Sharing the last of our food

Sonya Lea

September 28, 2016

The first time I encountered the ravaging effects of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD was when my husband went into surgery for a rare cancer and came out without any memory of our life. He died on the table that night, but his body remained. He had an anoxic insult, a brain injury, and he lost much of the ability to remember what happened yesterday or ten minutes ago. And surprisingly, he lost something most didn’t at first recognize was possible to lose in a cancer treatment — the long-term memories of his life. Gone was our wedding day, the birth of our children, his childhood, his identity. When I told the hospital staff about his confused state, they insisted everything would clear up when we returned home.

When we finally made it to the brain injury program at the University of Washington, we asked the neuropsychologist for her opinion as to why all of the memories, not just the new ones, had gone underground. The doctor said that he was suffering from PTSD. I thought that kind of trauma happened on battlefields. She explained that in his anxiety about the massive changes to his personality, my husband’s history disappeared.

What made his recovery thorny — and I mean our recovery as a family, for everyone is impacted by a profound identity change — is that the hospital that caused the accident would not confirm the injury. To keep this mistake from happening to others, we challenged the corporation that made the error, and faced years of invasion from its lawyers and CEO’s, who wanted our private medical records, journals, and letters, for everything related to the injury has to be exposed in a medical malpractice case in America.

I wrote our story in a book, Wondering Who You Are. The living and the writing of this event was a kind of liberation from all that came before. And in the process, I began to understand how the act of placing what had previously been forbidden and unspeakable into narrative helped me find meaning. I got to say this is what it was like, and then I helped others find the language for their lived truth. This work has included teaching women veterans, as well as mentoring writing students who have suffered all kinds of losses, battles, illnesses, injustices, abuses, tortures, imprisonments, and near-deaths.

From my students, I learned that what followed them after a trauma — those fight or flight responses, immobilizations, nauseas, sleep disturbances, and other anxieties that we call post-traumatic stress — was also how humans adapt to changing circumstances. We need to be vigilant under threat. Some want ‘disorder’ dropped from the name, because stress is indeed the most natural response to danger. But there are stresses that outlive temporary adjustment, and it’s these that cause the most peril. The stories I heard from writers who had survived threatening events demonstrated to me that post-traumatic stress isn’t at all helped by the ways we live in America, and in particular PTSD isn’t relieved by the misogynist structures that place power and wealth before community.

In mid 2015, while looking for information about working with PTSD, I came across Sebastian Junger’s essay in Vanity Fair, which later became his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Junger is a war journalist, some might say the war reporter, and he says this may be his last book about his nearly lifelong subject. Along with photographer Tim Hetherington, (who was later killed in 2011, covering the Libyan Civil War,) Junger wrote about a dangerous assignment in the deadliest valley in the Afghanistan war, and the emotional and physical effects on the soldiers deployed there. These became several magazine essays, a book (War), and also a well-respected documentary, Restrepo, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

Tribe is, in a sense, the wisdom that Junger would like to leave us who may never know what it is to serve our country as combat veterans. As a journalist embedded for months with these soldiers, he also wants us to know “…why — for many people — war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations.”

Overall, the book feels like an extended essay, though it’s packed with information to help orient the civilian — how the most violent among us can suffer the least stress from trauma; why witnessing harm to another is the most traumatic event possible for a human; how child abuse and inherited psychological conditions can perpetuate PTSD; why voluntary service has resulted in a military whose members come disproportionally from troubled families; the ways that danger and training can create unit cohesion as well as lower rates of psychiatric casualties; why disability claims are rising when combat deaths are dropping. Junger is nothing if not assured in his grasp of the current research, with pages of source notes to back up his investigation. But it is his time in the field that allows us to understand the specific ways American soldiers suffer more than is necessary in the transition from military to civilian life, and how, lacking a sense of tribe, we might all be moving toward fracture. “It may be worth considering whether middle-class American life — for all its material good fortune — has lost some essential sense of unity that might otherwise discourage alienated men from turning apocalyptically violent.”

Junger defines tribe as “the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with,” and he has terrific examples of civilians and soldiers bonding in times of difficulty, and failing at tenderness during peacetime. If you want to know how a lack of tribe plays out in one phrase, look no further than the inane “Thanks for your service,” uttered to soldiers by civilians who neither want to know what that service was composed of, nor have a vehicle to witness those stories, if they could be offered.

Junger spends much of the book relating indigenous traditions that could be beneficial to those returning from war, including his own experiences with a "surrogate uncle" Ellis Settle, of Lakota and Apache ancestry. But as a woman of mostly Canadian-European heritage and education, I honestly don’t have the background to know precisely how indigenous traditions would translate to contemporary society — I'm still learning what I was never taught.

Dorothy Allison, who profoundly knows the difference between bullshit and what’s real, says trauma is “to see yourself never in the world.” This is so often a visible state when my students arrive to write, and is assuaged when they recognize their voice being received by others, that I have come to define tribe as people who can hear each other’s stories.

Because if we can witness another’s truth — actually listen and remain open to someone else’s lived experience — there might, for one thing, be less desire for violence against another human, animal, or even the land itself. Becoming intimate, whether in kin-groups or in public view, leads to an awareness, by its nature, that we are not separate. We might even be connected in our brokenness.

The main problem of the book is that Junger’s sexist thinking ends up in banal conclusions. His outdated notions about gender end up destroying his ideas of harmonious tribe. We cannot return to a once-great past where gender definition saved our species. This is a fundamentally flawed conception of history, one that denies the fracture inherent in misogynist propaganda and rape culture, as well as the existence of long eras of egalitarian societies.

These thoughts all make it into the work — girls don’t take risks that gamble their lives; boys are drawn to violence out of a desire for respect; men risk their lives to save females; men display physical courage while women display moral courage; women act heroically in their own moral universe, and men risk their lives spontaneously or when they’re part of a group.

Junger argues that in catastrophic situations certain men will take the female “empathic leadership” role if no woman is available, and that likewise, women will take “immediate action” if no men are available to do so in an emergency. He says that “Both [gender roles] are necessary for the healthy functioning of society, and those roles will always be filled regardless of whether both sexes are available to do it.” Junger seems unaware or dismissive of the conversations of the past decades that gender is a social construct, perhaps arbitrary, and certainly flexible and non-binary.1 He doesn't seem aware that beyond self-definition, there isn’t a need to reinforce gender codes, unless of course, you’re concerned with maintaining power. Or blind to the notion that rape culture arises out of sexism. And the US military certainly suffers an epidemic of rape.

Most Americans don’t realize that a female serving in combat is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. Military women are ten times more likely than males to experience serious sexual harassment. While civilians have police officers and a justice system that’s organized to be responsive to them, a soldier’s justice is tied to their commanding officer. One-quarter of rapes go unreported because the rapist was the commander. One-third of assaults go unreported because the person they’d have to report it to was a friend of the rapist. Only certain high-level commanders have the right to determine whether a case can stand trial. The most recent Pentagon report says 62% of the women reporting assaults experience retaliation. Both Congress and the President have been slow to respond.2

In the writing programs I teach at the Veterans Centers around the region, we hear these stories nearly every time we gather. If you were at last year’s ground breaking Veterans Day reading by women veterans at Hugo House, you have heard these stories too.

We hear other stories as well — ones about the pride of service, the joy of someone having your back, the complexity of entering other cultures. As my colleague, the memoirist Suzanne Morrison, and I have discovered, there are personal stories people want to tell, and then there are the ones people must tell. The women veterans and service members have taught us about what it is to have to save one’s life with words. In the classes we teach, and in the support we receive from our colleagues and the psychologists who support us, we have learned that post-traumatic stress — that same factor that enhances our ability to sense danger — becomes terrorizing when it’s linked to betrayal.

Institutions can worsen the trauma or become sources of justice, support and healing. In 2008, Jennifer Freyd first documented the psychological harm caused by institutional betrayal. This kind of betrayal happens where people are dependent upon the protection of the system — some might say the attachment to the tribe — places like the military, the church, the police, the hospital, the child care facility. When the relationship is necessary to one’s survival, both physical and psychological damage are more intense and remain longer. For example, military sexual trauma (MST) has nine times the risk of developing PTSD than civilian sexual trauma.

Institutional betrayal has an exacerbative effect, one that’s separate from the act of the assault. The events that create a climate for the assault or abuse, and the ones in response to it, are where the conditions for betrayal occur. The trauma is more damaging then because the message sinks in—the institution could have done something to prevent the experience from occurring.

In Tribe, Junger lets us know that rape is “…far more traumatizing that most military deployments,” but he shrugs off any of the serious issues that would prevent those living inside a rape culture from ever creating healthy community. When men want to take care of the vulnerable but don’t acknowledge the fracture that occurs when a man or woman is assaulted by a member of one’s own tribe, there’s great damage to all of us, men included. When men don’t dissuade other men from the kind of bias that prevents women’s truth from being heard, then no tribe is possible. Survivors of sexual trauma must not be isolated; they must be heard. For a tribe to be real, and not just idealistic talk, the threat of assault and the perpetrator’s behaviour must be dealt with.

Things are changing. Many men are speaking out about blatant misogyny. We need warriors to respect and acknowledge women's voices. And we still need some form of community healing ritual to acknowledge the trauma.

If war keeps being enacted partly because of the desire for acts of courage, loyalty, and selflessness, then what if telling a difficult story — perhaps the most horrifying story of your life — provided the same chances?

This making a story from your life isn't easy. You have to be willing to be in for this kind of duty, this kind of bravery. Because you’re about to tell a room of strangers something that might change everything about how you’re seen.

I wish I could show you how this happens in those rooms with the women veterans, how we are quiet and respectful, how some of us need to face the door and others must have their journal with Superman on the cover, how on some days the words slide over those pages as if they have been waiting to emerge since we were six years old, and other days we can’t remember a syllable of who we were a moment ago. I wish I could show you how it is when a veteran turns to you and says, “You’re not going to get this, but these people will,” and you’re so fucking proud to have made a place where you’re not required. I wish you could be in the room where one of them starts to cry and digs the whole thing out from under, and then throws a bolt that shocks everyone from their circumspectness and politeness, and then it’s on. The grace in the first time she wants to fuck shit up. When she hasn’t told the story of being raped at her post to a single person, and she takes her journal in her shaking hands and looks at you like, you sure you got this? And you know that the terror of these stories has been more than you’ve heard another speak, and you can hold all of this. You’ll nod to them as they smoke in the parking lot later, and you’ll get in your car and cry all the way into the city. And right now, all of your entire body wants to be the place where they can speak freely, for even if you've never fought, the war can come into you, and you can’t be their remedy but it can be a beginning.

  1. This June, the US military ended its ban on transgendered people, and yet gender stereotypes remain a significant problem for many in the service. We’ve long known that lessening gender stereotypes in the military depends on achieving equivalency in roles. [Boldry, Wood, Kashi, 2001.]

  2. The Pentagon brass launched a misinformation campaign against the Military Justice Information Act (MJIA) that would have significantly changed how sexual assaults are treated in the military, and the result was that the law was not passed. In the military, rapists are seen as a discipline issue and not a criminal issue. Everyone from Protect Our Defenders to Samantha Bee has weighed in on this travesty.

Books in this review:
  • Tribe
    by Sebastian Junger
    May 23, 2016
    192 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Lea’s memoir, Wondering Who You Are has garnered praise in Oprah Magazine, People, and the BBC, who named it a “top ten book.” Lea teaches writing at Hugo House in Seattle, and for women veterans through the Red Badge Project.

Follow Sonya Lea on Twitter: @sonya_lea

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