Nothing like being slugged in the mouth by your dad…unless it’s always quaking in his presence because he was volatile and your any word or action might make him roar or threaten you. Nothing is good enough or right.
The relentless tone and theme of Cathy Madison’s memoir The War Came Home With Him both fascinates and exhausts. Of course, Amazon has it and it’s well worth reading, so long as you know what you’re committing to do, think and feel.
As a disclaimer, the author and I were wee childhood buddies, as in nursery/kindergarten time. Our mothers kept regular contact until their deaths. She and I reacquainted casually in the past few years. The pic above from right to left has mutual friend Jackie, my sister Pat, Cathy and I reading. We were at the Arden Apartments (see chapter 2) where her mother awaited word on Korean POW Doc Boysen.
Note too that my father also fought in both Korea and WWII France and Germany. As nearly all such soldiers who saw a lot of action, he didn’t talk about it, much less glorify war. That was for desk jockeys to do.
This memoir is a hard read, but not because of length (only 239 smallish pages) or turgidity (she’s a real journalist). Rather, she sporadically describes from her memory and mostly from her father’s written recollections horrors of several types. In fact, the book alternates its 26 short chapters. One recounts the vicissitudes of Army family life and then the literal and figurative tortures of being a POW, and the next speaks to the title in her memories.
The primary subject, Alexander Boyson, MD, known both as Doc and Pete, was beyond prickly. In Vietnam and later parlance, he had PTSD and has clearly changed personality for the worse during three years of Korean and Chinese imprisonment. As the eldest of three children and by the text the most sensitive, Cathy got the intermittent physical punishment and regular verbal abuse. Rather than responding to the martinet with disdain and hate, she seems to have gone the cowering and trepidation route, the survival mode.
As a writer, I was very impressed by the elegant interweaving of the two parallel memoirs. The time periods are not contemporary, but the interplay works superbly. Her own tales, while they can be jarring, act as breathing space for the reconstructed vignettes of the prison camps, forced marches, prisoner disorders, and deaths.
I suspect many readers will think of Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini. While the latter book and movie do not deal with war tragedy and horror, the harsh and overly precise dad character comes to mind.
I found some parallels and coincidences with Cathy’s story. Fortunately, I did not have a verbally and physically abusive home life. My parents divorced when my father returned from Korea to the rest of us in Japan He quickly remarried and became a deadbeat dad, refusing to pay child support as he was assigned to Germany and had two sons by his second wife. Yet, my mother (who would have been 91 today) supported my sister and me as exec in a series of Red Cross chapters. That meant we moved every couple of years, as Cathy did in the military. Amusingly enough, she also spent time at Fort Sill, where my parents married, my sister and were born, my parents divorced, and my mother and grandfather had to retrieve us via a military court when my father and stepmother announced they’d ignore my mother’s full custodial rights and take us to Europe.
A current meme has been that we boomers are evil, sucking the financial blood from the American body. Yet, many or even most of us didn’t have cushy lives.
Cathy certainly didn’t. She grew up not fully protected by her mother, under the control of a neurotic, very smart surgeon dad. Here again I got the better of it with a single mom, where being from that period piece clicché broken home also meant I didn’t get beaten or shamed. Having two parents isn’t necessarily the ideal.
Even if I didn’t know Cathy, I’d recommend the memoir. I won’t delve here into the images of POWs’ bootless feet leaving blood and skin on forced marches over ice nor Doc’s sudden outbursts that were both irrational and cruel. Just be warned that some, no many, chapters carry harsh jolts.
For those who want the long view be aware that when you finish The War Came Home With Him Cathy comes to terms with a mother who smoked too much, drank too much and shielded her daughter inadequately, and with her often insecure self, and even with her understandably traumatized father. She does not deeply analyze her mother or herself, rather provides reportage and lets the reader do that.
In addition to her memories, her father’s writings, and a few interviews, she also includes some research on the aftermath of POWs and collaboration. As a whole, a war queerly called a UN police action, comes into focus through the experiences of Doc and his fellow POWs. If war is hell, prison camps were a whole deeper level.
Cathy’s memoir is a short, intense trip, well worth it.
The book is at once detailed and yet leaves out much. Her two brothers are very minor characters until the end of her parents’ lives; we don’t learn whether Doc’s abuse extended to them or to her mother and to what extent if so. We don’t know whether she turned to her mother to protect her and if so whether Cathy held her guilty for not doing so. We don’t read about her marriage, which she writes that her husband left. Was he in any real way like her father or did her relationship with Doc color and poison the union? We have to wonder whether the Doc who could record his memories and thoughts of the Korean year so fully analyzed his own treatment of his daughter and others.
In my many moves, I got to know numerous families under the command of an ex-military dad, and in a few cases a dad and a mom. I knew quite a few others who had abusive fathers who were neither POWs or even ex-military. Getting slugged in the face and beaten with belts and such was part of their lives. It wasn’t part of mine, for which I am grateful, and more so after reading Cathy’s memoir.