International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Book Review - Women as Warriors and Caretakers

Posted 24 March 2014 in StressPoints by Karestan Chase Koenen, PhD, Past-president


I have a confession. I avoid reading anything about trauma or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when I am not working. I read a lot of fiction – but if the book’s description even implies the focus is on a trauma narrative, I will not be downloading it onto my Kindle. I see enough trauma in my research and advocacy activities, I don’t need to read about it before I sleep at night.

I read Be Safe I Love You because the author, Cara Hoffman, asked me to. She has been studying trauma with me for the last year and wanted my input on her description of Lauren Clay’s PTSD. I also agreed because I was intrigued at the idea of reading a novel about a FEMALE soldier returning from Iraq who suffered from combat-related PTSD. There are very few, if any, novels about women warriors. Those that exist seem to focus on sexual rather than combat trauma.

Every once in a while, I read a book that haunts me, emotionally and intellectually. A book that challenges how I see the world. A beautifully written but subversive novel. Be Safe is the first novel I have read, since Tim O-Brien’s The Things They Carried, that truly captured the suffering and triumph of the trauma survivor.

I had read Hoffman’s critically-acclaimed So Much Pretty and had high expectations. But I was completely unprepared for the effect Be Safe would have on me.

The beauty of the language of Be Safe caught me from page one. I’d gone in expecting it to be another ‘veteran returns from war and has a bad time’ novel. But Be Safe surprised me. I was riveted. I read the entire book in a weekend.

Lauren Clay clearly has post-traumatic stress disorder: nightmares, hypervigilence, social isolation, dissociation from her pre-trauma and her current selves, avoidance of thoughts, feelings and reminders of the trauma (e.g. references to her not wanting to talk about it, lying about it, rejecting offers of help), rage directed at herself (e.g. fighting the desire to wash her eyes out with lye) and others (e.g. her attack on her ex-boyfriend). Her mind’s inability to accept what has actually happened to her while, at the same time, cursing those around her whom she believes do not see the world clearly is heartbreaking. She is alone. Isolated. Unreachable. (Note, I have assigned Be Safe as reading in my Friday seminar because of its vivid portrayal of PTSD).  

But Hoffman does not leave us with Lauren the soldier. We see in Hoffman’s descriptions of Lauren as a little girl, the potential for who she could have become. Transported by beauty. Lauren holds beauty close, in her singing, even while her family is falling apart and she is struggling to keep them together. I felt her pride, her deep need to protect those she loves. Who has not experienced that? I found myself wanting time to reverse itself. For the adults in Lauren’s life to have behaved like adults and protected her so she could have followed the path she was meant for. A life of school and music and beauty.

But Lauren does what good women do. And here is where the novel surprised me most.  Somehow in Be Safe, Hoffman captured the classic narrative of the experience of the returning soldier simultaneously with the universal experience of women. (Lauren does what good women do, fix things). Her narrative follows the classic war story captured so well by Jonathan Shay in Achilles in Vietnam: innocent youth, sent into battle, returns home as a stranger to himself and others. But in Be Safe, the war is almost incidental.  

Lauren went into the military to save her family. In another time, she might have traveled oversees to work in a factory. In another place, she might have been sold into sex slavery. Her experience as a woman is universal. Even among the Upper West Side moms I see on a daily basis – the most privileged of the privileged – I see the burdens of family, culture and society falling squarely on women’s shoulders. Which of us can’t relate to the grinding exhaustion of caretaking??

There is so much more I could write about. I have not commented on how Be Safe challenged me to question the very foundations of our economy. About how education divides people from their families. About how everything we do – even the ‘good’ – has externalities we can’t anticipate.

Hoffman doesn’t let the reader off easy. I was grateful for this. I wept, uncontrollably, when I read: “I did terrible things,” she said. “Of course you did,” Troy [her friend] said calmly, “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

Hoffman does not flinch from the truth. She does not allow the reader to flinch from the truth. But yet, somehow, I finished the novel feeling that Lauren would find her way back to a life worth living. Not an easy life. Not a comfortable life. But by facing the truth: Lauren had given her life for men she loved and those she did not. She did horrible things that she can never make better. She would somehow find a way to live with this truth and sing beautiful music.  

The true triumph of the trauma survivor is not forgetting. Or returning to how things were before the trauma. There is no going back. No innocence.

The triumph of the survivor is in the ability to see clearly what one has experienced, to fully experience the horror of it and what one has done, and, at the same time, to choose to live with this knowledge. Be Safe reminded me that living with the truth is, for the survivor, a radical and courageous act.

About the Author
Karestan Koenen, PhD received her doctoral degree from Boston University and is currently an Associate Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. In addition to her many honors and awards, Karestan is Past-president of ISTSS (2012-2013).