Gillis’s parents reflect on Libya experience

Clare Gillis (A.B. ’98) called her parents Thursday, two weeks after being captured while reporting in Libya.

By Jonathan Lai

Freelance journalist Clare Gillis (A.B. ’98) made national headlines last week when she called home from captivity in Libya. With renewed hope, friends and family continue to call for her release.

“She said that she was being held captive in Libya, and we said we knew that, and she apologized for causing us worry, she said that has been most on her mind. She said that she is fine,” her mother Jane Gillis told the maroon Saturday.

Gillis, who received her degree in English Languages and Literature with honors, called her parents last Thursday. That phone call was her first direct contact with outsiders since being captured on April 5 while reporting on the situation in Libya as a freelance journalist.

According to her parents, Gillis confirmed that she had been with two other freelance journalists, U.S. citizen James Foley and Spanish citizen Manuel Brabo, before being moved to a women’s prison. Both Foley and Brabo have since made calls home.

Gillis, Foley, and Brabo were captured on April 5 by pro-Qaddafi fighters, and her father Robert Gillis said they found out April 7.

“We had found out two days later that she and the other journalists had been taken because of the contact that we had with the Human Rights Watch. We knew that they had been sighted in Tripoli, but that was virtually two weeks before we had the phone call from her,” Robert Gillis said.

According to Robert Gillis, the phone call was an opportunity to reassure his daughter of her support at home.

“She’s hopeful that she’s going to be released, but we could not get a sense of why she thought that. I was concerned that she had no knowledge of what was going on, and we didn’t want her to think that people had turned their backs on her,” Robert Gillis said. “She really had no clue that anybody knew what had happened.”

U of C Assistant Professor of Art History Aden Kumler (A.B. ’96) met Gillis while the two studied at Harvard. She said the phone call should not end people’s activism.

“This must be some kind of indication that she’ll be released sometime down the road,” Kumler said, " now is not the time to relax. We need to make sure she does not drop out of public visibility, that people remember she’s not released yet.”

Gillis spent the three years after college in Iceland, one of which was on a Fulbright scholarship, before enrolling in Harvard for graduate school. Gillis received her Ph.D. from Harvard last spring and then went into journalism, a move that fit her inquisitive personality, Kumler said.

“Clare is so intellectually curious and has such passion that I was not surprised when I found out she was going to Egypt and then later to Libya as a freelance journalist,” Kumler said.

While at the U of C, Gillis pursued interests in Germanic languages and medieval studies. She wrote her B.A. thesis under the supervision of English and Medieval Studies Professor Christina von Nolcken. Her thesis received the English department’s Napier Wilt Prize in English and American Literature.

“In some ways, Clare represents the best ideal of the University of Chicago. She has an independent drive to ask critical questions, and her serious commitment to traditional academics led her to journalism,” Kumler said.