by Suzanne Schroeder
On September 11, 2001, Amalie Flynn, a law student on her way to class, stood at the corner of Church and Worth Streets and watched the first plane hit the North Tower. She experienced the same confusion, panic and chaos as everyone else in close proximity.
Now, Flynn has written a memoir of 9/11 and the years that followed, called Wife and War. The title is taken from the course that Flynn’s life took, shortly after 9/11. She left law school, and found a job teaching English composition on a military base. She also met her future husband, Jason Phillips, a Naval officer. Following their marriage and the birth of their first child, Flynn’s husband was deployed to Afghanistan. Her book documents, in a series of short prose poems, the experience of being left to wait, trying to make sense first of her experience of the attack, followed by that of her husband at war.
Early on, one senses that Wife and War is an extraordinary book. Flynn uses a deliberate device: the images of 9/11 become a sort ectoskeleton upon which she adds ligaments, muscle and skin. Her recollections build life, but also address its extreme fragility and transience. The body is referenced throughout Wife and War and it’s a gamble, using this kind of leitmotif; it can easily become forced and overly deliberate, but this never happens. Flynn sustains this metaphor of flesh and blood with perfect control, careful to not overuse the imagery in a gratuitous way.
One of the great strengths of the book is the way Flynn expresses our often inexplicable responses to catastrophe. Her law school professor continues his lecture, even after the second plane hits the South Tower. A man with a heavy German accent helps Flynn when she falls, running away, and comments on her German name, Amalie, when she calls her mother and asks “what should I do?” the answer is, “I cannot tell you.” She ends reminiscence of falling bodies, with the stark phrase, “what is missing cannot be counted.”
Flynn left New York, as it filled with “soldiers, their tanks and guns,” because she “did not want to be part of it, and so I ran away.” With her wonderful sense of brevity she tells us that she ran “into the arms of a man wearing a military uniform.”
In the years following 9/11, there is the very understandable sense that Flynn and her husband, both young and starting life, want to escape the burdens that recent history has placed on all of us, collectively. Flynn gives us a lovely description of one of houses she and her husband live in, early in their marriage:
This house, in Rhode Island, is our second house, a house that I don’t like, old, with peeling paint, a tower on top, the widows peak, our realtor tells us, where the wives stood watch, for their husbands, out at sea, these almost widows.
I loved this passage so much because, somehow, Flynn has managed to tie a forgotten bit of American history to her own future.
Much of Wife and War is devoted to Flynn’s own experience as an “almost widow.” When the dreaded news comes that her husband is being deployed to Afghanistan, she does something both surprising and perfect. In this passage she portrays how absurd irony is sometimes the only thing that saves us from collapse: “he is being send to war, boots-on-the-ground, in Afghanistan. And I say, but you’re in the Navy.”
Shortly after is one of the most painful passages in the book: “Before he leaves, my husband talks about it. He talks about dying, about where I should live, about who will help me, and how I will get the life insurance money. My husband makes plans for me, postmortem plans.”
All accounts of war are truly two histories: the descriptions of battles, campaigns, and accords, and then the narrative of coming home. One account receives endless re-examination and revision, but the other story is inherently one of neglect. This history is one of changed men (and up until recently, most returning soldiers were men), but also the women and children they returned to. The second part of Wife and War is devoted to this depth of this often unspoken “second battlefront.”
For this reason, I cannot recommend Wife and War enough to anyone who has had a husband, wife, friend, partner, boyfriend/girlfriend who has returned. And obviously each experience is unique. One person’s change may be almost imperceptible; another may be destroyed. But the imprint that is left remains, and cannot be erased.
Flynn has written about the daunting, all-consuming difficulty of trying to understand her husband’s experience of war, while knowing that such a task is truly impossible.
So, they say, what did you do there, because people want to know, what my husband did in Afghanistan. And I listen. As he explains to them about the college in Kabul, and the Officers, the Afghan Officers he taught there. And I know that his story is not the one they expect to hear. But war is not a movie. It is not always chasing down terrorists and killing them.
But then there is Flynn’s earlier description of the survival of her marriage: “Like a blackout, I say, because war does that. It can make everything dark, disconnected, where there is no light and there is only darkness, death and destruction.”
So, there is no “happy ending.” There is massive effort and suffering, and only after passing through that, does this happen: “Somehow, we find it, each other, again. We find our way back. Back from war, and back to each other.”
Finally, our post-WWII culture was one where schoolchildren did not recite poetry, and “oratory” became an archaic term. Hip-hop taught us that the expressive use of language is a vital need, and will be found, despite the odds against it. Flynn uses language with great artfulness; with simplicity, control, and always with restraint. These qualities make Wife and War not only an important, meditative look at tragedy and conflict, but also a work of art.
About the Reviewer:
Suzanne Schroeder is an independent analyst concentrating on the Afghan insurgency. She is currently working on a collaborative project documenting occurrences and coverage of school poisoning incidents in Afghanistan. You can follow Suzanne on Twitter at @SuzanneSues57.
About Amalie Flynn:
Amalie Flynn is an American writer. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times At War (November 2010, November 2011, March 2011, August 2012) and in TIME (September 2011). Her writing has received mention by CNN and The New York Times Media Decoder. Her writing has been published in Diagram: An Anthology of Text, Art, and Schematic (Del Sol Press, 2003). Her art was featured in the Artists Invite Artist Friends show at the Phoenix Gallery (NYC, 2006). She is also the author of three other blogs: the Wife and War blog, the September Eleventh blog, the Americans At War blog, and her blog for The Huffington Post. Amalie Flynn’s first book,WIFE AND WAR: THE MEMOIR, is available on Amazon in Paperback and on Kindle, on Barnes & Noble for the Nook, and in select indie bookstores.