A book about a soldier grappling with PTSD and suicidal thoughts, written by a woman, that doesn’t suck.

7 Jul

I read very little in the way of fiction, because most of it, quite frankly, sucks. My favorite fiction writers tend to be men, because they write with more universal themes and about more interesting topics than women, in general, tend to.  I’d rather read The Economist cover to cover (instant coma!) than read a novel about shopping or finding true love in the form of a rich cowboy who worships the ground I walk on or dealing with the heartbreak of divorcing my husband on a whim.



I love Cormac McCarthy and Daniel Woodrell and Yann Martel and George R. R. Martin and Robert Sawyer and Allen Steele and I am always blown away by Tom Robbins. Jitterbug Perfume.  Infuriating and amazing and disgusting and hilarious all at the same time.


My favorite writers really don’t have anything in common except for the fact that they are all men, and when you pick up one of their books, it seems to be written for you alone.  When a woman picks up a pen to write, it always seems like her audience is OTHER women, and that irritates me, likely because I’m not very much like other women and I find the voices of women who presuppose to know something about me really annoying.


Cormac McCarthy speaks to everyone, no matter what race or gender or age or any other identity you inhabit. And he does so without sacrificing an ounce of his own identity.  He is all man and his words convey that, remarkably.  Beautifully.


Of course there are exceptions.  Some women write with all the power and insight and depth of men, and I love those writers, too.  E. Annie Proulx, Margaret Atwood, Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows.  All outstanding authors.


One thing that is immediately evident when you confront fiction by women is that women writers almost always have women protagonists.  It’s unusual to see women write books with male protagonists outside of science fiction or murder/mystery.  E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News has an amazing protagonist named Quoyle, rendered perfectly by Kevin Spacey in the film version.  Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake features a character named Snowman, living in a post-apocalyptic America, trying to survive.  It’s a really terrific book, as is the follow-up, The Year of the Flood.


But generally speaking, women don’t write male protagonists, and the book I am going to promote today, by a woman named Erin Celello is no exception.  The story is told from the point of view of Elise, but it’s about her husband Brad, recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.


The book is called Learning to Stay.  The title refers to three things simultaneously:  a dog learning the command to stay, a wife learning to make sacrifices to stay in her marriage, and a soldier contemplating suicide learning to stay alive.

There is nothing exceptional in Celello’s writing, and the main character Elise, is quite frankly, not very likeable.  There are a few moments when I wanted to jump into the pages of the book and slap her mouth shut or give her a solid shake, but I didn’t throw the book away because the character of Brad is just so compelling.  His struggle to come to terms with his new normal is both inspiring and frightening.

Veterans committing suicide is a shockingly common occurrence.  Every day, we lose 22 men who have served their countries, and then come home to find themselves lost in a world that no longer makes sense.  And yes, most veteran suicides are men.  Female veterans make up less that 3% of all suicides (p. 23).



Here is one example:  his name is Daniel Somers and he was a sergeant in an intelligence unit, where he ran 400 combat missions as a machine gunner in the turret of a Humvee. According to his parents, Howard and Jean Somers, their son was diagnosed with PTSD, a brain injury, Gulf War syndrome, fibromyalgia and a host of other medical problems in 2008, one year after the end of his second deployment.


Daniel described what it was like to come home a shattered man.

My body has become nothing but a cage, a source of pain and constant problems. The illness I have has caused me pain that not even the strongest medicines could dull, and there is no cure.

All day, every day a screaming agony in every nerve ending in my body. It is nothing short of torture. My mind is a wasteland, filled with visions of incredible horror, unceasing depression, and crippling anxiety.

Too trapped in a war to be at peace, too damaged to be at war.

This is what brought me to my actual final mission. Not suicide, but a mercy killing. I know how to kill, and I know how to do it so that there is no pain whatsoever. It was quick, and I did not suffer. And above all, now I am free. I feel no more pain. I have no more nightmares or flashbacks or hallucinations. I am no longer constantly depressed or afraid or worried

I am free.

I ask that you be happy for me for that. It is perhaps the best break I could have hoped for. Please accept this and be glad for me.

You can read his whole note here.


On June 10th, Daniel carried out his final mission, leaving a wife and parents to grieve his loss and try to understand.

I hope they somehow stumble upon Erin’s book because it does a very decent job of explaining what it is like to suffer from PTSD and how a man who looks perfectly normal on the outside can be horrifically, catastrophically wounded on the inside. And more importantly, the book offers a suggestion about what we can do to help those men who are injured in this way.


Because that’s the real issue.  It’s not enough to grieve and mourn and tally up the bodies.  We need to have some plan of action to help returning soldiers, some concrete THING that we can do, and Erin’s book explores at least one strategy that helps.  Men with traumatic brain injuries, usually the result of IEDs, do not look injured, but they are every bit as wounded as amputees.  No one flinches at the idea that soldiers who have lost their limbs or suffered other visible injuries should be compensated and helped and given the very best medical treatment available.  Are there any taxpayers who object to funding prosthetic limbs?

Then there should be no objection to funding services that help soldiers with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, either.

Learning to Stay is a wonderful story that goes deep into the mind and motivations of a soldier coming home and trying to survive in a world he no longer understands.  We see most of the story through the eyes of Elise, the soldier’s wife, but it still does an amazing job of helping us to understand what goes on in the mind of a man too trapped in a war to be at peace, and too damaged to be at war.

And it doesn’t just reveal the human condition, it offers a suggestion, a way that any one person can help.



Twenty two veterans every day.  Every day.  It’s too much.  Even one death a day is too much.

We owe them more than that.  We need to help them learn to stay.

ptsd 2

Whatever the price.

Lots of love,


24 Responses to “A book about a soldier grappling with PTSD and suicidal thoughts, written by a woman, that doesn’t suck.”

  1. Spaniard July 7, 2013 at 16:22 #

    Oh, please!, Judgybitch! Soldiers in combat are just nice guys… the real men, the manly men, are this jerks with tatoos in that bars who drink lots of beer meanwhile that nice guys are in the battlefield. And that manly men in the bars are the one who shag the girls. All that plain boring nice guys in uniform are just a bunch of losers and too bland, with all that strict codes about protecting women and children in homeland. Yek!


  2. Spaniard July 7, 2013 at 16:28 #

    And talking about writers (now, seriously): there are a few female writers who I admire: Marguerite Yourcenar. Hannah Arendt, Simone Weill, Esther Vilar, Barbara Ehrenreich and Nancy Etcoff. I would add Spanish philosopher Maria Zambrano.
    Full stop.


  3. feeriker July 7, 2013 at 16:55 #

    Then there should be no objection to funding services that help soldiers with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, either.

    What never ceases to amaze me is that after 230 years of war, interrupted by a few intermittent decades of peace, Americans, in particular (I can’t speak for anyone in countries elsewhere) STILL just cannot see the obvious pattern: use’em, abuse’em, throw’em away (when they’re no longer useful as cannon fodder), and forget about’em. It has become really obvious over the last forty years, since the end of the Vietnam debacle, and is in in-your-face blatant now in the Imperial Wars: broken soldiers aren’t gonna get any help from Uncle Sap. There are too many of them who need help, it costs the government too much, and what little money there is in the war treasury is gonna be spent on creating more broken soldiers in the latest pointless, immoral, unconstitutional war. Sounds cynical? Maybe, be it sure as hell is the obvious truth. It simply dumbfounds me that anyone would voluntarily put on a uniform today knowing that the highly likely outcome is the one suffered by Daniel Somers (a tragically typical story of what happens today to the average damaged veteran who tries to get the help to which he is legally and morally ENTITLED from the system and runs up against the bureaucratic stone wall) or by Brad in the novel.

    All of the above said, if we want to see all of these guys (and gals, in some cases) get the help they so desperately need, it’s going to take dedicated philanthropic action on the part of some very wealthy people (and a whole lot of non-wealthy people) to set up a private-sector “mirror” of the VA mental health system, only hopefully one that is much more efficient and responsive than the government bureaucracy upon which everyone is currently forced to rely. It’s sickening to contemplate that We The People in this case will have to mop up the political class’s mess that it is obligated to take care of, but if we really care about these brain-injured men and women, nothing else will solve the problem. The government simply isn’t going to do it. There are already a few prominent private charities out there dedicated to helping PTSD-traumatized and brain-injured veterans (I’ve donated to one of them), but they are, alas, underfunded and understaffed. We can only hope that they’ll find some major corporate sponsorship in the future to be able to expand their operations.

    Finally, the best way to help these guys and gals is to not send them unnecessarily into harm’s way in the first place, thereby not creating any more great floods of PTSD and brain injury cases with which to contend.


  4. Dire Badger July 7, 2013 at 18:11 #

    actually, most of us (PTSD cases) need very very little in the way of actual care and funding. We mostly need to be left alone. In this era of everyone, especially the government, constantly sticking their nose into every last crease and fold of your life, tearing it apart, and trying to see how they can use it to extract money from you, simply being left alone to recover or deal with it in our own way, being protected from constant government busybodies and litigation from faux-offended people looking to extort you would be more than enough to ensure that we can rebuild some semblance of our lives.

    One of the most common causes of PTSd displacement (ie. not being able to readapt after our experiences) lies in coming home to a broken family. Thinking of your wife and family who you are protecting at home is often the only thing keeping soldiers (and sailors) sane and stable in the face of horror. Coming home to discover that it was an illusion, shattered by the reality of finding your beloved beautiful wife an obese tramp suing for divorce and stealing your children and your money (since you no longer have a job) for the rest of your life, being called a rapist and a child molester when you have never even seen your children in person to secure the gravy train of child support, etc. is enough to send many many men over the edge.

    I have flirted with thoughts of suicide many, many times since that happened to me, and the only thing that has stopped me is the knowledge that if I did it, I would take my ex, her family, and as many police officers as possible with me.

    America has become a place no longer worth defending. neither her people, nor her land… the only thing left is our oath to defend the constitution, and americans seem hell-bent on rendering that into nothing more than a tattered museum piece.

    If this goes on, stop expecting to see veteran suicides, and start expecting to see them on the evening news. They will usually be referred to as ‘the gunman’.


  5. judgybitch July 7, 2013 at 18:16 #

    Dire, I’m so sorry for your pain, and grateful for your willingness to serve even the undeserving.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    The woman in the book considers leaving her husband, too, and I hated her for even letting the thought cross her mind.

    I can’t imagine that kind of betrayal.

    Please know that I am grateful.

    Wish I could give you a hug. I’d tell you first though. No unexpected arm flings!


  6. LostSailor July 7, 2013 at 18:21 #

    Thanks for the book recommendation. Just finished Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and was looking for something new.

    But what isn’t new is this problem or the treatment of our warriors. Kipling wrote about it back in 1890.

    For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
    But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot;
    An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
    An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool — you bet that Tommy sees!


  7. James Versluis July 7, 2013 at 18:30 #

    Great women writers: Florence King and Kathy Shaidle. Awesome writers. But especially King, whose every book was worth reading. However, if you’re new get “The Florence King Reader”. Seriously, she’s the best. And Kathy Shaidle. Best women writer’s around. I will pay you back the costs of the book if you don’t like them.


  8. judgybitch July 7, 2013 at 19:17 #

    Hey! Look at you guys openly admiring talented women.

    This is a hate site!

    Am I gonna have to ban you?


  9. Brian July 7, 2013 at 19:48 #

    Based on the authors you listed, I have two words for you:

    Larry Correia

    I don’t know if his original MHI series is your cup of tea. But I’d wager that Hard Magick would be a good start with him for you.


  10. Modern Drummer July 7, 2013 at 23:40 #

    My bestie is a retired Air Force captain and has had many physical and emotional problems as a result of combat.
    He’s angry about the way he’s treated by his government and the citizens after his sacrifice…I don’t blame him.
    He told me his wife has punched him in the face on three separate occasions. The last time she did it,another woman who witnessed it asked his wife if she was okay.Yes,she asked HER if SHE was okay. He is my weightlifting buddy and strong as f*ck and knows if he retaliated,he would put her in ICU or kill her with one punch.Thirty years and this is what he had to come back to .nice.


  11. Sean July 7, 2013 at 23:45 #

    Um, perhaps you should read more Atwood and see how feminist she really is. Handmaid’s Tale for one. She lives and breathes feminism; as a Canadian, I’m constantly reminded of how wonderful she is. (eye roll)


  12. judgybitch July 7, 2013 at 23:53 #

    I actually like the Handmaid’s Tail.

    Her earlier writings are an ideological shitfest. Cat’s Eye I could not finish.

    Alias Grace
    The Robber Bride

    Both pretty decent

    Definitely some ideological problems but her writing is beautiful.


  13. Spaniard July 8, 2013 at 10:30 #

    Feeriker, I don’t undesrtand why the conservatives think that public services like the National Parks or the Army are OK, but public services like healthcare or pensions are bad. If the Goverment gets its nouse to take your money for keeping the National Parks or the Army it is Ok, but if they get your nose to take your money for healthcare is bad.
    Now I am not talking especially about USA, I am talking in general. In my country is the same about conservatives. Well, with a little difference: Spanish conservatives do not want to conservate the natural heritage neither the Historic one. What a conservatives! In USA you have a great natural heritage and a modest Historic one (normal, you started in 1776) In Spain we have a great (but modest in size) natural heritage and a Historic one which starts in the Paleolitic paintings of Altamira going through the Celts, the Iberians, the Romans, the Gots, the Arabics, the Jews, Middle Age, Rainasense, Baroque, Neoclassique, XIX Century, Art Noveau, Fascist franquoist architecture etc… and the conservatives think that is better to sell all that heritage to foreigner private companys. Patriotic!


  14. Spaniard July 8, 2013 at 10:33 #

    I would add… the Judgybitch articles.


  15. Spaniard July 8, 2013 at 12:59 #

    If one day a hubby decides to leave family to eat, pray and love he will be consider a pig, a rat, a scum of Earth, not man anymore…
    If a wife does, she is so cool!


  16. Dire Badger July 8, 2013 at 15:34 #

    For every Erin Cellelo you have a hundred laurell K. hamiltons and Joanna Lindsays.
    Then again, for every eric flint you have….
    can anyone tell me the name of a really sucky scifi writer BESIDES piers Anthony? His crap is in a class by itself, and I need to finish this comment.

    Wait…for every Robert Heinlein you have a spider robinson?
    For every Andre Norton you have a Mercedes Lackey?
    Err…this metaphor really isn’t working 😛


  17. Dire Badger July 8, 2013 at 15:38 #

    Thanks JB, I honestly think that ‘War Widow Predation’, (ie, marrying a guy just before he deploys to get support, combat pay, etc for years, and then divorcing him when he gets home and getting a court order for ‘the fashion to which you have become accustomed’ which is impossible without combat pay) should be prosecuted as fraud.

    Frankly, I think most divorces should be prosecuted as fraud and criminal breach of contract.


  18. Thin-Skinned Masta-Beta July 8, 2013 at 23:29 #

    “My favorite writers really don’t have anything in common except for the fact that they are all men..”

    One of my favorite books, perhaps indeed my very favorite, was written by a woman, Pearl Buck’s “Good Earth”

    It was one of those books that they forced us to read in school that I didn’t hate.

    Jane Austen & the Bronte sisters may have made some great contributions to literature, but teenage boys are hardly fertile ground for that kind of stuff. I haven’t been able to get over it and give those ladies a second chance.

    Not that I as a rule related well to the male authors assigned. I didn’t get Hemingway until I was college age.

    I have been a late blooming reader.

    Without life experience how can kids and teens relate to the relationships and travails depicted in literature?

    The young must be educated, but much education is wasted on the young if they aren’t ready. I wish I had the opportunities, time and social context of education now that I have more maturity and wisdom. If broad and liberal education is so important, why do we stop at 22? Every week we go to spend some hours to “save our souls.” Why don’t we show as much dedication to a community to developing our minds and intellect?


  19. judgybitch July 8, 2013 at 23:34 #

    Oh, I so recommend Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

    Ask yourself what Wentworth is thinking. What does he see in Anne? What does she have that he loves so much? Why did she reject Charles? What does her uneasiness about Mr. Elliot signal?

    I adore Anne. She is my favorite Austen character. The one I would most like to be.

    I think Anne has a lot to reach about what to value in women. It’s not always obvious.



  20. Thin-Skinned Masta-Beta July 8, 2013 at 23:48 #

    I respect your recommendation.

    Will giver ‘er another chance…


  21. judgybitch July 8, 2013 at 23:55 #


    Can’t edit comments on my phone.



  22. Exfernal July 11, 2013 at 18:30 #

    Female scifi authors that don’t suck at writing? Let’s see… not many, they rather prefer fantasy fiction, a genre with less demand for internal consistency of created universes and more penchant for interpersonal drama. James Tiptree, Ursula LeGuin and that’s it.

    Purely as a timewaster – Janny Wurts, Joan Vinge or Robin Hobb. As a rule, their male protagonists are not very believable from the psychological perspective. Exactly like women conjured by Heinlein, heh.


  23. Exfernal July 14, 2013 at 11:42 #

    Self Made Man” by Norah Vincent was quite an interesting read. It’s worth noting how her exploration of various male-typical activities resulted in severe cultural shock and hospitalization for clinical depression at the end of 18-months-long period of disguise.

    It’s also funny how many feminist tropes have been discarded after being confronted with firsthand experience.



  1. I am so glad we are giving our money to a veteran’s hall | judgybitch - June 12, 2014

    […] knew about soldiers with traumatic brain injuries and PTSD, and I wrote about that here, but I had never really considered the true impact of the  family/divorce […]


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