Wife and War
By Amalie Flynn
Self-published, Sept. 2013
409 pages, $14.95
Amalie Flynn has written a memoir that is unique in both of form and content. It is written in a distinctive prose-poetry that is intensely vivid and emotional. And the subject matter connects her experience of the events of 9/11 with her marriage to a Navy officer who was deployed to Afghanistan for 15 months. The result is a problematic work that, despite its flaws, succeeds because its accretion of details and its immersion in 10 years of her life produces a cumulative power that is undeniable.
Flynn was sitting in a law school class in Lower Manhattan on the morning of 9/11. When students’ cellphones go off in a cacophony of ringing and buzzing, they make their way outside. Standing on the corner of Worth and Church streets, only nine short blocks north of World Trade Center, Flynn sees everything — including the people who jump from the towers to avoid death by fire. When the first tower collapses, she runs from the dust cloud with thousands of other panicked New Yorkers. And like so many others, she is traumatized by both the personal experience and the mere idea of the attacks. She tries to return to school two weeks later but is unable to continue.
“I know I left New York City because of them, the soldiers, their tanks and guns, because I did not want to be part of it. And how I ran away, all the way into the arms of a man wearing a military uniform, a man who would be called up, six years later, called up by my country, to go, go and fight it, The Global War on Terror.”
She moves back to her parents’ house in New Jersey, and then to Rhode Island, where she gets a job teaching English on a military base. There, she meets the man who she will marry just one year after 9/11, Jason Phillips. They begin to build a life together, a life she never expected; Jason is the first military man she has ever known, so the life of a military wife is one of life’s ironic surprises.
“When you marry a military man, you are joining the armed forces, even if you don’t want to. When you marry a military man, sometimes, it can feel like the only unit is his, deploying out in ten days, and the only one is you, left, here, at home, by yourself.”
Flynn is struggling to cope with her memories of 9/11 even before Jason is informed that he is being deployed to Afghanistan. A year after they marry, two years after 9/11, he asks her if she is alright “because it is the anniversary…. You never talk about it, he says, smoothing my hair, back, off my forehead…. Not yet, I whisper, not yet.
Even though Jason is in the Navy, he is called up because by late 2007 there simply are not enough soldiers and Marines. The second quarter of Wife and War follows Flynn through her husband’s 15-month deployment, as she cares for their son and copes with her own mental health issues (both related to 9/11 and Jason’s absence).
Compared to other military wives, she is fortunate because he is not seeing combat; he is working at a college in Kabul, training soldiers. He is able to call her nearly every day. “Our words are like snakes moving through the grass, crossing over oceans, over countries, over time changes, slithering back and forth, in between us, and coiling into the sentences of a conversation that may be our last one. And I stand, here, in our bedroom, next to our bed, that is always half made now, listening to him tell me you are a lucky wife.”
Still, it is a difficult time, as Flynn is suffering from a mild form of PTSD but is not getting the support she needs. Like anyone whose spouse is serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, she worries about every day being Jason’s last and getting the dreaded visit informing her of his death. “I have imagined being a widow,” she writes. “I have imagined myself, standing, at his grave site, watching, as my husband’s coffin is lowered into the ground, as it gets covered, covered with dirt. I have imagined myself, weaving through the hallways of a foreign hospital, in Kuwait or Germany, and going to a hospital room, the one where my husband lays in a bed, with no legs, and no words, no life left in him. I have imagined what it would feel like, hearing the news that my husband is gone now. And I am thinking about our vows, how we took each other for better and for worse, and how, how the worst could have happened.”
Flynn captures the isolation, the loneliness, and the longing of a military wife in Wife and War. Some scenes and descriptions will remain with you long after you finish the book. “I can’t really explain it. How when you are a military wife, and when your husband is gone, gone for so long, there is a certain kind of longing. I can’t really explain how I long for him, my husband, for his body to be here, stretched out next to mine, in our bed, one side of his face lit up and legible, by the glow of the alarm clock, or his clothing, his socks and shirts and pants, all of it, left on the floor, there, as he climbs in, climbs in to find me. I can’t really explain how hard it is. How hard it is to know that he can die over there and never come home to me. How hard it is to be alone. And, how, sometimes, I just want someone to open me up again. Read me like a book, word by word, hip by hip, sentences and paragraphs and legs, to keep on reading me, page by page by page, until he is done.”
Jason does come home, physically unscathed and thus one of the of “lucky ones.” But it’s not quite that simple. The second half of the book describes what happens after Flynn’s husband returns. Although they are both happy — or at least relieved — to be together again, a marriage with two PTSD sufferers is not a stable place. Complications arise and fall away and arise again. Words are said, including “divorce.” Tears are shed.
“When my husband comes home, from war, for good, there are still checkpoints. There are those points we have to pass through each day. Like when he sees his combat boots in a closet, lined up and empty, reminding him of all of the soldiers who are dead, now, and how it could have been him. Like when he sees my back, again, facing him, in bed, this massive trench forming in between us, a massive trench that neither of us knows how to cross.”
Later, Flynn captures Jason’s hyper-vigilance at home. “We end up in the kitchen in a standoff…. Because I cannot make him see that this is a kitchen, not a desert, that the island in between us is only Formica, that I am his wife, not an enemy he needs to scan for danger, or regard with suspicion, or target for soft spots.”
But in time, with effort and patience, they find their way back to each other and to a functional marriage. “I know my husband changed over there. How he swore to himself, if he was lucky, lucky enough to get out of Afghanistan alive, things would be different. Then he came home. And I just wanted things to be the same.”
In the end she realizes that “war never ends. Even after a country says it does. Even after my husband looks at me, dead in the eyes, and says, it’s fine…. I know the war will never go away. It will always be, here, in our marriage, my husband, that country, so broken by war, and, how, it almost broke us.
Wife and War is an undeniably powerful piece of writing, intimate and even self-flagellating at times. Flynn’s writing has a hypnotic effect at times. But the odd form of repetition she favors can also be distracting and even annoying at times. Flynn also makes unorthodox use of commas, sprinkling them throughout the text almost randomly. While it appears that she was trying to control the flow of words in order to ensure the pauses and breaths that poets rely upon in readings, the effect of so many commas where they are rarely encountered interferes with the story she is telling.
I couldn’t help but think that Flynn should rewrite Wife and War as a more traditional prose memoir, adding more detail to her descriptions of the life she and Jason lived, thousands of miles apart, as the months passed. But these are mere quibbles compared to the story she has shared with us here. It is a story more Americans need to read, along with books such as the outstanding story collections by Siobhan Fallon (You Know When the Men Are Gone) and Katey Schultz (Flashes of War) and recent novels by Cara Hoffman (Be Safe I Love You), Roxana Robinson (Sparta), Helen Benedict (Sand Queen), Lea Carpenter (Eleven Days) and Laura Harrington (Alice Bliss).
Wife and War is an indispensable record of the hidden costs of war paid by American men and women.