Poverty in Trion

In The Trion Syndrome, the protagonist Dave flees. His marriage has collapsed, he’s lost his job, his children won’t see him. His life is in ruins. He runs away to rural Maine where he ekes out a living as a gas station attendant, sleeps in a storage shed, and considers suicide. He lives in poverty.

I can write about poverty. I’ve been there. When I was a child, my lawyer father went to prison for embezzling money from his client. My mother was an alcoholic. We were so poor that at times I didn’t have anything to eat. Throughout high school and college, I worked for as much as twenty hours a week at part-time jobs to survive. I suffered my first bout of exhaustion at the end of my senior year in college (University of California, Berkeley) and missed my graduation ceremony.

In short, I know whereof I speak as I write about Dave’s squeaking by on next to nothing. Exemplary is his need to replace his watch, a necessity for a working man who deals with the public. He finds the money to buy the cheapest Timex by cutting back on what he eats.

In my case but not in Dave’s, my time of being poor taught me important lessons. I learned of my own resiliency. My self-reliance, born of having to take care of myself as a child when my parents were absent or unable, was honed. I was a better man for it. That knack for relying on myself saw me through the fall of Saigon.

Thomas Mann’s Retelling of the Trion Myth

In telling Dave’s story in The Trion Syndrome, I knew I needed to bring home the meaning of the Trion myth to him in a way that would penetrate his core. So I invented an unpublished novella by Thomas Mann based on the Trion myth and told of Dave’s discovery of the manuscript. In Mann’s retelling of the story, Dave believes he sees himself in the character of Trion Kretchmar, Mann’s protagonist, but doesn’t understand why. He later learns that the painful memories of what happened in combat in Vietnam have receded into his unconsciousness. He’s haunted by nightmares but can’t remember what happened.

Using Thomas Mann as the key to Dave’s mysterious attraction to the Trion myth worked well for several reasons. First, Dave is a German scholar and familiar with Mann as one of the best German writers of the twentieth century. Second, Mann is one of my favorite writers, and many of the themes of his masterpiece, Doktor Faustus, are echoed in Trion. Third, Mann typically chose myths as the basis of his stories, and the Trion tale would have appealed to him. With all the pieces fitting together so well, the story wrote itself—Dave finds an unpublished novella by Mann, apparently abandoned because Mann rewrote much of the material into Doktor Faustus. The Mann’s retelling of the Trion resonates with Dave and eventually leads to the re-entry of his experiences into his conscious memory.

The Trion Myth

When the story told in The Trion Syndrome came to me, I knew I needed a Greek myth to accompany the story. The myth needed to crystallize the fundaments of the narrative. I worked my way through Robert Graves’ two-volume The Greek Myths but found nothing that fit the story of Dave’s decline or eventual salvation. So I made up a myth which appears just before the unlabeled prologue in the book’s text:

The Trion Myth

Ares, the god of war, beheld a maiden washing herself in a stream. Overcome with lust, he plunged into the water and ravished her. The girl bore a male child, Trion, who throughout his days would be afraid of water. Bent on revenge, the girl carried the infant Trion to the city of Thrace to confront Ares. To her surprise, the god doted on the boy and taught him the secrets of war.

Larger and stronger than other boys, Trion grew to become a fierce warrior, renowned for savagery in battle. Indifferent to pain, given to brute force, and addicted to dominance, he earned the enmity of Hera because of his cruelty to the vanquished. He fell afoul of all the gods when, as the leader of Spartan forces, he disemboweled his own infant son to demonstrate his ferocity. Aphrodite cursed him—he could never know love. At the peak of his success, Hecate sent the Eucharides, three female monsters, to destroy him. Trion fled to Delphi and consulted the oracle but refused to heed her warning to change his ways and make penitential sacrifices. The Eucharides trapped him at the mouth of the Strymon River, where it meets the Aegean Sea. There they drowned him.

End of quote. Dave discovers an unpublished novella by Thomas Mann based on the Trion story. More about that tomorrow.

Children’s Shame

As recounted earlier, when I returned to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon, I was an emotional wreck. We didn’t have a name for my condition then; later the term Post-Traumatic Stress Injury would be coined. My marriage collapsed. The consequence I feared most was that I would lose my children.

That fear became a driving force in The Trion Syndrome. The protagonist, Dave, like me, is suffering from flashbacks, panic attacks, nightmares, and irrational rages. He loses his job, his marriage crumbles, and his greatest dread is realized when his children are ashamed of him and don’t wish to see him. Or so he believes.

Among the worst things that can happen to a man, in my estimation, is for his children to be ashamed of him. Of all the factors that drive Dave toward suicide, that is the strongest. His salvation arrives in the person of a young man who is also his son, a child he didn’t know existed.

At the end of the story, Dave heads home to Maryland from his redoubt in Maine. He knows he has to face his past and come to terms with it. His most important and difficult task will be to face his children and come to terms with them.

Pity the Poor Writer

Some years ago, the novelist Carolyn Thorman told me a story:

A novelist and a brain surgeon were out golfing. The brain surgeon said, “You know, George, I think I’ll take off the summer and write a novel.” “Great idea, Henry,” the novelist said. “I think I’ll take off the summer and do brain surgery.”

The point, of course, is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, technique and hard-won skill are as essential to writing fiction as they are to brain surgery and take just as long to perfect. Yet so many readers seem to believe that we authors have a lazy and enviable life. But I’m here to tell you, as the old song goes, that it just ain’t so.

When I’m working at full steam, fourteen-hour days are not unusual. Yet, on average, each of my published novels took me fifteen years to write. I go through multiple drafts, trying to optimize the wording, organization, tone, and presentation.

Then comes promotion. That means endless presentations, readings, and book signings. My sense is that most writers are introverts—I certainly am—and constantly being a hale-fellow-well-met is hard work.

I’m luckier than most. Through a quirk of personality, I become an extrovert when you put me on a stage with a microphone. As much as I dread speaking in public and as hard as I work to prepare, some magic transforms me when the spotlight goes on. A different Tom Glenn emerges. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. It means that it works.

All that said, writing is both the most difficult and most fulfilling work I’ve done. As I noted earlier, I write because I have to. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Filial Love

In The Trion Syndrome, a man’s son finds his father at the end of his strength and helps him find his way.

Dave, the book’s protagonist, is near suicide. His inescapable memories of Vietnam and his attempts to cope with them have destroyed his marriage and his job. He’s run away to Maine where he works in a gas station and lives in a storage shed.

Dave’s mother was a German war bride, so he grew up speaking both German and English. While finishing his doctorate in German—after his military service in Vietnam—he spends time studying in Germany and has an affair with a German woman. He breaks off the affair and returns to the U.S. to marry the woman he loves. Unbeknownst to him, the woman he abandons is pregnant and bears a son she names Hans.

After the death of his mother, Hans, now a young man, sets out to find his father and locates him living as a bum in a storage shed in Maine. Hans cajoles Dave into turning his life around.

Invariably when I write, a moment or scene appears in my imagination and moves me deeply. That moment for Trion was Hans telling Dave that he is Dave’s son. The idea of a man giving so much to save his father touched my core. Over time, the characters and the story revealed themselves to me until I had to write the book.

I think I found the relationship between Dave and Hans so galvanizing because it is what I would have wanted myself. By the time my own children were grown, I had come to terms with my own trauma resulting from combat in Vietnam. But I was unusual. Many combatants, like Dave, have suppressed their memories which then surface as the veteran ages. That is why, in my estimate, that the rate of suicides among Vietnam veterans is so much higher than among veterans of later wars. The figures for later wars will rise as the men age.

My love for my children is the strongest enduring love I’ve known in my life, exceeded in power only by the short-lived bond I felt for men who fought by my side in combat. The kindness and generosity shown me by my children are treasures I will always cherish. Hence my emotional response to Hans caring for Dave.

Why No Treatment for PTSI

A reader asked me why I didn’t seek treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Injury after the fall of Saigon.

The answer is that I held top secret codeword-plus security clearances. Had I sought psychotherapy, I would have lost my clearances and therefore lost my job. That was the way the government worked back then. I had a wife and four children. Unemployment was out of the question.

So I gritted my teeth and suffered through it alone. By sheer luck, I was blessed with enough self-reliance, self-respect, and fortitude to muddle through. Writing was a God-sent. I learned years later that one effective therapy for PTSI is writing down what happened as one way to force oneself to confront the unspeakable memories.

PTSI has affected all my writing. Most of it is about Vietnam. But my one novel not about my time in harm’s way, No-Accounts, also resulted from my struggle with PTSI. I learned early on that when I was helping other people worse off than I was, my memories receded into the background. So I became a volunteer. I worked with the homeless, spent seven years volunteering at a hospice and working with dying people, and, at the height of the epidemic, took care of AIDS patients for five years. The latter work helped with my PTSI, but I faced so many deaths among AIDS patients that I developed a new strain of PTSI. To vent it, I wrote No-Accounts, the story of a straight man caring for a gay man dying of AIDS.

So in a very real sense, nearly all my writing is influenced by—and maybe the result of—PTSI.

Cecil Whig Article

This morning the Cecil Whig newspaper published an article about the Maryland Public Television travelling exhibit, now in Perryville, Maryland, and my part in the display. The exhibit celebrates sixteen Vietnam vets; it tells of my time in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975. You can read the article at http://www.cecildaily.com/spotlight/article_9c5c8c66-2344-5112-98e8-248e703d90fc.html
Let me know what you think.

“Only Despair of Forgiveness Is Unforgivable”

Those are the words of Hans, the illegitimate son of Dave, the protagonist of The Trion Syndrome. Hans is counseling his father to seek forgiveness for what he has done—inadvertently killing a child in combat. But Dave is guilty of despair. He believes that what he has done is unforgivable. He despairs of forgiveness.

I suspect that despair is part and parcel of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. Our memories are too ghastly to face. If we don’t face them, we’ll never find even an imperfect peace. We can’t do what we must do. Despair.

I believe that love can conquer despair. If someone loves me, then there is good in me and I can hope. In Trion, it is Hans’ love for his father that helps Dave find his way home from despair.

I wasn’t that lucky. It was up to me. No one was there to help. When I returned to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon, my wife refused to come to my aid. She and our children stayed at her father’s house in another state until I could get our house back from the people we’d leased it to for the duration of our tour in Vietnam. For two months, I was left to cope on my own.

That led to another discovery. Determination can lead the way home from despair. Or maybe the correct name is pride or stubbornness. I’d learned at age six to fend for myself because my alcoholic mother and jailed father weren’t going to take care of me. I developed a self-reliance that has stuck with me throughout my life. I wasn’t going to let hideous memories destroy me.

The character of Dave in Trion and I share that sense of depending only on one’s self. My sense is that if Hans hadn’t come along, Dave would ultimately have uprighted himself. But Hans did appear. Dave was luckier than me.

The Star-Spangled Banner

I’ve been at a series of events recently at which the “Star-Spangled Banner” was played. I was surprised by my own emotional response.

I know as a musician that the song is at best flawed music, and it’s difficult to sing because of the range it requires. I know as a writer that the text is overwritten. It is, in short, an imperfect national anthem. So why does it move me so deeply?

Because of what it stands for. I’ve served beside men of all services. I’m alive today because of them. Some of them are alive today because of me. We put our lives on the line for the country we loved.

I’ve come to understand that the strongest bond possible among human beings comes when they fight side by side against a common enemy. As I said earlier, we don’t use the word “love” to describe our feelings. That’s too sentimental. But it is love, the strongest love I’ve ever experienced.

And as I grow older, my understanding of myself and my country deepens. I see that part of the reason that I love the United States of America is that I fought for her. And as I watch the unfolding story of other nations burdened by dictatorship and a lack of freedom, I cherish more than ever what we Americans have.

This is where my heart is. I will always be a patriot, not because I made a conscious decision, but because my fate and the nation’s fate are one.