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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Q&A with Ethan Brown, author of “Shake the Devil Off” - Part 2

Posted By on Tue, Sep 1, 2009 at 5:20 PM


Our cover story this week is an excerpt from Shake the Devil Off, Ethan Brown’s new book about Zackery Bowen, the Iraq war vet and Katrina survivor who famously murdered his girlfriend, Addie Hall, before taking his own life.

I conducted an email interview with Brown about the book and his writing process. You can read Part 1 here; today Brown addresses issues relating to the media, veterans' health care and mental health in post-Katrina New Orleans.

GAMBIT: There are obvious parallels between the media's mishandling of Zack and Addie's story and the media's larger mishandling of the story of the federal flood. Did you come away from your research with any altered feelings toward the media?

ETHAN BROWN: I’ve long had an extraordinarily low opinion of the news media and that hasn’t changed at all after writing the book. My thoughts on the news media — specifically the Manhattan and DC axis of the media — are almost identical to what is expressed by Bob Somerby on

We have a Coastal elite that is perilously out of touch with the realities of everyday people and, worse, who worship power and the powerful and whenever they can express disdain for working people (as Bob Somerby has very aptly written, the media — even the so called ‘progressive’ media — “kick down” instead of up.) Furthermore, while the media obviously cannot be expected to fully correct the public’s misperceptions about everything from the federal flood to the state of our healthcare system, it’s hard to argue that they put up much of a fight to make our citizens better informed. Hugely important, seemingly unignorable facts about the state of the United States are rarely discussed in the media (for example, we are the world’s leading jailer; we spend twice as much on healthcare as other industrialized countries but get much, much less in return).

G: There are also parallels between the federal government's handling of PTSD among returning Iraq war vets and the mental health crisis in New Orleans. Has the government gotten any better at finding ways to help out these damaged veterans?

EB: The military — the Army specifically — is at a crisis point right now vis-à-vis mental health. This year, the suicide rate in the Army reached a three-decade high (link). Furthermore, soldiers at a base in Fort Carson, Colo. have been accused of 14 homicides and attempted murders since 2005. So, this a public health disaster and the military has begun to awaken to the fact that they’ve got an enormous problem on their hands that cannot be ignored any longer. Yet given how vast the mental health crisis is in the military, substantive action is lacking. The Army spent millions of dollars to study the homicide epidemic at Fort Carson yet came up with a wishy-washy report that was actually overshadowed by a powerful series in The Colorado Gazette on the Fort Carson homicides called “Lethal Warriors”. The series is a must-read.

More hopefully, the VA recently said that veterans who file for PTSD claims will no longer have to provide documented evidence of a combat situation that may have triggered the disorder. This is important because the war Iraq is a “360 degree war”: soldiers seemingly doing mundane tasks — like driving a truck — can come under attack from IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).

G: New Orleanians who kept stoic after the flood eventually came to realize, in many cases, that it's acceptable to admit "I am not okay," but it seems that veterans are more resistant to discussing any sign of mental un-health -- at least, among civilians. Is that your experience? How are Zack's company members doing today?

EB: In the military, there’s long been a heavy stigma associated with mental health problems. But I think that the reluctance to confront mental health issues stems in large part because soldiers have very real questions about how they will be treated if they come forward with a PTSD claim. The questions I hear from the vets I talk to are “Will acknowledging mental health issues affect my chances of getting a civilian job?” or “What kind of disability rating will I receive from the VA?” or “Will I be treated properly by the VA for PTSD?”

Then there is the issue of compartmentalization of wartime experience among soldiers that I delve into very deeply in Shake the Devil Off. Soldiers do not share wartime experiences with even their closest family members. And when soldiers come home from war, they are usually separated geographically from the soldiers with whom they served. Add to all this the fact that the public isn’t engaged with the war. We’re fighting in two conflicts right now — Iraq and Afghanistan — yet the wars are not the subject of much public discourse. I was in London this summer soon after six British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. The TV networks covered their funerals with the intensity with which we cover Michael Jackson. So being a veteran is, I think, a profoundly alienating experience. There’s a great PSA from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America called “Alone” that gets at exactly what I’m talking about here:

G: Reviews of your book have been mostly glowing -- from very good to outstanding. But Bookforum said "Bowen, like so many people who wind up in the French Quarter, was something of a failure by conventional standards. This is often cause for camaraderie and celebration in the quarter, but his instability and his toxic relationship with Hall — described by even her best friends as impossibly moody — actually make for a more mundane psychological study." The reviewer even compared them to Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Fair or not fair?

EB: I think that Bookforum review was fair in a limited sense. Yes, the Zackery-Addie relationship had all the hallmarks of an abusive relationship a la Sid and Nancy. And after I read the Bookforum review I wrote to my editor and mentioned that Zackery and Addie have always reminded me of a couple who lived on the first floor of a tenement building I lived in in Chinatown in the mid 1990s. They fought constantly and the guy ended up stabbing -- though not killing — his girlfriend. Indeed, I have a very vivid memory of being awakened one night by the woman’s screams as she was being stabbed. It was just horrible and, like I’m sure many of Zackery and Addie’s felt during the summer of 2006, I’ve got to admit that I saw something terrible between these two coming. So one could argue that without the war and without the levee breaks their relationship would have ended in a similarly tragic manner. But that’s just ultimately speculation.

What we do know about Zackery is that he did not have a history of abusive relationships. And we know that while Addie did fight with boyfriends before Zackery, this sort of spectacularly horrific end shouldn’t have been a fait accompli. So I do that think that twin traumas of the federal flood contributed — though, again, does not fully explain — what happened to them.

I should also note that there were factually incorrect statements in the Bookforum review. The French Quarter is populated by people who are not successful by “conventional standards”? I lived in the French Quarter for just one year and I can tell you that the Quarter is populated by architects, artists, real estate agents, restaurateurs and, yes, a lot of service industry workers like Zackery and Addie. And a note to Mr. Balk: isn’t working several jobs — just like Zackery and Addie did — the very definition of “conventional” success in the “naughts,” a great nickname that economists have come up for the 2000s which have seen mostly sustained job losses instead of gains in employment? (link)

G: Since Shake the Devil Off went to press, we've seen city mental health services sent to Mandeville and a violent crime rate that shows no sign of abating. Moreover, it's hard to see any concrete plans to turn these things around in New Orleans. Do you see any cause for optimism?

EB: As we all know from living here the state of medical/mental health institutions is pitiful, from Charity to NOAH. So I’m not optimistic on what the sort of institutions we’ll have here in the future, no. But I’m highly optimistic about New Orleans, specifically the citizens who have returned to this city despite the fact that by every rational metric — from the murder rate to the cost of homeowner’s insurance — they should not be here at all.

I’m only 37, but I have lived in many great cities around the world — from Berlin to Jerusalem — and I have never by as impressed and inspired as I have been by New Orleans and New Orleanians. That doesn’t mean that New Orleanians will survive without functioning government on the local, state and federal level — obviously, we can’t fix our own potholes our police our streets nor can we reverse Coastal erosion or build functioning levees. But we have a staggeringly great community here that is pushing with incredible passion and zeal to make all of these critic things happen. The social critic James Howard Kunstler has famously lamented that the United States has become a nation of places not worth caring about. Well, I strongly believe that not only is New Orleans is worth caring about — it is a also a place well worth fighting for.

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