Sunday, May 24, 2015

PTSD is a Family Illness

For Uncle Paul

On the Memorial Day weekend I wish to honor my late Uncle Paul. He enlisted in the Marines at the oldest age accepted, and was seriously wounded after landing on Iwo Jima during World War II. He won the Purple Heart and a host of other medals that he proudly framed on his mantelpiece—and which were routinely discarded by the wife who outlived him far too long to care, if in fact she ever did.

He was the first of several substitute father figures I had in my life, as my own father, like many divorced fathers, disappeared when I was a baby. I was told my father pretended to be mentally ill to get out of serving in WWII. His Jewishness did not compel him to serve. 

Uncle Paul was the only boy in his own fatherless family, and had three younger sisters. They were quite poor, but from what I’ve heard he used to make toys and games for them. He was their champion, had many friends, and loved having pet dogs. And, as I experienced years later, he loved children, though he never had any himself.

Like many immigrant families, ours was an extended one, so uncles and cousins were seen frequently and were almost like parents and siblings. Uncle Paul lived in our same town, and he frequently took us kids to a nearby boardwalk for ice cream and balloons, or to the local root bear drive-in for window trays of soda and hot dogs. He was one of those grown-ups who knew how to enter the world of children, and delighted in it. He made our few broken toys come to life and stimulated our imaginations. He knew dumb tricks like the “broken thumb” that held me mesmerized.

I remember literally crying tears of joy for how happy he made me. When the time came for my momentous kindergarten “graduation” ceremony, I invited my mother and Uncle Paul, though my soon-to-be-stepfather was already in the picture. I can still see my uncle in the audience, smiling at me through the entire sordid extravaganza of six year olds attempting to sing and dance, and not minding when I messed up routines on purpose just to be different.

Uncle Paul was married, and he was my mother’s brother, but I used to ask my mother if she would marry him. I guess she thought it was cute or something, but she did not take the hint about not marrying my lemon of a stepfather. In any case, I was somewhat on target. They had a tight bond as brother and sister, and confided things to each other that they told no one else. My mother’s untimely death was an additional nail in his eventual coffin. I had just turned nine, and my grandmother asked him to tell me my mother died, as she believed it would be better for me to hear it from a man. But he cried and said he couldn’t do it, so my grandmother did it herself.

Still, I wanted to be just like Uncle Paul, and so when he exhibited the odd habit of walking back and forth in a room for hours, mumbling to himself, I followed right behind him. My grandmother told me not to do it because I’d pick up the habit from him. I disobeyed her, and she was right. I, too, have been a lifelong floor pacer. Though I could not have verbalized it at the time, I wondered how my happy, wonderful Uncle Paul could have so much on his mind. Once, when he had an especially bad day, he picked up the telephone and had a long conversation with the operator, unloading all his woes to an unfamiliar voice. I guess he trusted strangers with his troubles more than he did us.

I used to think that Uncle Paul told us “war stories,” but looking back they were never about combat but funny tales about K-rations or off-color jingles about the enemy. He kept old issues of Leatherneck magazine in a trunk in his attic, as well as an old Japanese flag that enemy solders had signed. When my older brother played with his green plastic army men, I always thought of them as being Uncle Paul. There also were a lot of old movies on TV back then, and some of them were WWII epics in which the good guys bloodlessly always won. For us kids, it seemed like fun, even though the grownups never liked to watch war movies for some reason.

While Uncle Paul was off in the Marines, his mother and sisters did not, to my knowledge, do much for the war effort besides worry about him and resent the Japanese for Pearl Harbor.  I think some relatives worked in a munitions factory, but this was at least in part because they had to work anyway. Food rationing was just business as usual for a poor working class family that weathered the Great Depression. They were republicans during a war effort led by a two democratic presidents, and anyway world events were too large for their mental and emotional landscapes. All that mattered was Uncle Paul coming home alive.

My grandmother could be a complex person, even an inscrutable one, but sometimes her responses had a childlike purity about them. And from what I gathered, she spent several years ceaselessly worrying about her son. I was told that this was what made her hair turn gray. Even though my mother married a German Jew who became my father, there was never much of a sense that winning the War freed occupied nations or concentration camp prisoners. Movies or TV shows that dealt with the holocaust were deemed unnecessary because they were not happy things to watch. First, foremost, and finally, the Second World War was the war that ruined Uncle Paul.

His wife, in old movie terms, was a good times gal, a floozie. From what I gathered between the lines, she had no intention of letting World War II cramp her style. To my family’s Old World values, such cavorting already was a sin, but it was especially unforgivable while her husband was overseas. Uncle Paul left behind a beloved dog that his wife claimed ran off searching for his master, but everyone else believed she got rid of it on purpose. She was not renowned for her honesty.

Her partiality to Martinis and men over dogs and children, combined with her eager bad temper, made her an intimidating presence for both young and old. (Though at times, her undomesticated nature made her a better, less judgmental listener than other relatives.) Still, she often was characterized as ruining my Uncle’s life—his wife and WWII, quite a combination. Let’s just say that when you saw the two of them at their zenith, there was no need to watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

I have been told that when Uncle Paul came back from the war, he was “never the same.” People did not know to call it PTSD back then, or understand that it was an illness that does not just go away.  He did tell me that when he came home from the war his mouth was crooked. The doctor recommended he take up singing to straighten it out, and it worked. He even sang professionally in a choir. (Alas, I did not inherit the familial music gene.) He could also draw and oil paint and was an all-purpose builder and handyman. When I was little I thought he could do everything, but by mid-childhood I started realizing he could hardly do anything. I got old enough to see his irrational fits of rage and unwarranted cruelty for what they were, and no longer found them thrilling to witness.

Uncle Paul bought a white elephant of a big house in an upscale neighborhood, and spent the last 25 years of his life endlessly fixing it up, long after it supposedly was “finished.” In between carting bags of cement, he drank quite a lot and had the largest arsenal of prescription pills I have ever seen. (And I have seen some mighty big ones.) There were sad, violent episodes, and the family grew wary of visiting his big house. There was nothing in their frame of reference that told them how to deal with such things. Political-like factions were formed that created more ill will and destroyed any lingering sense of closeness.

Yet long after the extended family utterly fell apart, Uncle Paul insisted that being close to family was the key to happiness. I suppose his own life upheld this hypothesis, given how unhappy and bitter he became.

The last time I saw Uncle Paul I barely entered his house before he grumpily drove me to visit other relatives that supposedly were the key to happiness. But he did not get out of the car to see them himself. In fact, though his house faced a picturesque seascape, he began filling in the windows so that no one could see in and he could not see out. For many years my grandmother lived with him and his wife, but above the objections of his siblings he routinely put Granny in an indifferent facility for the elderly, where she died feeling abandoned and scared.

Yet she outlived her son by a year or two. He died of heart failure, I think, and without a clue as to what had gone wrong. My grandmother was not told of her son’s death, and kept insisting she needed to be taken back “home” in order to take care of Uncle Paul.

I am glad that, as it happened, I called to wish him a happy birthday during the last year of his life, and we had the first pleasant conversation we’d had in years. As what might politely be called a rebellious youth, I engaged in some high theatricality myself. When he lectured me that I needed to spend more time with the family, I’d say things like, “Well, they call your wife a whore behind her back.” Somehow his own growing isolation from these same people did not count. It was not in his cosmology to say, “I see why you keep your distance, I feel the same.” Decades of PTSD had severely warped his ability to reason, and the accompanying pill fog was too thick to penetrate.

Most of my family did not venture far away from familiar turf, so as Uncle Paul fell apart, small pockets of people became increasingly isolated themselves. The older generation seemed happy only when they were talking about olden times when they’d go to the movies or an amusement park. I long thought it was careless of them to create such an obvious impression that they were happier before their children were born. But I see now that their good times actually ended when my uncle came home from the war. The 2006 film, Flags of our Fathers, made me understand much more about those men and sometimes women who came home from the war and said nothing that made much sense as their lives crumbled like bombed out buildings.


  1. I believe that there are tragedies all around us and most of us will never know about them.Thank you for sharing Uncle Paul's story.

  2. Thanks so much, Julie, it means a lot