Read banned memoirs: Criminal or Social Activist?

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

In the 60’s, I vigorously protested the Vietnam War, but like most Americans I thought the organization called the Weather Underground had gone too far. Without knowing many details, I associated them with violent, irrational extremism.

So I was surprised to hear that one of the founders of that organization was not only a free man. He was an acclaimed educator. I first heard about Bill Ayers during the 2008 presidential campaign when television ads implied that Ayers’ criticism of U.S. policy in Vietnam somehow tainted Barack Obama. The publicity intrigued me. I wanted to know more. After hearing an excellent radio interview with Bill Ayers, I decided to read his memoir Fugitive Days. Reading the book prodded me to review rusty old parts of my own beliefs.

When Ayers was a young man, his outrage against the war drove him to the brink of anarchy. In his memoir, Fugitive Days, he chronicles his violent thoughts and actions in almost poetic detail. Even after reading the memoir, it’s hard for me to decide if he was a hero who risked his life to save the world from the insanity of war, or a mad child, a criminal, bent on imposing his will on society. And therein lays the power of the memoir. It shows his world as it was, not as it ought to have been, allowing me to see for myself and ask my own questions. The description of life through his eyes provided a deeper understanding of the world than I could gain from sound bites and stereotypes.

Are young people idealistic or simple minded?

When I was young, adults taught me that people are supposed to be kind, generous, and empathetic. I desperately wanted to live in a world driven by these ideals. Too often, the difference between the world they preached and the one they actually offered made me angry. So I protested, trying to badger them into following their own principles. However, demanding change turned out to be far more complex than I first had hoped. After I participated in my first riot, I realized I was contributing to the very chaos that I wanted to stop.

The protest movement became increasingly strident at my alma mater, University of Wisconsin in Madison, until a climax in the1970 bombing of the Army Math Research Center. At 3 AM, when the bombers expected the building to be empty, a young physics researcher unrelated to the Army or the war was killed by the blast, exposing the dark side of extreme protest. More disturbing still, moral outrage against government policies can be used to justify all sorts of violent protest. For example, the Oklahoma City bombers claimed they were obeying higher principles, a justification that comes all too close to the reasoning of the Weather Underground.

According to Ayers, his group never took part in an action that resulted in a death, so the book does not justify murder. In fact, the book does very little justifying at all. Rather than analyzing his actions, or even looking back at them with the hindsight of an older man, Ayers offers an immersion experience in that period. Just as you wouldn’t expect to see cell phones in a movie about the Vietnam War, Ayers also tries to keep his thoughts appropriate for a young man during the height of the Vietnam war protests.

Feminism was still in the future

In Bill Ayers’ time the feminist movement had not yet been born, so during his story, men were freely using women and justifying it with all sorts of theoretical excuses. Women were starting to complain, and in a rare nod to the future development of the feminist movement, Ayers hints at the tensions coming to the surface.

Structure is interesting: In Medias Res
The organizational structure of the book is interesting. The opening scene pulls me in with a bang. Ayers and his cronies are on the run, and they hear about the death of a comrade, letting me know they are all in mortal danger. This technique of “in medias res,” or starting in the midst of the action, is as old as storytelling itself. Once the initial scene pulls us in, he backs up and starts from the beginning. Then gradually the story moves closer to the tragedy, and then keeps going, to his fugitive life, and on to completion.

Is shame supposed to be hidden?

In the memoir, “This Boy’s Life” Tobias Wolff writes about some really bad decisions from his youth, like throwing eggs at the driver of a convertible car and stealing stuff from his step-dad. He does not apologize or justify. He simply describes. When I first read “This Boy’s Life,” I was shocked that he would be willing to talk about these obnoxious behaviors. How does that work? I hated remembering when I did shameful things like shoplifting. Uck. It feels horrible to admit that I ever did such a thing. Similarly Ayers reports many behaviors that one would hope one’s teenage son or daughter is not doing. However, now that I have been reading memoirs for a while, I am no longer so shocked.

My more tolerant and expansive understanding of how to remember bad choices came during a lecture by John Bradshaw, the brilliant author of a number of books about healing. In the lecture, Bradshaw explained that there are two kinds of shame. Of course I knew about “bad shame.” The new information came from his description of “good shame,” a beautiful and redeeming concept I had never considered.  Good shame serves a positive purpose. When you’re ashamed of something you’ve done, it’s your mind attempting to restore you to obey your own rules. So shame is a good thing, enforcing people to do their best. When people are “shameless” they can be rude or deceive each other without remorse. The absence of shame is the real anti-social condition.

Actually, not only is Ayers not ashamed of his actions. He even flips it upside down, and points a sense of shame back at the rest of society. He doesn’t feel shame for having protested the war. He feels shame for having participated in a country that was waging the war, and for example, dropping Napalm on babies. Wow! That fascinating twist makes me think long and hard about my own role as a citizen in a country that does a variety of things I wish they would do differently.

On every page, Ayers awakened memories of my own angst in the sixties. His experience stretched me to review my attitude towards social responsibility, and then, as I followed his trajectory, watched the terrifying consequences of his extreme position. It was an amazingly thought provoking and successful book.

NOTES

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Awakening bad memories helps shape your new life

by Jerry Waxler

One night in the summer of 1968, I walked along a busy street in Madison Wisconsin with my friend Ely, a soft-spoken math graduate student, and his girl friend Joan. We were enjoying the cool evening breeze, in a college town relatively quiet during the summer holiday. Then we heard shouting. I turned around and saw five boys rushing towards us. I shouted at them to stay away, and the ringleader tackled me and threw me down. Then the others swarmed around me and kicked. Ely asked them to stop. A boy punched him in the mouth and split his lip.

Joan screamed, and passing cars honked. Then a getaway car pulled up and the boys drove off. The intern at the hospital expressed no interest in how violated I felt. Reluctant to order an X-ray, he brushed off my headache. “Of course it hurts,” he said. “You were kicked in the head.” It turned out, he was right. I had no serious physical injury. By now almost dawn, two policemen took me back to look for my contact lens. When I was a protester, I hated the police, but now, these two men were shining their flashlights, bending down and looking for the tiny piece of plastic that enabled me to see. I felt an unexpected flush of gratitude.

Joan had written the license number, and with the help of a hippie lawyer we found that the ringleader was the son of the police chief of a small town 50 miles away. The lawyer and I split the settlement of $75.00. The rest of the summer I slunk around, racing into shadows when cars approached. In the fall, surrounded by thousands of returning students, I felt safe enough, and I let the incident slip into the past. After a few months I forgot it entirely.

Thirty three years later, in 2001, I was traumatized along with hundreds of millions of others by airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center. I wanted to help in some way so I took a workshop to qualify as a helper in community traumas. To learn how to conduct a group discussion, we were asked to talk about something that had happened to us. As I prepared, I unearthed my memory of being beaten.

Until that time, I had never thought in detail about the scene. Now as I tried to explain it, I saw it more clearly, describing who was there, what happened next, and so on. The event seemed important, so I tried to go deeper by writing about it. As it took shape on paper, it gradually changed from a vague, disturbing set of memories into a story.

With the Vietnam War raging, my attention was diverted from typical college concerns. All I could think about was the war. I didn’t think it was justified or fair, so I protested. I wanted to protect myself, the Vietnamese people, and the boys who were getting sent into danger. I thought my goals were noble, so why would anyone attack me?

To tell a more complete story, I tried to picture one of the high school boys in his home, eating dinner with his dad, who was probably a veteran of World War II. Dad was praising the soldiers who were out with machine guns and artillery hunting down the enemy. This was how Americans defend their freedom. Dad expressed his fear that if protesters stopped the war, it could unleash chaos, and threaten their way of life. The protesters must be stopped. So his sons protest the protesters by beating up someone with long hair. They were upholding the values of their family and country.  Under the circumstances, their actions were the most honorable thing they could have done.

Now, these many years later, I know a lot more about war trauma than I did back then. I imagine that one of those boys had an older brother serving in Vietnam. Instead of being kicked, he was getting shot at and watching his companions blown to pieces before his eyes. If he lived, he would for years continue to be assaulted by memories that repeatedly tear him apart. Flashbacks are the other way humans deal with trauma.

While flashbacks sound like the opposite of forgetting, these two reactions have one thing in common. They both leave you powerless to think clearly about the original experience and so the events remain stuck in their original shape. Only later, after you start trying to communicate, can you slow down and put things together.

Writing the memories gives me new power over them
I never understood the way the mugging influenced the following years. I always thought my profound depression was caused by some generalized angst. I didn’t make the connection with the trauma because I had forgotten it. I had not made the connection between being attacked and my loss of interest in protesting. I just thought my disengagement from the protests was because the whole thing was too emotionally exhausting. Now I see that beating was intended to stop me from protesting, and I got the message. My body wounds healed, but that part of me that wanted to share my opinions never did.

Writing the story reveals another powerful truth about that night in 1968. It was just one moment in time. Storytelling drags and pushes me to the next day and the next, until eventually I find myself on more stable ground. I find myself more whole.

How can writing help me grow?
As my storytelling reveals that night as one night in my six decades of life, I consider my decision to stop expressing my opinion. Must I for the rest of my life please everyone for fear they won’t like me and beat me up? If I am true to myself, I inevitably will displease some people. Everyone is different and unique. Now, instead of being limited by the decisions of a scared young man, I am working on a more public approach to my opinions that allow me a more vibrant relationship to the world. Diving into painful memories has helped me grow towards expressing my greater potential as an individual unique, human being.

Writing Prompt
Write a story about a time when you felt wronged. After you write it from your point of view, write another story about that experience from the other person’s point of view, seeing the way they justified their action initially, and the way they justified or forgave themselves afterwards.

Writing Prompt
In an experience you had that seemed traumatic, write a story in which that experience was the beginning, and then proceed from there. Look for a way to resolve the dramatic tension by reaching stable ground, or coming to terms with the trauma, or find some new direction or lesson that resulted in a positive ending.

Note
For another essay I wrote about PTSD and the horrors of war, click here.

To listen to the podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Interview with Vietnam vet memoir writer Jim McGarrah

by Jerry Waxler

The Vietnam War memoir “A Temporary Sort of Peace” by Jim McGarrah, struck me with its fearless honesty. So much can happen to a person during war. The terrible experiences become embedded in mind as terrible memories. So what does it take to convert these terrible memories into a story that can be shared with other people? To learn more about what that feels like, I asked the author a few questions about his memoir writing process.

Click here for my book review and essay on PTSD.
Click here for the Amazon page.

JW: You talk in the book about how hard it was to face your war memories. And yet, you managed to write a whole book about it. I am hoping you can share some of what that felt like.
JM: Yes, I did write a whole book, but I was thirty plus years and a lot of therapy past the war before I could look at it objectively and with the honest perspective of an old man, able to admit my own character flaws and willing to face the fact that politicians use words like honor and patriotism to manipulate their personal agendas. You can’t write a credible war memoir if you’re still stuck on either end of the extremes – pumped up with pseudo-glory or bitter from reality. I’ve felt both ways in the past and I had to learn to balance those issues emotionally before I could describe them and reflect on their influences personally with any credibility. Any attempt at honest reflection involves some painful introspection.

JW: When did you first start thinking you wanted to write about those years? What were your initial thoughts, misgivings, or plans?
JM: I wrote an essay about ten years ago for a magazine called Southern Indiana Review. The subject was returning to the Veterans Administration out-patient clinic to be examined for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The VA had only recently begun to admit that such a condition existed, even though historians as old as Tacitus, among others, were describing similar symptoms in Roman soldiers 2,000 years ago. After the article was published, I put it out of my mind and went on to other things.

When we invaded Iraq five years ago, the parallels with the 1960’s came immediately to mind. Politicians and journalists were even using some of the same phrases to fire up the population for a limited war with a third world country. One of my university students, a beautiful and sensitive and talented young writer, had joined the National Guard the year before the invasion to help pay her way through school. She was called up and returned home a paraplegic at the age of twenty. At that point, I went back and looked at the old essay and started to wonder how I had managed to get myself involved so easily in an event that influenced my life so heavily for decades afterwards. Not only that, but I wondered why we had learned so little between Vietnam and Iraq.

So, I started writing a series of inter-connected essays about that period in my life in an attempt to understand my own thoughts and feelings at the time. I believed that by doing this I might somehow discover why history seems to always repeat itself. My only misgiving was that I might not be talented enough to do the subject justice. After a few of those essays had been published and I saw there was an interest in the subject, I also saw that what I was doing was evolving into a book. I don’t really plan projects. I start writing about things I feel and try to discover something worth knowing in them.

JW: What sorts of steps did you go through to gather the skills, and organize the information and arrange the structure?
JM: The first step in writing about life is to live it. As an editor, so often I read stuff that is technically flawless, but says nothing interesting. As writers, we are translators, not creators. And, what we translate is specific experience, or composites of experience, into language that’s both accessible and full of emotional substance. If we have never involved ourselves emotionally in the process of living, we have nothing to translate and it becomes difficult to make a connection on a level that resonates with a reader.

Secondly, we have to overcome our own fears and our own feelings of self-importance. We’re making ourselves open and vulnerable so others may learn something about what it is to be human. I put these things down as steps because they often require conscious discipline to accomplish. Another very important step is reading. I read constantly and I read everything lying around, from labels to Ladies Home Journal to James Joyce to Salmon Rushdie to Gaston Bachelard. I’ve read the Bible several times, not because I’m a religious man, but because it’s an anthology of forty great poets and story tellers. Not only does reading help you gather skills and see how they are used, it also teaches you variations of structure and organization.

Possibly the most important step I ever made, and it’s a one time step that never quits, is moving my writing from a means of expression into a tool to search for meaning in life or discover something or relearn something that we forgot about human nature. Then we create an opportunity for a reader to learn something new as well. Robert Frost once said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” This is the quality that sometimes allows writing to approach the level of true art.

JW: What sorts of feedback or coaching did you get?
JM: I was privileged to study with some of the best writers currently working, not necessarily the most famous, but the best. From 1999-2001, I went through the Master of Fine Arts in Writing program at Vermont College and the faculty at that time was simply amazing. I don’t know how else to put it. The class I graduated with is responsible for dozens of good books in the 21st century, largely due to the influence and encouragement of the faculty that was there at the time and the intensity of the curriculum.

JW: What did you tell yourself, to sustain your commitment to putting these difficult memories on paper.
JM: I just kept telling myself that besides exorcising my own demons, I might actually help some other person deal with similar circumstances. I forced myself to believe that what I was doing might make a difference, might turn out to be greater than the sum of its parts. I have always believed that my experience was not unique, only my reaction was and through a record of that some connection might be made with someone else. Judging from the responses I’ve received by people who’ve read the book, I’d say the assumption was true, and I’m thankful for that.

JW: What reactions did you get from other combat veterans?
JM: One example – I gave a public reading last December. In the audience, I noticed a man whose eyes started to get moist. After the reading, he came up to me and asked if I remembered him. I confessed I didn’t. He told me his name and that we went to high school together. He had enlisted in the Marine Corps after graduation and gone to ‘Nam. I hadn’t seen him in forty years, but he thanked me over and over again for finally getting things right, for telling the world how it really was. That was a very humbling and inspiring moment for me. I’ve had several more like it. I’ve also had some older vets from WWII who felt like I was unpatriotic for talking about the war the way I did.

JW: What did you find surprising about the response to your book?
JM: What I’ve found surprising is the overwhelmingly positive response I’ve been getting from younger, college-age, readers. Many of them who have never studied much contemporary American history wondered how baby-boomers could relate Vietnam to Iraq and had a much clearer understanding after reading this memoir. Also, I’ve had several students come up to make after readings and say “thanks, now I understand my dad better.”

JW: Do you speak to groups, or reach out to other veterans or other trauma survivors about your experience?
JM: I speak to as many people as I can as often as I can and I ask a lot of questions. I also do public readings and book signings and teach writing workshops in various places. But, that’s contingent on my time schedule and whether or not I can earn enough money from the engagement to pay for the trip. I’ll go just about anywhere.

JW: I hate admitting my frailties so I am impressed by your telling of experiences you weren’t proud of. How did you feel about writing so frankly?
JM: No human is all good or all bad. All humans equivocate. If you create a character in fiction that is all one way or another, that character doesn’t read real. He or she reads as a stereotype and the text becomes boring very quickly. If you write non-fiction and you describe a real person as all one way or another, you’re lying. To write a memoir, an author must be able to confront himself or herself with honesty and integrity, no matter how humiliating the experience. Anything less and you’re cheating yourself and your audience. Good readers know immediately if they’re being led down the path of bull shit.

Also, what makes books interesting is drama. What makes drama is conflict. A person in real life is conflicted about most things, no matter how insignificant, on most days. When you capture that on the page, it FEELS real to a reader.

As to how I felt – relieved.

JW: But it seems so final, putting yourself in this light in a published book. You can never retract it. Doesn’t that bother you?
JM: if I worried about wanting to retract them, I wouldn’t have written them. Not everything we write is pretty. Not everything we write is accurate, or with the best judgment. But, we are responsible for everything we write. Therefore, if you don’t want to communicate something keep it off the page. When it’s printed you are saying to the world, right or wrong I accept the consequences of this language. Being a writer requires a thick skin and a certain mental toughness that most people don’t have. Everyone thinks they can write wonderfully until they try and find out they don’t have the stomach to do what’s necessary emotionally.

JW: As a memoir writer, you looked back across time, and saw your own life moving through decades. I wonder what lessons and discoveries this long view gave you about how your life has worked.
JM: That’s a very complex question without an easy answer. I can’t say that, looking back, there weren’t things in my past I might have done differently, or better. On the other hand, I don’t regret the experiences I’ve had because the sum total of them is who I am today and, for better or worse, I like who I am today. I have received a lot of privileges in my life and I’ve shared my benefits with others. I’ve raised two fine children and influenced a lot of people, both positively and negatively. But, a long view of my life tells me my life has worked for me and I’m truly appreciative that I’ve lived long enough to enjoy it. Many of my closest friends didn’t.

JW: What’s next?
JM: My newest collection of poems, “When the Stars Go Dark,” is due to be released nationally this winter as part of Main Street Rag‘s Select Poetry Series. I’m working on a second memoir that picks up after the Vietnam war that examines where my generation went after the war and why.

Storytellers shed light on the horrors of war

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Amidst a lifetime of events, some memories are like scorpions that guard the gate of our own past. In my journey to understand as much as possible about life writing, I consider the question many aspiring life writers raise. “Should I approach painful memories, and if so should the memories become part of my story?” Of course there is no one right answer, so I look for lessons contained within painful memoirs I read.

I recently read “A Temporary Sort of Peace,” by Jim McGarrah, an engaging and well-written memoir about a soldier’s experience in Vietnam. I have a special affinity with Vietnam, because I was one of the students on the home front pleading to bring those boys home. Now after all these years, I finally get to see what I was protesting and it’s far more disturbing than I could have imagined.

While the author brings me into the jungle, and lets me share his pain, his psychological reality is so enormous I wanted a guidebook to help me find my way through his and my emotions. It turns out I found such a guidebook, “Achilles in Vietnam, Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character,” by medical doctor and PTSD specialist, Jonathan Shay. For years, Shay has been working with Vietnam vets who have been so unnerved by their war experience that the memories yank them back into the fray, without warning.

Shay has explained trauma in an unusual way. He juxtaposes quotes from Homer’s Iliad side by side with conversations among Vietnam vets. It turns out that Homer was an expert on the psychological trauma of war, and this ancient epic that has been lurking in literature classes for centuries contains insights that help Shay explain what soldiers feel.

Soldiers’ love and loss
When I first heard someone claim that soldiers risk their lives because of their love for each other, I thought the word “love” was preposterous. But Shay and Homer convinced me that buddies on the battlefield do indeed care about each other with an intimacy we expect from brothers, or “best buddies.” (English is a bit weak in this regard, but apparently the Greek word philia comes closer.) What I don’t understand is what it must feel like to see such a beloved comrade explode into parts, vaporize, or bleed out in front of your eyes. It’s incomprehensible, and yet it happens, and changes a soldier’s life profoundly. As Jim McGarrah says in “A Temporary Sort of Peace,” “At that moment I started going insane.”

Absence of community compassion
When people in civilian life lose a loved one, they attend services in the company of community and family, and sit quietly in prayer to honor the dead. Shay calls this shared grief “communalization” and says it is one of the most important factors that keeps people balanced after loss. It is almost entirely missing from the combat soldier’s experience. When a soldier loses a buddy, the body is destroyed, lost, or shipped out in a bag. Soldiers are not encouraged to show their emotions. They get right back to fighting, and if they try to talk about what happened when they get home, civilians are unable to relate. The isolation feeds upon itself and creates a cauldron of inner pain.

Demonize the enemy at your own peril
In Homer’s time, truces were regularly declared to gather up and mourn those who had fallen on the battlefield. This act of mutual respect helped keep everyone in harmony with a universe that would continue to exist long after this particular war was over. In modern warfare, soldiers increase their will to kill by convincing themselves that the people they are fighting are less than human. Shay claims this attitude leads to atrocity and despair on and off the battlefield.

Defiling the body
Achilles ties Hector’s body to a chariot and drags it around the walls of Troy, using it as a weapon to demoralize the enemy. When I first read the book I thought it indicated that Greeks were a barbaric culture. But according to Shay, my assumption was incorrect. Achilles’ moral downfall meant that he as an individual had fallen into a barbaric state, and this fall according to Shay, was one of the central tragedies of the Iliad. During the Vietnam War, soldiers on both sides defiled bodies in order to fill the enemy with hatred, fear, and disgust. Loss of respect for the body undermines what it means to be human, and contributes to the unraveling of sanity that lingers long after the war is finished.

Berserking or “losing it”
I’ve seen soldiers in movies, screaming and running towards the enemy. I thought of it as an entertaining bit of theatrical exaggeration. I now realize that this is a very real state of temporary insanity in which soldiers slip outside the bounds of rational thought.

“Berserking” drastically increases the risk of death, and the results for those who survive are also tragic. Jim McGarrah, in a state of exhaustion and rage, performed reckless acts that haunted him for the rest of his life. Jonathan Shay suggests that modern military training actually encourages this loss of control. He warns that this tolerance towards “berserking” is a misguided strategy that hurts soldiers during their irrational behavior, and later damages their ability to return to civilian life.

The value of reading and writing painful memoirs
After Jim McGarrah left the war, there was no science of PTSD and soldiers were told to take it like a man or forget it. So when it finally dawned on McGarrah that he needed help, he had to overcome enormous resistance. He did finally reach out, and even though he doesn’t go into detail about the psychological work he did at the Veterans Administration, I already know the outcome. He faced his memories, no matter how horrific, turned them into a story and from those stories created a book. Thanks to the magic of reading and writing, I have spent hours with him in the jungles, accompanied him during his berserk episodes, sat with him in the recovery room after the wound that got him back to civilian life, and shared some pangs of his emotions, as well as one empathetic individual can do.

By sharing his story, McGarrah has opened himself up to one of the most important elements that veterans are missing, the “communalization” of his grief. Jim McGarrah and I have shared a few hours of pain and commiseration about some of the most painful experiences a human must endure, the loss of life and love during combat. My belief is that in the process of sharing these hours, we have regained a little of what was lost.

Notes

Jim McGarrah’s “A Temporary Sort of Peace” was awarded the Legacy Nonfiction Prize for 2010 from the Eric Hoffer Foundation.

To read an exclusive interview with the author, click here.

For a readable explanation of PTSD and its treatment, read “Sanctuary” by Dr. Sandra Bloom, based on years of clinical work, mainly with survivors of systematic child abuse.

To read my essay about another traumatic memoir, “Lucky” by Alice Sebold, click here. She quotes another widely regarded source book for PTSD is “Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror” by Judith Herman.

Why Write Memoirs after Combat or Other Trauma

Other war memoirs:
Tracy Kidder, “My Detachment”
Tobias Wolff, “In the Pharoah’s Army”
William Manchester, “Goodbye Darkness”

Note

Many soldiers walk away from deadly injury and regain their sense of purpose. For “Shades of Darkness” author, George Brummell, the post-war challenges of coping with his blindness became his urgent task, and he went on to increase his education, and become director of the Blinded Veterans Association.

Memoirs of people who have crashed and burned are not just about soldiers. Many of life’s most severe problems dismantle the sense of self that keeps us safe. In this article I talk about four people who walked into traps of various sorts and felt their lives becoming dismantled.

More about the psychological trauma of war
Jonathan Shay says that an important contribution to a soldier’s unraveling is a sense of betrayal, that the organization is not protecting him. For example, faulty weapons in Vietnam were interpreted as a sign that the military really wanted the soldiers to die. I knew that most Vietnam soldiers felt betrayed by the lack of civilian support, but I was surprised to learn that many soldiers hated the officers who were directing them in battle. The hatred was based on the belief that decisions were made more for the officer’s own career advancement than on the safety of soldiers or effective military strategy. Shay suggests this attitude about rear-echelon officers had a parallel in the Iliad. In ancient mythology the gods on Mount Olympus manipulated the outcome of the battle based on childish selfish desires.

The soldiers in Homer’s time used mythology and rituals to appease the gods. Modern soldiers have no such talismans. Once a modern soldier becomes convinced “The System” is capricious, irrational, and malevolent, they cross into a state of alienation from society and authority, and many of them carry this alienation back with them when they return home. Such betrayal from above undermines the basis for a sane, healthy energetic involvement in society.

Follow this link to read a powerful article about Jonathan Shay’s introduction to Moral Injury of war.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

Veterans seek healing by cycling through Vietnam

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

In 1998 a group of American veterans joined their former Vietnamese enemies on a bicycle ride from Hanoi to Saigon. They rode through villages and countryside, much of it unchanged since the war. The venture was documented in a recently released video, “Vietnam: Long Time Coming,” from Kartemquin Films. Villagers waved and children, who had been playing in the paddy fields, ran shouting and laughing towards the stream of brightly clad cyclists. These idyllic scenes highlighted the enormous shift in perspective between the past and the present.

Outside, in the world around them, the world seemed peaceful, while much of the real drama was taking place inside their minds, where memories boiled and occasionally erupted into tears. I empathized with the courage it must have taken to face the country where deep scars were burned into their psyche, and several times I cried along with them.

I first learned about this movie because of my interest in a memoir by one of the participants, George Brummell. In “Shades of Darkness,” George wrote about growing up black in the segregated south, coming of age in Korea, and being blinded by a land mine in Vietnam. Back in the states he learned how to navigate without sight, earned a college degree, and eventually became a director of the blinded veterans association. (Click here to read the essay I wrote about George Brummell’s book Shades of Darkness.)

George and the others who returned to Vietnam for this ride were reaching out towards a new relationship with this place where their lives had been changed forever. Through the documentary movie “The Long Time Coming” I was able to witness that experience and gain a deeper understanding of the psychological aftermath of war. This may seem like a highly specialized concern, but the pain spills out to family, friends, and the community. People are affected for decades when combat veterans feel that they have crossed over a chasm that can only be traversed in one direction, and once on the other side, they cannot find their way back. The existence of that pain in my fellow human beings stirs my desire to understand more.

The movie “Long Time Coming” illustrates that revisiting the past is one of the tools that can help heal in the present. Even though you can’t always return to the scene physically, you can create some of the same effects by writing. Visiting the past through writing can enable you not only to recreate the situation, but also to apply to those memories some of the wisdom you have gained in the intervening years. In some cases, building bridges backwards through time can create a pathway from pain back into hope.

While the most obvious healing strategy of the movie was simply revisiting the scene, there were other strategies being employed. One of the American veterans was a psychologist who conducted meetings and spoke individually with the American vets who were trying to cope with their emotional wounds. The discussions with each other and with a therapist helped them reorganize the thoughts and feelings awakened by this experience. And their connections, friendships, and warmth with former enemies soothed some of the war wounds, as well.

I’ve heard the claim that war is one of the greatest expressions of love, because soldiers must risk their lives for each other. The problem of course is that war requires a common enemy, and so it turns bloody and leaves lingering effects that are not loving at all. Team sports also have the ability to draw people together in a common goal, and that’s what the TEAM bicycle ride in Vietnam was about. These riders, instead of fighting against each other, were joining together to fight the common “enemy” – moving their bicycles towards Saigon. As their focus shifts from danger and betrayal to beauty and friendship, one of the American veterans says, “I feel like this happiness now, riding this bike in Vietnam, is pushing out some of the hatred that had been filling my cup.”

The camera followed bikers up a long mountain road in 100 degree heat. The hand cyclists struggled most because the arm levers did not provide the same mechanical advantage as the foot powered ones. As these slower riders reached the top, those who had already gathered there rushed forward to offer hugs and celebratory whoops. After this outpouring of affection, one of the Vietnamese hand cyclists said, his voice filled with excitement, “This is something both disabled and able bodied people dream of. This experience, though exhausting, is what gives meaning to life.”

He didn’t mean just climbing a mountain on a hot day in a bicycle built for someone without legs. He was surrounded by loving new friends, the honor of being part of a team, the rapprochement of former enemies reaching out to each other. It was a healing moment for him, and for me.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Writing Prompt: Write about a time when working together towards a common goal made you feel closer to someone.

Writing Prompt: Select a memory that you have bad feelings about, and pretend you are writing fiction. Applying your wisdom and imagination, reorganize the events so that this character learns some powerful lesson, or accomplishes or triumphs in some way.

Note, links and resources
The ride was organized by a non-profit group called World TEAM Sports –http://www.worldteamsports.org/. The documentary was produced by another non-profit, Kartemquin Films, best known for the award winning documentary Hoop Dreams about inner city youth looking to basketball to elevate their prospects in life. You can help the organization by shopping at: http://www.kartemquin.com/

An excellent book for understanding more about PTSD is “Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character” by Jonathan Shay. Because of the profound effects of PTSD, neurologically and on the very foundation of character, many of the methods in psychology are not sufficient to unravel the damage wrought by combat. And yet, there is much research and compassionate work that has helped veterans suffering from PTSD. In addition to helping them cope with their specialized needs, I believe these therapies and strategies can help other people who suffer with an irreconcilable relationships with painful memories.

For an example of one person’s successful strategy to channel inner directed shame into bicycle racing read the moving memoir “Ten Points” by Bill Strickland. Another memoir in which a soldier seeks healing by revisiting the past is William Manchester’s “Goodbye Darkness.”

For more about revisiting the past, see my essay about the movie Pursuit of Happyness, which portrayed Chris Gardner’s life. For him, it was a return to the trauma and triumph of his youth.

To learn more about how two groups can join to become one by sharing a common task, see the famous sociology experiment by Muzafer Sherif et al (1954) The Robbers Cave experiment. For example, see the Wikipedia entry here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muzafer_Sherif

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here

Fog of memoir, fog of war

 by Jerry Waxler

“I don’t know why I did it,” Tobias Wolff says to his guardian, in his memoir “This Boy’s Life.” The previous night, Wolff had stolen gasoline from a neighbor’s farm truck. Caught in the act, Wolff admitted it, and to atone for his sin, he was sent back to the farmer to apologize. But Wolff couldn’t force himself to utter the magic words, “I’m sorry.” Despite his guardian’s desperate plea, Wolff doesn’t apologize and doesn’t offer any reasons. His act of defiance just sits there, confusing to him, disappointing to his guardian, and not very clear to the reader, either.

It was a powerful choice for Wolff to not explain himself to the reader. Another writer might have invented some explanation, or speculated from today’s wisdom, looking back on his young self. But in letting his act stand unexplained, Wolff lets us see the way his mind worked at the time, a troubled teenager, not sure why he’s doing the things he does. His strange, impulsive acts remind me of times in my own teenage years when I acted without knowing why I was doing what I was doing, occasionally doing destructive, or even cruel things. It’s difficult to remember those times. It’s certainly uncomfortable. But reading Wolff’s memoir helps me once again stand in that fog and look around. I hate it, and yet it was part of my life.

I read an excellent book about how to raise a teenager called “Yes, Your Teen is Crazy!: Loving Your Kid Without Losing Your Mind”. In offering insights about teenagers, the author provides a scientific background to what most of us already believe. Teenagers don’t always behave rationally. Wolff shows us through story.

The fact that teenage boys are willing to follow their impulses into dangerous and defiant territory says a lot about the human condition – it helps explain wars. For example read Tracy Kidder’s “My Detachment,” a tale of coming of age while he was an officer in Vietnam. This book also shows how the fog of youth fits in so well with war. Kidder just didn’t seem to be able to connect with life, letting readers of his memoir share his state of mind at the time he experienced it. In the documentary movie, “The Fog of War,” Robert S. McNamara talks about the bad choices that were made in Vietnam. It’s tragic to realize that in times when life and death hangs in the balance, so many decisions are made in this fog. From the coming of age memoirs of Kidder and Wolff, I wonder how much of that fog comes straight from the teenage mind.

As a reader, I did not find Kidder’s or Wolff’s lack of clarity to be a very pleasant experience. It’s more fun to read about clarity. Take the scene in Jeannette Walls’ “Glass Castle” when her father was whipping her – she was shocked, but as the beating continued, a light bulb went off. She realized that she did not need to accept this forever, and she started plotting her escape. I loved Jeanette Walls’ lightbulb. Her insight gave me a sense of hope, very different from Wolff who was swept along by his own cunning tactics for survival, but didn’t quite see where he was going, and even when he tried to escape, he failed and slipped back into the fog. Wolff’s memoir forced me to struggle with hopelessness. So what kept me turning the pages? Why didn’t I give up on him and throw down the book in disgust?

One of the attractions about coming of age stories is that the reader hopes that the protagonist is going to turn a corner, to open his eyes, and see beyond the fog. The suspense for me as a reader is my desire that they will grow out of their adolescent craziness, and escape into a saner world in which clear choices lead to positive outcomes.

Blind veteran finds his voice by writing

 by Jerry Waxler

After finishing the memoir, Shades of Darkness, I felt I had learned a lot about the author, George Brummell, as a person, his cultural experience growing up in the segregated south. His ticket out to the larger world was the United States Army. I could feel him growing up in Korea. It was a nicely told coming of age story, and then, just when it looked like he was turning into a real adult, his life exploded in a landmine in Vietnam. He was blinded and maimed, and then when he returned, he had to invent himself again. Through the magic of memoir he took me on his journey, as he kept growing. He graduated from college, became director of the Blinded Veterans Association, and wrote this memoir.

I knew he was lecturing and outreach to encourage others to tell their story. To find out more about his experience writing the memoir I set up an interview. He has a melodic voice, and as he was speaking each sentence, I could almost hear him lining up the next, so his thoughts flowed together in a lovely, somewhat unusual sort of continuum. Here is what he said when I asked him to tell me about writing his memoir.

GB: “When I came back from Vietnam I wasn’t doing too well, and writing the memoir helped me organize my thoughts. Putting my thoughts on paper was elevating for me. It was quite therapeutic. I needed it at the time, especially those times that were not the best for me. When I began to write it had a tendency to take away my thoughts, and I could drift back to my childhood days and think of things that I could probably have done a little bit better. It was just exciting to be able to see what I have accomplished in writing.

When I first started writing I often thought how difficult it would be to organize my thoughts and not repeat myself. I thought that would be a real challenge. I like challenges, and that was a challenge to me to do that. I was in college at the time, I felt it was a way to improve my life. Writing is like driving or a lot of other things that we do. In most cases, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Writing the book prepared me for the career that I had with the Blinded veterans association which required me to do a lot of writing.

After so much practice I found myself in a position to be able to write a little bit better than a lot of my peers. It also helped me in terms of promotion, because a couple of times they asked the applicants to write what they could do for the organization, and I was able to express myself fairly well.

I knew as a blind person a lot of what I was going to do in my life would require me to speak, because as a blind person a lot of things you cannot do with your hands, other than a lot of manual labor, and I wasn’t interested in that. I found that in order for me to improve my speech, I had to read. And of course writing was an adjunct to that. The more I wrote, the more I was able to organize my thoughts and to be able to speak.

JW: “Did you get much training in story writing?”

GB: Not really. As a youngster, living with my grandmother, she was illiterate, and I wrote letters to her daughter and sisters. They were in Philadelphia and she didn’t have a telephone. Otherwise, my only writing class was a remedial writing course, which I took because I was a high school dropout and then in college I took English 101 and 102.

When I took the remedial writing course, I was recording my memoirs at the time, and I asked the instructor to let me use those recordings as my English assignment. My instructor thought my writing was quite interesting. Then in English 101 and 102, the instructor let me use recordings as well.

After that, I took a non-credit course in creative writing. Again, I was able to submit papers for that class from my own material. By that time I was hooked. And as a social work major, I had to do a lot of writing, and a lot of editing. I really enjoyed editing. I worked with my writing person to get my coursework on paper. I went through it with her, and she retyped it, and I edited and she retyped it. So I had a lot of editing experience while I was in school.

And again while I was at work, we did a brochure. And I went along with the person who was writing the brochure, and she would read and ask the directors what changes we wanted to make, and I saw that I stood a little bit taller than my peers in terms of editing. All of them had more education than I did, their vocabulary was greater, but once it was put on paper, I could make it sound better.

JW: And that skill shows in your book.

GB: That’s the only training I had, other than what I got from my own experience. I thought I could write a book better than the ones I had read, such as, “If you can see what I hear” – hell, I could write my own experiences. Why not do it from the point of view of an African American?

See www.georgebrummell.com for more information and excerpts from his book.

Tool for learning memoir, author’s first book a triumph over odds

by Jerry Waxler

I was excited last night when I reached the end of George Brummell’s memoir, Shades of Darkness. The very last paragraph in the book is about him volunteering to help other struggling people tell their story. (Note to myself: I’ve got to be careful about telling what excites me in a book. It’s usually the highlight or end, and I don’t want to spoil the party for someone who wants to read it.)

This book has most of the themes of memoir that I talk about in my book, Learn to Write your Memoir, available from my website, jerrywaxler.com . Brummell’s book expanded my world by showing me black culture, the Vietnam war, and being blind. It had triumph over a variety of odds. And it had superb storytelling qualities, showing me in scenes what life was like.

The pace of the first half is built in high tension scenes. In the second half, it’s more vignettes with spaces between them. The author is skimming across the surface. While these passages make it more difficult to suspend disbelief, they work well in the overall tale. One of the skills the author clearly picked up in his years of schooling and work is the knack of storytelling. His skill makes this a good book for an aspiring memoirist to study. (Compare for example Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. This memoir is so sophisticated that it is much more difficult for a beginner to tease out lessons. Studying Didion’s book is like trying to learn algebra by studying Einstein’s theory of relativity.)

Brummell’s book is an example of the magical interaction between story and life. By compressing his decades into the space of a book, he was able to share them with me, someone who would have no way of knowing anything about George Brummell any other way. Telling his story opens his life up to others, like a book. And by writing, he organizes the events of decades and places them in a narrative. It helps the author’s life and also becomes a tool to help others overcome obstacles themselves.

Memoirs teach me about life and writing

by Jerry Waxler

I’m reading 4 memoirs right now, and I learn something from each one.

From Margaret George’s “Never use your dim lights,” I’m learning how politicians jerk each other around, and how hard it is to stay idealistic in the world of politics.

From George Brummell’s “Shades of Darkness” I’m learning how brutal the Vietnam war was for infantry grunts. Wow, going out, watching friends die, and then going out again. I can’t imagine it.

From Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” I’m learning about growing up dirt poor in Ireland. And I’m listening to the audio book in awe as the Irish storyteller uses his superb voice to bring his characters to life. His inflections are so interesting, I feel like I’m in the hands of a master.

I just started “A Silent Gesture” by Tommie Smith. It starts not with his protest gesture at the 68 Olympics that made him famous, but with his return 30 years later to his Alma Mater to be praised and commended for the act that became such a powerful symbol of protest. Smith used the Olympic podium to silently register his protest, and in return, lost the advertising endorsements and other benefits his victory entitled him to..