When I finally saw the film Milk earlier this summer, afterwards my thoughts kept returning to the stress placed on hope in the story, seemingly in a starkly different context from that of Iraq war veteran Brad Eifert (see my previous post “War, suicide, aggression—hope“). The activists in Milk’s story take on the right to acknowledge being gay and still be able to keep your job as a teacher or public sector worker (among other struggles). And yet these two stories—one of a gay politician and activist, the other of a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress and suicidal feelings—have unexpected interlocking commonalities. Don’t ask don’t tell aptly describes what Harvey Milk was fighting against—secrecy, forced confinement to the closet, or worse, “rehabilitation” or living life as a lie. Supervisor Milk, among the first openly gay politicians, was fighting suicide in the gay community too.
Of course “Don’t ask don’t tell” refers to the long-standing policy of closeting gays in the military. We see the same attitude toward experiences of combat. In some ways, I think the horrors of combat are all but unsharable with someone who has not been in the heat of war, and yet this forces an impossible burden on those who have. Perhaps the term “unspeakable” refers as much to what we do not want to hear, or know of, as to what cannot be said. (More on this below.) But memory—experience—often demands a voice, both public and private. In the end, this is Milk’s message and Eifert’s too.
On the subject of remembrance: In early July, President Obama changed government policy to include families of soldiers in combat who died by suicide in the list of those who receive condolence letters, a small but significant step in continuing to attend to the proportionately higher rates of suicide in the military. Ignoring suicide, PTSD, and depression (and aggression) in those serving or returned to civilian life won’t make it go away. Ask, listen, and offer help, and then we may have hope of improving the disheartening statistics. Of making change.
In “The Optimism Bias” an article by Tali Sharot in Time magazine this past May (taken from her book of the same name), a convincing case is made for the importance of positive thinking, of hope.
“To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities—better ones—and we need to believe that we can achieve them. Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals.”
“Scientists who study memory proposed an intriguing answer: memories are susceptible to inaccuracies partly because the neural system responsible for remembering episodes from our past might not have evolved for memory alone. Rather, the core function of the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future—to enable us to prepare for what has yet to come. … Although most of us take this ability for granted, our capacity to envision a different time and place is in fact critical to our survival. … Knowledge of death had to emerge side by side with the persistent ability to picture a bright future.”
“[Sharot’s study] found that people perceived [new] adverse events more positively if they had [already] experienced them in the past.”
This reminds me of the argument that young children need to be exposed to germs—colds have value—to build and strengthen their immune systems. Perhaps we have emotional ‘immune systems’ too, which should not be over-taxed, yet still require exposure to difficulty (i.e. life). This is the argument made in “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” by Lori Gottlieb, in The Atlantic, which came up in my post, “Mysteries of childhood—avid reader, cannot read“.
By extension, we need to know of the trying or traumatic experiences of others (take Brad Eifert, for example, or Harvey Milk), and we need to maintain an awareness of history (such as the Holocaust, Rwanda, Bosnia) to better understand and cope with the present—and the future. Optimism needs knowledge, empathy, and realism running alongside.
On that note, just before leaving for London and Warsaw last month, I came across “The War Memoirist’s Dilemma” by Shannon P. Meehan at the Times “At War” Blog. Meehan, author of the memoir Beyond Duty: Life on the Frontline in Iraq, writes,
“I realized that, ultimately, an honest and accurate portrait of the emotional landscape of a soldier in war was just as important as the physical landscape in which our battles were fought.”
“…. As the early voices shaping the narrative of these wars, we must shed desires to neatly package our stories into something tidy and sellable. … We have a responsibility as ‘soldier authors’ to tell the truth and endure the consequences of that truth. These wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan], like all wars, present complicated questions, ones that deserve sophisticated and honest answers….”
This is the task of all memoirists, all writers, probing difficult truths and not straying from them. In the case of memories of war, this must be all the more difficult.
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~ Business Insider reports “One Million US Veterans Are In Prison, And 18 Commit Suicide Every Day.” How many more Brad Eifert stories we need…. ~
~ Don’t miss Erica Goode‘s detailed account (“Coming Together to Fight for a Troubled Veteran”) of Brad Eifert’s descent, and how, with help from a police officer, a lawyer, and a judge, he climbed (and is still climbing) back up. ~
~ September 1st marked seventy-two years since Nazi Germany invaded Poland, bringing on the beginning of World War II. I was in Warsaw last week and still have on my mind the extent to which World War II remains not just a memory throughout much of Europe, but a period in history that still has an active present, not just via people’s recollections (now dwindling), but through plaques, statues, buildings gone, buildings replaced, buildings replicated. Reminders. More on Europe and memory (and literature) in a future post. ~