Men, Their Arms and Defenses

Article by corby

The title of Catherine Madison's heartbreaking new memoir, THE WAR CAME HOME WITH HIM, reflects how her father, Alexander “Doc” Boysen, who was held prisoner for three years during the Korean War, brought the lingering trauma of his POW experience back to the home front. Early in the book, we read of five-year-old Madison being flung violently across her father’s bedroom—she’d startled him awake, and in his confusion he apparently mistook her for the enemy. In tears, Madison’s mother tries to soothe her shocked, sobbing daughter: “He didn’t mean to, he didn’t mean to.”

Acts like these, of soldiers reiterating the violence of battle in the supposedly safe space of home, are as common today among veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq as they were in Doc’s generation among veterans of the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Spouses and children are often the victims; data released by the Defense Department in September 2015 show a sharp rise in cases of child abuse and neglect among military children. Soldiers frequently target themselves as well, the violence blooming like a dark flower from depression, anxiety, and a host of psychological and physical injuries. A 2013 report by the Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that twenty-two American veterans commit suicide every day, a figure that is most likely an underestimate.

In the case of Doc and his daughter Madison, while there were smatterings of physical abuse, the struggle depicted in this finely honed memoir exists primarily on the psychological plane. By spinning two parallel narratives in alternating chapters—Doc’s captivity on the one hand, and Madison’s turbulent coming-of-age story on the other—the book slowly draws the outlines of a conundrum: how can Doc have the fortitude and generosity of spirit to keep his fellow POWs alive in the direst circumstances, and yet be mostly incapable of simple acts of kindness toward his own daughter, like giving her a hug, offering her the occasional compliment, and telling her he loves her, which he would only do once in his life, the day before he died?

At its core, Madison’s memoir is animated by the many tensions that exist between keeping silent and speaking out. Madison and her brothers referred to Doc behind his back as “Colonel Surgeon Father God” because he came down with thunderous, terrifying rage against the slightest perceived insubordination, and the picture Madison paints of herself is of a girl who quickly learns that silence is her most workable mode of survival.

When I interview her, Madison gestures toward a loose connection between her early self-effacement and her later career as a journalist, since according to old-school journalistic ethos, "You don’t put yourself in the story. If you had an opinion, people shouldn’t know it.” With the publication of THE WAR CAME HOME WITH HIM, Madison finally puts herself at the center of the story, alongside her father: "I’m breaking that silence...There’s still a huge stigma about depression and PTSD and anxiety, which was rampant in our family. Now that the book is’s like something has opened up. I’m feeling liberated… I feel like this book has allowed a part of me to come out into the world that couldn’t be here before.”

Set against this sense of liberation is an equally palpable sense of what still remains concealed and unspoken. The book begins with a vignette from near the end of Doc's life, as he lies ill in a hospital bed at the age of seventy-eight. Prompted by figure skating on the hospital television (it’s the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City), he explains to Madison that, as a young man, he would travel to the Twin Cities from his small Minnesota town to the see the ballet. The idea of her father as a lover of ballet strikes Madison as almost unimaginable. But after his death, having discovered his childhood journal among scattered papers, Madison found confirmation: in an entry dated January 11, 1942, Doc recorded that he had gone to see the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, adding: “It was very beautiful.” By framing her memoir with this incongruous detail, Madison suggests—as with the logic of Hemingway's famous iceberg theory of literature—that the surface only shows a small part of what is churning underneath. We wonder what other complexities of Doc’s character are forever hidden from view, never spoken, never written down.

As it happens Doc did write, quite a lot, and he could be eloquent. He wrote lots of letters to Madison’s mother from Korea before his capture, which she kept in a scrapbook along with newspaper clippings; and later on he made an attempt to write his own version of a memoir, parts of which Madison quotes here and there in her book. But she never had access to this material while Doc was alive. Once (in her teens) Madison stumbled upon the scrapbook with Doc's letters, and she made the mistake of asking about some details at the dinner table. Fuming at the invasion of his privacy, Doc hurled an entire cake against the wall, smashing its plate into shards, screaming: “Don’t you ever, ever ask me anything like that again!”

As she got older, Madison pleaded with Doc to let her help him write up his version of what happened in Korea, but his response was always indignant refusal. After his death, Madison committed to investigating and writing about the POW camps and attended annual reunions of the Tiger Survivors—the troops who had survived the camps along with Doc (the name “Tiger” referred to a brutal North Korean officer who took pleasure in torturing prisoners). At one of these reunions, pen and pad in hand, Madison struck up a conversation with a vet who had known Doc and nervously asked a few questions. After hesitantly offering some details, the vet stopped himself abruptly and said: “You know, for the first twenty-five years, I blocked all this out. Now, every day I’m alive, I’m lucky enough to forget a little bit more. Why would I want to remember?” One of the many rewards of THE WAR CAME HOME WITH HIM is this type of anecdote, which gives a sense of how difficult it was for Madison to respectfully navigate the dark memories of her father and the other Tiger Survivors. And the memories are really dark. Thousands of American POWs died in captivity in Korea, many of them from starvation, and Madison's powers of description, particularly in recreating the squalid conditions of the camp, are excellent.

Nonetheless, what is most affecting about THE WAR CAME HOME WITH HIM is Madison's depiction of near-total lack of communication between her and her father, which may have been exacerbated by the trauma of his POW experience but goes much deeper into the bedrock of his personality. To say the least, Doc was hard on Madison. He harbored an ill-defined resentment toward her, and accused her of being a snob, something Madison still struggles to understand. (“Okay, I like craft beer and good ice cream,” she tells me with a laugh.)

To judge from some of the most arresting vignettes in the book, at least part of Doc's resentment was rooted in Madison's development as a sexual being, either because of his own feelings toward her, or his fear about her relationships with boys her own age. Late in the book, she describes taking a shower (she is about sixteen at the time) and having Doc with a playful demeanor pull back the curtain and grab her nipple. "Why did you do that?" she manages to blurt out. "Because that's what men do. You better get used to it." And in what is perhaps the most disturbing scene in the book, Madison describes coming home slightly late from a school dance—at most three minutes after curfew— and being beset by Doc, who hounds her in the living room literally for hours with questions like, "Are you going to be a goddamn slut like the rest of them?"At one point, unable to control his rage, he punches his daughter square in the mouth and knocks her to the floor.

Despite its grave subject matter, somehow this memoir about the “yawning, silent chasm that wraps us in solitary, shamed cocoons” manages to achieve an overall tone of optimism and resilience. And there are some unexpected truths about communication in the digital age that emerge incidentally. It seems as if every week there’s another public intellectual lamenting how the internet is, paradoxically, alienating us from one another just as it seems to keep us constantly connected. For Madison and her father, though, it was a different narrative: “The best thing that happened to our relationship was the advent of email,” she tells me. “It would be midnight, and he would just write this page…He wrote a page about when I came home from the hospital as a baby, and we lived in a little town called Tillicum in Washington state. I hadn’t even heard of Tillicum until this email arrived… So now I have stacks of emails he wrote, but he never would have told me that, if I were visiting him.”

The War Came Home with Him: A Daughter's Memoir Cover Image
ISBN: 9780816698776
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: University of Minnesota Press - September 1st, 2015

Catherine Madison signs THE WAR CAME HOME WITH HIM on Tuesday, November 3 at 7PM

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