Interview with Christal Presley, author
1. Thirty Days with My Father is an intriguing title. What are these “thirty days?”
When my father was 18, he was drafted to Vietnam. Like many men of that era, when he returned home, he was not the same person. My father spent much of my childhood locked in his room, gravitating between depression and rage, and unable to participate in Christmases or birthdays. My mother and I learned to walk on eggshells, doing anything and everything not to provoke him.
His symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were so severe that he was eventually declared 100 percent disabled. His bizarre and erratic behaviors were so confusing and scary to me that I could not get away from him fast enough. At 18, I left that house and didn’t look back. I barely spoke to my father for the next 13 years.
In November of 2009—after years of therapy—I extended the olive branch. I asked my mother to ask my father if he would allow me to call him for thirty days, and to ask him questions about Vietnam and what happened to my family back then. In truth, I thought he’d say no. I could say I’d tried, and then finally move on—without him. But my father said yes. Thirty Days with My Father is the story of those thirty days.
2. Except for a brief tour in Vietnam, your father spent his whole life in the mountains of Virginia. Tell me about that world?
Honaker, Virginia is a place where time stands still. It’s a place where values and beliefs do not ebb or flow, but remain constant through generations. It’s a place where religion and family are the most important things. If you’re born in the mountains of Virginia, you don’t leave. And if you do, you always go back. The primary industries there used to be coal mining and farming, but now there are virtually no jobs.
3. How was living with someone like your father, with severe PTSD, like living in a war zone?
There were happy times during my childhood, and also times when I feared for my life. The times when I feared for my life soon became my sole focus. I could never really get comfortable because the life I lived was so unpredictable. My father could be absolutely fine one minute, and if someone dropped a plate, he’d turn on a dime and go berserk. You could never see it coming. We could be walking down the street one minute having a ball, and if a truck backfired, everything would change. I became hypersensitive and hyperaroused, always trying so desperately to control my environment (and especially my father’s environment) to prevent something bad from happening. My childhood was spent living in survival mode.
4. Can you talk about the role music played in your relationship with your father?
When my father came back from Vietnam, he bought a guitar and taught himself to play. He played a lot of war songs when I was a kid. I especially remember songs by Johnny Horton and Peter, Paul, and Mary. When I think about my father, two things immediately come to mind: Vietnam and that guitar. My father was happiest when he was playing his guitar. Even when he was playing war songs, his music soothed and comforted him. It was his way to free himself of his demons. When my father was playing his guitar, I always felt safe.
5. What roles did your mother play in the story?
My mother was my father’s helpmate, and then his caretaker and protector once his PTSD became severe. As a child, she was my best friend and confidante, for we were the bearers of a secret that we had sworn never to tell: How Vietnam still raged within our home. Once my father had to stop working, my mother was the sole supporter of our family. She was a maid, a bank teller, and a cashier at a clothing store before she decided to go to nursing school. After I went to college, I came to resent my mother because I felt she had allowed my father’s illness to become the sole focus of our lives, and I felt my childhood had been taken from me. I’ve had to work through that.
6. Do you think you would have undertaken this project if the country were not at war right now?
I think so. I was at a point in my life where I knew something had to happen with my father: Either try to develop a relationship with him, or abandon the idea forever. I also knew I had been carrying this secret of my childhood around for so long that it was eating me alive. Something had to change.
I was certainly influenced by all the news articles I read about children of veterans being so affected when their fathers or mothers came home from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I started to feel a sense of responsibility that I’d never felt before, and I began to wonder if finally sharing the secret about what happened to my family because of Vietnam would make a difference. It started to haunt me. I reached a point where I could no longer hide what happened.
7. What’s so interesting about your book is that you set out to find your father—the person trapped inside these PTSD symptoms—and what you found was yourself. How does that influence you going forward?
For 30 years, I lived in survival mode. I was very emotionally immature, and it was difficult to self-reflect. Working through issues with my father and Vietnam enabled me, for the first time in my life, to learn to function outside of survival mode.
This influences me moving forward because I’m starting to explore who I am and what I want. I have my father back, and I’m not searching to replace him with other men—which is what I spent my adult life doing.
In fact, one of the biggest things that happened after this thirty-day project is that I realized I’m gay. But that’s a story for another day—and perhaps another book.
8. How did writing your book facilitate the creation of United Children of Veterans?
When I began to talk to other children of veterans about what happened during my childhood when my father returned from war, I realized I wasn’t alone in my experiences. But when I tried to find solid research on how a veteran’s PTSD can affect his or her children, I realized there were few resources—and the ones that were available were scattered all over the place. I created United Children of Veterans as a site where I could compile research in one place about PTSD in children of veterans with PTSD. This is also called secondary trauma or intergenerational PTSD.