Launching “True Saint Xavier”

This Thanksgiving, when the upheavals of our recent years still sting us and bring sadness, I find myself being thankful for an old colleague, gone now for several years. His spirit is needed. He harkens back to (what now seems to be) a make-believe time of hope and camaraderie.

A group of us is launching a new website, “,” as yet another effort to fight the good fight for the welfare of our students, our programs, our heritage, and our legacy. We think Saint Xavier has lost its way, (or has been hijacked), and we hold out hope that we still have time to right the balance, adjust our waywardness, and step into a more secure future.

In looking through my files for material to include at the new site, I came across an email from Richard Fritz from 2010. He shared his message with the “Faculty Only” listserv. It’s a response to the crisis of 2010, which led to the University’s reduction of its retirement match by 50%. SXU had had a rather generous match—10% (or was it 11%?)—but as a result of the financial crisis of the Dwyer-Piros administration, the University asked faculty to sacrifice—temporarily, as understood by many—so as to tide over the institution in a difficult time.

Richard died in 2017 after a devastating illness that gave him some time to prepare, but not enough, and not the right kind, and not with the right kind of leave taking. As if there could be such a thing.

Though Richard and I were colleagues for two decades, I really didn’t get to know him until his final years at SXU when we served together on the Faculty Affairs Committee. Richard had always intimidated me somewhat. He was tall, with a piercing intellect and passionate commitments, a good beard and sports coat, a born academic. He was one of those persons who seemed to stand for so much more than a single faculty colleague could stand for, and he was prone to lecturing (if I could say such a thing in a positive sense).

I thought I might break through in my intimidation after I found out he was close friends with one of my close friends from college days, Anne Marie. They were neighbors, and to hear Anne Marie speak of him as a friend and neighbor was disconcerting to me, and even when I worked with him on FAC, I only rarely mustered the courage to have one-on-ones with him. But we did have those conversations, and I grew to love him—both for himself, and for the way he epitomized for me the “long-term associate professor” who made it his mission to care for his students, above all else, as his “love language,” or more, his raison d’etre for being an academic. 

There was something stentorian about Richard—but often with a quaver in his voice in public speaking. Whatever it was, when he spoke, it was important. At faculty meetings, there would occasionally be a Richard speech. In elegant sentences, with rising emotion, he put the focus on students. No one could gainsay he was an excellent teacher. I had a little more—or different—insight to his teaching than most others at SXU, since my daughter Genevieve was a sociology major, and she had discovered that Dr. Fritz was “that professor” who was to be the influence, the guide for her academic journey, a mentor she could respect and appreciate her whole life. 

She had more Richard stories than I. And she had that kind of context that encapsulates, I would argue, the “true Saint Xavier.” When she would begin a sentence with “Dr. Fritz says…” we knew some insight … and a lot of heart would be shared. Richard always spoke highly of nurses and teachers, and so he scored points with both my wife (a nurse) and me in these moments when he was quoted back to us during family dinners, debates, and just being together.

So, as we launch “True Saint Xavier,” I want to invoke Richard’s spirit. But I have another layer to add on first. That additional layer is an email message I wrote and sent to a group of colleagues about 18 months ago, just after the SXU administration withdrew their recognition of the faculty union. That was when I first rediscovered Richard’s email of January 5, 2010:

From: Angelo Bonadonna <>
Subject: A Voice and a Message, Both Lost
Date: July 24, 2020 at 11:46:48 AM CDT
To: ***
Dear Colleagues—Yesterday, when searching my records for the year of the retirement match reduction (it was 10 years ago(!)—in 2010), I came across this email from Richard Fritz. It’s Richard at his best, and in telling the story of past sacrifice, he captured a bit of the soul of the SXU faculty, administration, and community—all in a way that seems so other-worldly these days.
I’m not sure what can be done with a message like this one. It’s more than just nostalgia that prompts me to share it now and ask you to consider what might be done with it, as we move forward to mobilize our colleagues. Richard’s is one of the voices that has been silenced—not directly by this administration, of course. But I worked closely with Richard in his last years at SXU, and it was clear to me that the institution was breaking his heart. Much, I’m sure, can be said about current conditions and leadership approaches—how they make the attitude and rhetoric that came so readily and naturally to Richard ten years ago impossible to conceive today.
The video documentary that Genevieve will be distributing in draft form in a few days has, as one of its themes, “the silencing of faculty voice.” I’d like to ask Gen (who revered Dr. Fritz) to consider dedicating the video “to the memory and mission of Richard Fritz, and all the lost voices of SXU…”
In the meantime, this Friday afternoon, take a moment to be with Richard a bit!  —Angelo
From: Fritz, Richard B.
Sent: Tue 1/5/2010 3:42 PM
To: Appel, Florence A.; Faculty-Only List
Subject: Dire Circumstances Redux
Dear Colleagues:
In the early 1990s (I believe it was 1993), the university found itself with an unexpected debt.  We were between two to three million dollars short of the amount required to pay our bills.  The situation was serious.  Several staff members were laid off and the administration scrambled to find ways to fill the gap.  There was talk of the university folding.  They were very unsettled times.  Scary and disheartening.
Several faculty meetings were convened; all were very well attended.  Numerous faculty members spoke up to discuss our role in solving the problem.  Dozens and dozens of ideas were proposed, every single one of which involved financial sacrifices on our part.  It was clear that the faculty understood the gravity of the situation.  It was also apparent that each and every one of us loved the university and were willing to go to great lengths to save it.
A solution was found.  In consultation with the administration, the Board of Trustees, and their faculty colleagues, the Faculty Affairs Committee created a voluntary “give back” program in which faculty members could reduce their salary by a certain percentage (I think it was 7%, but I’m not sure) for the remainder of the year (roughly seven or eight months).  Those who accepted the voluntary reduction would have a matching amount added to their pay check the following year.  As I remember, over 70% of the faculty participated.  It is not an exaggeration to say that this simple remedy saved the university.  Everyone, including the administration and Board of Trustees, acknowledged that the salary reduction program was the key factor in returning to economic stability.
The beauty of the program was that it did not require opening up the contract.  The program was voluntary, and therefore was not a “collectively bargained” agreement in the formal meaning. It was, in a sense, a collective faculty offer to pitch in.  The program did not impose universal participation.  There was no praise for participating, no stigma for not participating.  In fact, most people didn’t know who participated and who did not.  People gave back because they thought it was necessary and because they thought it would help.
Here we are again.  We didn’t ask for this (we didn’t the first time, either).  But we will help.  There is absolutely no doubt of that.  We, the faculty, love Saint Xavier.  It is more than just a job.  It is a place that transforms our students lives and gives meaning to our careers.  You all know what I’m saying, and could probably say it better.  The point is, we will not let the university fail.  We will do our part.
But as in the past, we must make our contributions wisely.  We must know what we are doing so that we can ensure that it will  work.  We must know the extent of the problem and the exact nature of the salutary effects of our contribution.  Will it be enough?  Too much?  Will it stabilize the institution?  And what assurances will we have that this problem won’t happen again?
Also, anything we do must be done in full concert with the Board of Trustees.  They are responsible for the financial well being of the university. Any contribution we make is virtually meaningless unless it is coordinated with their master plan.
In the past, FAC generated a solution that saved the university.  The current Faculty Affairs Committee has members who are both experienced and creative.  One member, Brian McKenna, served as a faculty representative to the Board of Trustees for many, many years.  He knows how they think and how they function.  Others, including Flo Appel, Norm Boyer, Suzanne Kimble, and Peter Hilton were here the last time we went through this.  Their leadership, in collaboration with Interim President Durante and the Board of Trustees, is central to solving this problem. I don’t know what kind of solution will be offered.  Perhaps it will involve reductions in retirement contributions or perhaps salary paybacks.  Whatever they decide, I trust Interim President Durante and our Faculty leaders to guide us to a solution in a collaborative, equitable, and timely fashion.
Richard Fritz
Sociology Dept.

January 23, 2020

[Note:  This entry is an example of an SSW session written during workshop with my freshman writing class at the start of Spring Semester, 2020.  SSW stands for “silent sustained writing,” a weekly practice of 40-minute writing sessions conducted throughout the semester where the entire class, including the instructor, “looks at the world as a writer,” selects genres and topics of the author’s interest, and writes.  The weekly sessions build into a “writer’s notebook,” that explores what Nancie Atwell calls an author’s “writing territories,” and that approaches the task of “teaching” writing through a process of “cultivation” of a writer’s identity, rather than through specific instruction in teacher-chosen skills.  Early in each semester, I try to model how the process works for me–and how it has evolved for me as a writer over time.  It’s about writing as a way of being, rather than something learned, mastered, and checked off….]

So it begins again.  Another writing notebook.  Today is a special day.  You can tell so much about a semester’s writing from how it starts.  I hope my students can grow into this routine … I feel I need to help it work for them, to model, to get them started.  But today is special for other reasons, or rather one big reason.  Today is Ang’s birthday, and there’s so much to remember—so much to think about.  Loretta will be going to All Saints cemetery this morning to be close to him.  It’s her tradition on January 23rd, one that was never quite right for me, and as she says, we all grieve in our own ways.  For me, one of the most healing things I could do, one of the best ways for me to “be with” Ang is to write about him, and so the two worlds meld.  I’ve had so many SSW sessions thinking about Ang, being with him.  I look forward to today’s.

Thirty four, and just under nine years since he left us.  That other anniversary, February 5, is in two weeks, and so I’ll need to power through till then, and then start breathing again.  Is it this time of year—the doldrums of late January?  Or is it the need to reach 10 years beyond losing Ang—that theory of mine that there would be a 10 year adjustment to the loss of him, whereby my life could slow down, stop, turn, and then slowly start up again—with new memories, new foundations, new hopes….  One more year, and I’m feeling that my suspicion was right—the time was needed, is needed.  Ten years is about right, at least as a minimum.

On Ang’s birthday the past few years I find myself going back to 1986 and that experience of childbirth, or rather witnessing childbirth, for the first time.  That was an eye-opener.  But then, everything about Ang was an eye-opener.  I feel a need to convey something of Ang to my beloved students.  He was so special to me, and they are all special, or becoming special to me, the way students always do.  I hope they let themselves go places today that surprise them, touch them, and open up new possibilities.

That day in 1986 was about five days before the Bears played in and won their first Super Bowl.  I was a huge fan that year—as was just about everyone in Chicago.  I was scheduled to work my security job that Sunday and miss the game … but Ang was born and so I was able to take off.  That was his first gift to me, and it was a good one.  On the day of his birth, while I was at Walgreens picking up some needed things (diapers?), I saw in the checkout lane a very expensive (to me, at that time) commemorative magazine previewing the big game.  It was $5.00.  I was very poor at the time and couldn’t justify spending that much on a frivolous thing like a Bears magazine.  But Ang gave me the excuse!  It was a present for him.  And it was, and when I told him about it when he reached the age of reason, he cherished it, he read it, and he kept it close (till it became tattered and lost).  But really, standing there in Walgreens, I just wanted that magazine.  On Super Bowl Sunday, I placed him in his baby seat, put him in front of the TV, and told him, “Ang, you’re about to see something that no living person has seen, or could appreciate.  You’re starting out life well, young man.”  And he continued well, becoming a huge Bears fan and sports fanatic, in the healthiest way.  He died on February 5, 2011, the day before the Packers won their last Super Bowl, and I thought, wryly, what Ang would do to avoid seeing the Packers win….

But that was not really true.  Though he did have a healthy and playful sense of rivalry with the Packers, he wasn’t bitter about their success.  Terry reported grousing to Ang about the Packers in one of his last conversations with him.  Not only had the Bears missed a very easy late-season opportunity to eliminate the Packers, but they proceeded to be eliminated by them in the first round of the playoffs.   As he often did, Angelo transcended the dynamic saying, “Yeah, it sucks that the Bears aren’t in it, but it’s the Super Bowl!”  And so, on he moved, with joy and purpose, commencing one of his last organizational acts, collecting baht, and running a pool for the Super Bowl for his friends in Thailand.  (We got the winnings the next week when we traveled to Thailand to bring Ang home.)  We have pictures of him running the show, organizing things, at a bar, of course, looking as though he were conducting significant business, but really just making squares.

I wish I could create a picture of Ang for my students.  I think of my longstanding reflection of “no explanation needed”—the great comfort in there being so many people who knew Ang intimately, and who “got him”—who would remember actions and gestures and stories and tone of voice—immediately, instantaneously—deeply and expansively, without any words.  Angelo was a landscape, and the memories of him are the flash of lightning that illuminates the entire territory in an instant, giving you a view of more and more dazzling imagery than you could imagine unless you had first seen it.

In so many ways, he was just an ordinary college-type kid—funny, self-absorbed, conscientious, concerned about social justice, concerned about social outings, tireless, indulgent, generous, the center of attention, the guy in the background, the bursting through life of life itself.

His friends still visit him on Facebook, posting links to news and culture that remind them of him.  Sometimes they just call out to him in longing for him.  I don’t visit the page much, just as I don’t visit the cemetery, I guess.  I’ve been fearful of locking down on one experience of him, becoming dependent on it, and then having it go away.  The part that doesn’t go away is my own memories….  The store is limited … but he’s still so alive in those moments.  He speaks through them, in a way that seems new and changing.  He was such a presence for me, and he always surprised me—so I’m missing those surprises—but I still have the smile, the wryness, the energy, and the illuminated landscape that makes me feel “wow.”

We’ll celebrate tonight, with cake, and one of his favorite meals, probably pizza—though we’ve been debating what he would choose, since his diet changed so much in the last few years.  We will gather and be the normal, well-adjusted family we always are.  We might tell some Ang stories, but maybe not.  We all will continue grieving for this lost landscape—so known, so understood, so appreciated—in our own ways.

S.O.S. Times Two: Wry Reflections on/in Ethan Frome

This is a novel of cold and reflections of the cold. There is the surface and the sub-surface, “inner needs” and “outer situation” (8), the desolate landscape of the soul and the desolate landscape of winter, and and each doubles the other. Chill is heaped on chill, in an endless winter, the same as all other winters, all inexorable, silent, and deadening.

Perhaps the most succinct analysis of Ethan Frome’s fate comes from the novel’s garrulous coachmen, Harmon Gow, “Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters” (2-3). To no little extent, the villain of this tale is the landscape and its influences, its bitterness, the “hypnotizing effect of [its] routine” (3)—the inexorable will of winter to penetrate and reproduce itself in all it touches.

The lives of the Frome household are grimly doubled outside the house, in the “shaded knoll where, enclosed in a low fence, the Frome grave-stones slanted at crazy angles through the snow” (26). The novel ends with Mrs. Hale’s comment, “I don’t see there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard” (99), an insight that reverberates quietly and insistently throughout the novel. Ethan himself resonates with it, as he looks at the gravestones with full realization of their reflective power. In their silence, they speak to him, and he to them, about the possibility of change:

Ethan looked at them curiously. For years that quiet company had mocked his restlessness, his desire for change and freedom. “We never got away—how should you?” seemed to be written on every headstone; and whenever he went in or out of his gate he thought with a shiver: “I shall just go on living here till I join them.” (26)

Ethan’s “living” was a mode of intensifying withdrawal and silence. His early hope of escape at school failed him, and he was propelled into his desolate spiral of being. By nature, Ethan is “grave and inarticulate,” even before the misfortunes of experience and landscape produced their doubles in him. But there are pointings toward other possibilities in the brief, fleeting vision of Ethan at school:

There was in him a slumbering spark of sociability which the long Starkfield winters had not yet extinguished. By nature grave and inarticulate, he admired recklessness and gaiety in others and was warmed to the marrow by friendly human intercourse. At Worcester, though he had the name of keeping to himself and not being much of a hand at good time, he had secretly gloried in being clapped on the back and hailed as “Old Ethe” or “Old Stiff”; and the cessation of such familiarities had increased the chill of his return to Starkfield.

There the silence had deepened about him year by year. (37)

One might say, with sardonic whimsy, that the doubling theme of Ethan Frome points to some moralistic exploration of the ill effects of the “double-cross” of infidelity. But this is not a novel to condemn the love that grows in this barren environment. The tender romance of Ethan and Mattie is delicate to excruciating extremes. The two kiss, and there are satisfactions there, but most of this romance is left to the ethereal realm of possibility (and impossibility):

. . . all their intercourse [pun intended?] had been made up of such inarticulate flashes, when they seemed to come suddenly upon happiness as if they had surprised a butterfly in the wintry woods . . . .

But there are no butterflies in winter, certainly not in a Starkfield winter. Even so, the doubling theme re-doubles back to something positive in the context of Mattie and Ethan’s love. The height—or depth—of their love is conveyed in terms of reflecting back—echoing—lover-to-lover and lover-within-lover:

She had an eye to see and an ear to hear: he could show her things and tell her things, and taste the bliss of feeling that all he imparted left long reverberations and echoes he could wake at will. (16-17)

One of the more chilling echoes (in this most wintry novel) occurs the night of Ethan and Mattie’s “date,” they’re one night together. Ethan’s anticipation for the evening can only but mildly match the reader’s, and Wharton’s description of Ethan’s approach to Mattie is tantalizing for its delays and complications. The narration here is at once archetypal (the “expectant lover,” who must court ritualistically, must practice restraint, and must follow proprieties despite the motives calling for intense and sudden action), suspenseful (is Mattie there?), passionate (Ethan, locked out, “rattled the handle violently”), and, most of all, eerily foreshadowing of the most poignant and ultimate doubling of the story, the doubling of Zeena’s soul into Mattie:

He reached the kitchen-porch and turned the door-handle; but the door did not yield to his touch.

Startled at finding it locked he rattled the handle violently; then he reflected that Mattie was alone and that it was natural she should barricade herself at nightfall. He stood in the darkness expecting to hear her step. It did not come, and after vainly straining his ears he called out in a voice that shook with joy: “Hello, Matt!”

Silence answered; but in a minute or two he caught a sound on the stairs and saw a line of light about the door-frame, as he had seen it the night before. So strange was the precision with which the incidents of the previous evening were repeating themselves that he half expected, when he heard the key turn, to see his wife before him on the threshold; but the door opened, and Mattie faced him. (43)

After dinner, another doubling occurrence caused Ethan to confuse Mattie and Zeena:

Zeena’s empty rocking-chair stood facing him. Mattie rose [. . .] and seated herself in it. As her young brown head detached itself against the patch-work cushion that habitually framed his wife’s gaunt countenance, Ethan had a momentary shock. It was almost as if the other face, the face of the superseded woman, had obliterated that of the intruder. (48)

One might easily list other instances of the doubling theme: Ethan’s laughter “echoes” Mattie’s laughter; the naming of Zeena causes “repercussions of sound” that cause Mattie to wait “to give the echo time to drop” (51), a momentary blush arises in Mattie “like the reflection of a thought stealing slowly across her heart” (51).

In all, the doubling brings Zeena and Mattie together, in a way not fully consummated until the novel’s end when we discover Mattie has become Zeena in the most awful intensification of the dull “smash up” of Ethan Frome’s life.

Before that, Wharton’s narrator characterizes Zeena, at her ugliest moment when she sends Mattie away, as the incarnation of, the reflection of, the doubling of all the misfortune, failure, and silent death of Ethan’s life: “All the long misery of his baffled past, of his youth of failure, hardship and vain effort, rose up in his soul in bitterness and seemed to take shape before him in the woman who at every turn had barred his way” (65). The ultimate doubling of this incarnation is Ethan Frome’s fate—horrible enough under any circumstances, but unthinkable in its zero-sum effect of negating all the possibility, light, charm, warmth, and freedom that Mattie had presented to Ethan.

Pedagogical Uses of Social Networking Systems

The Context: The following entry was written in response to a colleague’s question to the general faculty about the possibilities of using social networking systems like Myspace and Facebook in teaching:

I could envision lessons and activities that explore or study various aspects of social networking, but as far as actually using a social network environment to host class work, I tend to agree with my colleague Laurence: “there are some web platforms that may be better left to non-academic uses.” The social networks are where the “kids” hang out; there seems something invasive about “going there” as a class—kinda like bringing a class, uninvited, to someone’s party; it could work out okay, but it’s just . . . weird).

Aside from the question of how to use social networking tools in one’s teaching, I think the bigger pedagogical issue here has to do with broad matters of communication and rhetoric brought to the fore by the social networking phenomenon. Many media reports have sounded the alarm bell about the dangers kids expose themselves to in putting too much of their lives out there on the Web. We’ve long known of the danger of the Internet in terms of predators and children. Now, however, with young adults voluntarily publishing information about themselves (photos of drinking exploits at parties, for instance), the dangers have shifted somewhat from those involving personal safety to those involving professional liabilities (in presenting personal info that might make an individual less attractive to a potential employer, school admissions office, etc.).

What’s our role as educators in all this? Rather than foment the concern, I’d prefer educators show leadership and wisdom on this issue.

Specifically, I think educators—at all levels—should teach communicators (all students) the principles and practices of “effective communication.” Myspace/Facebook/etc. is giving us a marvelous “teachable moment.” I think we should take the lead and promote the study—and perhaps even the use of—social networking technologies (even if we don’t use such tools in our teaching). We should support and coach the responsible use of such technologies. In essence we should teach students how “to Myspace”—or at least help them build awareness of the range of communicative/social/personal/professional issues involved in putting one’s oar into the deep and sometimes turbulent waters of public discourse.

I make this proposal, in part, in response to the strong and growing move to curtail and control social networking—especially in high school environments. I’ve heard several reports by our student teachers and first-year teachers about (understandably) skittish administrators whose first impulse in such dangerous situations is one of censorship. It’s ironic; in higher ed, our goal is to stimulate discussion and critical thinking; we often lament our students’ inabilities in this regard—but, to be blunt, so much of the goal in earlier schooling centers on keeping the lid on “inappropriate” communication and critique; is it any wonder the kids come to us communicatively straight-jacketed?

But anyway, thanks for initiating this stimulating discussion [on the faculty listserv]. I see many ways the issues involved “connect.” I’m encouraged to think how a more open attitude about communication possibilities can empower us (the collective “us,” as scholars, as society’s experts in various types of communication)—and play to our strengths in terms of our potential leadership. Conversely, such openness may expose us to new situations where we will learn from our students. Some of us welcome such dynamics while others may be less comfortable with them.

In any event, whenever new technologies are involved, there will undoubtedly be “unexpected by-products.” I have a positive example of such a by-product from one of our student teachers last semester. The incident involved a student teacher who used Myspace to collect and share information about a high school student in her class who had died in a car accident over the Christmas break. The student teacher was able to gather many compelling artifacts from the student’s Myspace site. The student was a poet and artist. The student teacher was able to put together a soundtrack of music from the student’s favorite music, and create a slide show of words and images to celebrate the student’s life and help her classmates through the rough, early stages of grief.

I think there are various ways we in higher education can show leadership in “teaching how-to-Myspace” (if I may be excused using “Myspace” as a verb), but it starts with an open attitude and a confidence in/realization of our credentials to be the leaders. . . .

Truth, Lies, and Good Form in Novels: Reading Response to The Things They Carried

The Unreliable Narrator as Liar v. Unreliable
Narrator as Guide

Whenever I think of the concept of the “unreliable narrator” in literature, I think of Edgar Allan Poe, and stories of his like the “Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Using Poe’s fiction as a type of manual, my teachers in graduate school taught me how to interrogate a narrator’s credibility; I was taught, in essence, to read against the narrative, to look for signs of contradiction, to chart the extremes of obsession, to diagnose mental illness. The typical Poe narrator strategically and rationally tells his story—at least seemingly, or professedly, so at the start. But in focusing on his “reality,” his guilt, the perfection of his crime, the intensity of his experience, and so on, he pulls us into a monomania that has afflicted him and distorts his vision; his tale blurs the line between sanity and insanity, and leaves its readers with questions, possibilities, and disturbances.

I learned that reading Poe attentively required a double consciousness: reading the story and reading the story behind the story. The teacher in me now sees that Poe’s fiction, in its extremes, provided my teachers a convenient point of entry into the world of literary hermeneutics in general. For Poe, it could be argued, put into bold relief general issues of interpretation that pertain to every narrative. Just what could be trusted of any narrator or author? Once you looked for the signs of “insanity” or “unreliability”—or contradiction—in the more obvious instances of Poe’s fiction, you started to perceive possible doubts and truth issues in all accounts everywhere. Contemporary literary criticism, of course, has jumped off this springboard into a whole realm of interpretive doubt and potentiality about all language and reality. . . .

With the novel, The Things They Carried, the concept of the unreliable narrator comes full circle. The narrator of this novel, “Tim O’Brien,” is definitely “unreliable”—but unlike Poe’s narrators who tried to come across as believable, O’Brien’s narrator deliberately announces the inadequacy of his facts and overall storytelling. Instead of hiding the cracks in his story (or professing sanity and validity like Poe’s narrators), “Tim O’Brien” explicitly focuses on them, and in doing so, he ironically—upon such a foundation—constructs a poignant set of truths—both about the significance of his lived experience and about something far larger: the nature of storytelling, truth, memory, and imagination in general.

The Things They Carried: Whose Story?
What Truth?

In this novel, Tim O’Brien (author? narrator? both?) speaks of his experiences during, after, and before Vietnam, and so he functions as a kind of organizing principle, a center for all the narratives. It’s his youth, his America, his abortive draft dodging into Canada, his dead girlfriend from long ago, his publication of Norman Bowker’s story (read by Bowker shortly before his suicide), and his conversations with his daughter that present and connect all the anecdotes and reflections that comprise the novel.

But despite his centering of the episodes on himself, O’Brien frequently blurs the line between those things that happened to him as an individual, those things that happened to his fellow soldiers and friends, and those things that would or could happen to any individual in a universal sense. O’Brien is repeatedly deliberate in undercutting the precision of the facts and situations he narrates. He mixes situations, persons, and events, and he invites the reader into the thought processes and choices behind the mixing process.

Through the jumbled, skewed narratives, O’Brien seems to be trying to guide outsiders to some important, but difficult truths that might not be accessed through a more conventional, certain, or orderly narrative flow. Never is the blurring more “true” than in the case of Norman Bowker and the story of Kiowa’s death in the “shit field.” It is only after O’Brien tells Bowker’s story that he adds the revision that it was he, O’Brien, and not Bowker, who let Kiowa drown in the field. In an instant, all of Norman Bowker’s grief and distress is overlaid atop of Tim O’Brien’s, and distinguishing the two identities becomes impossible—and irrelevant.

In fact, O’Brien’s revelation prompts us to question whether this is, in fact, O’Brien’s novel, for might not the entire collection be viewed it as an extended “ghost writer’s” revision of the “long, disjointed letter” Bowker sent to O’Brien “in which Bowker described the problem of finding a meaningful use for his life after the war” (155). O’Brien comments on Bowker’s letter as follows:

The letter covered seventeen handwritten pages, its tone jumping from self-pity to anger to irony to guilt to a kind of feigned indifference. He didn’t know what to feel. . . . (156)

What is the “truth” of Bowker’s feelings here? Part of O’Brien’s list? All of it? A mixture of it? The poetics of The Things They Carried suggest that it is all of the above, plus O’Brien’s novel itself, plus all the other “good war stories.” We just can’t know. . . .

But a certain truth about mental health and survival does emerge from the Bowker episode, for it shows how the chances of survival and health improve to the degree individuals are able to convert the experiences into words and stories that get communicated. Bowker wrote O’Brien a letter, but he couldn’t quite articulate what he felt. With the exception of his letter, Bowker remained silent, at the great cost of his eventual suicide. Those who cannot speak, who cannot convert the experience of Vietnam into story, seem doomed—burdened to carry something they will have to “hump” the rest of their lives, provided they survive the battlefield and “mind field” during and after the war.

The storytelling, however, is not the only important thing: “Getting it right” is crucial. Throughout its disjointed narratives, The Things They Carried presents a strong theme on the notion of “good form,” appropriate storytelling, even if appropriateness leads away from facts and conventional truths.

Good Form . . . Getting it Right

It is roughly one-third of the way into The Things They Carried that O’Brien explicitly introduces the theme of storytelling and good form. The chapter is aptly named “How to Tell a War Story.” It deals with subtleties of phrasing, structure, and message, and at one point provides explicit criteria for a “true war story”:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. (68-69)

Interspersed among these prescriptions and reflections are some “true war stories,” offered as illustrations, and sometimes announced by the claim “This is true” (67). But ironically the narrator suggests that the parts that aren’t actually identifiable as true carry the greater weight of truth:

In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. When a booby trap explodes, you close your eyes and duck and float outside yourself. When a guy dies, like Curt Lemon, you look away and then look back for a moment and then look away again. The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed. (71)

The experience of war, chaotic and fragmentary and intense as it is, is beyond the packaging of words. Hence there is a need for lying—but not with the purpose of deceiving, but rather for accuracy. Words or stories that would “conclude” or “generalize” would distort or distract. “How do you generalize?” the narrator asks. He explains:

War is hell, but that’s not he half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.

The truths are contradictory. It can be argued, for instance, that war is grotesque. But in truth, was is also beauty. For all its horror, you can’t help but gape at the awful majesty of combat. . . .

To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true. (80)

As for “accuracy” in regards to words and storytelling, the experience of war puts you in a “fog”:

There is no clarity. Everything swirls. The old rules are no longer binding, the old truths no longer true. Right spills over into wrong. Order blends into chaos, love into hate, ugliness into beauty, law into anarchy, civility into savagery. The vapors suck you in. You can’t tell where you are, or why you’re there, and the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity.

In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true. (82)

And then there is the occasional need for a lie to convey the truth, for

[a]bsolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, “The fuck you do that for?” and the jumper says, “Story of my life, man,” and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.

That’s a true story that never happened. (83-84)

In one sense truth becomes a kind of calling towards “form.” Form gives order—an emotional order, a felt sense—a reality that can be communicated, but only, perhaps, if the gaps, the parts you miss when you are ducking and closing your eyes or thinking in panic, are stroked over or filled out by some invented or re-created structure in the re-telling.

The only urgent need in storytelling is to “get it right.” One of the great war stories of the novel involves a tale not told directly by Tim O’Brien, but rather by his friend, Rat Kiley, an even less reliable narrator than Tim: “Rat had a reputation for exaggeration and overstatement, a compulsion to rev up the facts” and “when you listened to one of his stories, you’d find yourself performing rapid calculations in your head, subtracting superlatives, figuring the square root of an absolute and then multiplying by maybe” (89-90). Rat’s story involves the the bringing over of Mark Fossie’s girlfriend, Mary Anne Bell, from the states to Vietnam. Though it has many comical elements, Rat tells the story more as a “straight tragedy.” Rat’s story spans several pages in the book and several weeks in the war; it “make[s] things present” (180), and it casts a spell—until Rat’s narrative style jars the aesthetic sensibilities of fellow soldier Mitchell Sanders:

Whenever he told the story, Rat had a tendency to stop now and then, interrupting the flow, inserting little clarifications or bits of analysis and personal opinion. It was a bad habit, Mitchell Sanders said, because all that matters is the raw material, the stuff itself, and you can’t clutter it up with your own half-baked commentary. That just breaks the spell. It destroys the magic. What you have to do, Sanders said, is trust your own story. Get the hell out of the way and let it tell itself. (106)

Apparently, however, a good part of Rat’s story was the reflective, interspersed commentary, analysis, and glossing, for he proves intractable in his narrative style. O’Brien continues Rat’s narration of Mary Anne Bell’s adventures in Vietnam. After a particularly lengthy commentary by Rat on the reality of the story, Mitchell Sanders reaches a breaking point:

Rat would go on like that until Mitchell Sanders couldn’t tolerate it any longer. It offended his inner ear.

“The story,” Sanders would say. “The whole tone, man, you’re wrecking it.”


“The sound. You need to get a consistent sound, like slow or fast, funny or sad. All these digressions, they just screw up your story’s sound.  Stick to what happened.

“Tone?” he’d say. “I didn’t know it was all that complicated. The girl joined the zoo. One more animal—end of story.”

“Yeah, fine. But tell it right.” (107)

Rat behaves better for a while and continues on with the story till its end—or rather its first false ending, when Rat throws up his hands and ends the story abruptly, saying, in essence, he didn’t have an ending for the story because he was transferred and never saw Mary Anne Bell or Mark Fossie again.

Rat Kiley stopped there, almost in midsentence, which drove Mitchell Sanders crazy.

“What’s next?” he said.


“The girl. What happened to her?”

Rat made a small, tired motion with his shoulders. “Hard to tell for sure. Maybe three, four days later I got orders to report here to Alpha Company. Jumped the first chopper out, and that’s the last I ever seen of the place. Mary Anne, too.”

Mitchell Sanders stared at him.

“You can’t do that.”

“Do what?”

“Jesus Christ, it’s against the rules,” Sanders said. “Against human nature. This elaborate story, you can’t say, Hey, by the way, I don’t know the ending. I mean, you got certain obligations.” (112-113)

Here and elsewhere throughout the novel, we see that matters of form pre-empt matters of truth. Good form—however it is achieved, through lying, mixing perspectives and time period, forming connections, telling and trying to tell “correctly”—offers hope not only for diversion or entertainment, but for catharsis, some unburdening, even as the burden remains with us. . . .

Comparing Tim O’Brien to Another “Unreliable”

I read The Things They Carried in the summer of 2006, at about the same time that I read a review of Garrison Keillor’s movie, A Prairie Home Companion. Like Tim O’Brien, Garrison Keillor is a Minnesotan, and that fact is perhaps just as telling as all the lies either author uses in his fiction. Keillor also uses an “unreliable narrator”—a correspondent who is a fictionalized version of himself who each week reports the news from his fictional home town, Lake Wobegon. Reviewer Sam Anderson characterizes Keillor’s narrative approach in terms of larger literary traditions that provide a useful context, by way of contrast, for the current discussion of Tim O’Brien’s “unreliability”:

Keillor has . . . turned himself into a kind of EveryMidwesterner. When he started as a writer and radio host in the early 1970s, America’s major regions had all been thoroughly mythologized—there was Faulkner’s Mississippi, Steinbeck’s California, and everybody else’s New York. But the Midwest was, relatively speaking, a blank slate. Like Faulkner, Keillor invented a fictional territory—a mythical Minnesota hamlet called Lake Wobegon, “the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve”—and dedicated his career to exploring it. (Wobegon is a little like Yoknapatawpha County, but Midwestern—i.e., with all the murder, rape, class warfare, and incest translated into gardening, ice fishing, and gentle boyish hijinks.) Wobegon allowed him to be both culturally specific—every story is loaded with landmarks and proper names—and yet free from the tyranny of fact. He honored his native culture by gently mocking it, an approach that ingeniously echoed the region’s ethic of self-deprecating pride. (“A Prairie Home Conundrum” in Slate, June 16, 2006)

Contrasting O’Brien’s technique with Keillor’s helps clarify the qualities of “unreliability.” For unlike Keillor with the Midwest, O’Brien is not “mythologizing” Vietnam. He is not translating the murder, shit, and warfare into anything else. He is not gently mocking anything about Vietnam to honor the experience or ennoble it or its participants. Like Keillor, O’Brien has cut himself off from the “tyranny of fact”—but with an end toward communicating a “more real” truth rather than engaging in overt fiction as Keillor does.

Despite their lies and their nuanced use of them, both Keillor and O’Brien narrate stories to communicate some kind of truth. In Keillor’s case, the truth is some abstract principle of region and character and nostalgic possibility. In O’Brien’s case the truth is much more concrete and focused: it’s the impact of an event on a poet. Send a poet to Vietnam, and this is what you get. And so, given this mixed situation, the truth of The Things They Carried is both hard and soft. On the one hand we have the hard impact of a war on a young person’s life—and the resilient way that young person carries with him that thing throughout life afterwards and even before the impact, as, through memory and imagination, the after-shock is analogized to and mysteriously linked with earlier childhood experiences. So hard is this impact that it strikes backwards, and reorients the past as well as propels the future. But the truth is soft too, like a dream that reanimates the dead.

The experiences live on in the stories, and that life can offer some remedy to the waste of a war. “The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness.” And more: “That is what a story does. The bodies are animated. You make the dead talk.”

The dream allows the kind of connections and “essences” that the “tyranny of fact” forbids. The dream allows “Tim O’Brien” to look back over his life, its various phases from childhood and beyond, and see “something absolute and unchanging. The human life is all one thing, like a blade tracing loops on ice; a little kid, a twenty-three-old infantry sergeant, a middle-aged writer knowing guilt and sorrow” (236). Such is the unreliability of a narrator who shows us, through memory and imagination, the edges and diffusions of human life, all one thing that it is over the span of our time.