I’m privileged to announce I’ve been asked to be a featured guest on The Literary Round Table podcast for a special series of conversation entitled “A House United: Understanding America and Each Other.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder has become an increasingly difficult challenge for the nation in the wake of three controversial and unpopular wars; Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. What soldiers thought they were fighting for and what they learned when they got overseas was often jarringly out of sync. Worse, the life they came back to was unrecognizable and adjusting to peacetime life was impossible. They have never come home.
Is it possible that a nation can also suffer violent, catastrophic and ultimately unhealed trauma that mirror the symptoms of personal PTSD: denial of an agony by refusing to talk about it; inability to grieve for the loss suffered; and concealing residual and shame-inducing bitterness?
I believe the Civil War and Reconstruction are the cornerstones of our national PTSD. To those generations that came after the war, too much history has been written to celebrate the glory of victory, or worse, the nobility of a lost cause whose legacy, slavery, is so heinous that its consequences are barely being accounted for two and a half centuries later –not in our teaching of history or in our national discourse. Not enough has been written about what it will take to bridge the divisions that the war and Reconstruction revealed and which now face us with rising urgency every day.
Perhaps in learning how to better treat our wounded veterans’ PTSD, we might also learn how to heal the heartbreak and loss that are eating at our collective soul. This is the first of several posts that will explore what it will take to foster national healing.
It isn’t often you get to ask advice of your 96-year old mother about your own stage fright. But when I was speaking on my book tour (never having written a book or spoken publicly before), I was embarrassed that I would sweat profusely. That only added to my fear, convinced everyone noticed and was thinking, ’what’s his problem?’ I turned to someone with great experience – my mother.
Sono Osato danced with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, the original company of American Ballet Theater as well as the Broadway shows ONE TOUCH OF VENUS and ON THE TOWN (as the original Miss Turnstiles). I mentioned my stage fright and asked her when was the most nervous she’d ever been and what she did about it. My mother didn’t miss a beat.
“It was at the Berlin Opera House in 1936. The Colonel (de Basil, manager of the company) had informed us that Himmler, Goering and Goebbels would be in the audience that night. I am sure I was not the only girl who prayed she would not accidentally look one of those men in the eye during the performance and have them take that as a signal.”
“Of what? That they liked the man?”
“Of course. I was terrified they might come backstage.”
“Ooh. What did you do?”
“The technique was to focus your eyes on a specific spot, whether in the theater or on a person. The stage lights will reflect back a little on the audience, so faces are visible. I realized I had to put my eyes somewhere safe during the performance. I chose the mezzanine façade. My eyes never met a Nazi there.
“So, dear, it’s best to focus on a spot, whether a thing or a person, to make a connection to the ‘out there’. That way you get out of your fear, out of your own way. Once you do that, somehow you’re not nervous anymore.” She made it sound so simple.
Luckily, my audiences weren’t Nazis, but Civil War buffs, students and American soldiers. Nevertheless, her advice worked.
Several people have asked me recently what my thoughts are about the Confederate flag controversy. It occurred to me that there is no better explanation than in the following excerpt from the book.
“In a room across the house, away from the sounds of children laughing and dogs barking, stood another mantelpiece, much plainer than any in Walter Ridley’s house. Sitting on it, in its own wood frame stretched on canvas, was a Stars and Stripes only a few had ever seen. It was certainly not the one Molly Hickenlooper had once promised her son.
For on it were a scrap from a Rebel Stars and Bars, speckled cloth from a rag doll dress, a shred of red bandanna and a button off an ex-slave’s coat. Nestled in the center of these things was a small gold ‘Co. D’ from a Union Army forage cap. All had been carefully sewn into the spaces where she never finished.”
The flag I described here depicts for me the essential hope of A House United, that shows all the parts of who we are, for better and for worse. It is also the symbol of a war and a Reconstruction that are the gaping wounds embodying our national PTSD as well as painful reminders of a healing that has yet to take place.
by Antonio Elmaleh
Purchase it here