Memoir Book Review: Alison Buckholtz’s Standing By, Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

by Kendra Bonnett on May 15, 2013

catnav-book-raves-active-3Post #98 – Women’s Memoirs, Book & Video Raves – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War

by Alison Buckholtz

Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

“…the heart of Telemachus yearned as he bethought him of his father.”

—Homer, The Odyssey (Book IV)

As long as we have wars, there will be families of warriors awaiting their return. That’s been the case for eons, even as Penelope wove her way through the absence of Odysseus during the Trojan War in Homer’s epic poem, “The Odyssey.” Odysseus (Greek for the Roman/Latin name Ulysses) sailed off when his son, “mine own Telemachus,” was but a baby and returned when his offspring was fully grown — thereby completely missing the Terrible Twos and the Teen years. How did Penelope manage alone for two decades?

Standing-byAlison Buckholtz, married to a Navy officer and the mother of two young children, pondered the answer to that heroic question many times throughout her husband’s tours of duty. She chronicled the time in a 2009 memoir about military families in modern-day war called Standing By that has just been reissued. The book’s publisher notes the new paperback version “includes reflection on her husband’s difficult second deployment and an update on her family, additional resources for military families, and a Reader’s Guide.”

The author’s direct voice in this well-written, wryly humorous memoir covers even touchy aspects of her family’s existence during phases that tested her staying power. Buckholtz also weaves in vignettes about the lives of other service families around her as she takes the nonmilitary reader on base in an immersion study. The resulting tapestry offers civilians a penetrating look at the family units left behind as battles are waged. The scenario details the “trickle-down” effects of war on “the lives of individuals far removed from the actual conflict.” In addition, this honest memoir may give strength to current and former military spouses by setting down in words facets of that life not usually discussed, thereby opening the door to a much-needed deeper conversation.

When I interviewed Buckholtz via email, I wondered which aspects of her experience she thought were common to military spouses of any gender.

“Male military spouses holding down the home front while a service member is deployed face the same challenges as female military spouses, but with less support—they don’t have the sort of built-in community that female military spouses do,” she replied. “I know many male military spouses that have done an outstanding job while their wives are away, and I admire them tremendously.”

The author believes in the value of writing to get through complex situations. During her husband’s one-year absence, she penned “Deployment Diary: Notes from a Military Wife” for

I asked Buckholtz why she thought writing memoir was important for women.

“Ordering the events of your life into narrative form helps make sense of it, especially when you’re not quite sure where you’re headed, or when your plans diverge from the path you once thought they would follow,” she replied. “I think this applies to everyone, but because women are usually the primary caretakers of their children, and children alter your life plan so radically, perhaps it’s especially useful.”

Buckholtz acknowledges in her memoir the fortitude she developed as a result of her forced way of life, while also declaring the devastating toll of acquiring that skill. Like an anthropologist studying the habits of this tribe called “military families,” she ferrets out such questions as: “How does one support the troops, if not the war?” She examines behaviors that erect barriers between spouses of officers and enlisted personnel, as well as the difficulty of military wives pursuing their own professions, studies, and interests. She notes how hard it was to be Jewish on a military base and observes mothers with sleep-deprived brains helping one another function for the entire length of their husbands’ deployments.

And the children — most poignantly she writes of the children. As yet unable to express emotions through words, Buckholtz’s young son was but one of the military children exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the midst of uprooting moves and a father’s deployment. Buckholtz terms her son an “emotional casualty” of a war he never signed up for. Born while his father was away flying “Shock and Awe” missions over Iraq from an aircraft carrier, the boy later developed nightmares and behavior problems in a “deployment disorder.”

Various efforts like Alison Buckholtz’s memoir create understanding between military and civilian communities about the experience of war, thereby strengthening our social fabric. I asked Buckholtz about a disconnect between civilian and military families, and whether she thought it might be worsening or improving.

“America’s perception of service members and their spouses is broader and more nuanced than ever before,” she said. “I think that the military-civilian gap in cultural understanding has lessened throughout the 10 years of war we’ve experienced, and partly this is due to the fact that so many Americans know someone who has been involved in the war in some way. It’s also due in large part to First Lady Michelle Obama’s sustained focus on military families. She has brought their situation into the spotlight. Military families are no longer invisible.”

Buckholtz ‘s recent guest post on a blog for military spouses called Spouse BUZZ admits a certain amount of negative reaction she received from the forthright presentation of her family’s experience.

And yet an ever-increasing body of research now documents the effects of a warrior parent’s absence on a growing child. Once returned, the warrior, too, often exhibits lasting repercussions from the war experience. A therapeutic community can provide a space in which to regain stability through the expression of a narrative—the recounting of what happened to an individual as a warrior, a military spouse, or a child in such a family.

Telling the Stories of the Military Families

So many of these endeavors involve the power of storytelling. A quick glance around me here in Austin, Texas, reveals a number of people working with such groups.

One of my longtime editing clients, a Jungian analyst, spent much of his later career addressing these issues before his death in 2005. Harry Wilmer worked to aid Vietnam veterans in expressing their war nightmares to promote healing. Following 9/11, he began developing techniques to assist school counselors in working with children of deployed parents at Fort Hood, one of the largest United States military installations in the world.

Writer, playwright, and producer Jonathan Wei is currently taking The Telling Project on a cross-country tour to offer a venue for military personnel and their family members to narrate what it’s like to go to war and then to return to civilian life. The project uses writing, video, and stage acting in the expression of candid accounts.

One of those family members on stage telling her story here in Austin was memoirist Leila Levinson, author of Gated Grief. Her memoir won the Story Circle Network Sarton Award. Levinson initiated an online community called Veterans’ Children in which military offspring can share their stories involving any war.

Another undertaking is called Veterans’ Voices. Cultivated by Johnny Meyer and Paul Woodruff, who has developed the concept of “tragic ethics,” Veterans’ Voices will utilize the reading of Greek drama to stimulate group discussion about military experiences.

Kendra Bonnett, half of the dynamic duo that runs Women’s Memoirs, has speculated on the ancient storyteller as early memorist. Perhaps we’ve come full circle, with modern-day memoirists like Alison Buckholtz taking on the persona of an ancient storyteller. Standing By joins the growing Greek chorus by presenting a strong literary theme as the author links the tale of the ancient Odysseus family to that of the contemporary Buckholtz family. Certainly one can find metaphorical similarities, such as the effect of a parent’s deployment on a child. Young Telemachus suffered from lack of confidence as he was growing up without Odysseus, and found it difficult to assert himself against his mother’s suitors.

And what of the consequences to the warrior Odysseus? Joseph Brodsky, who won a Nobel Prize in Literature, posited in his poem “Odysseus to Telemachus” on the father’s anguished thoughts: “I can’t remember how the war came out; even how old you are—I can’t remember. Grow up, then, my Telemachus, grow strong. Only the gods know if we’ll see each other again. You’ve long since ceased to be that babe.”

When I asked Alison Buckholtz what advice she would offer to young Penelope, holding baby Telemachus as Odysseus sailed away to battle, she replied: “I would look to her for advice, rather than offering her my advice! I’d want to know how she believed in such an unwavering way, and for so long, that he would return.”

This memoir gives me much to ponder about war. The author performs an important role in portraying an overlooked segment of our population in her reissued account of the lives of military families. May it help bridge any gap in mutual understanding.

About Lanie Tankard

Lanie Tankard2Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.

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