Many ways to leave the res; military spouses in dire straits; doing prisons differently

alexieIn the realm of thought-provoking writing about the short and long-term consequences of childhood adversity over the last month, these three articles stood out. Perhaps you might find them of interest, too.

When poet, writer and filmmaker Sherman Alexie talked with’s Joe Fassler, he said that he almost didn’t become a writer (and the world would be without The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven). But when he read this line in “Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile”, a poem by Adrian C. Louis  — “Oh, uncle Adrian, I’m in the reservation of my mind” — he immediately decided to become a poet.

The interview explores what that line means now to Alexie, who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. He says it describes how people are stuck in their own mental prisons, including the prisons of the abusive families of their childhoods. Here are a couple of paragraphs from the interview, which is well worth a read:

Now I am actively and publicly advocating for Native kids to leave the reservation as soon as they can. The reservation system was created by the U.S. Military. It was an act of war. Why do we make them sacred now, even though most reservations are really third-world, horrible banana republics? I think “I’m in the reservation of my mind” has an incredibly destructive connotation for me now. It’s apocalyptic, when I think about it. The human journey has always been about movement. And a century ago, when we moved onto the reservation, my tribe stopped moving. All the innovation we’ve done since then has been just modeling after Europeans. I mean, our greatest successes are casinos! So, “I’m in the reservation of my mind”

addresses this lack of innovation, the Native imagination being shackled and curtailed, as well as the failure to celebrate the innovations that have happened.

The line also it calls to mind the way we tend to revisit our prisons. And we always go back. This is not only true for reservation Indians, of course. I have white friends who grew up very comfortably, but who hate their families, and yet they go back everything thanksgiving and Christmas. Every year, they’re ruined until February. I’m always telling them, “You know, you don’t have to go. You can come to my house.” Why are they addicted to being demeaned and devalued by the people who are supposed to love them? So you can see the broader applicability: I’m in the suburb of my mind.I’m in the farm town of my mind. I’m in the childhood bedroom of my mind.

The U.S. military isn’t equipped to help the families of soldiers suffering from PTSD, says Sarah Lazare in this article she wrote for Although Lazare makes the point that the military can’t keep up with soldiers’ needs, either, this gripping and well-researched story focuses on spouses; it briefly mentions the horrendous effects on children. It’s clear that the military needs to take a whole-family approach to helping soldiers with PTSD. The good news is that the US Department of Defense is doing two “rapid reviews”: one of child abuse and neglect, the other of domestic and intimate partner violence. Here’s the beginning of Lazare’s piece:

Army wife Melissa Bourgeois hit her breaking point five years ago when she was living at a U.S. military base in Vicenza, Italy, with her husband, Eric, an infantryman. Eric was just back from a harrowing second deployment to Afghanistan marked by frequent firefights. Filled with an uncontrollable rage, he spent his nights self-medicating at bars with his war buddies.

Eric’s anger toward his family had become explosive, and he regularly punched doors, furniture and even a concrete wall that left his hand injured. Melissa, 25 at the time, with their two small children, felt isolated in a new country where she barely spoke the language. She needed to talk to someone about her situation, but she said each time she sought mental-health care on the base, she was given Valium and sent away.

In October 2008, Eric backed Melissa into a corner and started shouting at her in front of the children, the smell of alcohol heavy on his breath. “I was hysterical, screaming,” she said. Desperate, she called a friend, who reported him to the military police for domestic abuse. The commanding officer of Eric’s company held him in the barracks for 72 hours before releasing him. When Melissa went to her husband’s platoon sergeant for help, he told her that if she was so unhappy, maybe he should just send her back home. Soon after that, Eric said, the platoon sergeant told him, “Keep your wife in line.”

prisonsIf we ever needed evidence that our system of punishment isn’t working, take a gander at this article by Mike Riggs on He reports on a study by the Vera Institute of Justice that compared U.S. prisons with those in Germany and the Netherlands. The differences are “philosophical and practical”, reports Riggs. “‘Resocialization’ and rehabilitation are central to the Dutch and German models, whereas the American model focuses on retribution and isolation from society.”  

To understand America’s epidemic of over-incarceration, it helps to look to countries that don’t having our problem. In Germany and the Netherlands, for example, incarceration rates per capita are nearly 90 percent lower than in the U.S.: 79 per 100,000 residents in Germany and 82 per 100,000 residents in the Netherlands, compared to 716 per 100,000 residents in the United States.

Because both Germany and the Netherlands end up incarcerating only a small percentage of offenders, they’re actually able to enroll prisoners in rehabilitation programs, which increases their changes of not returning to crime. “Conditions of confinement,” says Vera, “are less punitive and more goal-oriented.” They also generally don’t include people with mental illness, while American prisons are chock full of people who need help more than punishment.

Here’s a chart that says it all:


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