Janet Burroway Carries On, Reinvents Self
Janet Burroway is a legend in literary circles, but not necessarily the way she has wanted. She’s the author of “Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft,” one of the most widely used textbooks on the writing of fiction. When introducing Burroway before a reading several years ago at Florida State University, where Burroway taught for 30 years, the writer Mark Winegardner calculated that the text had been assigned to enough students to fill the university’s Doak Campbell Stadium (capacity 82,300) three times. The ninth edition of “Writing Fiction” was released last month, and each edition outsells the previous one.
Thomas Balazs, associate professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, calls “Writing Fiction” the “Bible on fiction writing.”
“‘Writing Fiction’ was the first work on craft I read as a graduate student at Columbia College in Chicago,” he says. It “undoubtedly influenced my own writing for the better, and I was so impressed that, when I began teaching fiction writing, I used her book in all my classes.”
Another fan is Jocelyn Cullity, visiting assistant professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. “I use her textbook ‘Imaginative Writing’ for my introduction to creative writing class all the time,” she says. “She talks about the elements of craft (image, voice, character, setting, story) and how they work across genres. So this way I can show students what the genres of fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry and drama share — before going on to show how each genre is different. Her textbook is set up to really get at what the literary is in creative writing in a very simple and accessible way — by focusing on these five elements of craft.”
Author Ayelet Waldman uses Burroway’s books regularly. “I don’t teach writing, and I never got an MFA,” she says. “In fact, I’ve never taken a writing class. I read and reread ‘Writing Fiction.’ It’s my at-home writing program.”
“In a way it’s an albatross, and in a way it’s just glorious,” Burroway says. “I mean, those books are funding our retirement, and we’re very comfortable because of them. But I wish it were the novels. When I go to a conference, there’ll be a stack of ‘Writing Fiction’ like this (raising her palm two feet above the table top) and a stack of my novels like this (indicating a decidedly smaller stack). And the ‘Writing Fiction’ sells out, and nobody buys the novels.”
Burroway, winner of the Florida Humanities Council’s 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing, has written eight novels, but the most important book she has ever written doesn’t come out until April.
It’s a memoir called “Losing Tim,” Burroway’s story of grieving for her son, Tim Eysselinck, who served in the U.S. Army, became a contracted de-mining specialist in Iraq, and took his own life upon returning to his home in Namibia on April 23, 2004. He had just turned 40.
Burroway hadn’t planned a memoir about her son.
“At first I was just angry,” she says. “The first thing that came out was a letter to the NRA, and that went into the St. Pete Times together with two earlier essays that I had written about the boys.” (Burroway’s younger son, Alex, resides in London.)
The first of those essays was written in 1984, 20 years before Tim would take his own life.
You will have figured out that I love these kids. If you have also raised a human offspring to as many as 14 candles, you will also perceive that it’s too late for me to do anything. Whatever it is, I’ve already done it, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what it was.
Thirty years after she wrote that essay — and 10 years after losing her son — Burroway is still thinking about what she could have done.
“Well, I sort of felt he was making the wrong decisions, and you can never be sure,” she says. “I mean I could have pushed harder, argued harder, about the simplicity of the moral framework that he was buying.
“After the NRA letter, I wrote in my journal almost every day. I had some pressing facet of grief that I needed to write about, and of course like most writers, I know what it is: Writing makes order for me. This was the severest chaos I had ever experienced.
“Trying to understand what happened to him became the project of the book, the plot of the book.”
The plot of Janet Burroway’s life begins on Sept. 21, 1936, in Tucson, Ariz.
“My folks were terrific about taking us around the country every summer, and I don’t think my dad ever made more than $3,000 a year. He was a builder and an inventor.”
She attended the University of Arizona but left for New York and Barnard College in 1955 after winning the prestigious Mademoiselle Guest Editor Contest, whose winners also have included Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion.
She met Rosellen Brown in 1957, and the two appeared together for the first time in the pages of Focus, Barnard’s literary journal, where the Columbia Daily Spectator called “Jan” Burroway’s poetry “the best of the lot.”
“As a teenager, and even through college, I used ‘Jan’ in bylines and submissions, partly because my adored journalist brother used ‘Stan’ instead of ‘Stanley,’ ” Burroway says. “But also, mainly, because I figured that if editors thought I was a man, they would judge me as a writer. ‘Feminism’ was not a word in my or my classmates’ vocabulary, except for bluestockings that had fought for the vote.”
The embodiment of “feminism” sits on the stage at Women & Children First Books, where Burroway and Brown are appearing together, again, nearly 60 years later. They’re still talking about “Good Girl Theory”: Meet your deadline, adhere to the length requirement and make sure the topic is covered.
At the end of the reading, Burroway is still all elegance: seated upright, hands neatly folded on her knee, feet crossed at the ankle, every vowel and consonant pronounced with precision. Ask her to say the word “poem.” Hear the slightly distinctive “-em” that makes it the two-syllable word it was meant to be.
The next day she says, “My mother wanted to be an actress and was not allowed, because actresses are wicked, and it was too dangerous to allow her to think in that way. So she became an elocution teacher. She had me up doing little pieces, and I loved it, until I hated it.
“There was this pattern of ‘You’re going to say a piece at the Methodist Friday Night Social,’ and I would learn the piece and she would direct how I should say it. Then as it got nearer the dread would build in me, this terror, and then I’d get up there on the stage and think, ‘Got no option. Here goes.’ And then I got praised. I was told I was smart and pretty, and so that pattern: Dread, Resignation, Praise. Dread, Resignation, Praise has stood me in good stead my whole life. I mean, I knew I was going to be nervous before the reading last night.”
Heather Sellers, a former student of Burroway’s, is an English professor at the University of South Florida’s MFA program. “She was interested in my interests (fabric, sewing, teaching, children), and for perhaps the first time in my life — I was 19 — I felt seen as an adult, taken seriously, known and knowable, this brilliant woman asking me questions as though my opinion was actually interesting,” Sellers says. “Under her warm, kind, vibrant light, I flourished as a person.
“And, she has two desks. So I got two desks. They face away from each other, so there’s this kind of channel for working. When I saw her office, I made my office just like it.”
Today, Burroway splits time between a home in Lake Geneva, Wis., and Chicago with her husband of 20 years, film and Utopian scholar Peter Ruppert. Her other love is Chicago Dramatists, an organization dedicated to the development of playwrights and the writing of plays.
“That’s where I found out how ignorant I was about writing a musical,” she says. “I essentially did my apprenticeship for two years there.”
At 77, Burroway is reinventing herself, apprenticing.
“I think it’s one of the things I wanted,” she says. “My social crowd was all from the university for 35 years, and now it’s the theater. It’s going back because I started off as a playwright — I started out writing poetry, but I wanted, above all, to be a playwright.”
Nearly 60 years removed from Barnard, eight novels, plays, essays, poetry and children’s books, America’s fiction writing teacher has become a student again.
“Two weeks ago in the scene shop at Chicago Dramatists, I found myself on the one hand announcing that I had been awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing and (on the other) ‘Did the workshop leader think I was ready to apply for a residency at Chicago Dramatists?'”
She laughs. “And I may not be.”
The opening chapter of “Losing Tim,” due out April 7, seems to bring her together as teacher, student, mother:
The end of the story, I told my students, is the most important part. We can’t help it. It happens willy-nilly — the last sentence echoes backward through all the rest. You cast back over the scenes to understand how the parts fit together, how character and chance and history converged, what clues you missed, how differently this or that scene looks in the light of what happened after.
It sets up the structure of the memoir, and it places emphasis on how a person chooses to end: stories, lives, careers. “Chooses to end” is the wrong phrase here, because she isn’t looking to the end. Janet Burroway is still getting started.
A Fiercely Personal Book, Moving and Devastating
Janet Burroway, the author of many novels and of books on the writer’s craft, has written an honest, eloquent, and powerful memoir exploring what she knows and cannot know about the life and death of her son Tim, who killed himself in April 2004.
At the time of his death, Tim was 40, living in Namibia with his wife and young daughter. He had served in the US Army and Reserves, and then had worked as a civilian contractor in Iraq, leading a team clearing landmines. A lifelong Republican and patriot, Tim had become disillusioned in Iraq by what he saw as profiteering and a disregard for human life. In his last weeks he was edgy, quick to anger, occasionally despairing; Burroway believes he was suffering from the post-traumatic stress that afflicts many veterans and can lead to suicide.
At the same time, Burroway refuses to boil down Tim’s death to a single cause or diagnosis. She writes movingly of his childhood love of soldiers and toy guns, his integrity and loyalty and idealism. She recounts what she believes might be significant, while constantly reminding herself that she doesn’t know what was significant, that after a suicide everything looks significant: “All memories of him were corrupted with the awareness of his death.”
Losing Tim is a fiercely personal book, and it’s also universal—a profound exploration of loss, of the unexpected ways in which grief hits us, of the love between parents and children, of the snarled mystery of suicide, and of the lethally romantic mythologies of war. Burroway’s portrait of Tim is all the more powerful because, as much as she knows about her son and his story, she is scrupulously honest about what is unknowable. She cannot tell us everything. What she can tell—with precision, clarity, and devastating impact—is the truth.
Deeply Moving and Fiercely Beautiful
How does a mother make sense of a son’s suicide?
That terrible question lies at the heart of Janet Burroway’s deeply moving, fiercely beautiful memoir, Losing Tim.
Burroway’s career as a writer and teacher of writing has spanned six decades. She retired from Florida State University as a distinguished professor emerita, she is the 2014 recipient of the Florida Humanities Councils’ Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing, and she is the author of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, now in its ninth edition and one of the most widely used books of its kind. She has written novels, plays, poetry and nonfiction — this year alone, she has published five books as author or editor and is working on bringing a musical she wrote to the stage.
But the devastating and insightful Losing Tim is probably her most deeply personal book.
It is the story of Tim Eysselinck, the elder of Burroway’s two sons. Tim was “one of those boys for whom the paraphernalia of war held a fascination from toddlerhood,” she writes, despite his mother’s liberal politics and distrust of the military. Tim served in the Army for four years and the Reserves for eight. He volunteered for deployments around the world, garnered glowing evaluations and found his niche as a mine removal expert — a task aimed at saving lives.
Then the Army privatized his job, and thousands of others. “By the time Tim reached Iraq in 2003, half the jobs that had been done by soldiers from World War I to the first Gulf War would be farmed out to multinational corporations and their hired hands,” Burroway writes.
“The corporations could make quick profits. The temp help could be cut loose without V.A. medical rights or a G.I. Bill. The Pentagon need not keep track of their casualties.”
Tim was convinced of the value of his work, so he went to work for one of those corporations, overseeing mine removal in increasingly dangerous conditions in Iraq.
In the spring of 2004, Tim went home on leave to Namibia, where his wife and children lived. There, he shot himself. He was 40 years old.
Burroway begins with the phone call from Tim’s wife, Birgitt, and the “next hours in that strange after-state of catastrophe, at once numb and intense, the body somehow silently thundering.” She writes vividly of the surreal trip to Namibia for his funeral and her realization of the questions surrounding his death — he was not a man whom anyone expected to commit suicide, but slowly, events during the last months of his life reveal clues to what might have happened.
Burroway brings ruthless eloquence to her depiction of her own grief and that of Tim’s other family members and friends, and she paints an achingly tangible portrait of Tim himself, from boy to man.
The question of why any particular suicide happened is ultimately unanswerable, but Burroway places Tim’s death in a larger and meaningful context: how our nation treats the men and women who fight our wars. Post-traumatic stress disorder might well have been a factor for Tim, as well as his disillusionment with changes in the military and with U.S. policy, despite his lifelong, dedicated patriotism.
Burroway notes that, because she has always been a writer, writing became one of her most useful ways of coping with loss, for “when I’m writing I have verbal nails and miters, planes and levels, a shed’s worth of cared-for tools to give me the illusion of control.” Her writing is a gift, too, for others who mourn — which is to say, all of us.
A Wrenching and Beautiful Book From One Of Our Finest Authors
Opening: “Every suicide is a suicide bomber.” A wrenching and beautiful look at love, memory, and loss from one of our finest authors. Notably, this memoir investigates ground very few have addressed: the role and plight of the thousands and thousands of contractors America uses to fight its wars.
Powerful, Without Sentimentality or Recriminations
When Janet Burroway taught creative writing at Florida State University, she would tell her class, “the end of the story is the most important part. The last sentence echoes backward through the rest.”
Such advice came back to her in an unexpected and tragic way. Burroway’s oldest son, Timothy Eysselinck, a U.S. Army captain, Ranger and paratrooper, a specialist in mine removal, husband and father of two children, sat at his dining room table and shot himself.
His action remains shocking, but Burroway has never shied away from the truth of his death as painful and incomprehensible as it is. She began to write Tim’s story as a way of working through her grief, starting from the end and winding her way back, searching and re-searching for “some minimally satisfying sense of why it must end this way.”
“You cast back over the scenes to understand how the parts fit together, how character and chance and history converged, what clues you missed, how differently this or that scene looks in the light of what happened after,” she writes.
Without sentimentality or recriminations, Burroway describes candidly her relationship with her son who was “hard to know.” His commitment to military values, opposing political views and many of his “enthusiasms — like guns” were alien to her, but her love for him is incontrovertible. She describes a “mother-son dance of discomfort, denial, acceptance, effort, defensiveness, rupture, affection, politesse.”
She writes of Tim’s childhood fascination with the “paraphernalia of war,” and how, as an adult, his attraction to risk conflicted with his need for family. He had a strong moral sense and idealistic patriotism that led him to “three years in ROTC, four in the Army, and “eight in the Reserve during which he volunteered for every available deployment: Germany, Bosnia, the Republic of Congo, Angola, Namibia,” where his job was to coordinate a mine removal project.
When the Army contracted out his job to a private company, Tim signed up to teach demining to Iraqis. Then everything he believed in began to unravel.
This powerful book, though personal, frames broader issues: the alarming rate of suicides among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the role of a “shadow army” of contractors hired to do jobs the military used to do. While there’s been widespread media coverage of suicides among veterans, there is little information about private soldiers, who upon return often face the additional emotional burden of a stigma attached to private contractors.
Hired to do humanitarian work, Tim came home disillusioned by what he saw as corruption and a careless regard for safety, writes Burroway. The boy, who as a teenager said he loved his country “right or wrong,” returned from the war “ashamed to be an American.”
In his foreword, Jonathan Shay, a clinical psychiatrist who treats combat trauma, writes of “special operation troops from the current theaters of war,” who return home without military associations or “clear cut VA eligibility for health care and disability pension benefits.”
“Who will offer social support and mental health services to contractor veterans?” he asks.
“Get me some help,” were among Tim’s last words. Was it a “plea or accusation?” asks Burroway. The question continues to haunt.
Five Stars; Flawless Storytelling
Timothy Eysselinck was a civilian contractor in Iraq. Though he had formerly served in the US military, his new job was removing mines to make war-torn places safe once more. In April of 2004, when he was once again home with his family, he killed himself. This is his mother’s story.
As expected, Losing Tim is heartbreaking, but it is also beautiful. Burroway does not provide a linear story from Tim’s birth, through his life, and finally to her grieving. Though she does include all of the important pieces, she gives them out of order, crafting a story that flows seamlessly from the present to the 1970s and back again. This lends the book the feeling of memory, as one recollection leads to another, which leads to another, but everything is always brought back around to the main timeline of a mother’s life after her son’s death.
Burroway is an incredibly talented writer, and she is very adept at describing exactly what she felt during this awful time. These moments where she goes into her own head and tells what was happening there are almost shocking in their pain, simplicity (not of emotion but of expression), and resonance. Almost everyone has lost a loved one, and Burroway describes this experience in an intensely accurate and poetic way that feels at once personal and universal. Everyone will be able to relate to this book.
Losing Tim goes further a normal memoir, however. Before his death, Tim was struggling with America’s involvement in Iraq and with his place within the occupation. Without getting too political, Burroway discusses her son’s disillusionment, the government’s use of civilian contractors, how we in America view those contractors, and other families who have suffered from the same set of circumstances that led to Tim’s suicide. She uses a very personal experience to point out a larger problem and to show just how important it is.
This book is everything. It is charming, painful, heartwarming, and heart-rending. It tells of a full and exciting life, a terrible loss, and the ordeal of moving on. This is an essentially human story, and, though the plot is tragic, the telling is flawless.
Mothering and Soldiering Through Love and Loss
Janet Burroway’s Losing Tim: A Memoir, begins with a claim as sharp and startling as a gunshot:
Every suicide is a suicide bomber. The intention may be absolutely other—a yearning for peace, the need to escape, even a desire to spare the family. Nevertheless, the shrapnel flies.
Five lines later we learn that Burroway’s son, age 39, former soldier and army contractor, has shot himself in the head: “He’s gone,” his wife tells us. The rest of the book, written in the years since his death, chronicles Burroway’s grief but also the full arc of her son’s life. Timothy Eysselinck was an army captain; a husband and father; a son; a friend; a hunter; and a humanitarian. He left his army career to become a contractor, continuing the work he had done as an officer: removing land mines. But he became discouraged with what he saw as the irredeemable corruption surrounding the war as well as the contracting business.
Burroway, a former professor at Florida State University, is a highly accomplished writer, having published eight novels and numerous plays, poems, stories, and essays as well as the most widely used fiction writing text in America: Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Losing Tim: A Memoir shows her at the height of her powers.
Burroway and her son were political opposites for his entire life: she liberal, he conservative; she wary of guns, he an enthusiast; she against the war, he convinced of its necessity. “Many of his beliefs made me uneasy . . . Many of his enthusiasms were alien. But I accepted unease and alienation as part of the parental job description.” This ability to see her son clearly as well as accept his differences allows her to write their story honestly—not shielding the reader from the brutality of war and the attitude of its soldiers—as well as reflectively—not letting grief alone cloud the larger story.
She writes with raw honesty about the immediate aftermath of his death. When Tim’s wife blurts out, “He did it in front of me! He did it in front of me!” Burroway takes “this in with a doubleness others have described: I absolutely believed her and also stood at a distance watching myself believe her, knowing it was all a mistake shortly to be explained.” Later she described herself as “lunatic” and “deranged.” But, she finds, “[b]ehavior carries you,” and a semblance of normal life returns. She feels the let down of going through Tim’s things—how “three crates from a storage warehouse . . . left paltry evidence of his rich existence.” She starts writing a long-planned novel but winds up channeling versions of her experience: it is “full of death and dying” and becomes “autobiographical in a way I dared not then describe except through the scrim of fiction.” And even as the months pass, a refrain continues to echo through her thoughts: “What is dead?” It still seems inconceivable that Tim is indeed dead and gone.
Burroway delves deeply into the process of grieving but she also ruminates on why people go to war (“extreme sport within an apostolic structure”), the many reasons why someone might commit suicide (one of which is “not in order to die but to escape confusion, to clear their heads”), and the difference between truth and lies (wondering why we “speak of ‘telling a lie’ but ‘telling the truth,’ as if lies were multiple and various but truth were a single whole”). One of the most unexpectedly disturbing passages describes the cost of land mines, the removal of which Tim had devoted the last years of his life:
Wars are fought over territory that mines make equally lethal for those who come to claim or reclaim, invade or build upon. The mine is a manufactured object with the express purpose of self-destructing and is hugely cost-effective. One can be bought for about the price of a Dove ice cream bar at an airport, but costs a thousand dollars to remove—which is one-third the price of a prosthetic limb.
In some ways, a soldier returning from war feels similarly—if invisibly—mined. Burroway closes her book with a litany of suicides and other needless deaths surrounding the Iraq War; among the list of over 20 in the months surrounding Tim’s death are Colonel Ted Westhusing’s suicide; the contractors who were slain, burned and hung from a bridge in Fallujah; and Nick Berg, beheaded on video.
But that’s not quite the end. She leaves us with a thread of hope that feels not contrived but both sincere and true:
. . . all over the world is a slender web in space and time, of people whose lives were changed, or who were born at all, because my son who loved weapons went, by the hazards of history, into the odd profession of getting rid of them.
And in that sense, there is no end to his story.
Grief may be ongoing but so is love. And Losing Tim: A Memoir—by turns generous, insightful, wrenching and loving—reveals the intricacies of this relationship both in life, with all its messy loves and losses, and in death, its nonnegotiable finality.
In a World of Chaos, This Writer Makes Sense
Even for Janet Burroway—the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Emerita at the Florida State University and the author of eight novels, plays, poetry, essays, texts for dance, and children’s books—2014 has been a standout. First, she received a 2014 Florida Humanities Council Lifetime Achievement Award in Writing. Her craft book Writing Fiction : A Guide to Narrative Craft, the most widely used creative writing text in America, published its 9th edition, and her multi-genreImaginative Writing is out in a fourth edition. Her novel, Raw Silk, originally published in 1977, was reissued this year by Open Road. She is also the editor of a recently published collection of essays and poems by women, all now over the age of sixty—A Story Larger Than My Own: Women Writers Look Back at Their Lives and Careers, published by University of Chicago Press. In her memoir,Losing Tim: The Life and Death of an American Contractor in Iraq (Think Piece Publishing), Burroway recounts the unimaginable: her son’s suicide. Burroway allows her readers to accompany her on her examination of the way soldiers and military contractors are changed by their combat experiences. Her story is also a revelatory examination of grief, of loss, of love. In her praise of Losing Tim, Pulitzer Prize winning author Madeleine Blais writes, “This book is both an elegy and a call to action by one of our finest writers, who addresses us from the deepest place imaginable in a voice that is loving, memorable and overflowing with generosity.”
A Mother Unravels Her Military Son's Suicide
I met Janet Burroway when I was a Vietnam veteran on the GI Bill at Florida State University and I signed up for a creative writing workshop she was just hired to teach. She was a worldly, published novelist seven years older than me. She had just left an oppressive husband, a Belgian, who was an important theater director in London where she’d been to parties with the likes of Samuel Beckett. I graduate in 1973, and in a turn of events that still amazes me, I asked her out and ended up living with her for a couple years. She had two beautiful boys, Tim, 9, and Toby, 6, who I grew to love.
Cut to 2004. Even as a kid, Tim had a hard-headed moral code about what was right and wrong. As he grew into manhood, he became enamored of all things military; he loved guns. He had a career in the Army as a Ranger, where all his evaluations suggest a stellar soldier. He reached captain, but a promise to his wife and other reasons led him to resign his commission in the active Army. He worked in the Army reserves for a while in places like Bosnia. Contacts led him to civilian jobs in the military contractor world in Africa and Iraq, where he ended up running de-mining operations and training de-miners for RONCO Consulting Corporation.
By Spring 2004, he decided to resign from RONCO. He visited his mother in Tallahassee, then flew to Namibia, northwest of South Africa, to be with his wife Birgett, a white Namibian he’d met during an assignment in Africa where she worked for the UN. Birgett had an adolescent son from a previous relationship. They had a one-year old daughter.
The details are not absolutely clear. Tim was certainly disillusioned from his experiences in Iraq and was apparently sinking into depression. For reasons only he could know, one afternoon he put a nine-millimeter pistol to his head and, in front of Birgett, shot himself dead at age 39.
What is one to make of an act like this? What is a mother to make of the death of her son in this way — especially a mother who throughout her son’s military and contractor career was politically at odds with her son and against the war in Iraq? If that mother is a respected novelist with a talent for spare, honest prose, the answer is a memoir like Losing Tim, just published by Think Piece Publishing.
For a flavor of the writing in Losing Tim, here’s Burroway on the political tension between her and Tim and how it matured her as a mother:
“Here’s the irony: that nothing led me toward eventual adulthood quite so insistently as the passive endurance of my disappointment — that I had borne, and must adore, a golden right-wing gun-toting soldier son.”
Burroway has published eight novels, as well as plays, essays, poetry, creative writing textbooks and children’s books. Her latest novel Bridge of Sand was published in 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Her novel Raw Silk was just re-issued by Open Road. She’s now at work on a musical adaptation of Barry Unsworth’s novel Morality Play set in medieval Europe and a play about her son Tim. She is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Emerita at Florida State University and won the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award in Writing from the Florida Humanities Council.
Although I’ve not seen any of the Burroway family for 38 years, Tim Eysselinck’s story is personally heart-breaking for me. Like his mother’s inclination in Losing Tim, I can’t divorce his death from the corrupt politics of war in America. I’ve been immersed in the business of soldiers and veterans and post traumatic stress and anti-war politics for the past 35 years. Coincidentally, in December 2003 — the point Tim’s disillusion was growing — I was in Baghdad with a group of antiwar veterans and military family members on a two-week fact-finding trip. We were told by Paul Bremer’s assistant that family members visiting their sons and daughter in a US war zone was unprecedented.
When we got home, I was part of a three-hour press conference on C-SPAN at the Washington Press Club. We talked about how and why the invasion/occupation was a debacle, how a home grown insurgency was on the rise motivated by defense against our troops and how our leadership had betrayed the American people and had handed the nation a dishonest quagmire war.
That was the detached observations of a drop-in journalist. For Tim, it was his whole life. People were beginning to shoot at his team. There were roadside bombs. He mentioned to friends witnessing a disturbing, cavalier attitude toward civilian casualties. During his visit to Tallahassee, Burroway writes, “… he was disillusioned with the Bush administration and the Paul Bremer regime. … He seethed: the corruption, the incompetence, the lies, the greed, the stupidity!” (Italics in original) At one point he says, “I’m ashamed of being an American.” He later says to his wife, “I’m tired of being the bad man.”
Burroway quotes David Hume: “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
In a disgraceful hearing over post-suicide benefits for Tim’s family, RONCO attorneys argued that Tim didn’t suffer from Post Traumatic Stress. The corporate lawyers diminished their dead employee in any way they could to avoid paying money. They suggesting the de-mining work in Iraq was not dangerous and that Tim had never experienced combat or seen anything unpleasant. The Houston judge laid down for RONCO.
This kind of profit-focused, corporate dishonesty and lawyerly manipulation is, in fact, the real problem. The Iraq War was a great shining moment for corporate/finance war profiteers like Dick Cheney. Military tasks were privatized, which meant they became morally unaccountable profit centers that fell outside the public radar. Privatized war employees were/are, it’s true, well paid, but more important they became unseen and expendable. In such a cold-blooded, bottom-line oriented world, an employee’s PTSD diagnosis becomes something for lawyers to argue ad-nauseum into meaninglessness.
What Tim Eysselinck suffered from is called a “moral wound” that, in his case, ended up being fatal. Take a highly moral, idealistic young man with dreams of doing good in the world and set him down in a moral cesspool of corruption like the Iraq Occupation under Henry Kissinger protégé Paul Bremer and you have all the ingredients for a festering psychic wound. In Tim’s case, in a moment of family stress and weakness, he snapped.
In her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein writes about “disaster capitalism.” She traces her idea to the thinking of conservative economist Milton Friedman, who wrote, “only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change.” The most natural and logical extension of this thinking is, if there is no crisis to catalyze the change you want, you induce a crisis. In Iraq, “shock and awe” threw that small nation into a state of shock. Even the Viet Minh when they beat the French kept the French governing structures in place. Instead, the Bremer gang absolutely dissolved the existing Bath Party political structure and disbanded the entire Iraq army. It’s akin to the basic training idea of breaking a young man down completely, then building him back up as you want him to be. “Next came the radical economic shock therapy,” Klein writes, “imposed while the country was still in flames.” This shock therapy was unfolding in late 2003, early 2004, the point Tim was wrestling with disillusion.
In an introduction to Losing Tim, Jonathon Shay, author of Achilles in Vietnam, writes, “Moral injury occurs when there is a betrayal of what’s right in a high stakes situation by someone in legitimate authority.” (Italics in original) That’s the Iraq War in a nutshell, though with the 2000 election we might quibble over the adjective “legitimate.” Dishonest leadership inexorably leads to moral casualties, especially in a context where leadership has so cynically unleashed the dogs of war. I submit the only way a young man like Tim Eysselinck could have avoided his fateful disillusion is if he had been more of a sociopath, in which case he might have thrived.
The power of Burroway’s spare memoir is in her determination not to indulge in hand-wringing pathos or to worship the idea of the fallen “warrior.” Her grief is of the order found in Greek tragedy. And like all classic tragedy, the final the tragic act hinges on decisions made by the protagonist. Whether seen as a thought-out conscious act or as an irrational momentary impulse — in Tim’s case it’s impossible to be certain — shooting himself was Tim’s decision based on a complex and ambiguous web of factors. Burroway does her best to peel back these layers of the onion. Like the good imaginative writer she is, she even envisions Tim having too-late second thoughts in the final milliseconds of his act.
By the end of the memoir, we know an awful lot about Tim and the Burroway family, but we have not gained any absolute certainty about his suicide. The point is, no one will ever know for certain why Tim Eysselinck, a man seemingly on top of the world, decided to shoot himself.
Burroway would like to see greater awareness for the conundrums of the private contractor. Beyond the good salaries, for-profit corporations have no social incentive to place any greater value on their lives. William Langewiesche wrote about this in an April Vanity Fair article called “The Chaos Company” about G4S, a huge corporation headquartered in London that contracts for de-mining and other military and security tasks. Langewiesche says, while the majority of its employees are unarmed, G4S is three-times the size of the British military and generates $12 billion in revenue a year. “Enterprises such as G4S are now a part of the international order, more permanent than some nation-states, more wealthy than many, more efficient than most.” The growth of western civilian contractors in war zones around the world can be seen as another sign of the break-down of the nation-state system into global networks of power. At the point of this spear is the secret world of surveillance, special operations and cyber warfare.
The evidence is indisputable that the rich keep getting richer and the poor poorer in the United States. There seems little relief in sight for this reality. The nation’s much-vaunted middle class is shrinking. Workers’ unions have been crushed. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court and other institutions keep firming up the foundations of this social Darwinian dynamic. The free market is sacred and profit always matters most. The notion that people might be motivated by ethics and social concerns other than money gets lost in the hoopla or is dismissed as naïve.
I see an idealistic Tim Eysselinck — like many, a man on a perennial search for good fatherly authority — running head-on into the corrupt capital-obsessed cesspool that was the war zone called Iraq.
But that’s my reading. Burroway knows absolute certainty is the stuff out of which wars are made. Her book is more art than polemic. In an epigram, she quotes Anne Carson: “In every story I tell comes a point where I can see no further.” Still, she does not shy from making an eloquent cry from the heart advocating for humanity and compassion as a trump to the kind of rigid militarist thinking that led to her son’s suicide. She closes the book by telling us that — as I’ve heard combat veterans say of dead comrades — she still talks with Tim.
“Tim is no further from me than he was in Africa, and in some ways nearer. …I make him up.” She takes comfort in the legacy of his clearing mines: “…all over the world is a slender web in space and time, of people whose lives were changed, or who were born at all, because my son who loved weapons went, by the hazard of history, into the odd profession of getting rid of them.”
Engrossing and Beautiful
Janet Burroway’s engrossing book Losing Tim charts her son Tim’s shortened life from her perspective, tracing the twists and turns backwards from his suicide at age 40. Like all of us who’ve lost a loved one this terrible way, she searches exhaustively for signs she missed. This journey does not unfold chronologically, but follows a circuitous route as memories and emotions strike her. Janet describes the many happy times she had raising Tim and his brother, bewildered that Tim could somehow wipe all these good experiences from consciousness and let despair prevail.
She recalls the family history of suicide on his father’s side and bares her own decision points in life around men and alcohol, wondering how each may have affected her idealistic older son. Tim insisted he would only marry once. Ignored by his own father, he modeled himself after a disciplined military man who shared his values and gave him attention. His mother dated this career soldier for a time after her divorce. Though the romance fizzled, Tim’s bond with the soldier grew strong and lasted through the years.
As with most suicides, there was no single event that makes Tim’s deliberate exit comprehensible, but rather a lifetime’s accumulation of disillusionments. Her son early on was a person of integrity, enchanted with the military and war as the ultimate test of will and character. He sought noble adventures that combined high standards with high excitement, risk and reward. He learned to endure pain in pursuit of worthy goals and earned the title of Army Ranger as an officer.
His last military assignment involved the clearing of land mines from war-torn areas in Africa. When that function was privatized, he continued that life-and-limb-saving work as a contractor in Iraq. While waiting for his clearance to transfer from the Army to the contractor, Tim worked a desk job for several months that made him miserable. He joined the Army Reserves and periodically deployed to areas of conflict.
Despite his disdain for bureaucracy and desk duty, he had promised his wife that after this stint of dangerous work in Iraq, they would settle with their two young daughters into the relative stability of Washington, DC. Abroad, he had seen Americans fire into homes without regard for innocent lives. He was not a mercenary, motivated by profit the way his employer was in Iraq. Though attacks had been increasing, fear of lawsuits led his employer to forbid mine-clearing teams to carry weapons. Tim threatened to quit and armed his teams himself so they could protect themselves. Rather than honor and virtue, he saw carelessness and corruption.
To relieve the unrelenting stress of his work, he hunted and took pride in his guns and his skill. On his last hunt, to his horror, he tracked but could not relocate and kill the beast he had shot and wounded. Responsibility for this animal’s suffering became a wound he internalized, emblematic of his frustrations. The day he ended his life, Tim quoted lyrics from the Who song “Behind Blue Eyes”, saying he was tired of being “the bad man.”
Tim’s wife sees PTSD from sustained high risk as the culprit here. America owes something to legions of contractors as well as servicemembers who return from foreign soil with mental and physical wounds. We all need to be in a band of brothers, with ties to a community of support, ready not just to give, but also to accept help when we find ourselves in the hurt locker.