Penny - 'Survivor Story'

by Penny Coleman

"And I Won’t Forget to Put Roses on Your Grave" –The Rolling Stones, 1971

It is only recently that I have begun to think of myself as a Vietnam War widow. In the '70s, when Daniel and I met, we were just two young photographers, trying to make a go of a difficult marriage. Daniel had recently returned from Vietnam. He told funny stories about escapades during R & R, but he refused to talk about anything more serious. He slept too much, drank too much, smoked too much marijuana and held me much too close. He was hurt in ways I couldn't fix. When I tried to distance myself, he tried to kill himself. When I found him and called the paramedics, he screamed at me from his hospital bed that he did not consider that act a favor. I left him, headed home to New York and was already married to someone else when his sister called to tell me that he had taken his own life. I have no memory of what I felt. I wasn't surprised. I suppose I was numb. I didn't go to the funeral.

It never occurred to me to blame the war for what had happened to us. I tried to blame him but ended up blaming myself. If only I had been kinder, more patient, less self-absorbed, quicker to notice and identify trouble. I can find more compassion for us both from this distance. I now see that he was just a kid who tried to stay alive in a situation that exploded all the rules he had ever lived by, and that he was too sorry and too ashamed to imagine starting over. I know now that I was over my head in a situation I neither understood nor controlled, and that I was sincerely doing the best I could. But at the time I believed his death was my fault, and I crept into a psychic lair to lick my wounds in private.

Denial is often a first response to traumatic events. Numbing is another. I submerged myself in my new life and never spoke about that piece of my past. But the guilt, the shame and the fear that what had happened once might happen again continued insidiously to infect my life and my relationships. It was not until the late '80s, when I encountered the literature on Vietnam and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), that the absolute shell began to crack. The symptomology had an eerie familiarity—and, in the suggestion that perhaps it had not all been my fault, I found some room to breathe. Finding my way to the surface has been a long and slow process. It would be dishonest to suggest that the process is complete.

In many ways, my life since Daniel died has been the life we planned together. I worked as a photographer for the New York Times and other papers. I had two children and began to teach photography at a university. I have photographed and told stories of milestones and outrage and celebration, of cultural difference, political aspiration and individual achievement. I have experienced the power of photography to create community, to bring individuals together, to open doors through which might be glimpsed hidden suffering, courage, shared history and commonalities of interest. Now I am finally opening a door I myself closed years ago. After twenty-two years, and in light of what I have learned about PTSD, I am beginning to explore, with other women, the parameters of a grief that many of us suffered in silence, shame and isolation.

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Learning about PTSD and learning to call myself a Vietnam War widow has helped me to understand that my experience is not unique.

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We all know that there are some 58,000 names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall. Yet by the late 1980s, some media reports estimated that the number of Vietnam veteran suicides had exceeded the number of combat deaths. This number includes those who never left a note, who simply drove the family car into a tree or who died of an overdose, the ones that some families prefer to call "accidents." There was no community available to the women who were left behind. For the last year, drawing on my skills as a photographer and oral historian, I have been locating and interviewing other Vietnam war widows whose loved ones’ names are not inscribed on the Wall, whose loved ones were those other, more hidden deaths. I am learning to listen well this time, with compassion for all of us, for what we didn't know, for the help we were never offered, for the shattered lives and the heroism of those who managed to go on. I want to hear what they told themselves, what they told their children, where they found comfort, how they survived.

Learning about PTSD and learning to call myself a Vietnam War widow has helped me to understand that my experience is not unique. I have learned, for example, that I was not alone in being excluded from what Daniel was going though. None of the women I have spoken to heard more than fragments of their partners' traumatic war memories. It was not that I didn't try hard enough or listen well enough, but that I was home and sanctuary and the last place it would be safe to risk exposing a shame.

And I have learned, with some probing, that when survivors talk about overcoming guilt, they are not just talking about omissions, what we wish we might have said or done. Sometimes we are talking about commissions, things that we did that were selfish, cruel and disloyal. I behaved badly when Daniel most needed my help. Some of my memories from those days are tawdry. Only now am I learning to forgive the young woman who flailed and raged and came up with solutions that hurt us both.

And then there is something I share with those women who chose their partners after they came home from the war: the question, what was it in our histories that drew us to such wounded souls? Even if the damage was unavailable and unacknowledged, it was surely there below the surface, festering. Could we not feel it, intuit it? That is a question for each of us. For myself, I know that I married what I most feared and least understood: a mirror image of my own despair and the comfort I found in the possibility of suicide. It was always my escape of last resort, the reason I felt free to choose another day, the tactic I used to avoid feeling trapped in my life. My fascination with suicide and with Daniel's frailty had a distinctly morbid quality. I mirrored and shared Daniel's suicidal tendencies, picked at them, on some subconscious level, to see what would happen. I tested and teased at his hold on life the way a miner brings a canary into a mine.

And then there was the hubris that claimed responsibility. If I could control people and events, if I had the power to make things happen, then the world was not such a terrifying place. Believing that I could have prevented Daniel’s death was less frightening than knowing I could not. If it was my fault then, then perhaps I could make myself adequate to future challenges, be good enough, wise enough, healthy enough. It was magic thinking—and megalomania—to believe that, if I could just be a better person, the world would right itself.

Even now, knowing what I do, it is a struggle to put aside that sense that I am responsible for Daniel’s death. It has taken me twenty-odd years, two beloved children and a lot of therapy to decide to claim my life, to love it, to embrace the richness of its joy and its pain. When my children were born, I wanted to love them fiercely and well. They made me want to live, to really live, to risk. I am still afraid my fears are contagious. I am occasionally afraid that I am contagious. But the ways I wish it had been otherwise, that I had been otherwise, are just that: only wishes. Forgiveness has been largely about healing myself and, through that process, finding a way to grieve.

The story of the Vietnam War widows is a hidden piece of the women’s history of my generation. It is, or, rather, it should be a part of the official history of the Vietnam era, of twentieth century America. Its invisibility stems in part from the ways in which women’s history and family history are commonly erased in the "official" versions of events. It also stems from the uncomfortable chaos of emotions that have characterized public response to the war and its aftermath. But it is in large part due to the stigmatization of suicide, and the sadly misguided inclination to transfer blame and punishment to those most in need of compassion. I want to find—and share—those women's stories, in the hope that they will provide some healing in the telling and in the hearing for all of us.