The Press Democrat
Sunday August 29, 1999
by JONAH RASKIN
Five years ago Pauline Laurent fussed over an article in The Press Democrat that was headlined, “Vets live in quiet affluence.” A Vietnam widow, as she called herself, and a Santa Rosa resident Laurent saw another, very different side of that story, and she hastened to describe it in an opinion piece that was published in this newspaper. Most of the Vietnam veterans she knew were a long, long way from affluence; “many of them are fighting for their lives, and many of them are losing the battle,” she insisted.
The community response to her article was overwhelmingly positive. Her feelings were validated, she says, and she was encouraged to go on writing her memoir, which she has just published and which she is distributing on her own. It’s a pleasure to see it finally in print, especially since I’ve heard about the book for a long time.
Laurent took a course on writing a memoir that I taught at Sonoma State University several years ago. I wish that I could claim her as one of “my” students or be able to say honestly that she learned from me and from the class. But by the time that she enrolled in that memoir workshop she already knew what she wanted to say and how to say it. I really didn’t have anything to teach her, though she had a great deal to teach all of us. Ever since then, I’ve held on to an essay she wrote about her own coming of age, which I show to others as a model of how to write autobiography.
Still, if the author were in my class right now, I’d probably tell her that Grief Denied doesn’t strike me as the best, or the most accurate, title for her book. Granted, the author was denied for decades the opportunity of grieving for the loss of her husband, her marriage and her own innocence as a young bride, but she did eventually grieve, and grieve fully.
This book tells the riveting story of how she came out from under the suffocating weight of her own awful silence to find personal expression and a sense of liberation.
So Grief Denied is about healing; it is about coming to terms with the intimate pain and emotional violence that was unleashed by the Vietnam War. It is also a bitter-sweet love story in which a young girl meets a soldier-boy, a young bride loses her soldier-husband and how, on the 30th anniversary of their marriage, the mature woman is finally able to say goodbye to the man she will always love.
Laurent tells her story with clarity and candor and a great deal of caring. There are vivid descriptions of her husband, Howard, who died in combat in Vietnam on May 10, 1968, when she was 22 years old and in the last phase of her first pregnancy. There are also sharp, tender portraits of her daughter Michelle, her parents, her friends and her lovers.
The author doesn’t seem to have held back anything or to have denied readers a full and complete view of her personality, including her dark side. So there are emotionally wrenching accounts of her depression, her suicidal feelings, her “insanity,” as she calls it, as well as her therapy and recovery and rediscovery of prayer and faith.
She takes readers from California to Washington, D.C., where she sees her husband’s name on The Wall, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, along with the names of thousands of other Americans who lost their lives. And she describes a Veterans Day parade in San Rafael where she wore Howard’s military uniform.
Grief Denied offers deeply moving passages from Howard’s letters to Pauline shortly before his death. “Vietnam is unbelievably dirty and hot,” he explained in his first letter home. “At night mortars are going off all around constantly. It’s a good thing I’m a sound sleeper or I’d probably crack up.” In another letter he confessed, “I’m a little nervous today. I guess the place is starting to get to me.”
Laurent describes how Vietnam got to her, though she was thousands of miles away from the heat, the dirt and the mortars.
If somehow or other you never did appreciate how Vietnam got to the heart of America, then this book ought to be at the top of your list of books to read. And if you are thinking of writing a memoir to express your seemingly inexpressible pain, then this book is also for you.
“In writing I finally found a container which could hold my grief,” Laurent writes, “the blank page wanted to hear it all – every last detail.”
(Jonah Raskin is the chairman of the Communication Studies Department at Sonoma State University and a regular book reviewer for The Press Democrat.)