Juliette Kayyem is perhaps better known as the ‘Security Mom’; but she has earned that title by authoring books, hosting a podcast and serving as a national security analyst for CNN. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Juliette has worked for over 15 years with the government, managing complex policy initiatives and organising responses to major crises. Juliette Kayyem also served as President Obama’s Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security, where she played a central role in such major operations as the H1N1 pandemic and the BP Oil Spill response. Juliette has been awarded many government honors, perhaps most notably the Distinguished Public Service Award, the Coast Guard’s highest medal awarded to a civilian. If all of that wasn’t enough, Juliette Kayyem was also named as a Pulitzer prize finalist for her editorial columns in the Boston Globe regarded the Pentagon’s combat exclusion rule against women, a policy that would end up being changed shortly after. To saw I’m a little in awe of Juliette’s achievements would be an understatement. To have the chance to talk books with her, was a real honor. So please enjoy my interview with the wonderful Juliette Kayyem…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I have many jobs but one career: a commitment to safety and security. That may be a blow off answer, but it’s a way to describe my many hats presently – as faculty at Harvard, an author, a podcast host, a CNN analyst and a business executive.
What are you reading at the moment?
I am currently reading Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein; maybe because I’m a mother of 3 now. I’d also add Hardy Boys by Franklin W. Dixon! The first book I ever fell in love with though, was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to be a volleyball player; which I suppose isn’t very deep.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
Born in L.A., she might wonder how I ended up on the cold East Coast. I think she would find me more familiar than not; essentially, I haven’t stopped talking/moving for all my years.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
I’d gift myself Othello by William Shakespeare.
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
No, and that’s the problem. When I was having kids and they were young and I was sleep-deprived, I didn’t read nearly enough. Now I tend to read on airplanes. I found the recent presidential campaign a real drag on my reading as I watched too much news.
The book that has had the biggest impact on my career is Backlash by Susan Faludi.
Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?
All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward for my husband. He is a constitutional scholar and a judge. Maybe he loves it as a cautionary tale! But even my kids love it.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay Greene. I feel like not enough people know about the book and its just amazing and intimate and historically significant. As for fiction, White People by Alan Garganus. I lived in Africa for a year and it just touched me.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
Fiction. I get too much non-fiction in my life as a terrorism and homeland security expert.
Do you think reading is important?
Yes, absolutely. For me, it is an outlet from the headlines and mayhem that is a part of my career. It also motivated me to write a memoir as I saw how sometimes the best stories are those told from the heart, that instead of writing something dry and not engaging, that what people want out of reading is a sense to feel connected.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
Shameless plug. My husband’s, honestly: Waging War by David Barron.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
Real; although I feel like if I could get into my kindle, I would read more.
Name a book that you feel every human should have to read by law.
Eyes on the Prize by Juan Williams. It reminds all of us the struggle is long but the trajectory arches towards goodness.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life?
In college, I read a book of Shakespeare plays. I got lost in it. I think beyond the plays themselves it was also so intellectually engaging. I had never gotten lost in my own brain before.
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. I worked for him when I was a young lawyer. He is an amazing advocate, a powerful writer, and makes us rethink a lot of our public policy around crime and punishment.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
I want to read more fun fiction. Honestly. The world is a little depressing right now.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
Wait, I wrote a memoir. Security Mom! But, my favorite working title would be “My Disastrous Career” to explain my life in homeland security.