by Jerry Waxler
I recently reviewed Breaking the Code by Karen Fisher Alaniz, a memoir largely about the secrets that prevent people from knowing each other. More specifically, it’s about the secrets veterans keep when they return from war. And more specifically still, it’s about a daughter’s quest to understand her father’s life in World War II. As she taps into his memories, she encounters the traces of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that roil under the surface decades later. In other words, the book tackles a lot of powerful topics, and offers insights into each one. Today, I have the added privilege of interviewing the author about her experience of writing and publishing it. This is the first part of a four part interview.
Jerry Waxler: My wife’s father was also in the Pacific theater during World War II, and she’s only had a couple of conversations with him about that experience. Now that you have shared your story about a war that so deeply affected that generation, you must be exposed to a lot of reactions from people who are trying to open up to their own memories. Tell me more about the way this book has struck the Vets and children of the WWII vets that you have spoken to.
Karen Fisher-Alaniz: My memoir seems to resonate with people from many different directions. One of the most poignant experiences I had was shortly after the book came out. I was invited to speak at a Retired Military Officers Club. It was a rather formal event and I was so intimidated. After a lovely dinner, I started my presentation. I talked about the experience of discovering what my father really did during the war. That lead to talking about Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PtSD); how it manifested in my father, and specifics of a particularly vivid flashback. I spoke of the fear he developed of sleeping. He didn’t even want to take his nap for fear of the nightmares that had plagued him for several years. My father even said a few words, but he stuck to the code-breaking process. Afterward, the retired officers came up and shook my father’s hand, thanking him for his service. It was beautiful. Many of the wives took the opportunity to talk to me, sharing very briefly, the profound and long-standing struggles of their mate.
I went home that night, knowing that in some small way, our talk had been at least a conversation starter. However, my overwhelming thought was a sort of “so what?” So, they’d heard the story. But what did it really matter? I mean, sure, hearing that someone else has been in your shoes is helpful, but just like with my father, I felt helpless to help them in any meaningful way. But that changed when I opened my email the next day.
The subject line said, “me.” I opened it to find a three-page letter. It was from one of the men. He said he was so emotional that he didn’t talk to me or my father. He had, in fact, left quickly after our presentation. He went on to tell me about his military service. He shared some of the horrible things he’d seen and done while in Vietnam.
When he went to Vietnam, he had just married his high school sweetheart. When he came back, he wasn’t a boy; he was a man. In fact, his wife had said many, many times that he didn’t come back at all. She didn’t know the man that returned. His personality had changed. His wife said many times over many years that she thought he had PtSD. He was hyper-vigilant about keeping his family and himself safe. He had a temper. He was distant. But she stuck with him. What he said next moved me to tears, “I just always thought I was a bad father, a bad husband, a bad friend, a bad son. My wife says I wasn’t like that before, but I always thought of PTSD as something that only the weak soldiers get. I thought it was a big, fat damn excuse for bad behavior. Your talk last night changed that. I think I have PtSD and I want to get help. Can you help me?”
For more than 40-years this poor man had blamed himself for what war had clearly done to him. That letter did two things. It broke my heart and it propelled me in the direction of finding out what help is available for people like him.
Jerry Waxler: What sorts of other suppressed memories, military or otherwise have you heard about that children wish they could learn from their parents?
Karen Fisher-Alaniz: Children of the Greatest Generation want to know their parent’s stories, whether war-related or not. What I find is that many families follow the same pattern my father and I did. My father didn’t share that much about the war when I was young, or even as I had a family of my own. I had a general knowledge of his WWII experiences. Of course, in my father’s case, he was sworn to secrecy. But I find that other children have the very same experience. And then as we age and our parents or grandparents age, they simply stop telling the stories. In fact, often they build a very tall wall around that period of time. But the most interesting thing now is that for many of us our children are grown, our jobs are stable, our lives aren’t so hectic, and we have this sense that we want to know who we came from. We want to know that heritage and we want to pass it on. But our parents have denied us for so long, that they don’t seem to want to talk about it anymore.
The encouraging part of this journey is that I find it really doesn’t take much to get that conversation started again. You have to be persistent. You have to make story-sharing a priority in your life and then you just have to go for it.
Jerry Waxler: In the book you share quite a bit of internal conflict about whether or not to pry these secrets from him. On the one hand, you hoped it would be the right thing to do, to release his secrets, share them with you and unburden himself. On the other hand, you were often afraid that awakening the memories would only make him feel worse. By the way, you did a great job of showing this dilemma, and I appreciate that you never provided a simplistic answer that firmly solved the question one way or the other. So now that the book is out in the world, and you have heard from readers, what more can you share about how this conflict all resolved in your mind. Are you glad you did it? Do you still beat yourself up or question yourself? Is there an anecdote or moment that can help us understand how you feel about your sense of purpose that kept you going through to the end of this project?
Karen Fisher-Alaniz: The quick and direct answer to the question is this; I’m glad we went through this process together. I’m glad my father’s story was finally told and shared with the world. I put a lot of hope and faith in the fact that in the long run, this would be good for him. I now think that was a bit naïve. You have to understand how I came to this belief.
I worked for eight years in a program for children with emotional and behavioral issues. Many of them had been rescued from horrible situations of abuse. When I worked with them, part of what I did was help them journal through. If they were very young, I transcribed their memories for them. After some time of doing this, and other types of reading and writing, like keeping a gratitude journal, I saw absolutely stunning transformations. They were like the Lotus flower. Brought up in the mire, they blossomed into something beautiful. So, when my father was suffering so, I thought it would help him to talk about it. There were many, many times when I questioned my belief that this would help him and I think part of that was because of his age and part was that it is just so difficult to see someone you love hurting. You wish you could take it from them. I wish I could take that pain from my father. I wish I could take the guilt over his friend’s death from him and he could just live out his days in peace.
But once the memories came to the surface, there just wasn’t a way to turn back. Every time I wanted to stop, or my resolve was challenged, something would put me back on track again. Some little step forward would be taken, or a tiny beam of light would shine on a new area.
All of this said, I don’t want to over simplify what bringing up painful memories can do. I wish that the steps my father took when we created an Intentional Time of Remembrance could be replicated by others with a trauma in their past with a guarantee of peace at the end. For my father, it was healing. I wish it was as simple as replicating a journey. But it’s not. A Vietnam Veteran sat next to me at a dinner several months ago. I’ve never forgotten his words. He said, “I’ll never tell my story. I wasn’t one of the good guys.”
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