The life of a story

by Jennifer on June 18, 2008

Over the last few days, a couple of stories about telling our stories have crossed my radar. The first was an article in Good Housekeeping titled “The Story That Can Change Your Life” (no link available), and the second was this article in the New York Times: This Is Your Life and How You Tell It. Both articles happen to quote the same expert, Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern and author of the 2006 book, The Redemptive Self. The emphasis of both articles is that those who are able to find the redemptive qualities in the narrative of their own lives are more resilient.

Tonight I bought these two books:

The books could not be more different from each other–except that the main characters (who, in Tiger Force, happen to be real people) have committed what appear to be (and maybe are) unforgivable acts. Tiger Force is an account of the controversial and horrifying actions of an elite special ops group in Vietnam called Tiger Force.

The second, The Outlander, begins in 1903, as a young widow runs deep into the wilderness to escape the wrath of two brothers of her husband. He died at her hand, and they are determined to avenge his death.

Surprisingly and to the authors’ credit, given the subject matter, Tiger Force reads like fiction. Its authors, Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss are journalists who won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the story in 2003 in the pages of The Toledo Blade. They spent years researching and conducting interviews around the world, and also uncovered a staggering amount of classified information. Even if you never read the book, their series of articles gives you a thorough and (I believe) fair picture of the events and of the soldiers who were involved, and also of the cover-up that followed.

I became familiar with the story a few years ago when I was researching the Phoenix Program, which I’ve discussed before in another post. However, I didn’t know that Sallah and Weiss had expanded their research into a 400 page book. I found it tonight, very much by accident, and sat down to read the first pages. Despite the ease of its narrative style, I won’t enjoy reading this book–the subject matter is too dark and painful. Yet it is the sort of book that I feel like I have a responsibility to read, no matter what conclusions I draw at the end of it.

There was a massive burying of evidence. Everyone involved was under orders not to talk about what happened, and the cover-up led all the way back to the White House. Almost 40 years of public silence preceded the breaking of the story.

Far too long, if you ask me.

But there are other stories that simply take that much time to percolate, I think. Very personal stories, especially. It can take that long and maybe longer for them to get steady on their feet, like a foal struggling to stand. I know that to be true of my own stories. There wasn’t a day before the one on which I began to write about certain events in my childhood when it would have been possible for me to put it all down in the right words. That was the day, the day when enough time had passed and I had found enough perspective (and borrowed courage) to be able to tell what happened in the most honest and fair light.

And, yes, I managed to find a few redemptive qualities in those experiences.

I suspect that once I get a bit further into The Outlander, I will find out why the 19-year-old widow killed her husband, and I won’t judge her for it.

Maybe some of you will question my moral compass when I say that I might find it hard, in the end, to judge most (and maybe all) of the men of Tiger Force, after I look at all of the events and conditions and, especially, the chain of command. That doesn’t mean I dismiss or excuse what they did.

But I wasn’t there. And they were under orders, both specific and ambiguous, that flew in the face of the most basic humanity. Upon reading some of the stories, my most visceral reactions will take over, and (from what I know of the events already) I will be disgusted and my insides will coil tightly around things that are too awful to think about. But just after that, I will do what we should all do, as citizens of a country whose government acts in our name: I will ask questions about who is ultimately responsible for what happened, and those questions will link together like a chain, and that chain will lead me to a conclusion I can either live with, or not.

I do know that it’s a hell of a lot easier for me to find my way around that conclusion than it is for the people in Vietnam (or, insert country of choice and war of choice) who still live with their losses, and for the soldiers who, to this day, live with the demons that followed them home.

When it comes to war, there aren’t always redemptive qualities to be found, and sometimes none at all. I don’t have any platitudes to set down here like a tray of sweet cookies at the end of lunch. I can’t say that if we’re lucky, we live through it all and, after enough time has passed, we tell the stories. I won’t say that there is something to be learned from every story. Sometimes there’s nothing good to be found, not even under the very last rock we turn over.

Finding redemption can take a long time. Sometimes forever.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

tysdaddy June 18, 2008 at 7:01 am

I believe redemption is a very powerful word. To believe that we get back something that was once stolen, or freely given away, simply by retelling the story of the events is to believe that life matters and what we bring to it has value.

Excellent post . . .

tysdaddys last blog post..Cleveland


HRH June 18, 2008 at 7:05 am

I am curious about the nuts and bolts to story telling. It seems like such a difficult thing to get all the details in while entertaining and conveying emotion. I too have read books where the process of how the story evolved just blows me away. How do they do that??

HRHs last blog post..The one (and only) time Holly was a fierce camper…


JCK June 18, 2008 at 10:16 am

Oh, Jennifer, as usual you said all of this so articulately. I guess it doesn’t hurt that I agree with you. 😉

One of your little morsels that I loved was: “I don’t have any platitudes to set down here like a tray of sweet cookies at the end of lunch.” You just may HAVE to coin that phrase, girl!

This is a heavy subject and takes courage to put it all out there.

JCKs last blog post..GIRL draws Mommy


Daryl June 18, 2008 at 10:24 am

But when its found it must feel like such a weight has been lifted … a lot of courage and sense of self is needed, I would think.

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ByJane June 18, 2008 at 10:57 am

Despite the ease of its narrative style, I won’t enjoy reading this book–the subject matter is too dark and painful. Yet it is the sort of book that I feel like I have a responsibility to read, no matter what conclusions I draw at the end of it.

I’m curious as to why, since you know the particulars of the case, you feel like you have a responsibility to read the book?

ByJanes last blog post..New Post Up at


Jennifer Harvey June 18, 2008 at 11:20 am

Jane–I think it’s because I know the particulars of the events that I should read the stories of how these men got to where they ended up. The articles were thorough, but they were limited in length because they appeared in a newspaper. I’m interested in more of the deep background., which is where the seeds of this story are planted, I think.

I also felt I had a responsibility to look at the photos from Abu Ghraib prison, just as I have a responsibility to vote. I believe that we have to stare down the worst of what our country does, with just as much steadiness and conviction and heart as we might display when we mouth the words of the national anthem at the start of a baseball game.

You asked a good question, and I hope I answered it in the spirit in which you asked it.


Ann June 18, 2008 at 12:33 pm

Very interesting post. Redemption is not always found, in the end. It makes the search for it no less important, which is why I love this post.

This makes me think of Darfur and the Congo – and I wonder when the day will come, or the book will arrive – when we’ll read about it, look back in hindsight and horror – with our eyes wide open.

Anns last blog post..What The Heck?


Kimberly June 18, 2008 at 1:26 pm

Really good post. I always bristle a bit when people get too judgy. Like in the case of a police officer shooting a civilian. I’m not saying that’s right, but it’s not “black and white” either. And to say “he should have” or “shouldn’t have” isn’t fair. You weren’t there. You don’t know. That’s important to keep in mind when judging almost anyone who acts in a stressful or crisis situation.

Kimberlys last blog post..Wordless Wednesday: Say CHEESE!


Madge June 18, 2008 at 2:50 pm

you tell a story just as well as anyone out there.

Madges last blog post..


Suzanne June 18, 2008 at 6:31 pm

Jen, I hope you will write further about this idea of redemptive qualities in storytelling/memoir, specifically how it might apply to what you are writing now…will you feel better if you find some form of redemption through writing your story, or is it even something you seek?

This is a really interesting concept, thank you for writing about it, I hadn’t heard of it and now will go back and read these articles. I actually believe that this redemptive quality can be found in fiction writing as well…often when I read a novel, and then glance back at the author’s bio, I’ll see similarities and wonder, are they consciously or unconsciously working something out through the arc of the story?

Thanks for the post, very interesting.

Suzannes last blog post..We have a winner!


flutter June 18, 2008 at 9:41 pm

always forever. Or so it seems.

flutters last blog post..


Jenn @ Juggling Life June 19, 2008 at 7:39 am

I know exactly what you feel about being compelled to read something you won’t “enjoy.” I have friends that would never dream of reading or watching something that did not “entertain” them and it just baffles me.

Jenn @ Juggling Lifes last blog post..How Enthusiastic Is Too Enthusiastic?!


melissa June 19, 2008 at 8:18 am

Honesty about that is even more difficult. I don’t think I could read Tiger Force. But the other book? Will be suggested as a book club read!

melissas last blog post..Screw Iowa!


Lisa June 19, 2008 at 10:55 am

You have managed to get me to think–thank you. I so rarely get a chance to think 🙂

Lisas last blog post..Poor Ol’ Charlie Brown


ByJane June 19, 2008 at 12:35 pm

In the spirit of discussion, I go on…

The reason I asked that question is that I find myself avoiding the sad, angry-making stories when I know about them already. For example, I lived through the angst of the 2000 election; I don’t need to relive a play by play. I remember when my mother stopped watching these sorts of movies, books, etc and I thought she was such a chicken. She SHOULD watch. But now I’m of a mind: WHY should she or I watch? I don’t equate it to voting, because voting is something I always do. But watching/reading, to relive, to get enraged and saddened again? To what end? Okay, if I’m going to use those emotions to foster some action, then that’s a reason to keep fomenting them. When I think this through, I see that maybe what is different for me now versus when I was younger is that I feel less empowered to actually effect change. So why get all het up if I can’t do anything about it?

ByJanes last blog post..Death and Insomnia


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