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

Alice Sebold’s Lucky, a searing memoir of trauma

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

After listening to the audio version of Alice Sebold’s memoir, “Lucky,” I’m exhausted. She does a spectacular job of bringing me right into her experience, starting from the details of the attack, the numbing and disorienting results of the trauma, the eventual identification of the perpetrator, a detailed, harrowing account of the trial, and along the way, I felt disturbed. If I didn’t know it already, I am now convinced rape is a form of torture every bit as real as the horrors of war.

And it happens without the military ceremonies, the awards of valor, the training, weapons, or body armor. A college girl innocently walks to her dorm, and two hours later, she’s a prisoner of post-traumatic stress disorder. Trauma does not sit comfortably in the mind, so when we’re not in it we try to forget it. And yet, whether we want to think about it or not, it’s real and it’s awful. By sharing her experience, Sebold reminds us of its reality.

So what would make such a book worth reading? Like any story of another human being, such an authentic, well-crafted tale might be your best chance to see life from that other side. If you know anyone who has suffered this trauma, ever expect to be strong enough to help such a person, or want to switch the word rape from an abstract news item to a deeper understanding of the human condition, this book will do it for you. And while the focus is on her own rape-induced PTSD, late in the book, she realizes that war ravaged veterans suffer from many of the same psychological problems as rape victims.

When looking through this book for lessons about your own memoir, take into account that this is the culmination of decades of self-examination, teaching, and writing. Despite all of the power Sebold brings to the project, or perhaps because of it, her writing is exquisitely simple and accessible. Not once in the whole book, not a single sentence, does she pull away into her own world and leave me out of it. She never hides behind fancy, or even pretty words. Through all that training she has learned to be simple and direct. She tells the story. I am so impressed by the simplicity and rawness of her telling, and think it offers a valuable example for any writer.

If you have ever suffered a violent trauma, and you have never been sure how to write about it, or if you feel it’s too raw to put in a memoir, “Lucky” can perhaps offer some insights. Not only is the storytelling simple. It’s also open. I recently interviewed horror writer Jonathan Maberry, author of Bram Stoker award winning novel “Ghost Road Blues.” He explained that the emotional basis for his horror writing is his own actual memory of violent physical abuse. By sharing his real emotions, he injects his writing with the real power of life. He used the word “authentic” and I think it’s a quality that readers have a sixth sense about. If a writer shares real emotion, we feel it.

It is this sixth sense for authenticity that pulls me in so deeply to Sebold’s Lucky. If you can find the authenticity of your own experience, and harness it into a story, you will not only capture your reader, but will also capture the essence of your experience. It’s this combination of real shared experience, real to you and shared in an authentic way with the reader that makes memoirs so exciting, a window into our individual universes.

When our experiences are so raw, our initial attempts to describe them usually spill out in an unpleasant, disorganized way. We say the same things over and over. We hide. We don’t have words to describe our complex feelings. The trauma breaks down all the sense that has come before, and even turns sense upside down. How can you describe a life that itself no longer feels safe or reasonable. After violent trauma, victims feel isolated inside this strange senseless world. As they try to regain order, they want to reconnect with people. Humans live together in a shared experience. We like to believe our world has the same rules that other people have. In fact, one definition of insanity is that you think your world works differently than everyone else’s.

So to regain sanity, trauma victims try to convince other people that their story makes sense. But how? The people they are trying to tell also feel disturbed by the trauma and shrink away from hearing it. Perhaps the only way to find that connection with others is through writing. People accept terrible things in movies and books. Writing seems to bypass our natural abhorrence, and we can let in some of the horror. It bridges the gap between trauma and normalcy.

Sebold has spent much of her life processing on her attack, starting with her first rage filled poem about the rape shortly after the event. She has taken years to turn the emotional upheaval and horror into a story that is readable by others. And finally, by creating this story, she is able to share it with others who have suffered, or those who give care to sufferers, or anyone looking to understand the dark side of human experience in a way that allows them to hang on to their hope.

While writing doesn’t convert horror into amiable pleasantries, it does transform it into something that makes a sort of sense. In fact, much of life is an accumulation of stories, and we turn to these stories to find sense. Look at the very core of religion, much of which is communicated in stories. And we try to make sense about all kinds of things by telling stories. Writing breaks down the walls that isolate you from others and it also breaks down the walls that separate you from your own experience. So by telling your story, even about something that makes no sense, in a way the story itself makes it feel more organized, more like it fits in with the way the world works. Look to the storytelling to incorporate these events into your life and keep going.

Notes

The motivation behind writing a memoir can add an interesting dimension to our understanding of the events that take place on the page. In the quote below, Sebold explains:

“One of the reasons why I wrote it is because tons of people have had similar stories, not exactly the same but similar, and I want the word ‘rape’ to be used easily in conversation. My desire would be that somehow my writing would take a little bit of the taboo or the weirdness of using that word away. No one work is going to accomplish the years of work that need to be done, but it can help.”

In fact, her intention has certainly been realized in my own willingness to write about this troubling topic and talk about it in my writing classes. I believe this is one of the great powers of the memoir revolution — that as more of us turn life into story, we build a shared language that breaks through all sorts of silences and helps us increase our mutual compassion and understanding.

Click here for another article on using memoirs to heal self-concept after trauma

More memoir writing resources

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

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