14 May 2013

Why I admire Angelina for taking on the taboos


Channel 4 News accompanied Angelina Jolie on a mission to Congo earlier this year. The actress made the gruelling trip despite undergoing major surgery, writes Cathy Newman.

In this celebrity age, many people appear to be cynical about why famous people do or say things, apparently suspecting an ulterior motive.

But when I heard this morning that the Hollywood film star Angelina Jolie had written in frank and moving detail about her double mastectomy, I was immediately full of admiration.

Let me explain. I’m not easily starstruck, though I do think Ms Jolie is an amazing actress. What really impressed me, though, was the fact that I’d been on a harrowing and arduous trip to the Congo with her which, I now realise, took place straight after the second of three major operations.

I suspected when I heard I’d be the only broadcaster to accompany her on the visit that there was a chance that she’d pull out. Hollywood stars have a reputation for being elusive and unpredictable, after all.

But that she went ahead with the trip in the middle of the operations to remove her breasts is a testimony to her passionate support for the campaign which took her to the Congo – tackling sexual violence in the war zone.

And it strikes me now that what motivates her vocal interest in that issue is what also inspired her to write today’s article in the New York Times: a determination to empower women.

As she explained today: “I am writing about it now because I hope that other women can benefit from my experience. Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness.”

She did it because she wants to see her children grow up and be there for them. Friend of Angelina Jolie

Ms Jolie’s mother died of cancer at the age of 56. And through testing available to all women whose family members have had the disease, she knew she had an 87 per cent chance of succumbing herself. One of Ms Jolie’s friends told me: “She did it because she wants to see her children grow up, and be there for them.”

She could of course have had the procedure and said nothing about it. But her friend said she was determined, against the advice of some, to speak out.

“She wants to use her experience and the fact that people recognise her to say to other women, ‘this is not the end of the road. You can take control of your own destiny, there are options out there to help you.’ This is not about her. This is about other women who have or will have to go through it.”

The intimate details she revealed about the three stages of surgery – from “nipple delay” to “temporary fillers” and “reconstructive surgery” – will, she hopes, give other women the information they need to make a decision.

The second bout of surgery, an operation that can take eight hours, left her waking up with drain tubes and expanders in her breasts. “It does feel like a scene out of a science fiction film. But days after surgery you can be back to a normal life,” she wrote.

Normal life for her meant going to the Congo with the foreign secretary, William Hague.

Filming the pair of them, I had not the slightest inkling of what she was going through. We travelled for hours to various camps for people displaced by the war, along horrendously bumpy, volcanic tracks.

For a woman recovering from major surgery, I can only imagine how difficult it must have been.

It would have been uncomfortable for someone in peak condition, but for a woman recovering from major surgery I can only imagine how difficult it must have been.

We all put in long hours, flying in and out of the Congo from neighbouring Rwanda – it was considered too dangerous for us all to overnight there – but Ms Jolie had put in longer hours than any of us, flying overnight from America to London, and then from London to Nairobi.

And there was never a word of complaint or any sign of the pain she may have been in.

She was adamant about making the journey, in the hopes that speaking out about women who have been horribly raped and mutilated, often by government soldiers, would put pressure on politicians around the globe to do something about an atrocity which shames the world.

Although I had no idea about what she was going through at the time, in retrospect I can see how it might have affected her understanding of what some of the women we met had been through themselves.

We visited one hospital in Goma run by an amazing surgeon, Jonathan Lusi, who does heroic work repairing women who have been so badly torn after being raped. I remember she and the foreign secretary were given a tour of the ward by Dr Lusi, where some of the women were recovering.

She took me aside afterwards and admired the frank way Dr Lusi talked about his patients. He’d told William Hague and his Hollywood companion that “God is in the vagina!”

I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity. Angelina Jolie

I thought of our conversation when I read this morning her advice to women that reconstructive breast surgery “can be beautiful”.

It may still be taboo to talk about the female anatomy. Thankfully, it’s no longer taboo to discuss breast cancer.

But I do believe it’s groundbreaking that someone often described as the world’s most beautiful woman can state simply: “I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.”

That is a powerful challenge to the way society views women and beauty.