Take-a-Book-to-Work Week(s)

Several weeks have passed since I read Roy Scranton’s War Porn weeks punctuated by roller coaster rides; outpatient surgeries; hours of stories of lives lived, not-lived, and sadly-likely-never-to-be-lived; lists of French vocabulary; and the occasional cup of coffee sipped in a typical début de 21ème siècle college-town bistro.  Like the one I’m sipping now.

Perhaps I’m ready to write about the book, finally.  Perhaps.

Truth be told, I’m deeply enjoying being just another doc in small-city America.  When one is unimportant, one’s weekends are so much quieter.  Yet it has its drawbacks:  when one wonders what’s au courant in the world, one is always subject to the vagaries of editor-publishers’ whims and the algorithms of Google searches.

Thus, I cannot say, with certainty, what the current status is of Professor Scranton’s (in)famous essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to ‘Redeployment’ and ‘American Sniper‘” in the littéraire-guerrier world (give me a break: where else will I use all that French vocabulary?)   Yet the professor-author in both essay and novel continues to question me:

Will I be able to listen to all the voices of War, even those suppressed in any particular narrative, the voices of those killed in addition to those who survived the killing?  Those harmed and those who did the harming?

In War Porn Americans and Iraqis are harmed. Americans and Iraqis do harm.

There are a lot of voices to be heard in War.

Trust me: War is a metaphor for Life for a reason.  When I listen to stories of veterans and non-veterans, part of my job is to hear what is not spoken, i.e., hear, if only in my mind, what those who interact with the person in front of me might say were they in the room.  There is, after all,  a truism among some in my field: every vicitmizer has been a victim, and every victim has been a victimizer.  You have to be careful with truisms, of course.  One must be wary of blaming the victim.  One must be wary of crucifying the victimizer.  Yet one writes off the sentiments underlying truisms—at least occasionally, if not often—at one’s peril.

As a psychiatrist, my job is to listen.  Listening does not equate with not-judging, but it does equate with keeping one’s mouth shut, even if for only a time.  Never think that I don’t struggle with the moral complexities of silence, that I don’t constantly question myself as to whose pain should be more relevant at any point .  Yet I  live with my daily decisions as to when to shut up and when to talk, and so far I keep showing up to work for another day.  If the day comes when the silence-part is too hard, it will be time take another job.  And talk more loudly and often.

War Porn is, in one way, the story of two American soldiers, one in-war, the other post-war, and one Iraqi man, a mathematician caught up in War, whose English was probably as good as my French.  Woe to him. Being bilingual, even if imperfectly,  has its pros and cons.

Yet it is the Iraqi mathematician, not so much in his starring role, but rather in his cameo appearances in the lives of the two Americans who will forever stick with me.  It is precisely my knowledge from his starring role that creates my feelings about those cameos, feelings about him, about those two soldiers, feelings about judging, reading, and listening, about saying something and keeping quiet.

In his LARB essay, Professor Scranton warns readers against glorifying any particular story of War, the story of the “trauma hero” as much as the story of the “war hero.”  The anti-hero has a tale to tell as well, after all.  After reading War Porn, don’t I know that.

I’ve met war heroes, trauma heroes, anti-heroes in my work.  Sometimes in the same person.  As I finish my essay in my college-town coffee shop, considering the multiple characters (and I do mean characters) I’ve seen pass through here this morning, I think of how far the mathematician’s native Basra had once seemed from his academic life in Baghdad; of how far my weekend seems from the more-important ones in Washington DC, New York, and Los Angeles; of how miles can mean so little in times of War; of how I have been both victim and victimizer; of how I have no clue what depth of pain those words can create, both in times of peace and times of war.

And on Monday, I’ll head back to work.  And War Porn, in some way, will be there with me.

The Trauma Hero

Late last night I finished combat-veteran Roy Scranton‘s War Porn.  Memorable title. Even more memorable book.

I’d warn the faint-of-heart to be prepared.  Not for the reasons they might imagine, though.

Professor Scranton is no stranger to controversy, whether in book titles, book content—or literary reflection. Anyone who has read his 2015 piece in The Los Angeles Review of Books, “The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to ‘Redeployment’ and ‘American Sniper’” knows exactly whereof I speak.

For in the essay he asks us, after all, to question whether our “war literature” should embrace the “wounded warrior” more than the ones whom the warrior wounds.

Trust me:  in War Porn, he practices what he preaches.

As a psychiatrist, my job is to experience the story that walks through my office door. My job is not to be overwhelmed by that story (easier said than done, some days). My job is not to script it (although, granted, I have more than a few colleagues who might disagree with that). My job is to experience it, and not just its words, but its sounds, its muscle twitches, its eyes, sometimes even its smell. I’m charged with taking those experiences and translating them into a language (and, sometimes, a neurochemistry) that is supposed to ease Life’s motion forward.

Again, often, too often, easier said than done (although, again, often and, yes, too often, I have more than a few colleagues who might disagree with that).

Don’t for a moment think that everyone who walks through my door is traumatized.  A few who drop by wouldn’t even mind heading back and doing a bit more traumatizing if they could, truth be told.  Not most, by a long shot.  But a few. Power has its allures.

Plus destruction has certainty to it, after all.  At the end of the day, there’s always a record somewhere out there in the physical world, fragmented and motionless, such that it is.

Life and certainty, on the other hand…

I’m not one of those mental-health types who guides people toward what to tell me (again, more disagreements…) I’ve always had enough to do just with what they’ve willingly told me. I’ve never found it rare to encounter veterans who have been more than willing to allude to darkness in their souls.  Real darkness, nothing the veteran or I would quibble over.

After all, the painful physiology of darkness is part of what I’m there for.

We do so love our reason and cognition, though, don’t we?  Thank God for the Greeks who bore us those gifts.  Words, words, and more words.

Yet just like the Trojans, again and again we finds ourselves surprised by the chemical-spiritual forces hidden within those concepts.

For us humans, War colonizes what is within us, what is between us, what is among us. Just as I must remember that I will only hear askew those who have been traumatized, so will I only hear askew those who have also traumatized.

Equally, however, I must hold within me that I am, not could be, both Traumatizer and Traumatized. Otherwise I’m just playing a cruel hoax on everyone who does walk through that office door. After all, I just have the good fortune of brandishing the plausible deniability of my having never wielded a literally-lethal weapon in my hands.  That’s all.

My words, on the other hand…

The good professor reminds me that I must always be willing to be created by the stories told me, even if I don’t like the resulting product. He also reminds me of my obligation, in just such cases, to create something more human in return.

Easier said, yet still must be done.  No disagreements.


Moving Day

My eldest got married last fall, and until today she and her husband had been house sitting for a couple who has been spending the past school year in South America.  Today, however, was moving day, into a place of their own, finally.

Dad (in-law) only had to supply an old SUV for transportation, so I was able to enjoy watching my kids’ friends in action, all while remembering younger years when similar friends, now old like Dad, filled cars and trucks, eked sofas around treacherous corners, chowed on pizza and beer in later celebration.  I’m glad that their future is ahead of them.  I’m glad that, at least for some adventures, my past is behind me.

On the way to and from their house I continued to listen to Roy Scranton‘s War Porn.  People are also on the move in that narrative, in Iraq, in the United States.  So far, they’re not faring as well.  I’m doubtful for much reprieve.

I sit on the back porch and ask myself:  why am I reading this today, this weekend, Memorial Day weekend in the US?  Why not relax, perhaps remember War in a quieter state of mind?

Good question.

Yet so many combat veterans have to reflect this weekend on Life’s realities and live within them:  reflect and live successful moves, yes, perhaps, topped off by a slice of meat-lovers’ and a cold, microbrewery pale ale.

Yet also, perhaps, reflect and relive death and destruction long ago or just months ago, experienced for reasons that—that what?

A burger on the grill here, an anger-filled/tear-filled/empty-filled midnight walk there.  Life, Death, now, then, back, forth, hour after hour.

I at least get to enjoy my sunset today with a glass of Malbec.  I need to be thankful. I am.  For my family.  For my life.

And I owe it to the living and the dead to be only so relaxed.  Moved, maybe.  Yes, moved.

It’s the least I can do.

Listening to War

Well, for the faithful few:  I’m back.

I guess this would be what my kids would call 2.0.

If you’re an old friend, first of all: thank you.  Truly.

Second of all, though: you can see that quite a bit has changed.  Welcome to Listening to War:  Reflections on Words Heard Only Askew.  For a fuller explanation, see the Paving the Road Back tab above, or click here.

If you’re a new friend:  good to meet you.  On my new Twitter account (@deaton_rod), I advertise myself as “just a country psychiatrist trying to make a living by listening, reading, and thinking.”

Welcome to just that.

Recently I’ve been listening to Roy Scranton‘s debut novel, War Porn.  Good way through it, at this point.  The ugly stuff is ramping up.  I suspect that Professor Scranton, who teaches down the street from me at Notre Dame, might argue that, well, that’s War for you.

This morning, though, I heard the Audible narrator read former President George W. Bush’s speech to the United States at the time of the initiation of the fighting in Iraq.  The narrator gave a nice rendition of the President’s twang.  I had to admire it as I pulled into the parking lot of my clinic.

I parked the car.  I listened to the speech. I turned the book off. But not the car.  Not yet.

Fourteen years it’s been since that speech.  At the time I was working out of a nondescript office in downtown Indianapolis, occasionally walking down to the local Starbucks on Mass Ave to enjoy a latte in the corner of the store, staring at the latest in the window of the toy store across the street.

But this morning, some two and half hours away from that cafe, miles and miles away within my soul, I heard words I must have heard some time around then, must have, spoken in my native tongue, assuring me that all would be…

Yes.  Would be.

I turned off the car and headed into work.  Too many words ahead of me to think anymore about those words.  Too many words, too many lives since those were first spoken.

I’m a much older man now.  So is Professor Scranton.  So are we all, men, women, the then-infants who are now leaving middle school.

If only would be were not still is.

But it is.

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