by Alison Powell

The offstage life of Chris Stevens

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

The United States is a country with two west coasts, separated by three thousand miles. Technically, there are three west coasts if you count the westward shores of Hawaii. In 2012, my bedroom in Tampa, Florida, faced the first of the three bodies of water standing between the Gulf and me. It is a coast, but not the coast. There’s water here, but no waves. The Gulf is neither sea nor ocean. It is a ragged basin with no clear territory. I am from the real West Coast, and this lesser western light won’t play for me. It has nothing to say, and its sunsets are merely warm-ups for California’s three hours later.

When I woke up in Tampa, as I did for two years, I knew that I faced west because my bedroom window had faced the sunset the night before. Outside of the house, however, I was often lost. Florida is flat, with no mountain to offer a point of reference. Water lies on all sides and wends its way through the city in disordered channels. These channels form no pattern to me as they slip quietly under bridges, disappear around bends, and creep distractedly toward land. During severe storms, floodwaters rise perilously at intersections. Drainage citywide is poor, thanks in part to the lack of sloping land. Lightning strikes are measured in the hundreds every fifteen minutes, and we are warned that we may be the tallest objects the bolts find. Perhaps it is not surprising then that my sole orientation points are from the air: the commercial airport, Tampa International Airport, at the northern end of town, and the military airport, MacDill Air Force Base, to the south. These north and south points help to orient west and east and form a mental terrain without a center, but on paper they comprise a series of peninsulas. MacDill interests me some, as I had a very good friend who, at the time I moved to Florida, promised to come through the base—a California friend. When he came, there would be little talk of north and south, unless it was to differentiate between the two parts of California. We would talk, I knew, of the West.

On the morning of 12 September 2012, sometime around 7:00 a.m. East Coast time, my brother, Tony, who lives in New York—another westerner exiled in the East—texted me. I was awake, but just. Forgetting that we were in the same time zone, I was confused. I saw the light outside my window, but no direct sun. It is a daily squaring up of the longitudes. The text read, “Chris Stevens and three others have been killed in Libya. In Benghazi.” I saw only “Chris Stevens.” My mind fragmented, as our minds sometimes do in such circumstances, and went to the part it understood. Oh, news of Chris, I thought. I was happy to see his name. Chris Stevens, US Ambassador to Libya. We had known each other for much of our lives. Our families had been friends even longer than that. He and I had talked of seeing each other in Tampa, when he next stopped in at MacDill. He is the friend who might have visited.

This news, though, came from Tony, which was odd. He wasn’t the usual source of news about Chris. In our family, my mother and I are the sources of news about Chris, and that news travels from west to east, from California outward. I phoned Tony, and he explained in short sentences. I replied in long cries. Now that CNN is the source of news about Chris, there is nothing I need say here about the story behind my brother’s text. Even with CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, NPR, and the New York Times, plus every international paper and network, reporting probingly and from every conceivable angle, I feel too stupid to understand either the subtle shadings or the glaring implications. Of course, I understand what was lost on the field of diplomacy. This is clear immediately. It is an enormous loss, and for several weeks this gave me a point on which to fix. But simultaneous to this global paroxysm, there was a personal story for every person who knew Chris, a small, local loss that does not leap as easily across borders. This was the central, contained, internal end of the world that sits like a pin holding the dial of the compass to its face. The dial spins, and one spins with it, facing each direction, facing each scene and, looking for true north. Each direction I face offers a scene I don’t recognize. I don’t know what I’m looking at and frankly do not want to know.

At the time of Chris’s death, I had recently reread Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence, written in response to the trauma of World War I and published in 1928. I am a writer and a bookseller. I process things in my life through literature. And so, in my journal I reacted to Chris’s death by copying out the first lines of Lawrence’s novel: “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins ….” The quote and my pen trailed off there, but not before I noted that D.H. Lawrence was born on September 11. Memory and time are not, as we have long thought them, sequenced in a linear fashion, the scenes and their meaning strung one after another like pearls. According to Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and others, time is more like a loaf of bread and can be cut into slices that contain the ingredients of our full history. Nothing came first and nothing came later, because our experiences are playing simultaneously, like the wall of model televisions at Best Buy. Each is set to a different channel; the wall will make you sick if you try to see the whole wall in one look, so you don’t.

All families have their creation myths and ours is that Chris’s father, Jan Stevens, introduced my mother and father to each other in Berkeley, California, in 1956. Jan invited—tricked really—my parents to have coffee with him and then left. They’d all gone to Cal together—my mother and father, Jan and Chris’s mother, Mary. Perhaps Stephen Hawking is right. Time, place, and other sensory elements form a weft that begs not to be disentangled. Jan Stevens was my father’s fraternity brother. Mary was a member of my mother’s sorority. Jan had known my mother since she was seventeen, and they were freshmen together on The Daily Cal. In the eighties, Chris and I were at Cal together, wrapped in our own Greek affiliations, our lives bounded then by Telegraph and Piedmont Avenues. It was impossible in Florida to communicate what these coordinates mean. Our local orienteering doesn’t translate.

The flag-draped coffins of Chris Stevens and the other Americans killed in Benghazi arrive in the US. Courtesy Getty Images.

Along with the quote from Lady Chatterley, in my journal that September I wrote, “We are Californians.” Then I added, “We’re sons of California, a loyal company…,” the lyrics of one of Cal’s football fight songs, “Sons of California.” It was the phrase I repeated to myself over and over in order to stand firm in the middle of utter and devastating chaos. It was the phrase that allowed me to show solidarity with Chris’s family. It was the phrase that gave me access to a Chris that was being subsumed by the Rube Goldberg–styled machinery of global politics. Rube Goldberg, now that I think of it, went to Cal, too.

The story in the press took place in Libya. Naturally. All one saw was the loop of the consulate, close-ups of gates, the map and floor plan of the compound. In time, one saw photos of the interiors. These images narrowed Chris’s wide life down to this one spot. But Chris lived a big life. So big, in fact, that I sometimes thought of him as a kind of a diplomatic Zelig, as he popped up in the news in Paris, Stockholm, Jerusalem, Damascus, Washington, Benghazi. But for me, he only really showed up in California. Always, California. According to Chris’s father, Chris was a romantic about California. “Mushy,” Jan says, and he is right. It’s easy to go down that road in the Golden State.

In public, Hillary Clinton referred to Chris’s “California cool.” I remember feeling great gratitude for that, a fist pump for our home state. Depictions of Ambassador Chris in shorts and flip-flops bolstered the chill image of him that Secretary of State Clinton brought to the bureaucratic stage. Chris can’t be parted from California in fact or imagination, and yet so much of Chris’s life took place at a far remove from California, and in seemingly so many places at once that over time it felt as if he lived nowhere at all. Instead, he inhabited a series of conveyances: government planes, helicopters, unmarked cars, burros, ferries, trains, and eventually, secreted away on a cargo ship off the Libyan coast.

At the memorial held at San Francisco City Hall, October 2012. Photograph by Justin Sullivan. Courtesy Getty Images.

When we met up once in 2007, I calculated that he had made it to Sacramento from Tripoli faster than I’d made it up from Los Angeles. I knew there had to be a mistake somewhere in my math and time zones, but he came and went so casually. One minute so distant. The next minute, there he was, walking in the door to our house in Tahoe, bringing with him a piney freshness from the lake, dressed in a flannel shirt, and ready for a martini.

I spent many years picturing that dense and confusing foreign world of Chris’s. In those same years, I saw him only when he had left that world behind in favor of our comparatively ironed-out world. Chris’s history is, and is not, on the Berkeley campus. It is, and is not, at a reception at the end of summer in Sacramento, with the tufts of grass burned amber by the sun. It is, and is not, in San Francisco, where he went to law school. His life may never have taken him to Los Angeles for very long, though we once joked that he would one day move into some studio executive’s guesthouse and do nothing but play tennis. Instead, the great mosaic of Chris’s life played to a vaster audience: in Tripoli, Cairo, Riyadh—all the places at which Chris arrived every time he left us in California. I am reminded of Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in which the perspective is of the action that takes place offstage in Hamlet. The “main play” of Chris’s life was staged over there, but I knew him best offstage. The main action of his life was most often left to my imagination.

One night, between Christmas and New Year’s in 1991, our two families were having dinner together at the Stevens’ condo in Incline Village, on the edge of Lake Tahoe. Chris was about to begin his first diplomatic posting, in Riyadh. My mother looked across the table and said, “Chris, don’t you want to serve at embassies in London or Paris?” He smiled. There was a little talk of the Far East, Thailand, or Cambodia, perhaps. Still, my mother tried to sell him on Brussels, Berlin, or Amsterdam. Chris said nothing, and in the momentary silence something occurred to me. “He wants to be where others are not. Where others might not go.” He looked up and admitted, steadily and without embellishment, to a belief in something that had become a punch line in a culture feasting on irony: peace in the Middle East. Then he changed the subject to plans for the next day’s skiing.

It was a moment that stood out then and in the intervening years. From my perspective, Chris was always departing. But he was always returning to his life’s work, which could not be done at home. His life appeared distant to me, and in that distance, there was serious work to be done. This is what it meant to go far.

It was impossible to see the details, especially in the decades before Facebook. Once there was a Facebook, I could get a small window onto just what he had built, and the vastness of his world became less abstract. He wants to go where others are not? How small of me. How Western. Chris had moved consciously to the center, not away from it. His orientation spun outward to the future, not inward to the past. He had gone where millions lived and breathed and hoped for a day when they could simply live, as people, rather than in the narrow confines of diplomacy and politics.

Of course, diplomacy and politics are anything but narrow. I only say “narrow” because wars, dislocations of entire populations, redrawn boundaries of power and control, and crowds that gather in swelling numbers in city squares are often also refusals to be ruled by diplomacy and politics. As absorbing as these are, they are not the full life. The goal of diplomacy and politics is—or at least should be—to enable people to live freely, however living freely might express itself. That was the main action of Chris’s life, which I watched offstage

Despite the warring within our own government over what really happened that night in Benghazi, and the political alchemy that turned dead Americans into political symbols, it is the personal that prevails for me. And as tempting as it is to start casting a bronze statue to the friend I love, Chris’s true self—the self that would laugh at the mention of a bronze statue—is ever-present. And that self, for me, is knit into the landscape of California, a place of pioneers to this day, a place where the pioneering spirit has the capacity to come about, like a ship sailing into port, then turning and traveling in another direction, outward from California.

The day I said goodbye to California, leaving for Florida, I drove through the San Joaquin Valley. Chris would have crossed it countless times, from the San Francisco Bay to the High Sierra. He would have driven its length between the north and south of the state. Mountains and hills to the east and west would have oriented him no matter which direction he traveled. This certainty in his place in the world surely accompanied him wherever he went. It surely formed some of the character that sent him to the ends of the earth. On the early January day I last crossed the valley, one could sense, as if eternally, the presence of the summer apricots, ripe almonds, and cotton to come. It was easy to anticipate the day a few months from then, when the leaves would again turn waxy and green, and the boughs heavy and ready to be picked. The scent of growing things drifted across the rows of trees and rich, dark soil.

Like the almond blossoms, we go away to come back. We return and return, if only in our memories, and in returning we may possess. But it is not enough simply to possess the past. There is work to be done, and Chris would not want us to slip backward, retreating from the challenge of living. The lines that open Lady Chatterley return and return, offering a way forward. For months I was snagged on the beginning, caught by the fingers of tragedy, and unable, or unwilling, to tear free of them: “The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins…” But the passage does not end there. It continues, and I can now allow the rest of Lawrence’s thought to bud: “We start to build up new little habits, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”


Photograph: The caskets of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, Foreign Service officer Sean Smith, and security officers Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty are escorted through an honor cordon on Joint Base Andrews, Md., Sept. 14, 2012. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

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