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NAMI Bookshelf: October 2007
Still the Monkey: What Happens to Warriors After War?
By Alivia C. Tagliaferri
(Ironcutter Media, 2007)
This is a war story that is actually many stories in one. It is an easy-to-read historical novel that educates about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s appropriate for Veterans Day or any other time.
A survivor of the Vietnam War, Dennis Michaels, struggles with PTSD throughout the narrative, recalling experiences in the Mekong Delta and along the Demilitarized Zone. His flashbacks coincide with a series of conversations with a young Marine hospitalized at Walter Reed Hospital, who lost both legs in Iraq, whom he is trying to help as part of program sponsored by a nonprofit organization.
They are bonded by common experiences. Their old lives ended as soon as they arrived in a war zone. Their new lives were born in violence and death. Both men returned home gravely wounded.
"Do you want to live?" a doctor asked.
The ultimate paradox of life is that people begin to die the minute they are born, but the answer to that simple question may be the pivotal moment in beginning the journey home.
The novel educates about PTSD, in a way that is vivid, enlightening, and readily understandable. At one point, Andy Taylor, the Iraq veteran, recalls the story of a buddy stopped by police for driving 100 mph on a highway and switching three lanes while going under an overpass. The police saw it as reckless driving, but in a different place, it was a reflex action that had been linked to survival.
"He was so used to gunning the pedal going under overpasses and making sure to be in a different lane coming out the other side than he was going in, that he forgot where he was," Taylor explained. "It was something we learned in Tikrit…to avoid snipers and insurgents in RPG Alley. They used to sit up there and fire down on us."
A solider may leave a war zone, but the mind may not.
Alivia Tagliaferri was inspired to write the book in 2003 after spending time at Walter Reed Hospital helping to manage video crews that documented visits by celebrities to wounded veterans. Before then, she had never seen the reality or consequences of war.
"I will never forget the far-off look on the faces of the amputees who sat out on the hospital porch in their wheel chairs," she writes. A few months later, she met Dennis Butts, the Vietnam veteran whose stories provide a basis for parts of the narrative.
"War is war. It doesn’t matter where it’s fought or even when. It’s all the same," Butts told the author. It doesn’t matter whether one is talking about Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq—or the second war that ends up being fought in the mind upon the return home.
From the title, "Still the Monkey" means to seek calmness. Buddhist masters who teach students the art of meditation liken the human mind to a monkey. "Left unchecked, the mind may swing back and forth from branch to branch like a wild monkey in the jungle," the book explains.
"Still the Monkey" is a reminder to "stay in the present, to still the mind, to keep the monkey from swinging too far to a branch of the past, or to a branch of the future."
It is an art, not a science. For veterans returning home to the present, recovery may require many skills and the support of others. This book can help others understand.
Use this link to purchase Still the Monkey now from Amazon.com, and NAMI will automatically receive a portion of the sale.
The Bipolar Disorder Answer Book
by Charles Atkins, M.D.