by Jerry Waxler
In David Bellavia’s memoir, “House to House,” he shares the life of a modern soldier and in the process extends my understanding of the memoir genre. In this second part of my essay about the book, I offer more lessons that I learned from the book, and a few writing prompts to help you apply these lessons to your own memoir in progress.
Memoir as trauma debriefing or confessional
Mental health care workers are trained to administer a type of mental-first-aid called trauma debriefing, in which victims are encouraged to talk about the horror. The technique is supposed to help them assimilate the experience more effectively. I believe that writing a book has a similar therapeutic effect. To write your story, you expose events that had become trapped inside your mind. Writing a memoir allows you to find your words, and to share those words with interested readers.
Of course, a good story has to go beyond these introspective goals. A memoir has a responsibility to please a reader with a satisfying overall story arc, and a character who learns lessons through the course of his journey. With craft, a good memoir can achieve both goals.
What is Bellavia’s character arc? Throughout House to House, the author struggled with the intense emotions of the hunter and the hunted. Later, when he recounts his story, he doesn’t offer philosophical lessons. Instead, he looks for his own emotional truths. I did not blame Bellavia for failing to resolve the problems of war. Instead, I accepted that he needed to find his own inner peace. Like William Manchester’s Pacific War memoir, “Goodbye Darkness,” the lesson seemed to be that he survived, that he was brave, and that somehow, someday, he would be able to get his demons to back off.
Write a scene in which you found emotional relief by telling a story.
Fear is a dangerous master
The author joins the army to prove to himself and to his father that he is not a coward. His need to prove his lack of fear drives him into situations so dangerous even he admits they blur the line between courage and recklessness. His finest hour might, in retrospect, have been his most foolish.
When did fear force you to make a hasty decision?
Paradox of a soldier’s family life
In order to prove his manliness on the battlefield, Bellavia, or any soldier, must withdraw his presence from his wife and child, thus offering one manly service at the expense of another. As his tour of duty drew to a close, he decided that the pendulum had swung too far towards country and he chose to move back to family. The author never claims to identify the right path through this dilemma. However he does an excellent job of exploring the paradox and lets us accompany him through his own heartache about it.
When did you have to choose between two roles, and then realize it was time for the pendulum to swing back?
No atheists in fox holes
Enemy soldiers scream out to Allah to help them defeat these foreign invaders. The prayers unnerve Bellavia and his men. Whose side is God on anyway? In response, Bellavia screams prayers, too, appealing to his own God. The outburst is another example of the soldier’s interior process in the thick of battle, and a demonstration of the old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes.
When he faces the most dangerous situation imaginable, running back into a house from which he has a good chance of not leaving alive, he prays more quietly, trying to find a spiritual place within himself where he can accept death.
What situation forced you to remember God?
Boys trying to cross into manhood
Poet and philosopher Robert Bly, the famous popularizer of male mythology, observes that societies throughout history have implemented warrior-rituals to help males make the transition from boy to man. Nowadays, boys grab any method they can find, whether it’s jumping into a gang, going hunting with Dad, or excelling at sports. Many other boys, especially nerds like me, flounder without rituals, never sure how they will know when or if they are entitled to adopt the title “man.”
Bellavia’s memoir “House to House” is filled with young men attempting to face their fear and develop their courage on the battlefield. They are following one of the classic methods for moving from boy to man.
What major milestones marked your crossing from child to adult? (sex, career, respect from peers, drugs or alcohol, education, independence, home, etc.)
House to House: An Epic Memoir of War by David Bellavia
William Manchester, Goodbye Darkness about the Pacific war.
Click here for my post on George Brummell’s memoir, Shades of Darkness about growing up in Jim Crow south, injured in Vietnam, and reclaiming his dignity in adulthood
Click here for my interview with Jim McGarrah author of “A Temporary Sort of Peace” about the trauma of his combat tour in Vietnam
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.