A Dream of Heaven

DSC00069Mike Muller is on the Advisory Board for Thuy Smith International Outreach. He is a Vietnam Veteran and has been a Psychologist counseling veterans for many years.  He writes novels under the pen name of Michael FitzGordon.   

When I was about eighteen I realized I had to choose a career.  I asked myself what I liked to do best.  That was reading novels.  Of course I didn’t think I could earn a living at that.  When I was younger and slaving away in my father’s boat factory, I would sneak into his office when he was away and write stories on a manual typewriter.  So I decided I would be a writer.  However, I did not want to be irresponsible like my father.  Depending on which description you might be comfortable with, my father and his father were gangsters, hustlers, gamblers, or sharp operators.  The boat factory was my father’s brief effort to get out of the bar business.  The bar business can be a front for all sorts of activities.  Our family income was highly variable.  I did not want to be like my father.  I did not want to be irresponsible, and I figured that being a writer was very unreliable and irresponsible when it came to taking care of a family.  So I decided to get a doctorate in English, which would enable me to have a job.  The Vietnam war intervened.  I could have avoided Vietnam by joining a seminary or going to medical school, but I had already decided to get a doctorate in English.  After my tour in Vietnam I began working on my doctorate.  I hated it.  Reading literary criticism all day, day after day, was boring for me.  I switched to working on a doctorate in counseling psychology, and used my graduate courses in English for a masters degree in creative writing.  My masters thesis was a series of short stories about Vietnam.

My first job after earning my doctorate was at a Vet Center in 1981.  I had not learned anything about PTSD in graduate school—the diagnosis had just been recognized!  But I quickly learned about it at the Vet Center.  So many of the veterans were incandescent with rage then, just as many of the veterans freshly returned from war are today.  I also soon realized that I myself had some of the symptoms of PTSD, although not enough of them to be diagnosed with PTSD.  I told myself that God had let me have just enough symptoms myself so that I would be able to understand and help the veterans who had PTSD.  In about 1984 I began writing a novel based on some of my experiences in Vietnam.  Writing the novel was very emotional for me.

In Vietnam I had been an advisor, living and working with the Vietnamese.  In my novel I wanted to help people to understand PTSD, and I also wanted to depict the war from all sides—South Vietnamese, Viet Cong, North Vietnamese, and Americans.  Over the years I revised the novel many times.  Toward the end of my career as a psychologist I began to realize I had been around violence all my life.  My father was violent and associated with violent people, and others in my family did the same.  My childhood response to that was to avoid conflict and retreat into the world of reading novels!  In high school I thought the “tough guys” were just children compared to my family.  In Vietnam I lived on a Vietnamese compound where one never knew for sure who was the enemy, because the compound was of course infiltrated by enemy agents and sympathizers.  Would my throat be cut at night?  And of course all of the military operations were with the Vietnamese, not Americans.  After graduate school I began to work for the VA.  I enjoyed and liked veterans, but at the same time I was also around many enraged and violent people on a regular basis, and the hypervigilance I had learned at an early age became well engrained into my character.  There were many times that I could have been killed if I had said or done the wrong thing.  My peers tended to refer dangerous patients to me because I was big and seemed calm under pressure.  Thanks a lot!  Eventually I had to admit that after a lifetime of being around violence I had PTSD myself.  I had my own episodes of incandescent rage.

Recently, after twenty-seven years since I wrote the first draft, I published my novel on Kindle.  It is A Dream of Heaven, written under my pen name, Michael FitzGordon.  I hope that people will read it and enjoy it.  Bob Kerrey read an earlier draft and wrote that it was “a compelling portrait of the destructive force of hatred, the ravaged psyches of those who have experienced war, and the enduring power of faith and love.”  I hope that people will gain a greater understanding of how one can develop PTSD.  The main characters are both American and Vietnamese, and I hope that readers will see war from both sides, see the folly of war, and work harder to avoid war.

Mike Muller

*MACV CORDS operations advisor, Binh Chanh District, 1970.  Briefing officer for DEPCORDS Ambassador Funkhouser to CG & staff, III Corps Vietnam, 1971.  In addition to briefing the staff I briefed visiting officials such as the Secretary of the Army.  I was in Vietnam for one tour.

Disclaimer: If you are needing more extensive assistance or counseling, we can supply you with a list of available agencies to assist you. No blogs are ever meant to substitute a person seeking help through professional counseling.

Writers and PTSD

Mike Muller is on the Advisory Board for Thuy Smith International Outreach. He is a Vietnam veteran, has a Ph.D. in psychology, and has counseled veterans for many years.  He writes novels under the pen name of Michael FitzGordon. 

I was thinking about all the writers who may have had PTSD:  Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Erich Maria ReMarque, C. S. Lewis, Kurt Vonnegut, James Jones, J. D. Salinger, Ernest Hemingway.  PTSD can be very socially isolating.  One of my great- great grandfathers, who lost an eye in the Civil War, lived out the end of his life in a cabin in the woods.  Why do so many people with PTSD tend to become reclusive?  Is it because they have lost their trust in people, and so tend to be nervous and jumpy around them?  If you expect good things from people, then you will derive feelings of security, love, and companionship with them.  Or perhaps those with PTSD just get tired of the people around them not being able to understand or empathize with their point of view.  So those with PTSD often tend to become isolated.

It seems to me that writing can fit well with this syndrome.  Writing is most often a solitary profession.  Writers need to be able to tolerate and even enjoy long periods of solitude.  Writing is also a way of trying to sort out and understand the meaning of what happened to you, and the meaning of what is going on in the world.  Therefore, I do not think it would be at all surprising if we discovered that quite a few writers were people with PTSD who were trying to sort out the meaning of what happened to them and the meaning of human nature in this world.

I was recently viewing an old film of an interview with James Jones, and he was talking about writers as observers of society who were thus doomed to be outsiders.  This resonated with my own feeling of being an outsider.  Yet he clearly had PTSD, and had the cynicism and anger and protectiveness that so often accompany PTSD, and I wonder if his feeling like an outsider was as much or more from his PTSD than his work in life as a writer.  Perhaps it was the tsunami of war and PTSD that propelled him toward being a writer.

But each writer is different.  When I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina  I do not have a sense that he had PTSD.  He apparently served in a war zone, but he was from the upper classes, and I wonder if he served as an officer who was insulated from the action.  He writes beautifully, but there is no sense of inner devastation that comes with PTSD.  He unquestionably shows a profound sensitivity to social nuances and the psychology of the upper classes.  He describes with clarity and finesse the psychology of Anna leading up to her throwing herself under a train.  Why then is there not that same clarity and finesse in describing the psychology of men in combat?

I think J. D. Salinger clearly had PTSD, although he never wrote directly about his war experiences, which were horrific.  I think the cynicism and alienation of his young character, Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye, is actually the cynicism and alienation of a man with PTSD.  Salinger became quite reclusive, and drove around his property in a Jeep wearing a military jacket.

I’m very curious about C. S. Lewis.  When I was younger I liked science fiction.  But I tried several times to read Lewis’s science fiction trilogy: Perelandra, Out of the Silent Planet, and That Hideous Strength.  It was so stuffy, dry, and British that I always lost interest.  A few years ago I listened to a series of lectures about his life and work.  This led me to read Mere Christianity, in which he gives a lively, far from stuffy, non-denominational defense of Christianity.  In his earlier life he had forsaken Christianity and become an atheist who was very adept at debating and defending his atheistic point of view among the academics at Oxford University.   He was raised as a Christian, but his mother died when he was nine years old.  His father sent him and his brother off to a boarding school that had a hazing system in which the older boys tormented the younger ones.  Furthermore, the headmaster was apparently an overbearing man who was subsequently hospitalized for mental problems.  The young Lewis was miserable.  He had lost his mother and been sent away from his home and his father to live in a cold and hostile environment.  These kinds of experiences in childhood tend to make one more vulnerable to later traumatic experiences.  I wonder if these traumatic experiences led to him forsaking his belief in God.  He also served in WWI, and was wounded.  He referred briefly to the horrors of the trench warfare, but never wrote about it in detail.  He and his good friend had a pact that if one of them was killed, the other would care for the dead man’s family.  His friend was killed, and Lewis suffered another loss to death.  He kept his pact and took care of his friend’s mother for the rest of her life, bringing her to live in his home, and even calling her his mother.  Some have wondered whether he actually had a romantic relationship with this woman, while others have observed that she was difficult, and that there was probably no romantic relationship.  Yet there was no other romantic relationship during that period of his life!  After she died he fell in love with Joy Gresham, but she died of cancer a few years later.

Given this pattern of experiences in Lewis’s life I would not be surprised at all if had PTSD.  But as far as I know he never wrote directly about his war experiences.  He did write about his devastating grief.  He couldn’t seem to catch a break.  He experienced one death after another.  His mother, his friend in the war, his friend’s mother, and finally his beloved wife.  He had met and married his wife late in life, and was “surprised by joy,” but after only a few years she too died.  He developed a torturous relationship with God, and wrote about his attempts to try to understand why God had taken away
so many of his loved ones.

One of the patterns of PTSD is that of delayed onset.  A person in combat keeps a stiff upper lip, and dissociates from his fear and anger in order to function effectively and survive in combat.  After the war he continues to dissociate and function effectively.  “It didn’t bother me.  Those guys who get PTSD or become ‘nervous in the service’ are weak.”  Then, years later, the person is overwhelmed by the symptoms of PTSD and is forced to admit that in retrospect he can see that he’s had the symptoms all along, but has suppressed or hidden them, either consciously or unconsciously.  He thought it was normal, for example, to be so hypervigilant.  Then in later life he
had a brush with death or some other traumatic event that brought it all out.  I think we see this with C. S. Lewis.  In his late life he was devastated by the loss of his wife.  Was it just an excessive grief?  I don’t think so.  I think he was devastated in a way that was consistent with PTSD.  He was questioning God and wanting to know why this could be such a world as this.  Here is this man with latent PTSD writing so many books and providing so many answers for so many of the important questions in life, and suddenly in his late life he feels devastated, like a fool with none of the answers.  I’d be willing to bet that he had PTSD.

Other Related Posts by Mike:

Mike Muller:  MACV CORDS operations advisor, Binh Chanh District, 1970.  Briefing officer for DEPCORDS Ambassador Funkhouser to CG & staff, III Corps Vietnam, 1971.  In addition to briefing the staff I briefed visiting officials such as the Secretary of the Army.  I was in Vietnam for one tour.

Disclaimer: If you are needing more extensive assistance or counseling, we can supply you with a list of available agencies to assist you. No blogs are ever meant to substitute a person seeking help through professional counseling.

Vietnam Veteran returns to Vietnam to put the past to rest

George in vn sitting as soldierI was first in Vietnam in 1969-1970 at Camp Evans. I returned in 1971-1972 and was stationed at Camp Holloway Pleiku. This is where I met my girlfriend Phu late 1971 where she worked in the camp mess hall. We were together when I left Camp Holloway to return to the states. She told me she was pregnant when I was leaving. My mom and I would communicate with her and sent packages and she would send post cards through a GI in the compound. I didn’t know they had closed Camp Holloway and the Americans pulled out soon after I left. I lost contact with Phu thinking the worst of two things- either she didn’t care anymore or she was a casualty of the war when the north gradually took over the south. For 40 yrs I was always thinking about her, but being active military and trying to keep my career going I had to move on with my life. I couldn’t turn to focus on the past even though in my mind it was making me crazy.

Article for search vn paper
Article in Vietnamese paper, Click to enlarge

At first I was going to various sites and searching on my own. I eventually found a site where I was engaged in a deep conversation with a person who had helped some Amerasians in the past. I was asked various questions including did I know if my former girlfriend had the baby or not. I wasn’t sure. I started looking at Amerasian women around the age of 39-40 to see if I could see me in them. It was suggested I place an ad in the paper in Vietnam with her picture.

In the meantime I started talking to a man who served with me in Vietnam during my first tour with the Ghost Riders A company 158th Avn assault helicopter Co. He shared with me about how he brings veterans back to Vietnam all the time to face their past. I wanted to finally try to go back and face some of my demons in life, but did not want to go alone. So my niece and her husband that have always supported me said they would go back with me. In September of 2012 we arrived in Cambodia and then we crossed into Vietnam. After being in Vietnam for only two days, I received an email stating Phu may have been found. I couldn’t believe it. About two minutes after the first email I get an email from another Vietnamese woman stating, ” I think the woman you are looking for is my mother”. She sent me a picture of Phu back during our time together. I was so in shock, happy, and excited. If you can only know that for 40 years I thought Phu and the baby were no longer on this earth. We communicated through webcam. Phu was dancing, jumping up and down, and yelling that’s him! It was so emotional for both of us. For me it was like a million demons had left my mind. The ad was in longer than usual. A woman, friend of Phu’s, by chance had seen the ad. She called Phu to inform her that she believed an American soldier was looking for her. Turns out Phu didn’t have my baby, but she does have eight kids and a good husband. I talk to them often and plan on visiting them when I can get the money together again. We have not yet seen eachother in person.

George return trip to VN
George’s return trip to Vietnam

My return trip to Vietnam was to try to visit places I had been during the war. I was there to rid war demons, never did I expect to get any response about Phu. The trip was not based on finding Phu because as stated earlier, I thought she was possibly a victim of the past. I will say this to my Brothers and Sisters from this War, the visit back to Vietnam is eye-opening and you will be shocked at just how you feel when you arrive there. I really didn’t think the trip would do anything for me, but it has helped me a lot. No it did not and never will rid all those demons, but it’s a way to start dealing with it.

Yes I had all those names and thoughts in my mind of the Vietnamese People, but if you only know how peaceful it is and how polite and so warmly accepted American are. Also no ruck, no steel pot, no weapon, just calmness and relaxed. I want to return so badly to actually meet Phu and her family. I will get there if time is on my side.

George today
George Today