Brown University, 1989, BA; English Literature with a minor in Creative Writing
University of Oxford, 1990, M. Phil., English Literature
University of East Anglia, 1991, M.A., Creative Writing
Katherine Eban grew up in Brooklyn, New York. She is the younger of two daughters. Her father practices and teaches law, but he is also a statistician. Her mother is a theater scholar and critic. Katherine is an investigative reporter focusing on public health and homeland security issues. Her work has appeared in the Nation, the New Republic, the New Yorker, and Vogue. In her first book, Dangerous Doses, published in 2005, she unveiled the spread of counterfeit prescription drugs in the American supply chain. Her most current piece appears in the July issue of Vanity Fair. In the article called “Rorschach and Awe”, she exposes the role of CIA-contracted psychologists in military interrogations and torture.
Obviously, you’re intelligent, but what drove you to do more than the average teenager?
I don’t know if I did more than the average teenager. I was interested and I wanted to be involved. I had a lot of opportunities. And if we’re going to assume average teenagers do less, I think a lot of them don’t have the opportunities that I had.
Did you have any mentors, or people who inspired you in high school?
My English teacher. Dr. Flory. Evelyn Flory. She was amazing. What a wonderful teacher. I took AP English with her. It was through her I was first introduced to Paradise Lost, which is what I ended up studying in college and at Oxford. She was very tough. In fact, a lot of the students really didn’t like her. But she was so disciplined. I really respected her. She demanded perfection from her students.
Her husband, who was an art teacher at the high school, actually died very dramatically of a heart attack while performing in a school play I was in. He died on stage in the middle of a song. It was crazy. The next week, Dr. Flory was back in school teaching, which was so remarkable. Then, later that year, I had some tough emotional stuff happen. I had cut class and was crying in the bathroom—typical high school stuff. I got in trouble for it from her. Basically, she said that wasn’t going to cut it. It didn’t matter what I was going through emotionally. I would be expected to fulfill my obligations and come to class. And since it came from her, I totally respected what she said.
What was her method of teaching?
She was very rigorous. She loved literature. When you’re being taught by someone, who is very rigorous, very smart, and in love with her topic…I don’t know if I can say one particular thing she did that inspired me. It was having very high standards. She was very serious about what she did. She was definitely an influential teacher.
What kinds of activities did you enjoy growing up?
I was in the circus. That was actually my qualification for athletic prowess [for the Rhodes Scholarship].
What did you do in the circus?
Trapeze, acrobatics, and clowning.
How did you get into it?
My mom sent me to clown camp one summer, because she had to get the floors redone and wanted us all out of the house.
Which part did you enjoy the most? Clowning? The trapeze?
I liked it all. There were a number of tremendous lessons to be drawn from clown camp, and my essay for the Rhodes was about clowning. The essence of clowning is that you’re always a child in a state of discovery looking at everything as new. There’s nothing familiar to a clown. Your whole world has to be learned—all the time—over and over again. So if you encounter a ladder, you act as if you’ve never seen it before, even if you just encountered it a minute ago. That was just a great approach to life. I also had training on the tightrope. We were trained on what is called a slack wire, which is a loose dangling rope. They teach you how to take a nap on it. You should learn to sleep on it, before you walk on it. You get such a sense of balance.
So how long did you nap on it?
20 minutes. It was amazing. The other lesson of clowning is never take yourself seriously. One thing I cannot bear about the Rhodes Scholarship is all the seriousness surrounding it. I don’t necessarily accept there is something God-givenly spectacular about us scholars. I totally reject that.
Are there any aspects of the qualities the Rhodes committee looks for that you continue to value in any way?
There’s one where I’m torn whether I live up to, or not—which is community service. I am not volunteering at something separate now. My work is basically exposing injustice and inequity so I’m not sitting in a corporate law firm and doing pro bono work to assuage my conscience. One might argue that my work is community service, but I always feel like should I be doing something else. It’s a little tough, because as an investigative reporter I can’t really join anything. I can’t really sign anything. I’m constantly in an odd relationship to society. I can’t be partial. So it’s a little bit of a tough one.
One of the things Cecil Rhodes was looking for was an interest one’s fellow beings and making society better. And I think you do that by your investigative reporting.
I hope I’m not just making myself feel better, but I think that’s true.
Now, leadership potential…That is the one [qualification] that may be the most specious. What do you mean by leadership potential? I think a lot of Rhodes [scholars] go on to be big guys in their law firms, or at their bank. They push a lot of paper. I had been interviewed a number of times about the Rhodes. One [interviewer] was defining leadership potential as chairing committees, which any bureaucrat do. That doesn’t make you a leader, so that’s the qualification I’m most skeptical of.
Having served on the Rhodes selection committee for years, I am also totally skeptical of candidates who try to fill in the four requirements in a methodical way and then volunteer at a soup kitchen.
I had a lot of opportunity. And frankly, I came from an upper middle class family. It is far easier for me to worry about my fellow man, if I have the financial wherewithal, than for other people [without the resources] to do that. It’s just something to think about.
Did you have a strong religious background?
My extended family was very religious and my great uncle was a very famous rabbi. But I don’t think I had any particular belief system.
So how do you overcome challenges or handle failure?
Well, it depends on what kind of failure. I probably have a different perspective on this than I used to.
I was not promoted at a job that I worked very hard at. It was an up, or out thing. Either you were going to get promoted and stay, or not get promoted and leave. I didn’t get promoted so I left. I’m not going to say what job it was, but it was very tough. Now, I have a husband I love and an 11-month old daughter. I do work I care about. So how bad could it be?
Sure, I get down. I sleep late. I get frustrated. I regret. I look back. But then I get up again. My dad always says you should be indifferent to both praise and censure. I think that is excellent advice, because censure is just really the other side of praise. And praise is very evanescent. It doesn’t make you a better person. Of course, it’s nice to feel rewarded and paid attention for what you do well. It sucks to work hard and not be recognized for something.
I think the biggest challenge is to figure what is important to you. Once you figure it out, it’s about how can you go about doing it. But I so admire people who just stay in their lane, who keep doing their work.
I remember when I was at the New York Times and 9/11 happened. The newsroom just went crazy. It was a whole new world order. Everybody was obsessed with what role they were going to have in the coverage and with getting a byline. It was a terrible atavistic environment. Everybody wanted the cover the story—the 9/11 attacks and the war on terror. But there was one guy, who was on a special project. It didn’t have any of the glory, and the editors weren’t obsessed with it. I thought I saw pain and confusion in his eyes, yet he kept on going with his project for a year. And it won a Pulitzer Prize. So good for him! He was just doing his work. He wasn’t looking for the spotlight. I really admired that.
And do you stay on track like that?
People say I am very focused. I’m not sure if that’s true. Have they always said that about me? I guess, more or less. At the New York Times, I reported down at 9/11 at ground zero for about 40 hours. After that, I had post-traumatic stress reactions. I was amazed that for a year afterwards I really couldn’t concentrate. It really bothered me. I got a taste of what’s it’s like to be unable to focus. And I didn’t like it one bit.
So what makes you want to excel, instead of just getting by?
I don’t know if I have an answer. Getting by is just not my style. I just wouldn’t be very good at it. I become very bored and very anxious quickly if I’m just getting by. If I’m not really fully engaged in something, my mind just starts devouring itself. I just have to work.
Have you ever been in danger because of the work you do?
Oh, definitely. Physically threatened. Legally threatened. Subpoenaed. Pilloried. I just had a big exposé that’s on the Vanity Fair website about CIA psychologists. I kept expecting to get a severed camel head on my doorstep. I definitely set my alarm at night. There are a lot of people who hate me for what I write. Now, because of my book, Dangerous Doses, I can’t set foot in Florida. I keep on being subpoenaed to appear as a witness for all these defendants who are on criminal trial for drug counterfeiting. One guy, in particular, is dying to get me to testify, because he wants to know my sources. My lawyers have told me that I cannot set foot in Florida until this guy is convicted. I spent three years in Florida reporting for Dangerous Doses. And I’ve wanted to visit the subjects of the book. I am also invited to do conferences and speaking gigs there all the time and I can’t go. At my first book reading in Florida, all these bad guys showed up at the bookstore and the reading ended with the police being called. It’s craziness.
Do you enjoy disturbing the hornet’s nest?
It’s one way to tell whether you’re onto a story that probably needs to be told. Now that I have a child, I try to be very careful and I have definite concerns. Enjoy is not quite the right notion though.
How did you chose health and homeland security issues as your focus?
I was not even a journalist. I was studying Paradise Lost. I have a master’s degree in 17th century poetry.
So how did you make that leap?
After my first year at Oxford, I got a summer job for Ira Magaziner (a former Rhodes Scholar) doing research on health care for the elderly in Europe. It had nothing to do with what I was studying. I didn’t know a thing about it, but he wanted cheap labor so I took the job. When I got back to New York [in 1991], I was working on a novel and it was getting rejected everywhere. I was so depressed and living in a tiny apartment. It was a $250 apartment with the deal that I take care of a depressed bird named Fred—a parakeet. He had a girlfriend, I guess, who had died. He was clinically depressed. His mood was affecting me, too.
I had to get a job. I was broke. So I applied for a variety of jobs and one of the people forwarded my résumé to Mark Green, the New York City Public Advocate (basically, the city’s watchdog). Because I had that one summer job on my résumé, he hired me as his health care policy analyst. While working for him, I investigated New York City hospitals. One report I wrote for him wound up with front-page coverage in the New York Times. So my reports started getting press pick-up. I had always been a writer, but I always thought I would be a fiction writer. But it turned out that I was a very good investigative reporter. Basically, one thing led to another and I ended up being a reporter focusing on health care.
And how did you come to focus on homeland security, too?
Through my experience at the New York Times after 9/11. I was part of the investigative unit. I was doing a lot of reporting on anthrax and terrorists. It intrigued me and it brought together the two things I’m interested in.
Can you list three things you love about what you do?
It’s exciting. I learn new stuff a lot. And I do—when things are good—expose injustice. Those are all positives.
What would you recommend to anyone young about leading a fulfilling life?
I would say, do what you love as long as it’s a societal plus—a benefit to others. Do what you love so long as you can do well for others.
Sounds like you totally exemplify the Rhodes…
[Laughs.] I don’t know about that.
Just before we ended our conversation, she had a final thought on the key to happiness.
Here is my advice to people—you need the love of a very big dog.