Christal Presley’s memoir Thirty Days With My Father: Finding Peace From Wartime PTSD (Health Communications, 243 pages) chronicles 30 days of conversations discussing a subject that was taboo during her childhood :her father’s Vietnam-induced post-traumatic stress disorder and the profound effect it had on their family, including the author’s own PTSD.
Writing in simple, clear prose, Presley alternates between present-day conversations and journal entries relating key scenes from her childhood. It’s an effective form for a story in which present and past are so interconnected. She has a fine knack for seamlessly moving between the time periods and knowing how to avoid burdening readers with unnecessary musings or preaching. Her story of acceptance and, just as important, moving on, is a worthy addition to memoirs written by children of war veterans.
ArtsATL conducted the following email interview with the author, who will speak at the Atlanta Writers Club on May 18.
ArtsATL: I found the present-past structure itself a conversation between the two time periods, the one playing off the other. Did you know you were going to use this structure from the very beginning? Did you write these two alternating parts of each chapter in sequence, or did you thread them together later? How long did it take to complete the memoir?
Christal Presley: I wrote some of my journal entries before I actually started the 30-day project with my father. Others I wrote during that project and some I wrote after. I threaded them together once I decided for sure I was going to turn that project into a book. It took about six months to complete that process and, of course, about two years of revisions after that before I finally sold my memoir.
ArtsATL: Unlike many memoirs written by children of Vietnam veterans, you did not focus on your father’s experiences in Vietnam or your own eventual visit there. When did you decide the focus would be on your healing and recovery in the United States?
Presley: By the time I was 30, I had had enough therapy and was self-aware enough to realize that the only healing and recovery I had any control over was my own. I realized I had a responsibility to myself, and I began to take that seriously. The only person I knew I could save was myself.
ArtsATL: On day one your father refuses to speak about Vietnam. He says, “I don’t know anything about a war.” But three days later, when you and two of your friends meet up with him, he’s suddenly sharing Vietnam tales with all of you. Do you know what caused the change in his attitude on that particular day?
Presley: I think it helped to actually see me in person. He could see face to face that I was serious about getting to know him and that I was ready to hear his story.
ArtsATL: At this meeting, in fact, your father is so garrulous and charming that your writing partner and friend, Steve, doubts he even has post-traumatic stress disorder and accuses you of exaggerating your childhood tribulations. Did Steve’s doubt have any impact on your decision to write this memoir? Did you and he ever make up? Would you have the same reaction today as you had then?
Presley: I think Steve’s doubt did strengthen my desire to write this memoir. Things were never the same between us after that. Steve moved out of the country and I lost contact with him. Rather than reacting with such anger like I did back then, now I know I’d be able to turn a person’s disbelief into an opportunity to better educate him or her about PTSD.
ArtsATL: You mention how your father’s childhood sounds like episodes from Little House on the Prairie, and I immediately imagined the mess Laura Ingalls or her brother would be in if they were drafted from their environment and dumped into Vietnam, which is essentially what happened to many people during that war. Do you think all the information available today really makes it any easier to go to war?
Presley: I don’t know if anything makes it easier. My father’s family never valued education, so he went to school when he felt like it or when it was convenient. They never traveled — in fact, the farthest my father had traveled was about an hour from his hometown, and he did that only twice — because there was no money or desire to see anything different.
Furthermore, my father’s family never had a TV. I think it’s safe to say he was not a worldly person when he was drafted, and he certainly hadn’t been exposed to different cultures or ways of life than his own in rural Virginia. I do think American children of today, at least in most places, are more exposed to different walks of life than my father was. And they’re certainly exposed to more violence through video games and the media. But I don’t think I’d go as far as to say that it’s easier to kill a person because of this.
ArtsATL: It is very telling that you interpreted going to war in the above question as killing a person, which is truly what war is. Your father’s PTSD symptoms ranged from uncontrollable rage and screaming to depression, withdrawal for days on end and suicidal impulses, during which he would threaten to kill himself and then take his gun to the river. Your mother always said your father was a good person and that nothing was his fault; it was all Vietnam. You wonder whether the “war really had made him like he was or if it was just him.” What do you think now? How much of the war has made you and how much is your own personality, considering that you also exhibit many of your father’s symptoms?
Presley: I believe we are all a product of our experiences. If my father hadn’t gone to war, he’d be a completely different person. So would I.
ArtsATL: Why do you think your mother papered your father’s room with his war paraphernalia — old army boots, dog tags, pictures of him in his uniform — instead of eradicating the evidence and thereby perhaps making life easier for him?
Presley: I think this was my mother’s way of having some part in my father’s war, because during my entire childhood, he never told her a single thing about it. It was their bedroom, so it was her room too. I think it may have also been a way that she could feel the same pain as he was feeling, because he tried so often to hide that from us by simply hiding away and having nothing to do with us. Sometimes pain is a powerful connecting force.
ArtsATL: Your disconnection with your father is so vast that you give him books on Vietnam, and it is only once your conversations begin that he shares not being able to look at them, because they dredge up bad memories. I was particularly struck by this when My Lai comes up and you inform your father that in class you learned that 500 people died there. Your father immediately corrects you: “It was 504.”
The fact that his experience lives within him brings up the essential difference between PTSD and second-generational PTSD. The first perhaps cannot be avoided, but do you think the second could be avoided with measures such as therapy and family counseling?
Presley: I think the key to preventing second-generation PTSD is to have better tools in place to treat soldiers who return from war with first-generation PTSD. Second-generation PTSD could be greatly reduced by therapy, family counseling, support groups and education about PTSD.
ArtsATL: What would you say to children of veterans whose parents have died or refuse to converse with them?
Presley: I’d say that, ultimately, the only person you can save is yourself. You don’t need another person’s participation in order to do that. I believe there is much power in the metaphysical concept of talking to a parent who has passed on, and writing a letter (perhaps that you will never send) to a person who refuses to talk to you. Acknowledge your truth and how you feel. Share it. Honor it. There is a relief and a freedom that comes with telling the truth, even if there is no one but you to hear or read it.
ArtsATL: How might these children be able to eventually move on?
Presley: I think the most important thing a child of a veteran, whether a small child or an adult, can do is to find a safe place to talk. That would be in therapy, within the surviving family unit, in a support group, or a combination of all these.
ArtsATL: You grew up in a small Appalachian community in Honaker, Virginia, where everyone turned to God in times of distress. In school you asked your mother whether you could go for therapy, but instead she encouraged you to talk to God, even though you could find neither solace nor solutions in religion. Do you think therapy might have helped in your relationship with religion too, instead of it being only one or the other?
Presley: Therapy back then would have helped my relationship with religion only if I’d had a therapist who was open-minded, non-judgmental and who believed in the power of personal responsibility, rather than God as the only solution. If there had been a therapist in Honaker back then (and 30 years later there still isn’t one), it would have been likely that he or she would have practiced Christian therapy and shared the extremist mentality of the entire community that God is the only answer to life’s problems. If a therapist hadn’t shared that mentality back then in my parents’ community, he or she would have been ostracized.
ArtsATL: In grade school, two sisters whose father is also a Vietnam vet think you are weird. When you’re an adult Steve does not believe you, and later when you write a short story for a creative writing class, another Vietnam vet’s daughter negates it because her father “doesn’t act like this.” Where did you find the strength to disregard others’ opinions?
Presley: It wasn’t easy. But I finally reached a point in my life where getting to know my father, figuring out what happened to him after Vietnam, and exploring what happened to my family when I was a child, and thereafter, became more important than anything else.
ArtsATL: As an adult you joined a support group, Veteran’s Heart Georgia, where you met another Vietnam vet’s daughter named Katrina. Had you two met as children, might your healing have begun earlier and perhaps been easier? Do you still meet? Was meeting her an impetus toward starting your own organization, United Children of Veterans?
Presley: I think it would have made all the difference in the world to have been able to tell my truth back then. I still meet with Katrina from time to time (in fact, I’m meeting her today for lunch), and meeting her and experiencing the healing that came through sharing our experiences was certainly an impetus for me to start United Children of Veterans. It is so important that children of veterans find each other.
ArtsATL: In the television series “Downton Abbey,” Mathew Crawley realizes the surreal nature of going from a World War 1 trench to a party at Downton. In the film “The Hurt Locker,” there is a very poignant scene where a bomb disarmer returning from Iraq stands in a supermarket disoriented by an aisle of cereals. Your father also says how strange it was to go to Saigon for a week of in-country rest and relaxation only to return to war and its heightened sensation of life and death hanging from moment to moment. This was mirrored in your childhood insofar as not knowing how your father was going to act from moment from moment.
Presley: I got accustomed to living life in survival mode — on the edge at every moment, always in a “fight or flight” state, hypersensitive as a norm. It was difficult for me to be in environments where people were laughing happily, at ease, just doing normal things like cavalierly going to the grocery store, etc. It took years for me to learn to acclimatize to a less “heightened” life. I’m healing, still.
ArtsATL: Your father is haunted by two incidents in particular: his being at My Lai and the soldier who died in his place. Were it not for your conversations, do you think he would have ever talked about, confronted even, his survivor’s guilt as well as bystander’s guilt?
Presley: He had told my mother about all this already, but I had no idea of this at the time, because she’d never admitted that to me. I think my father was already in the process of healing and confronting his survivor’s guilt when we began the 30-day project together. I think he would have told me about this before if I’d only asked sooner. I had never asked him for his story. I wasn’t ready to hear it until three years ago.
ArtsATL: Your father says that in order to survive battle and the loss of life, one trains oneself to neither make friends nor get attached. Once he returned home, I felt that part of the reason he kept pushing you away was not that he didn’t want to be attached to you but that he didn’t want you to become attached to him. Instead of rejection, it was love, albeit misguided if you will. How did he get over his fear of loving people and then losing them?
Presley: He’s still not over that fear. It’s deeply ingrained within him. But I think it’s safe to say that these days he’s choosing to be more present for his family, anyway.
ArtsATL: PTSD-like symptoms existed before the term was coined — in fact the warriors in The Iliad seem to suffer from it — but it wasn’t until the Vietnam War that the American Psychiatric Association officially named the condition, and it was originally known as post-Vietnam syndrome. Although there’s no official acknowledgment of intergenerational PTSD, it is well known that the children of veterans with PTSD may develop symptoms of their own that are related to dealing with their parent’s symptoms. Are we any closer to a formal acknowledgment? What might finally legitimize it?
Presley: We will become closer to a formal acknowledgment only if more people who have experienced this secondary traumatization start talking about it. There is power in numbers, and the more people who acknowledge the truth and share their experiences, the more it will be legitimized.
ArtsATL: As a child, you ridicule your father for wearing veteran paraphernalia, telling him that he’s an embarrassment to society. The most poignant moment in the memoir for me was when he asks, “Are you proud I went to service?” Was there a difference between acceptance and validation for you? Did you realize that validation was what the two of you, and even your mother, were seeking from each other?
Presley: I had to accept my own history before validation could come. And once I did that and started telling the truth about my experiences, I received validation from not only my mother and father, but from children of veterans all over the world. My experience is a shared one. I realize now that validation was what my mother and I were always seeking from each other, but at the time I was too blinded by my own fear to personally acknowledge the truth that it was hard to see anything else. I know she feels the same way.
ArtsATL: Even though your memoir concentrates on your relationship with your father, your relationship with your mother is also very complex. She expected you to be the adult so your father could act like a child. When you are nine years old, she tells you that she’s glad she never had any more children because she wouldn’t want anyone else to suffer the way she and you do.
Presley: I told my mother I was glad she didn’t have any other children, so no one else would have to live the kind of life we did. But secretly, of course, I wanted a brother or sister so badly I could hardly stand it. I wanted someone else to talk to about my experiences, and more importantly, someone who would have shared experiences as a result of living in the same household. It’s never a good situation when a child becomes a parent’s confidant. And if that child is an only child, they are by default the only confidant. That’s a tremendous amount of pressure and responsibility to put on a child, and it’s easy to see that it could bring negative repercussions, even as an adult.
ArtATL: In the book you ask, “How does a person know for sure that she’s forgiven someone? I do not know the answer to that question.” Are you any closer to an answer?
Presley: When I can find compassion for a person, that means I am closer to forgiveness. When I reach a state where understanding and empathy is more important than anger or blame — and when I see myself in that person, and that person in me — I have forgiven him or her.
ArtsATL: Stephen Joseph’s thesis in What Doesn’t Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth is that positive changes can and do arise out of trauma and adversity. Would you agree? Would your father?
Presley: Absolutely. It’s all about owning the experience and creating the mind-set within oneself that there is nothing else to do now but heal, and turn this into something positive. My father would agree.
ArtsATL: In Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, Elizabeth Samet chronicles her experiences of teaching future combat soldiers about morality through novels such as War and Peace and Catch-22 and films such as “Braveheart”and “Saving Private Ryan.” What books or films might you or your father recommend for soldiers and their families? ‘
Presley: I am not surprised that Samet is using texts and films to teach soldiers about morality. I have mixed emotions about recommending films to soldiers’ families. Many of the films about Vietnam are so graphic; people might not be ready to see that.
One of the best movies I have seen that is suitable for all audiences and that really shows how wartime PTSD affects families is “The War,” with Kevin Costner and Elijah Wood. One of the best books I’ve read of a child of a veteran finding peace with her father’s war is Danielle Trussoni’s Falling Through the Earth. Ed Tick also wrote a remarkable book called War and the Soul, about better understanding and healing PTSD.
My father doesn’t read books or watch movies about Vietnam. He would say he’s seen enough of “real” war already.
ArtsATL: Your memoir ends on a hopeful and upbeat note, symbolized by a gift your father gives you, a cap that says “Daughter of a Vietnam Veteran.” Had he given you this before your 30-day conversation, would you have been able to accept all it stood for, let alone wear it?
Presley: I wish I had a different answer for this question, but to answer honestly, I would have been mortified to have received this gift before our conversations. I didn’t want anything to do with Vietnam, and the fact that I was a veteran’s daughter was never something I’d acknowledge about myself. Wearing a hat like this would have told the whole world. I wasn’t ready for that. But now I am.
Resources for PTSD sufferers: Gift From Within, National Center for PTSD, Sidran Institute, Soldier’s Heart, Veteran’s Children, Veterans Crisis Line, International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies.
Want to know what Presley’s favorite books and authors were as a child? Find out on our Facebook page.