Celebrating Kurt Vonnegut's 90th Birthday and Armistice Day 

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click to enlarge Dan Wakefield, present at the event, is editor of a brand new book featuring Kurt Vonnegut's letters. - MARC LEEDS
  • Dan Wakefield, present at the event, is editor of a brand new book featuring Kurt Vonnegut's letters.
  • Marc Leeds

Healing through the Humanities.

Expressing one's truths may not be pretty, but to reiterate: it can save one's life.

The Greeks knew this, said Len Mozzi of Dramatic Difference Productions, an adviser to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, as he pointed to the signature masks depicting laughter and tears.

"Theater is about laughing and crying, about what it is to be a human being," Mozzi said. "It helps us live our lives a little better."

He said that Greeks invented theater and, in part, used it to recreate battle scenes for audiences of war-torn soldiers seated by regiment, suggesting that this ancient art form may have helped veterans deal with the trauma of service.

Achilles, in fact, appeared in spirit for Armistice Day via the voice of Dr. Jonathan Shay, author of Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America. Shay's medical work focuses on helping veterans deal with the trauma of service-related stress.

"Recovery always happens in community ... (where) people who've been in war know it's safe to tell their stories," Shay said.

The recipient of the vet's story must hear, believe and remember, Shay continued. "Then the person who heard [must] retell the veteran's story to the point where the vet can say somebody listened, somebody cared."

The listener's academic credentials don't matter; the primary element necessary is the ability to retell the story with emotion, not just the facts, Shay said.

Then he outlined the concept of "moral injury: the most devastating kind of danger people suffer."

It involves: 1) Betrayal of what is right, 2) By a person of authority (or one's self), 3) in a high-stakes situation - war, for example.

"When all three things are present, (so is) moral injury," Shay said. "It destroys the capacity to trust ... [one is] left with the expectancy of harm, exploitation and humiliation."

As all possibility of joyful human life is lost, vets often try to "strike first" in social situations (hurting before being hurt), hide out in their homes - often in the boonies - or create elaborate false identities, "like Odysseus," Shay said.

Certain truths in ethical, social realms are better told though fiction than a more straightforward, factual narrative, he added. To experience and witnesses ugly truth on stage or in a fictional world that feels more true than reality itself can help provide society's beleaguered much-needed catharsis from their trauma or moral injury, "making clean water from muddy water" whether that be in the mind, body, spirit, or all three, Shay said.

In working with veterans, Shay said he "kept hearing the story of Achilles again and again." Among the similar features, a berserk marauding inspired by an experience of moral injury that opened Homer's epic poem and an all-consuming anguish over the death of his closest companion, a fellow soldier, Patroclus, at the hands of Hector or Troy. In revenge, Achilles killed Hector and desecrated his corpse until finally agreeing to release it to his family.

"The Iliad is about war and what matters in the heart of a soldier," Shay said.

People dealing with vets and doctors treating vets need to register the combat history of the soldiers they encounter, Shay said, noting that this essential component of understanding the person's overall health is often left unattended.

With fate's dice rapidly rolling during combat situations, many vets don't know why they are the ones who survived and, sometimes, they had no expectation of living through their various confrontations with possible death.

In the effort to repair moral injury and find health, Shay told Inskeep that the No. 1 step vets can take is getting enough sleep. Families can assist the vet by helping to prioritize regular, deep sleep.

Next, install a solid base of safety, sobriety and self care: "It's a triad often wicked difficult to get into place, but it's the foundation to recovery," Shay said. In their sickness, vets often become preoccupied with themselves, narcissistic and self-obsessed - feelings of self worth will oscillate from "dog shit to grandiose," he added.

Doing things for others, he said, appears to be an essential element of recovery from combat stress.

Shay noted a saying: "There's no one so poor as someone with nothing to give."

But it's not the vet who does all the giving. As Shay noted, families can help facilitate sleep. Mime and puppetry expert Doug Berky offered a lesson on patient support.

Berky moved from character to character, animating physically beyond-life-sized puppets: a tiger, a clouded Japanese soldier home from a taxing war, his wife and an old mountain sage, who offered "The Tiger's Whisker," a moral about the power of patient, loving, courage when handling men (or women) who went off to war but never came home in spirit. The wife, distraught over the irresponsive stranger glowering in isolation within her home, finds the courage, over a series of patient months, to tame a tiger to the point that she can take a whisker - the same courage, she discovers, that is necessary to help her husband emerge from his traumatized shell.

The audience sees the woman apply the gentle wisdom she learned: just setting out a meal and inviting the husband to join. He does not leap from the table; neither had the tiger. But his brow, furrowed so deeply at the beginning of the tale, eased ever so slightly, suggesting that it may take him a while to join the table. But with patient support, he just may get there - just like the tiger did. Berky deserves credit for a nice use of puppet making in the case of the traumatized soldier. At first the soldier seemed rooted and impossible to animate, but with that unexpected brow lift conveyed a weight beginning to lift from his soul.


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