A narrow escape

When ABC News journalist Bob Woodruff began the day of Jan. 29, 2006, he had it all. Married with four children, he was healthy, handsome and successful. Everything was fine until the moment that it wasn’t.

When ABC News journalist Bob Woodruff began the day of Jan. 29, 2006, he had it all. Married with four children, he was healthy, handsome and successful. At 44, Woodruff had been promoted to the position of co-anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight opposite Elizabeth Vargas. That day in January as Woodruff rode with his ABC news crew on an embed mission with Iraqi and coalition soldiers, he was doing what he loved to do, reporting the news from a foreign war-torn land. Everything was going well until Iraqi insurgents detonated a roadside bomb, throwing rocks and shrapnel into Woodruff’s head, neck and back. Everything was fine until the moment that it wasn’t.

The dual memoir In an Instant, written by Lee and Bob Woodruff, began as the personal therapy of Bob Woodruff’s wife, Lee. Lee and Bob tell the story of Bob’s traumatic brain injury and his uncertain path to recovery. Told from alternating points of view, In an Instant is set against the background of marriage, career, family and friends. It shows the place of hope, courage, devotion and commitment amidst the anxiety of impending loss.

The story begins with Lee on vacation with her children at Disney World. Bob is in Iraq. As the events are told, an interesting structure evolves. The story of Bob’s injury and the details of his recovery are juxtaposed against the story of Lee and Bob’s relationship, the first time they met, their courtship and marriage. It traces Bob’s career as a foreign war correspondent up to the point where he succeeded Peter Jennings, becoming a co-anchor at World News Tonight. The technique of recounting their story from the alternating viewpoints of husband and wife, as well as from alternating periods in time, provides a contrast that lends depth and perspective to the memoir.

Lee’s honesty is commendable as she bravely paints a complex picture of married life and motherhood, both the good and the bad. She shows the difficulty of attending to all the pressing details and logistics that go hand in hand with caring for someone who is critically injured. She describes how she conquered her emotional state as she managed travel, child care, and medical decisions while assuming the responsibilities of guardian and caretaker for her injured husband.

Lee describes the fear and anguish that come from not knowing if or how her husband’s recovery would progress–if he would ever wake up, if he would speak, what he would look like, and if he would still love her. Lee talks about the importance and difficulty of controlling what was said about Bob’s condition in the press and praises Bob’s colleagues for respecting the family’s privacy. She navigates her story through territory fraught with the potential for sentimentality, and only slips once when she veers off on a tangent describing the intense love she has for her sister, Nancy.

Bob provides fascinating insights into his career as a foreign war correspondent. He recounts how he first became interested in journalism while he was teaching law in Beijing during the events of Tiananmen Square. He explains his passion for journalism and what drew him to dangerous situations:

“Wars revealed so many horrible stories about injury and death. But in the midst of that landscape, there was always powerful evidence of hope. Among the violence were people who had learned something profound about life. Places of war allow you to witness extremes, the highs and lows of life, people starving and defeated, people victorious and surfeited.”

Ultimately, Bob’s assertion that his family always came first is hard to believe. While it seems apparent that Bob made a genuine effort to balance his love of journalism with his love for his family and felt torn and guilty many times, the sacrifices that were made seem to have rested heavily on Lee. Having supported him while he climbed his career ladder, Lee took care of their home and their children, allowing Bob to pursue his life’s passion for journalism and travel the globe.

At times the book strays dangerously close to the unflattering terrain of which spouse sacrificed the most, but the Woodruffs’ story never deteriorates to that level. It does, however, leave the reader with lingering questions regarding the place of sacrifice in marriage. How do spouses balance the sacrifices they make for each other? When is a sacrifice commendable, and when does it slip into the territory of loving too much?

In an Instant graphically and almost horrifically illustrates the kind of damage caused to the human body from an improvised explosive device (IED). The magnitude of Bob’s injuries is described, including the detailed description of his brain swelling outside his head. The Woodruffs are careful to remind their readers that these types of injuries are becoming typical for vast numbers of U.S. troops who are leaving Iraq. Pictures of Bob’s crushed skull bone and his head after the left side of his skull was removed are included. The Woodruffs spare no ink when they lavish praise on the Army medical doctors both in Iraq and in the United States who treated Bob.

In an Instant is a brave and timely book plainly examining not only the signature injury of the Iraq war, traumatic brain injury, but also fearlessly dissecting a marriage, accepting its imperfections, and laying bare the sacrifices, bitterness and love. It is unclear whether Bob Woodruff will reach a point in his recovery where he will be able to reclaim the pinnacle of his journalistic career. What is certain is that Bob’s life has provided him with a wealth of fascinating stories. The writing team of Lee and Bob Woodruff is undoubtedly well equipped to tell them.