A Conversation with Frances Richey, author of The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War
Q: You’ve said that your son Ben hears and understands what you’re feeling as a mother more clearly through your poems than in conversation. Why do you think this is?
A: Each time Ben came home from Iraq, there was tension between us. He couldn't tell me or anyone about his experiences because his work is classified, and I think it must have been hard for him to know how worried I'd been. This last time he came home, I told him I'd written a book of poems during his deployments. He wanted to read them, so I sent him a few at a time, and then we talked about them over the phone. As he read the poems and we discussed them, it became more and more comfortable just to talk. For me, the poems became a bridge back to him. Both of us had been changed by his deployments, and it seemed to me that as we discussed the poems, we were both more willing to see each other's point of view, and accept each other's differences. I think listening is one of the main keys to a good relationship with any loved one. Through the poems I think Ben was able to hear me, and to realize that I had been hearing him as well, even in his silences.
Q: You have been an active advocate against the war in Iraq. Have your political views had an effect on your relationship with your son? And vice versa, has your son’s involvement with the war influenced your politics?
A: First, I want to say that these are not political poems. They do not take sides vis-a-vis the war. That said, it is true that Ben and I are on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Our relationship has been through the ups and downs you'd expect when a son and a mother don't agree on politics. We used to have some lively debates. But after he became a Green Beret, and went through grueling Special Forces Trainings, and then into combat, the personal stakes were so high and so real, that those debates became too painful to continue. When I tried to change his mind on an issue, I risked giving him the unintended message that I disapproved of him as a person. I can only guess how painful it must have been for him to feel that perhaps I didn't appreciate what he was going through.
After his first deployment, I made a conscious decision to stop arguing with him about politics and I made a real effort to try to see things from his point of view. I knew he had seen things he couldn't tell me about, and I felt it was important to listen even to what he couldn't say. I think these poems reflect a deep desire to broaden my lens, to understand his choices without judging him for them. Through all of this, Ben and I have found common ground in our support of our men and women in uniform who are in harms way all over the world.
Q: Poetry is often regarded as an expression of the emotional, whereas war connotes the absence of emotion. Your poems are a powerful combination of the two—poignant, yet tough. Did this juxtaposition come easily to you?
A: The short answer is yes. I was often terrified by what might take shape on the page, but the poems seemed to have a life of their own. They flowed out in that juxtaposition you mention almost faster than I could get them down.
I'm not sure I agree that war connotes an absence of emotion. There has to be a powerful rage at the core of that kind of catastrophic conflict. I do think those who fight in wars often armor up emotionally in order to do their jobs and to survive. When Ben became a Green Beret and went into combat, the emotional and the "matter-of-fact" had to co-exist in my writing and my daily life. Otherwise it would have been impossible to function.
I think the poems may reflect not only my own survival mechanisms, but also those of some of the subjects of the poems. When Thor Swetnam, the subject of the poem, "Thor", shared with me his experiences as a young medic in the first surge to Iraq in 03, he spoke of some of the terrible things he saw as if he were talking about the weather. I saw the same phenomenon with Ben. He told me how it felt to be shot with plastic bullets and tasered in urban warfare training in the same tone one might use to order a tuna sandwich. When a story is compelling, disturbing, even horrifying, there's no need to add extraneous emotion. The specifics of the story do all the work.
Q: You raised Ben by yourself since he was just two years old. How has being a single working mother affected your life choices?
A: I became a single, working mother in the late 70's, before it was common or acceptable. We moved several times over the course of my business career, and my number one criteria for choosing a place to live was a great public school system. Good schools usually meant a safe, child-friendly environment inhabited by family oriented neighbors. As a parent this was ideal. As a single woman, it meant I never really fit in, even though I was also a parent.
Finding and keeping competent childcare was a continuous challenge. Once, at one of Ben's baseball games, I overheard one of the other mothers disparaging me for always being in search of a babysitter when I should be at home with Ben. Being a single mother was fraught with moments of self doubt and feelings of guilt. I was often the only woman at business conferences and meetings, and the only single mom at football banquets and school functions. Weekends were a mad rush of errands and athletic events. I watched Ben and his friends grow up on the ballfields of Finch Park, and grew to love baseball. I went to all his football games because I told myself that if I was there he wouldn't get hurt.
As Ben went through middle school and high school and his friends became the center of his life,I returned to my yoga practice with a new vigor, gradually started to imagine leaving business, and became a volunteer at Jacob Perlow Hospice in Manhattan.
Q: After nearly two decades of working a corporate job, you left the business industry to pursue writing and teaching yoga. How has this professional change shaped you personally?
A: Leaving business to teach yoga and to write was nothing short of reclaiming my life. I had done what I felt I had to do to support myself and my son, and now he had grown into a fine young man with a life and dreams of his own. I always felt out of place in business and in the suburbs, so when Ben left home for school, I moved to Manhattan.
In Ben's second year at West Point, I started teaching yoga for a living and writing for the love of writing. Becoming an independent contractor meant living in a new world of uncertainty. No more office on Fifth Ave. No administrative assistant. No steady paycheck or company sponsored health insurance. I lived on my savings while I built my practice. There was no longer a need for heels or expensive suits. It was strange, enormously scary and invigorating. I think it was Elizabeth Kubler Ross who said, “You have to be willing to give up everything that isn’t you to live an authentic life.”