March 5 2020

I am not Edward Snowden Nellie Hermann

With gratitude to John Haskell

I am not Edward Snowden.

I am not Edward Snowden as he wakes up in the early hours of the morning in a room deep in the bowels of the Moscow airport and wonders just for a second where he is. Half in a dream, he thinks he is in his bed in Honolulu, his girlfriend Lindsay turned on her side next to him, the familiar contours of their life quiet in the dark around them, and then he thinks he is in that hotel room in Hong Kong, but as he opens his eyes wider and comes through to consciousness the reality comes to him that he is in a room in the airport, in Moscow, in a single bed, where he has been holed up now for a week. Just two feet from him, in the other bed, is Sarah Harrison, the British woman from WikiLeaks who showed up at the Hong Kong airport and ushered him onto the plane, before they landed here, before his passport was revoked and he couldn’t go anywhere else. What is she still doing here, with him? She is turned on her side toward the wall.

Is it possible to tell a story about Edward Snowden without politics? I am not Edward Snowden because I do not know what he knows, no classified information, no secret passwords. I don’t know how to encrypt or decrypt anything. I have never worked for the government, never had a background check, don’t know a thing about code in any form. Most of what I know about the CIA I learned from television. Edward Snowden knows what I don’t know, his brain filled with knowledge I don’t have. He carries what he knows in his mind like a disease; he cannot give it back, he cannot not know it. It is what makes him Edward Snowden, who I am not. Is it possible to write of him, to imagine him, without knowing what he knows?

Originally published in Blunderbuss Magazine in November, 2016.

Illustration by Debbie Allen.

United States

Nellie Hermann


Nellie Hermann has published two novels, The Cure for Grief and The Season of Migration, a New York Times Editor's Choice. Her non-fiction has appeared in an anthology about siblings, Freud’s Blindspot, as well as in Academic Medicine. She is Creative Director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, and over the last ten years she has taught...