The Think Piece Interview: Cathy Madison

\In July 1950, Alexander “Doc” Boysen, a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, became a prisoner of war in Korea. He was held in brutal conditions for 38 months and 12 days. He became known as one of the Tiger Survivors, Tiger being the sadistic North Korean major in charge of the group. After Boysen was released, he went on to become a commanding officer in Germany, Japan, and Vietnam, before returning home and heading up health services for Bemidji State University. He died in 2002 with a Legion of Merit Award. He was Cathy Madison’s father. She writes about her relationship with him in her memoir The War Came Home With Him. She tells two stories in her book: one of a father who withstood a prison camp’s unspeakable inhumanity, and a daughter who withstood the residual cruelty, likely caused by PTSD, that he brought back. It’s a remarkable read. We met in Minneapolis to talk about domineering fathers, narrative structures, and the catharsis that comes from confronting one’s own truth.

TP: How long have you been working on this book?

CM: Back in the 1980s I went to the library and I checked out all the books that had anything to do with Korea, and I started taking notes on anything that had to do with prisoners. But it’s been something I’ve been thinking about my whole life.

TP: Your father didn’t like to talk about the war.

CM: He would never talk about it. I tried to enlist him to help write the story. But whatever I tried was wrong. And if I tried to use someone else’s story, I’d hear it wasn’t right. It was clearly the fact that nobody told his story, which frustrated him. But he wouldn’t let me tell it either.

TP: Although he was starting to write about his experiences near the end of his life.

CM: Yes, we found the beginning of a memoir on his hard drive. He wasn’t very far. He just had the beginnings of it. But I started chapter one the way he started it.

TP: Your father sounds formidable in every way.

CM: He was larger than life, particularly to us as children. He had this dominance. He was a commanding officer, and in the military you just cannot do anything to undo that hierarchy. He often talked about how you don’t become friends with the people below you. There is an order. He’s on top and you’re at the bottom. It didn’t matter that we grew up and had our own careers; we’re still subjugated to this hierarchy. Writing the book helped me see strengths in myself that I hadn’t been able to recognize. And it helped me to see that he was a flawed human being just like I am. For all the bullying and the negativity of the judgment and the physical abuse and temper, there were positive things as well – there was integrity and honesty, a push to see beyond yourself and to see the greater good. It was just that I was unable to create that while he was alive. When my mother died in 1995 he was probably worse than he’d ever been. He clearly had mental health issues that had never been addressed. He clearly had PTSD.

TP: You write about how frightening that was as a child, to be subject to his volatility.

CM: I’m interested in how PTSD is passed on through generations. One of the things they’re finding with the children of parents with PTSD is their creativity is low. Silence is very common. The need to identify with a parent is very large. You do whatever you can do to get close to the parent. And the parent subconsciously uses the children to re-enact their trauma. So the child becomes the captor in his situation. The children grow up with this and they don’t know what it’s all about.

TP: It must be so hard to break out of that psychological pattern.

CM: It’s taken me most of my life.

TP: When did you decide you wanted to write the book?

CM: After he died in 2002 I thought it was time. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t handle the emotion of it. The year I got really serious about it was 2007. I decided that the only way I could write the book was to make myself my own freelance client because whenever I got freelance work I would take it and I would set aside the book, and you can’t get a book done that way. My father had left me some savings bonds. So I cashed them in and said this is my income for this period of time, and I started the book.

TP: I marvel at authors who take on book projects as they require such a commitment. How did you organize your work in that time?

CM: I spent at least two hours a day writing. It had to be at least two hours. If I had an hour or less I couldn’t get far enough into it to get anywhere. You have to get your head around it so you’re really involved.

TP: Was it difficult to relive those childhood memories?

CM: I would sometimes get to the end of a chapter and burst into tears, and I’m not a crier. It’s really hard to make me cry. But it was dredging up all this and getting it out. It was excruciating at times.

TP: Once you got the manuscript up on its feet, who did you show it to first?

CM: I had two readers, who didn’t know each other, who had a lot of experiences with manuscripts and writing and MFAs and those kinds of things. I gave it to them and I had a couple months of freedom and they both sent it back to me in the same week and they both said the same thing: it needs work. I was a journalist so I wrote everything as an inverted pyramid. I would start every chapter with everything that was going to be in the chapter and I’d go down from there into the scene. I had to unlearn that and learn to flip the sequence in the chapters and start with the scene. I had to figure out how to do that. That took me a year.

TP: Is that when you came up with the dual-narrative format; your father’s story, and your story?

CM: The dual-narrative was an accident. It was one of my techniques to get the book done because I couldn’t figure out how to mesh them together. I really like linear stories. But because my father’s timeline was all before my timeline, I couldn’t figure out how to tell both of our stories in linear fashion. But I did have a list of things I wanted to include in both stories. So I just decided I was never going to get started unless I just picked something and wrote it. I took turns. I’d pick something of his and then something of mine. Each one would be linear and I thought that once I have all the chunks I’d figure out how to put it all together. But it ended up working in the initial chunks that I did. I was surprised by that actually.

TP: How did the polishing and editing go?

CM: One of the problems I had is in the book I would have flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks. I had to make that smoother. I learned so much writing this book. My agent would teach me things like: you can’t say on page 200 that this is something your father always did. We need to see him always doing that.

TP: I was impressed with how much detail you’ve retained about your childhood.

CM: The more I worked on the book, the more I would remember.

TP: How so?

CM: I started keeping a journal of my dreams. The key is to have your notebook right there because you lose the recollection within minutes. It is fascinating. I did it for the better part of a year. By the end of that year I could remember feature-movie-length scenes from my dreams. I could remember so much I could hardly write fast enough. It’s because you’re training yourself to remember what’s happening in your sub-conscious. That happened more and more and more. And that helped me with the book. I would start with things that were vivid. A lot of the scenes in there are vivid. I had either remembered it really well or maybe I had written it down; I did go through old diaries. The journal pieces didn’t provide that much material for the book, but I could remember where my head was when I wrote the pieces, and I could go back there. I would struggle with something and think I know there is something I should remember, and then I would wake up the next morning and I would remember things that I hadn’t thought of in 50 years. By journaling my dreams, I suddenly had better access to my memories.

TP: Do you think this would work for everyone?

CM: I think so. If you write down something today about when you were 8, I bet tomorrow when you get up I bet you’ll remember something else. It’s all in there somewhere. The curious thing though is that the things that were in my head that were profound events that caused emotion, once I wrote about them they wouldn’t be in my head anymore.

TP: Sounds therapeutic.

CM: There’s research out there about people who got up in the morning and wrote for 20 minutes about the most traumatic event in their life. These were people who had chronic illnesses. Writing about these events in their lives greatly improved their health. It’s documented research. There’s also a difference between writing long-hand and typing. They have different functions in the brain. I never kept journals until I read The Artist’s Way. Julie Cameron recommends writing three pages a day, first thing, long-hand, about anything. She says it will change your life. I did that for a while and it did. To this day whenever I’m in a really bad spot I start doing it again. It can be about anything and it’s not for anyone else to read. Not writing, not an essay, not a journal entry. Just filling three pages long-hand. She says it has to be three pages. Sure enough you get to two-and-a-half pages and sure enough, something happens, and something comes out that changes your day in a positive way. So many things came out of that journal that surprised me. I once wrote I always wanted to do yoga. I did? I was just trying to fill the page. I never would have done that if it hadn’t come out on the page.

TP: How has the book been received in your family?

CM: It’s been challenging. I broke all the family rules. I broke the silence. I didn’t tell my biological family that I was doing it. I think they always assumed that I was going to do it some day because I always talked about it, but I didn’t tell them. In my house I have a picture wall with all the relatives and I would walk by it every day hiding my face because I felt the judgment pouring out of those photographs. I had to be the bad kid. I had to believe that it would do some good in the world and it would get me to a better place. That did happen. Once I had this book in my hands I felt liberated.

TP: That must be a good feeling.

CM: It is. It feels like it’s OK now. It feels like this inside person can now be out in the world.

TP: It reminded me of reading Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini.

CM: I met him once and told him my story. He was here for a keynote speaker at the Loft. He had a cookbook he was promoting. He signed his book to me and wrote “For The Love of Books and Difficult Fathers” – he was very encouraging.

TP: So overall you’re pleased with how the book ended up?

CM: Oh sure, although ’d love to start all over again. I think I could do a better job.

This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

Adam Wahlberg

Founder of Think Piece Publishing