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And as we see Vonnegut’s letters published and become witness to the kind of post-humous studies that look at the man behind the work, we might come to admire even more the fortitude that it took him to do what he did. As Mark Vonnegut put it, “I always thought that there were two separate things running through my family: one was art, and the other was mental challenges. And I’ve really come to see that the arts really do help transform your past and help you grow from it, and that’s something I realized relatively recently.”
Mark Vonnegut’s two memoirs bear witness to that theory: Both deal frankly and lucidly with his bouts with severe mental illness, which, he notes, very nearly knocked him out of running to become a contributing member of society. He can identify with those vets who feel themselves laden down by, rather than helped by, a PTSD diagnosis.
“I’ve heard from a fair number of vets who are wary about PTSD and who think the diagnosis will be used to invalidate them and their experiences, and I share that concern,” he said. “If somebody is trying to use a diagnosis to try to invali- date somebody, which wouldn’t be the first time the medical profession did that, let’s be aware of that.”
What would the medical establishment think, after all, of someone like Billy Pilgrim, Slaughterhouse-Five’s protagonist, whose profound insights are, in part, garnered from lessons taught him by extraterrestrials who sucked them into their spaceship one night?
Or even a guy like Kurt Vonnegut himself, who Mark describes as a distant father, quick to detach, pathologically afraid of being embarrassed, and with whom he came close to having an irrevocable falling out: “While he was alive I realized that this could end badly, because things were hairy from time to time. But when all was said and done, I think myself and my sisters have come around. You can’t be afraid of him anymore, so you might as well just appreciate him.”
Boiled down to their diagnoses, neither Vonnegut — either the manic-depressive son or the shell-shocked father — might have been thought of as trustworthy or worth hearing out. But here’s the thing,
for all those who might find themselves marginalized: It’s the nature of art that one can’t just brush it aside because its creator seems, you know, a bit touched.
“You can’t just sort of invalidate art,” Vonnegut said. “You can say Van Gogh had mental illness, but they’re astonishingly good however he came to make them.”
From War Stories: A Memoir of Nigeria and Biafra
By John Sherman
Excerpted from So It Goes: The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library
I am carrying a dead baby. I have never done this before. Last night, the woman stayed in this house with her baby on an I-V. Brace insisted on sleeping downstairs near them so he could be awakened if anything was wrong. Olive wanted to take his place, but he said no. The baby lived through the night, but this morning while we were getting dressed, it died. The mother cried out when Brace confirmed what she feared. The other three arranged to go to our clinic today in the one Land Rover and I am assigned the task of taking her and the baby near her village.
Brace is very specific. I am not to take her all the way home. She lives about four miles off the main road and he is afraid there might be Biafrans, or even deserting Nigerians, who will take the vehicle and who might bump me off in the process. I don’t think that is likely since it is stark white with large red crosses on all four sides and even on the roof. But when I mention that, it doesn’t faze him. He mentions land mines on the dirt road as another possibility, and that convinces me, finally, that I must not drive the extra few miles.
I take the baby from the cot. It reminds me of picking up a piece of Styrofoam for the first time. Your arms go up sharply when they are confronted with a lot less weight than they were expecting. The mother gathers her few belongings while I hold the baby and follow her outside. I am glad to be able to hand it over to her when she is quietly sitting on the front seat. A cruel irony is here: the baby’s surprisingly light weight comes to me in comparative images: baked egg whites. Meringue. Food. Nothing but food.
We ride in silence. I had never noticed before that the keys banged so hard against the steering column. I hear everything. The shifting of gears. The wooden boxes in the back of the van sliding into one another. I imagine
I hear the child breathing ...
[A+E] Festivals + Parties
[A+E] Theater + Dance
[A+E] Sports + Recreation
[A+E] Visual Arts + Museums
[A+E] Theater + Dance