REVIEW

Seasoned journalist Lisa Millar opens up about her inner torment on the ground

"Searingly honest" - journalist Lisa Millar. Picture: Will Belcher
  • Daring to Fly, by Lisa Millar. Hachette, $32.99.

This is a searingly honest book, as readers might expect from a senior, and seasoned, ABC journalist. Who would ever have suspected, from the "TV face" Lisa Millar displays that she was undergoing extreme mental anguish for much of her time abroad? One of the achievements of this book is to help readers appreciate the disabling nature of serious mental health issues.

Through talent, application and some good luck, the youthful Millar joined the ranks of the ABC's foreign correspondents, with a first posting to the most highly prized bureau, Washington.

Before then, there was a childhood in rural Queensland, studies at university, the most junior position on The Gympie Times. Those readers hoping for a career in journalism should study this book closely.

Millar's father, the federal politician, Clarrie Millar - Wide Bay - had early developed a passion for flying. His family joined the fun. There were two languages spoken in the Millar family, English and aviation. Lisa Millar was in the cockpit from a young age.

The day after Millar's university graduation, a happy family occasion, driving her mother and her sister home in heavy rain, Millar's car comes off the road, nearly killing her two passengers.

Later, on a posting to Canberra, driving a couple of work colleagues to an end-of-week dinner a drunk driver wipes her out. Millar reflects on the hazards of life and the randomness of death. These experiences contribute to the trauma that is still to come.

It is staggering that so much could happen to one so young. Yet a dangerous return flight to Brisbane from Mt Isa, in a storm, on one engine only, becomes the catalyst for a terror of flying that takes over Lisa Millar's life. With clinical precision, in a beautifully written account, she shares her path to a growing deep-seated anxiety.

The courage she shows in working through this, over years, at the cost of her marriage, and almost her job, will glow in the hearts of readers who may be able to understand how immobilising deep-seated anxiety is.

Millar is careful with her mental health, engages the right level of professional support, and wins through.

Then readers move to the second part of her book. Senior postings to Washington and London involve Millar in the trauma and horror - right up close - of global terrorism.

Australians may have given thought to the trauma that first responders suffer. Do we ever think of the identical trauma suffered by the finely groomed, confident-to-camera journalists who are telling the story?

Early in her posting to Washington comes the news of the atrocity at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, an hours-long ride from New York. A lone, deranged gunman, aged 20, took the lives first of his mother, then of 20 children, aged between six and seven years, and of six adult staff, before finally turning the gun on himself.

Millar describes this in graphic detail. She allows the reader to measure the pressures under which she and her crew worked. Instructions from Sydney pile in. She is asked if she can secure an interview with a grieving parent, which strikes me as callous in the extreme, yet she succeeds.

Millar finds a mother of twins - one survived, one died - who will do the interview because she wishes her country to hear her pleas "to get AR-15 semi-automatics off the streets of America". "'They're weapons of mass carnage designed for the battlefield not society,' she told me."

Many readers may have forgotten the details of the awful European terrorism of 2017. For Millar, bureau chief in London, it is her annus horribilis. Even getting to the war zones can be traumatic, if, at times, mad-cap.

Millar shows initiative, resilience and determination, always filing for the multiple ABC slots on time and to the point. Whether she is in Paris, Istanbul, London or Manchester, the pressures are always intense, and the tragedy grows exponentially.

Readers will worry for the awful cost to Millar's mental health. She is a professional, seeks guidance and help and comes through with that trademark smile. But she does not underestimate the cost of all this. Eventually the ABC recognises it too, returning their star foreign correspondent to home and, readers hope, to the safety of breakfast television.

A powerful and honest writer, Lisa Millar has opened up an important conversation.

Her essential humanity shines through her writing, her empathy for the victims of terrorism, and her professionalism in helping us all to understand the evil that lurks in our world. The tributes she pays to the crews who worked with her, who became her friends, on whom she relies, is an important part of this account.

This is a book written by a skilled and very decent Australian.

This story The inner torment of a TV face first appeared on The Canberra Times.