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Inspire Awards 2004 Honorees

Jessica Lange, Actress and Activist

"The child didn't need to be put through more pain," she explains to me later. "I can understand why a photographer wanted the shot, but we need to balance the humanity of the moment."

In a hospital in the town of Goma, Lange meets 70-year-old Maria, a tiny, wizened woman with a devastating story. Her five sons and their families were burned to death in their homes. Her husband was killed as he tried to escape. Her three daughters were murdered in front of her. "When I leave the hospital," Maria says, "they will give me a hoe, some seed, and food for one month. But I have no place to live, no land to plant. Nowhere to go."

"I'm amazed at the spirit of these people," Lange says. "It's overwhelming to witness the tremendous humanity of the people here, in the face of such unspeakable pain." She doesn't understand why the international community seems to be ignoring this bloody African war, which also happens to be one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. "Why should America care?" she asks. "Because it's a humanity issue. When people suffer and others can alleviate that pain, it's our responsibility to try."

As Lange prepares to leave the region, she packs a small piece of solidified lava in her luggage that was given to her by a young doctor, so that she won't forget his country. "I'll keep it with my piece of the Berlin Wall," she tells him.

She looks tired climbing into the U.N. plane one last time. The fine lines on her face are more visible than normal. "I hope I have the European approach toward age," she muses. "As a woman ages, every line and wrinkle on her face and body should tell a story. It's why I've never considered cosmetic surgery. The idea that beauty can only be synonymous with youth is an obsession that has been forced on American women."

At last, we are flying home. For Lange, that means a Victorian house on several acres in Minnesota. "It's large, but we always seem to end up in the kitchen," she says.

The enormous fireplace has seen as many as seven dogs curled up in front of it. "But now we're down to one, our big yellow Lab. We have canaries and finches, too." Her favorite place to unwind, however, is the family cabin in a remote part of Minnesota near Duluth. "There is no place I'd rather be," she says, her face visibly relaxing. "The cabin is in the deep woods, on a hill overlooking a small lake. There is no sound except nature, which can be amazingly loud when you really listen. We can hear coyote, timber wolves, bear. I get up at 6:30 a.m., take my coffee, and sit on the dock and watch the hawks, eagles, loons, and blue heron."

Of her relationship with Shepard, she says, "He and I don't agree on everything, but we have a real affinity, and a shared history. He doesn't involve himself in politics as I do, although he follows them. He's a very honorable man, with great reserve and strength. One of the things I love about Sam is he's a man I can learn from. I couldn't be with somebody who wasn't that way."

Although the couple have been together for more than two decades—they met while filming Frances in 1982—they have yet to marry. "We talk about it from time to time," she says. "But we've never felt the necessity. Paco was my only official marriage. Sam and I have a marriage of the spirit."

Despite the security of home, Lange says she will return to the Congo within a year. "I want to see the women and girls, the young boy soldiers I met, to know how they're doing," she says.

She also plans to raise relief funds in the coming year and address the U.N. Security Council on the issue of children in armed combat.

"Yes, violence exists in other places. But in the DRC there is an absolute crisis," she says. "How can these issues not be relevant to our lives? We have to think of ourselves as citizens of the world first, and then citizens of a smaller place second."

To help victims of violence in the DRC, call 1-800-4UNICEF or visit UNICEF's website.

Jan Goodwin is author of Price of Honor: Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World (Plume Publishing, 2003).

 

*The name of this award was originally the Impact Award. In 2008, the awards were renamed as the Inspire Awards.

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