Tim O’Brien on Delayed Parenting and the Things He Carried for From Vietnam: NPR


Tim O’Brien was an infantry soldier during the Vietnam War. “The problem for me is that I doubted the integrity of the war,” he says. “I thought I was doing the wrong thing by being there.”

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Tim O’Brien was an infantry soldier during the Vietnam War. “The problem for me is that I doubted the integrity of the war,” he says. “I thought I was doing the wrong thing by being there.”

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

National Book Award-winning author Tim O’Brien is best known for his stories about the Vietnam War, including the 1990 novel, The things they carried. But he says he would ditch every book he wrote if it meant more time on earth with his two young sons.

Now 74, O’Brien didn’t become a father until his late 50s. He says he was initially concerned that having children would limit his ability to write.

“I have always known myself as a writer, even since I was a little kid,” he says. “This is what I wanted to do and this is what I appreciate – making graceful sentences. And I thought with a child in the house – and then two kids in the house – it would be over.”

Having children made him want to stay away from writing, which he did for many years. But O’Brien eventually got to work again – this time with an emphasis on parenting. His 2019 book, Dad’s book maybe, It was his first since the birth of his children.

As Vietnam did, [parenthood] He gave me a bunch of material, that kind of context to write about, “he says.” Maybe biology is just keeping the species going, but I feel like I’m part of something old that will go on for a long time after it’s gone.

O’Brien reflects on writing, deaths, and his experiences in Vietnam in the new documentary, War and Peace Tim O’Brien.

Interview highlights

To speak openly about death with his children

I speak to them frankly when they say, “Dad, you’re too old, you’ll die.” I said, “I know. Sad.” I neither say no nor deny it because it is a lie and I do not want to let them lie. The truth is the truth, and they have adapted to it over time. The crying stopped, especially since my oldest son Timmy was really crying. He would go out in the middle of the night and wake me up and say … “Daddy, you’re going to die, and I can’t stand it.” We were talking about my age and what a great gift it was to actually spend time with them. Now, when my oldest son is 17 and the youngest, Tad, is 15, they still think about it. I still think about it. My wife is still thinking about it. But it is not in a terrible way. It is not bleak. It gets more comfortable with reality. And I think we have a happy home, in part because we’re not denying reality.

On how his childhood experiences made him hesitant about becoming a father

I had a difficult childhood. My father was an alcoholic and sometimes he wasn’t physically present, but he also wasn’t emotionally present most of the time. He was a great man in many ways – he was fun, he was fun when he was sober, but when he wasn’t, life was hard. … and I was afraid to have inherited any chromosome that caused this, and I didn’t want to be a bad parent. That was a very big part of it.

About his father’s feeling that he wanted to be a writer about his son’s books

Jealousy was a component of his attitude towards her. I think he was also pretty proud. … humans are complex people. I was not verbally informed in any way or the other regarding this issue. He never said he liked my books. He did not discuss with me the content of the books, and the events that occurred in the books. I do not know why. I’m not entirely sure about that Ever read it all the way. He probably did. Maybe not. It’s a mystery to me, because much of my life is a mystery to me.

Not to feel the shock of war

I don’t dream about it that much. I definitely, in waking life, don’t think about it much. And the reason is … all my life, I felt it wasn’t real, even in Vietnam. “It can’t happen. It can’t happen. You are not a soldier.” There is a constant feeling that the war was not real to me, even while it was taking place, and that has doubled now that it is over. Sometimes I look at my hand and think, “Oh my God, these hands were at war. You are not a violent man and you cannot pull the trigger.” I know I did. I know that I was violent, that I shot people and didn’t feel real.

For his nickname “College Joe” during the war, and the burden of fighting in it

I hate Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts. I didn’t like bedbugs, sleeping in the rain, and none of that. And I knew nothing about weapons. And a lot of the men I served with were outward-looking, and they loved and knew these things. So I guess the “College Joe” topic might not have been offensive, but it did mean that I wasn’t wounded to be a soldier – and neither was I. I did the only thing I could do, which is … I kept my legs moving. I did not fall to the ground. I did not quit. I didn’t say, ‘Take me to a crazy shelter and lock me away.’ I have continued. I see that as his only source of pride. Somehow it bore everything. This is something.

The problem for me is that I doubted the integrity of the war, this period. I thought I was doing the wrong thing by being there. And he was eating me constantly, as most of the men around me thought we should conquer North Vietnam and put a great iron curtain around Hanoi and then bomb Hell outside. … it was a source of constant guilt and shame that I actually went into this thing and got involved in it. If there is one burden that I have to carry throughout my life, it is the heaviest. It’s this feeling: I shouldn’t have done it.

At the address The things they carried

Not only does “they” mean soldiers, it includes soldiers’ mothers and fathers, but go further to the things that you carry as a broadcaster and interlocutor to raise your fear. Did you do well enough? Did you ask the right questions? Did you draw what you were after? You know how to take these things home with you? … we all carry material things that represent our identity. But we also carry the emotional consequences of our lives – joys, sadness, and everything else.

When visiting the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC

It was a tearful experience. She collapsed and cried. I found the names of the people who died in my presence, put my fingers on their names, and leaned against that wall. Makes me cry now, just remember that moment, I was about dusk, almost dark, and the wall shadows were shadows of war above me and my friends. It was an emotional time, and it’s a beautiful elegy monument to human suffering.

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelly produced this interview and edited it for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seve Nessebr and Beth Novey Adapted for the web.

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