My Name Is Rachel
09 April, 2005
There is a particular entry in Rachel
Corrie's diary, probably written some time in 1999, four years before
she was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip trying to prevent
the demolition of Palestinian homes. She is aged 19 or 20. "Had
a dream about falling, falling to my death off something dusty and smooth
and crumbling like the cliffs in Utah," she writes, "but I
kept holding on, and when each foothold or handle of rock broke I reached
out as I fell and grabbed a new one. I didn't have time to think about
anything - just react as if I was playing an adrenaline-filled video
game. And I heard, 'I can't die, I can't die,' again and again in my
Last year, I was
asked by the Royal Court theatre to edit the writings of Rachel Corrie
into a drama with Alan Rickman, who was also directing. I had read the
powerful emails she sent home from Gaza, serialised in G2 in the days
after her death, and I'd read eye-witness accounts on the internet.
But I didn't know that Rachel's early writing - before she even thought
of travelling to the Middle East, from her days as a schoolgirl, through
college, to life working at a mental-health centre in her home town
of Olympia, Washington - would be similarly fascinating, and contain
such elements of chilling prescience. Nor did I have a sense of the
kind of person Rachel Corrie was: a messy, skinny, Dali-loving, listmaking
chainsmoker, with a passion for the music of Pat Benatar. I discovered
all that later.
Rachel was killed, aged 23, on March 16 2003, by a Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer,
a vehicle especially built to demolish houses. Three decades before,
her father had driven bulldozers in Vietnam for the US army. Her death
was the first of a string of killings of westerners in Gaza in spring
2003, as the war was taking place in Iraq: Briton Tom Hurndall, 22,
shot on April 11; another Briton, cameraman James Miller, 34, shot on
May 16. She and Hurndall were activists in the International Solidarity
Movement (ISM), an organisation set up "to support Palestinian
non-violent resistance to Israel's military occupation". Rachel
was killed only two days before the start of the assault on Baghdad
while the world was mostly looking elsewhere.
She became a martyr to the Palestinians, a victim of their intifada
who had stood up to the mighty Israeli army; Edward Said praised her
actions as "heroic and dignified at the same time". But many
Israelis considered her at best naive, interfering in a situation she
didn't understand. And to some Americans she was a traitor; websites
blared that "she should burn in hell for an eternity"; "Good
riddance to bad rubbish"; "I'm thankful she died."
Those close to Rachel would rather she had not become famous for being
the blonde American girl who got killed. As her ex-boyfriend Colin Reese
said in the documentary Death of an Idealist: "The person that
I knew has been summed up as a bullet point... Everything that Rachel
was, every brilliant idea she had, every art project she did, it doesn't
matter, because she has become her death." Reese committed suicide
In developing this piece of theatre, we wanted to uncover the young
woman behind the political symbol, beyond her death. As Alan Rickman,
whose idea it was to turn Rachel's work into drama, says: "We were
never going to paint Rachel as a golden saint or sentimentalise her,
but we also needed to face the fact that she'd been demonised. We wanted
to present a balanced portrait." We hoped to find out what made
Rachel Corrie different from the stereotype of today's consumerist,
depoliticised youth. Having received permission from Rachel's parents
to shape her words into drama, we were sent an enormous package - 184
pages of her writing, most of which had not been seen before.
The material revealed a woman who was both ordinary and extraordinary:
writing poems about her cat, her friends, her grand mother, the wind;
but also, from a strikingly young age, engaging passionately with the
world, trying to find her place in it. The earliest material we have
is political; aged 10, Rachel wrote a poem about how "children
everywhere are suffering" and how she wished to "stop hunger
by the year 2000". Her juvenilia shows, as Rickman says, that she
"already knew what language was. She was witty, a storyteller,
she had flights of fancy". It also shows a rather sweet seriousness,
and an insight into the wider world and her place in it. Aged 12, she
writes, "I guess I've grown up a little. It's all relative anyway;
nine years is as long as 40 years depending on how long you've lived".
In her teens, Rachel started to write about the "fire in my belly"
that was to become a recurring theme. She visited Russia, a trip that
opened her eyes to the rest of the world - she found it "flawed,
dirty, broken and gorgeous". And she engaged in a striking way
with her parents, with writing that beautifully expresses ordinary anxieties
about safety and freedom, which become particularly poignant in light
of Rachel's violent death. Aged 19 she wrote to her mother, "I
know I scare you... But I want to write and I want to see. And what
would I write about if I only stayed within the doll's house, the flower-world
I grew up in?... I love you but I'm growing out of what you gave me...
Let me fight my monsters. I love you. You made me. You made me."
She stewed, in typical late-teens fashion, on her future, and wrote
about men and sex, from falling "in love with someone who is perpetually
leaving you... and tells all stories as if they are blues songs"
to bumping into an ex-boyfriend with his "hoochie-ass" new
lover. Her wit was of the sardonic kind, and is one of the main things
her friends remember about her.
Rachel's political evolution gathered pace in her early 20s. She went
to Evergreen state college, a famously liberal university in Olympia,
itself a famously liberal town. She began railing against how "the
highest level of humanity is expressed through what we choose to buy
at the mall". After September 11, she became involved in community
activism, organising a peace march, but questioned the wider relevance
of what she was doing: "People [are] offering themselves as human
shields in Palestine and I [am] spending all of my time making dove
costumes and giant puppets." When she finally decided that she
wanted to go to the Middle East, she explained her reason quite specifically:
"I've had this underlying need to go to a place and meet people
who are on the other end of the portion of my tax money that goes to
fund the US and other militaries."
When Rachel arrived in Rafah in the Gaza Strip, as Rickman says, "the
rhythm of the writing changes dramatically. She has less time to consider
but you can feel the growing fear." The Gaza dispatches are hard-hitting
and intense, representing a profound experience. On arrival in Jerusalem
she was shocked to see the Star of David spray-painted on to doors in
the Arab section of the old city: "I have never seen the symbol
used in quite that way... I am used to seeing the cross used in a colonialist
way". In Gaza, she carried the body of a dead man on a stretcher
while the Israeli army shot in front of her, but mostly her activism
involved protection: staying overnight in the homes of families on the
front line to stop their demolition; standing in front of water workers
at a well in Rafah as they they came under fire; "close enough
to spray debris in their faces". (Before her death, Rachel believed,
as did many activists, that her "international white person privilege"
would keep her relatively safe.) Witnessing the occupation in action
inspired in Rachel her strongest writing; in her last days her rage
and bafflement at what she saw led to work of astonishing and cumulative
But the quantity of the material left us with a series of questions.
How much of Rachel's life before she went to Gaza should we include?
And should we quote other people? The trend in political theatre, from
David Hare's The Permanent Way to Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo's
Guantánamo, is journalistic: the use of testimony, of interviews
and on-the-record material rather than invention. But for us there could
be no re-interviewing to fill in the gaps. We had a finite amount of
words to work with, as Rachel was dead. I was very keen to use some
of the emails that Rachel's parents, Cindy and Craig, sent to their
daughter while she was in Gaza. They are full of the kind of worries
any parent might have if their child was in a dangerous situation, but
because Rachel never came home, they have a devastating poignancy. Two
weeks before her daughter's death, Cindy emailed Rachel: "There
is a lot in my heart but I am having trouble with the words. Be safe,
be well. Do you think about coming home? Because of the war and all?
I know probably not, but I hope you feel it would be OK if you did."
And what about the voices of Rachel's friends? I interviewed many fellow
ISM activists, most of whom have been deported from Israel since her
death. We watched tapes of two of the moving memorial services: one
in Gaza, which was shot at by the Israeli army, another in Olympia.
We viewed documentaries on the subject, most notably Sandra Jordan's
powerful The Killing Zone, and considered using video grabs. But in
the end the power of Rachel's writing meant that, apart from a few short
passages quoting her parents and an eye witness report of her death,
her words were strong enough to stand alone.
The challenge, then, was trying to construct a piece of theatre from
fragments of journals, letters and emails, none of which was written
with performance in mind. It helped, as Rickman says, that Rachel's
writing "has a kind of theatricality. The images jump off the page."
As the process went on, the difference between my usual job, journalism,
and theatre, became obvious: stagecraft is what makes theatre what it
is, and there was no point creating scenes that read well on the page
if the actor playing Rachel, Megan Dodds, could not perform them.
We've tried to do justice to the whole of Rachel: neither saint nor
traitor, both serious and funny, messy and talented, devastatingly prescient
and human and whole. Or, in her own words, "scattered and deviant
and too loud". We chose Rachel's words rather than those of the
thousands of Palestinian or Israeli victims because of the quality and
accessibility of the writing: as Rickman says, "The activist part
of her life is absolutely matched by the imaginative part of her life.
I've no doubt at all that had she lived there would have been novels
and plays pouring out of her." The tragedy is that we'll hear no
more from Rachel Corrie.
My Name Is Rachel Corrie is at the Royal Court, Sloane Square, London
SW1 until April 30. Box office: 020-7565 5000.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005