they were caught under fire on the rapidly shifting front line.

It was an extreme ordeal for any journalist to endure, but Gillis’ professional path always had been unusual. Her background seemed more suited to an academic life—an English degree from the University of Chicago, followed by a PhD in Medieval History from Harvard University in 2010.

For Gillis, the move from scholarly historical studies to sending dispatches from an active war zone for The Atlantic and USA Today felt like a natural progression. Her academic study of the Middle Ages led to her interest in Islamic culture, and has provided her with an awareness of the deep historical issues that underlie contemporary political conflicts.

She is especially interested in the difficult transitions that many nations in the Middle East are making, from an era of dictatorships to attempts at more democratic rule. For example, her historical training convinced her that it would be “ridiculous hubris” for outside nations to dictate the shift to democracy in countries like Iraq.

“It look a long time for [ideas] like that to develop in the West,” Gillis says. “In some places, people don’t have any concept that these things exist.”

Continuity of scholarship and journalism

Jeffrey Webb, who went to graduate school with Gillis and is now a lecturer on history at Harvard, sees the continuity between her scholarly and journalistic pursuits.

“I think her interest in journalism is closely tied to her interest in trying to understand the Islamic world historically and in the present,” Webb says.

Gillis studied the historical development of language in Harvard’s Germanic languages and literatures department, and later switched to the department of history while keeping her focus on the changing of meanings through time. Her dissertation, a blend of her twin interests in language and history, dealt with changing concepts of illicit sex from the Roman period through the early Middle Ages in Western Europe.

Taking the long view of events showed her just how slowly habits of thought change.

“If you look at ideas like democracy or human rights … there are many places that don’t believe [in them],” Gillis says. “When I traced the developments of some of these ideas in the early Middle Ages, it just struck me: it took the West 1,000 years to make good on any of those promises.”

“I always want to leave”

As natural as her pursuit of journalism seems to her in retrospect, for most of her time as a student she says she was “never that interested in journalism. What might have turned into an article for her high school newspaper was quashed when the event she was supposed to cover never happened. “It just wasn’t that intriguing to me so I never went back to it,” she says.

Her scholarship took precedence at UChicago, taking her abroad to Germany and later to Iceland as a Fulbright scholar. She studied how women were construed in Old English writings, an interest that would carry through to her work at Harvard.

But about three years before she finished her dissertation at Harvard, Gillis developed doubts about plunging straight into a scholarly life and the hunt for tenure, which she thought might limit her freedom to explore. “I always want to leave,” she explains.

Journalism seemed like an obvious alternative. The skills of a journalist and of a historian are, Gillis insists, “essentially the same”—an opinion not universally shared by either journalists or academics. But for Gillis, both entail the critical and thorough evaluation of sources and their biases, a need for clear writing, and careful shaping of conclusions based on evidence.

She also was encouraged by her facility with languages, and the truth that you “don’t need journalism school” to excel as a journalist. She thought of traveling back to the West Bank, where she had spent some time in the spring and fall of 2010, or perhaps Tunisia. “And then Egypt happened,” she says. She went to Egypt near the height of the violent series of protests there.

Libyan imprisonment leaves journalistic ambitions intact

It was while she was reporting from Cairo that “Libya happened,” and the borders along its Egyptian side opened. Libya, which “occupies a completely imaginary space in the minds of non-Libyans, because nobody goes there,” proved to be a no-man’s land with little settled authority.

Gillis was taken prisoner with the other journalists "at the rapidly moving front line when we came under fire from Qaddafi soldiers in trucks," she says. Photographer Anton Hammerl was killed as the journalists were captured, and they all feared for the next six weeks that they might share his fate. When Gillis and the others were released in May, she chalked up her survival simply to being “incredibly, incredibly lucky.”

“In the future I’ll be better prepared,” she says. “I’m definitely going to head back to the Middle East, and it will just depend what’s going on where.”

Since her return to the United States, Gillis has worked with colleagues James Foley and Manuel Brabo, who were detained with her in Libya, to raise money for the wife and children of Anton Hammerl. They are currently organizing an auction, thanks in part to “a number of very respected war journalists [who] have volunteered to donate prints of their work.”

She also has considered writing a book, and says she still thinks about going back to academia and teaching others. She continues to see historical research and journalism as closely related—just two different ways of approaching “the same problems of human existence.”

Originally published on September 19, 2011.