War Torn: Stories of Courage, Love, and Resilience
by Kenneth E. Miller
Publisher: Larson Publications (October 17, 2016)
Category: Non-Fiction, PTSD, Current Events/World Affairs, Political Science: Genocide and War Crimes
Tour Date: Oct and Nov, 2016
Available in: Print, 296 Pages
With some 200 million people in more than forty countries affected by armed conflict or genocide, refugees are appearing in record numbers. War Torn is timely in how it brings us intimately into the lives of civilians who have survived wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Guatemala, and Sri Lanka.
Alongside stories that convey intimately the destruction and heartbreak of armed conflict, Miller captures the courage and resilience he calls “a remarkable kind of light,” an essential counterpoint to the grief and trauma that war creates. The stories in War Torn are powerful, heart-wrenching, and unforgettable.
Excerpt for War Torn by Kenneth E. Miller
Asabi. We kept hearing that word in the stories the team gathered.
A man who’d lost both legs and his sight in a rocket attack spent his days sitting at home, filled with anger. He’d lash out at his wife and kids. Nervous, unable to sleep, he was like a taut rubber band waiting to snap. Sometimes he’d sink into a state of hopeless despair, unable to imagine any sort of future. But mostly he just bristled with rage. Asabi.
A woman whose husband and oldest son were shot by soldiers from one or another militia during the civil war, and whose two younger sons died when a rocket hit their home, shifted between deep grief and feeling tightly wound, on edge to the point of exhaustion. Her tense and angry expression formed a wordless warning: don’t come close. Asabi.
The root of the word, asab, means nerve, but giving up one’s asab (becoming asabi) is more than feeling nervous. It’s a heightened state of tension that gets expressed as anger, or more intensely as rage (khaili asabi). It drives people away, and can even lead to violence. It’s not exactly PTSD, which entails a broader array of symptoms, but it brings to mind the edginess, the reactivity you see in a lot of trauma survivors.
Sometimes people can “hold onto their asab,” and not succumb to rage despite whatever horrific cruelty they’ve experienced. Naseema described a young a woman whose husband was shot and killed by thieves who’d entered their home one night, back in the civil war when that sort of thing happened frequently. She was distraught, and overwhelmed by trying to raise three young children on her own. Rageful fantasies of hurting the killers continually pulled her attention away from her kids. Her brothers stepped in, helped out with money and their wives watched her children so she could return to her job as a teacher. She calmed down, moved through her grief, and found her way to solid ground. “She’s living a good life now,” Naseema said. She held on to her asab.
The raining rockets of the militias and the bullets of the trigger-happy soldiers who roamed the streets of Kabul during the civil war left a lot of asabi in their wake. The unrelenting cruelty of the Taliban did the same. If you wanted to heal trauma among Afghans, talking about PTSD wasn’t going to get you very far. The syndrome existed; that wasn’t the problem. It simply didn’t mean much in Afghanistan. It’s not how people talked about their distress. But mention asabi, offer to help people turn down that painful blend of alarm and anger, and you might stir some interest.
Think of a wounded lion, baring its teeth and claws at anyone who tries to get close enough to help. Nobody wants to live like that.
Advance Praise for War Torn by Kenneth E. Miller
“This is an eye-opening study. Psychologist Kenneth E. Miller and his wife Debbie began collecting data and teaching volunteers in refugee camps around the world back in 1991. In reality, there are almost 200 million people in over 40 countries impacted by war and genocide, living day to day exiled from their homes, families, and lifestyles. Kenneth Miller brings us their stories. This is a book I will read again, and share with my children. This is a worldwide problem we all need to understand, and address.”- Bonnye Reed, GoodReads Reviewer
“You could find no better guide than Ken Miller to illuminate this dark territory. A skilled story teller, he has an eye for nuance that is often missing in our cultural conversation about PTSD. I put down this book with a heart that was broken but also filled with hope. “-Ethan Watters, Author of Crazy Like Us and Co-founder of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.
“War Torn is an exceptional, gripping account of the impact of war—a must-read for anyone interested in how war profoundly touches and shapes people. Ken Miller merges the expressive writing of a novelist with compassion and the profound understanding of a seasoned mental health professional. This collection of personal experiences and mosaic of situations provides rich and unique insights into the complexities of war torn countries.”-Dr. Mark Jordans, King’s College London
“Ken Miller weaves together for us tragic stories of war, loss and injustice with tales of friendship, family, and laughter. Ken’s gift is the way he listens, which takes him and his readers beyond simple categories of war victim or trauma to the complex experiences people have in settings torn apart by violence. I’m grateful for the way he has captured the simultaneously disabling and inspiring coexistence of darkness and light in these places.” –Jeannie Annan, PhD, Director of Research, Evaluation, and Learning at the International Rescue Committee
Review of War Torn by Turning Another Page
When we think of refugees, it’s natural that images of war come immediately to mind. But it would have been a stretch to explain Miguel’s suicidal behavior as a result of the war in Guatamala. He’d clearly been affected by the harsh dynamics of family life in the refugee camps of Mexico. I never got to know his mother well, and have no idea why she was so tough on her kids. Maybe she’d been hit especially hard by the violence and loss of the war, or the deprivations of life in the camp. But then, everyone in the community had their own war stories; everyone was living with the same poverty and landlessness, the separation from relatives across the border. For most parents, that didn’t translate into rage at their children, and for most kids, that never led to a piece of rope hanging from a rafter. Pick up any research article on the mental health of refugee children, and until recently, you’d have found that most of their distress, their sadness and worries, were assumed to be the result of whatever war they’d escaped from. We know better now. It’s seldom just about the war.
The passage above is strong, influential, empowering, yet depressing as well. This author’s journey through places like Guatemala, Mexico, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sri-Lanka are all hard to explain, even harder to endure and quite impossible to come back from as the same person you once were. These concepts of war, mental trauma and grief, genocide, and torture are difficult to read, but this author’s message is something other than pain. This author writes, several times throughout the stories, about how his research and the research of others in the refugee camps document that people have found ways to hold onto life. The lives of those that suffered immeasurably have forever been altered and they still survive.
Miller takes the reader through his journeys, his research, and the stories that were relayed to him through friends and acquaintances. What this author has accomplished can be classified as causing a “deep impact” in the psychological world, but as he states in a few of the stories, he would never have imagined the trauma, nor how to help those who have suffered from the affects of war by reading a book. It has to be lived, experienced and treated based on the vulnerability of the camp as it is related to the region. Each area needed a different resolution, but the trauma like PTSD, did reflect somewhat of a pattern. Miller writes about how he felt lighter in Mexico, but had a very heavy heart in Guatemala, afraid of what was around the corner after hearing stories about the death squads and military corruption against the Mayan people. Other instances consist of when he traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq, and began seeing the affects of the warlords and their decimation over the population. Still, the main goal was to help those who had become victimized by trauma, torture and the insufferable tyranny of corruption.
People can be in an awful lot of pain and still get through the day successfully. The hurt is real, but in the idiosyncratic world of Western psychiatry, it doesn’t merit a diagnosis. Perhaps that’s a good thing; it avoids pathologizing people who are actually managing their lives well despite their inner distress. On the negative side, well, there’s that inner distress. If a diagnosis means better access to help, it can be a very useful thing.
Last thoughts for this non-fiction. Miller has a brilliant piece, one that it credible and very eye-opening. There is plenty of courage, love and resilience in this book, but it comes at desperate times and often unforgivable situations. Miller has figured out how to capture the heart of strength, the meaning of love in a life or death situation and the courage to continue the fight in an unfair and cruel world. This book is expertly written and easy to follow. War Torn is broken up into several different stories based on country, allowing the pace to flow very quickly. If you are a reader of non-fiction, historical events and psychological studies, this may be down your alley. It is highly recommended, since there is a lot of good information that can be learned and Turning Another Page provides this book with five stars.
An advanced reader copy of this book was provided to Turning Another Page by the author, but this in no way affects our honest opinion of the book or the review that has been written.
About Kenneth E. Miller
An international expert on the impact of armed conflict on civilians, psychologist Kenneth E. Miller has been working with war-affected communities since 1991 as a researcher, clinician, organizational consultant, and filmmaker. A professor of clinical and community psychology for much of his career (San Francisco State University, Pomona College), in 2015 he joined the Dutch NGO War Child Holland and is currently based in Amsterdam.
Interview with Kenneth E. Miller
1. How did you become involved with the subject or theme of your book?
I come from a family where social justice and community service were core values. Both my parents were leaders in the human services field in the community where I grew up, and were deeply concerned about issues of civil and human rights both locally and globally. My sisters—one is a leader now in New York City in the field of public health, and the other works to strengthen struggling public schools in and around Boston. So I guess there were certain core values that got into us early on. If I’m honest about it, I’d have to admit that growing up in a tough neighborhood in rural upstate New York for 13 years, before we moved to more cosmopolitan Ithaca, I had a pretty challenging time with a series of violent, angry thugs who had a special radar for a sensitive Jewish kid. It left me with a deep dislike of bullies, and a contempt for the use of force to impose one’s will. And the link there to working with folks impacted by war, I’m sure there’s a connection.
But more concretely: as a graduate student in clinical psychology at the University of Michigan, I met a couple one evening who were presenting their work in Guatemala on an innovative mental health program for rural communities who’d survived the recent genocide and ongoing state of terror. I was immediately drawn to the way their organization had integrated social justice, psychology, and a respect for local cultural beliefs and practices. I was hooked—and ended up spending almost 2 years on their project and its adaptation in refugee camps in Mexico (chapters 1-2 of the book). As an undergrad I’d been quite active in organizations working for justice in Central America, and also in the university’s peer counseling organization. I’d never imagined one could integrate these two interests, psychology and social change. And here was this amazing project that was doing just that.
Everything I’ve done professionally has really followed from that experience in Central America. Funny, because I almost skipped the presentation by the couple that night in Michigan. It’s amazing how one’s world can change so powerfully based on a seemingly small decision…
I fell in love with the work in Guatemala, and then in the refugee camps in Mexico, and found my niche working to understand and address the needs of communities affected by war. People sometimes think it’s a dark sort of calling, but really, many of the most inspiring and wonderful people I know, I’ve met through my work. Courageous, warm, and sometimes very funny people, who manage to find humor in the most insane places as a way of staying sane when everything is in chaos, or when life has been completely turned upside down by violence, loss, and displacement. It really is a labor of love for me, as it is for them. And perhaps it leaves me feeling a bit less helpless in the face the tyranny in the world, to be a part, however small, of something that tries to counter that tyranny and its effects on everyday folks.
2. Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre? If you write more than one, how do you balance them?
Prior to writing War Torn, I’d mostly written in academic language—professional journal articles, books chapters for colleagues in the field, etc. But that sort of writing reaches a very specific and limited audience. With War Torn, I wanted to reach a wider audience—readers interested in social issues, in the refugee crisis and the impact of war on people’s lives…and more broadly, people interested in psychology and how we survive and heal from adversity, in personal narratives and creative storytelling.
3. Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing/etc. come from?
I grew up in a family of avid readers and wonderful writers. There was something wonderful and even sacred about books in our home. My parents read to us every night—I still have wonderful memories of my Dad reading James and the Giant Peach while we lay in bed listening, spellbound. Mom would take us to the library, and we joined book clubs for kids—where you get books sent to you all summer when school was out of session. I still found time for sports and music and friends, but reading was definitely a passion.
I still remember my 6th grade teacher, Jill De Kay, taking me aside one day and giving me a copy of Catcher in the Rye. She said I was a bit young for it, but she thought I’d love it—and wow, the book blew me away. What brilliant writing. I was hooked…I wanted to write like that—not that same voice, but that kind of power. The same thing happened a few years later when I read Catch 22. Heller showed me the extraordinary power of single brilliantly crafted sentence.
4. What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?
As I mentioned, I’ve mostly written research and clinical articles on the mental health needs of communities affected by war. I still enjoy that kind of writing. But for some years I’ve wanted to reach a wider audience, and also to explore a more creative way of writing about what I’ve seen and learned in the different war-affected countries where I’ve worked.
I feel content with War Torn. Early reviews are confirming what I’d hoped for: that the stories are engaging, powerful, inspiring, and sometimes unexpectedly funny. And most of all, that the book, which draws on my experience as a researcher, therapist, and filmmaker, is accessible, translating psychological ideas into readily understandable everyday language.
I should say that while War Torn is primarily intended for a wider audience than academics and policy makers, I do think it can be quite useful as a learning tool about the complexities of how people are affected by, and respond to, the chaos and destruction of armed conflict. Although not an academic book, it draws on research—my own and others’, to suggest what I think are important shifts in how we think about war and mental health. In particular, it offers a nuanced critique of the overly narrow focus on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that’s dominated the discussion.
5. What was the hardest part of writing this book? What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
Writing War Torn was a joy. I began writing it in the city of Porto in northern Portugal. I went there with my girlfriend for two weeks and we spent mornings writing and reading, and the rest of days exploring the city. I loved going through old notes, letters, and journals, and contacting colleagues and friends to check on my memories and accounts of specific events and conversations. There were some tough days of writer’s block, of course, but mostly the writing was a labor of love. I had to “kill a few darlings”, as they say, take out sections I’d worked hard on and liked because in the end, they just didn’t fit. That was hard, but in the end, I listened to my editors (I was blessed to have two), and they were right.
Finding a publisher took a while though, and the whole process of searching for an agent was pretty tough. If you want to develop thick skin, look for a literary agent. I was grateful when I found a home for War Torn with Larson Publications, a wonderful publishing house located just outside my hometown of Ithaca, New York.
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