I'm torn between the pleasure of having just read a brilliant and moving first-person stream-of-consciousness account of a true story of one woman's childhood, and the deep sadness that comes from learning about the absolutely horrific hell that this woman is extremely lucky to have survived — a hell that many others have known and will know, despite the ease with which it might be prevented.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “These novels will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographies — captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which is really his experience, and how to record truth truly.” Set aside the old-fashioned metaphysical vocabulary and the sexism. Factor in the world-changing force now developing called self-publishing. Emerson is being proved right, and there is no better example than “This Girl's Life: Being the Child of a War Veteran,” by Michelle Brown.
Brown begins her masterpiece thus:
“I lived a rough life with my dad. He abused us physically all the time. There were four of us who lived in our home, my brothers and sisters, along with my mom and dad. My older sister had already left home. She'd had enough. My dad took a lot of my life from me, and I still have nightmares about the things that went on in that home. We were afraid to tell anyone, afraid of what would happen to us. My dad was a war veteran and we really did not know how to treat someone like that.”
The treatment that Brown received as a girl, by her account, rivals in my estimation that meted out to prisoners of the CIA. She was starved, sleep-deprived, forced to stand endlessly, denied access to a bathroom, and beaten almost daily with all manner of objects. She was terrorized, physically damaged, cut, bruised, sight-impaired, brain injured, and of course denied medical care or pain killers. This girl grasped at every shred of possible explanation why, and the evidence pointed strongly in one direction: war.
“My dad would tell us all the time that he beat us because he thought we were the enemy. Well, if that was the case, why didn't he beat up people outside the family?”
Brown's primary response toward her father was and is hatred. “I hated my father — and hate is such a strong word, but I did. I really wanted to love him, but the Vietnam War ruined him and his family. … I was so afraid of my dad. I was even afraid to get the story out, thinking he would get mad at me and haunt me, even though he was dead.”
Where did such a frightening father come from?
“My mom, Della, told me that Rico wasn't violent until he went into war. Rico would sometimes tell us about when he was in the war watching all his friends get their heads blown off. Rico would say he had to eat rats over there. In fact, my dad had his foot bitten by a rat. He had Agent Orange sprayed on him. He would say that the Army would teach them to be heartless, but I still say he didn't have to take those things out on us, his children. … In Vietnam, the Army would give the men medicine to take so they wouldn't get horny and want to have sex. … My father told my mom he couldn't love his children, because what if we died on him? He said his family looked like the enemy. … My mom says my dad would send her pictures when he was in the war of men with their heads blown off, no legs … dead. Just horrifying pictures.
“… My dad would get up in the middle of the night, wake everybody up, and talk about his experiences in the war, about how he had to kill men in the war. … I talked to one of the guys who was in the war with my dad, and he told me that my dad had to kill women and kids over in Vietnam.”
So, in fact, beating women and kids was actually an improvement on the behavior this man had engaged in previously, behavior for which he was trained and praised.
How, year after year after year, was the constant beating of a wife and all of his children kept quiet? Brown's grandmother knew. Brown's grandfather and uncles knew:
“My mom said my dad put a knife up to her dad's throat and said he would kill him if they didn't get out of his home. My dad chased her brothers down the street.”
The author's school knew, despite lots of lies about falling down, and lots of staying home until bruises healed:
“My father even came to my classroom at school and whipped me in front of all my friends. That made me so damn mad, because he was hitting me in public now.”
A friend knew:
“My dad had a best friend who would come to our house and my dad would tell his friend, 'Watch how I treat my wife and kids.' After that day Rico's friend came over and saw how my dad treated us, he never spoke to my dad again. I never saw him again. He was so mad that he left my dad's home and never returned.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) knew enough. Brown's father lied to the VA that he had no children, but the VA diagnosed him with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and as suicidal and homicidal, bipolar, schizophrenic, and personality disordered, as well as depressed and cocaine addicted. You'd think something in that toxic stew might have triggered a procedure that would have involved counseling for the father and/or an investigation into whose lives he might be destroying. You'd be wrong.
Books are flying off the shelves claiming that we are leaving war and violence behind us. But these books calculate Vietnam War deaths and injuries without including the Vietnamese, and without including anything that happens back home or after the official end of the war. Here we are dealing with damage from the Vietnam War that we are just now learning about in 2011, almost 2012. Imagine how much more is beneath the surface. Imagine the horrific suffering coming out of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars that we will be learning about in the 2040s and later if we last that long. Imagine the suffering from our current wars of children not yet born.
Personally, I could barely stand to read what Michelle Brown recounted, and I doubt I could have survived it myself to tell about it. That she has both survived it and gone on to warn others about it so eloquently is a double miracle. Yet I am going to quibble with two aspects of how Brown views her own story.
First, she overlays it with religion:
“I wish things could have turned out differently, but like my mom always says, there is God's plan and yours, and God's plan always wins.”
Frankly, if I could make any sense out of the notion of God or out of the notion of a God who planned for Brown to be tortured every day of her childhood, I would condemn that God and dedicate myself to opposing him or her or it.
Belief that all things, good and bad, are part of a master plan does not stifle all efforts to make the world a better place. Brown is trying to warn others and to advise them to leave abusive relationships. Yet she is also very understanding of the idea that one has a duty to tolerate the intolerable:
“To put up with a man like my dad because of her wedding vows had to be hard. I think I would have broken my wedding vows under those same circumstances, but that just goes to show you what a strong black woman my mom really is.”
Secondly, Brown condemns her father's abuse of a woman and her children in the United States, but decidedly not his murdering of women and children in Vietnam. In fact, she praises this man whom she hates for the crimes that made him a criminal:
“I understand men and women having to fight for our country, but why did I have to be the enemy in the end, when I hadn't even been born when my dad came home?”
“… I am not trying to bash anyone who has ever fought in a war, because there are good men and women who have fought for this country. They deserve good honors. I'm not saying my father didn't do a good job of fighting for this country, but it's what he did when he came home that was so bad.”
Is that true? Was killing Vietnamese people in huge numbers a “service,” a heroic act, a duty, something to be proud of, something with a positive effect on the world, something that can be sensibly characterized as “defending the United States”? Shouldn't questioning of what we are taught as children extend to these areas as well?
I was honored that Brown sent me an early copy of her book. I was dismayed to see that she had included with it a letter praising it, a letter from the Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, a man who of course has been, in Congress and in the White House a key supporter of the making of war. Brown wishes her father could have been punished and believes with some satisfaction that he is being eternally punished in an imaginary world. “The person who inflicts pain needs to be punished,” she writes. But would she include Lyndon B. Johnson on the list of people who inflict pain? Richard M. Nixon? Barack Obama?
When will we ever move beyond seeking to help veterans and their families to seeking to avoid producing more veterans?
When will we ever learn?