courtesy of The New Yorker.
The Dark Side: The
Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a
War on American Ideals
conducted by Meehan
Meehan Crist: When
did you decide to write The Dark Side, and
why? Did your reasons for wanting to write this book
change at all as you worked on it?
Mayer: I had lunch one day with someone
who I still can’t name, who put down his fork,
looked straight at me with a completely shaken expression,
dropped his voice so that no one else could hear, and
told me that he had seen evidence that the United States
was running the most sophisticated torture program that
the modern world had ever seen. Very few people, he
said, understood it. As he described it, years of scientific
research had been distilled into a program of psychological
demolition so powerful it was as if the entire weight
and authority of the U.S. government was being wielded
to crush a few dozen prisoners. The look on his face,
the sound in his voice, and his sense of despair that
no one truly understood the magnitude of what was at
stake, made me realize I had to somehow get, and then
tell this story.
MC: What questions drove you as you worked on
this book? In other words, what was it that you hoped
to better understand by writing it?
I wanted to know how America, a country
founded on the values of the Enlightenment, could have
rationalized reverting to abusive practices more commonly
associated with the Dark Ages. I also wanted to know
how high up in the government the authorization for
this cruelty went, and what the chain of command was
like between the top elected officials and the anonymous,
hooded American officers who instituted these policies.
I wanted to know, too, if these departures from due
process and human rights were effective and necessary,
as the president said, to keep America safe.
MC: What was the most unexpected thing you learned in
the course of your research? Did it change the book
in any way?
I was shocked by how many conservative Republican officials,
who might have been expected to be loyalists to the
Bush White House, turned out instead to have been waging
an unseen guerilla war against what they saw as un-American,
illegal, and immoral policies. Bit by bit I learned
of an underground rebellion by military lawyers, FBI
agents, CIA officers and top Justice Department figures
who refused to go along with a program they thought
was unconscionable. Their acts of courage, small and
large, became a surprisingly strong counterpoint to
the main narrative of the book. Among the most powerful
words in the book are spoken by one of these former
Bush Administration officials, Philip Zelikow. America’s
descent into torture, he says, will be seen some day
like the Japanese internment during World War II. In
both instances, he says, “Fear and anxiety were
exploited by zealots and fools.”
MC: How did you decide on the structure for
The Dark Side, and how do you feel this particular
form serves the book’s content in a way other
structures could not?
I set out to structure the book as meticulously as I
could, as a chronological narrative, beginning in the
months immediately prior to the terrorist attacks of
September 11, 2001. The reason for doing so was that
prior to pulling it together in this way, the story
of America’s descent into “the dark side”
reached most readers in out-of-sequence fragments. As
a result, the connections were blurred between the decisions
taken in Washington, and the ramifications of those
decisions as they played out around the globe. By piecing
the fragments of the puzzle back together in order,
my aim was to restore the relationship between cause
and effect. In order to connect these events, some of
which occurred almost simultaneously in several locations
around the world, I constructed a 300-page time-line.
Only then could I really see the larger picture, in
all of its intricacy, or make it clear for readers.
MC: Are there any books you held in your peripheral
vision as models while you worked?
There are a number of books credited
in the text of The Dark Side, because they
were so influential on my own work, including Lawrence
Wright’s, The Looming Tower, Steve Coll’s,
Ghost Wars, Bob Woodward’s books on the
Bush presidency, and James Mann’s intellectual
history of the Bush foreign policy gurus, The Vulcans.
I also drew inspiration from J. Anthony Lukas’
Watergate book, Nightmare, and Richard Kluger’s
wonderful narrative, Simple Justice. But beyond
these, a voice I sometimes tried to summons was that
of the former newspaper columnist, Mary McGrory, with
whom I overlapped briefly at The Washington Star.
She advised that the greatest dramas are best conveyed
with the sparest words. A subject like torture can easily
devolve into melodrama, or tirade. Washington books
in particular tend towards overheated, clichéd
prose. When covering tragedy, the essential McGrory
rule was to keep the sentences stark and short. John
Hersey, author of Hiroshima and other works,
who taught a writing seminar I took at Yale, was also
in my head, with his mantra to weigh every word for
MC: What part of your book was the most thrilling
to write, and why?
For years I’ve read about fiction
writers who claim that their characters took over, and
more or less dictated their books. As someone who has
sweated through many hard drafts, I’ve always
wished to experience this literary version of automatic
pilot. So for me, the most thrilling moment was the
sense in the penultimate chapter that the thing was
practically writing itself. The narrative gained so
much velocity I felt I could barely type it fast enough.
I staggered down to bed from my attic office at about
two in the morning, thinking that for once, I didn’t
choose the words – they chose me.
MC: At this disturbed cultural and political
moment – reading is in crisis, the economy is
in crisis, our country is at war – how do you
see the role of the nonfiction writer? How do you see
your work on this book as an engagement with that role?
Odd though it sounds, I feel lucky to
be a non-fiction writer in an age when painful truths
have to be told. In such times, the writer’s mission
is so clear and so valuable that all of the usual uncertainty
and self-doubt surrounding the process dissolves. In
times like these, writing becomes more than a job, and
more than a passion; it becomes a meaningful civic responsibility.
Writers are a bit like trauma surgeons—they don’t
wish for crises, but nothing tests their skills or proves
their worth to better advantage.
Crist is reviews editor at The Believer, and
her nonfiction book, Everything After, is forthcoming
from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She holds an MFA from
Columbia University, and is currently an Olive B. O'Connor
Fellow at Colgate University.