Author Helen Benedict. Photo: Emma O'Connor
By Alizah Salario
You've probably crossed paths with Helen Benedict, author and journalism professor at Columbia University, somewhere on the Upper West Side. One of her favorite haunts is Book Culture on 112th Street, and she can often be found observing the peacocks in the park next to Saint John the Divine or jogging in Riverside Park. Some of her framed books covers (she's written seven novels, five books of nonfiction and a play) hang on the Hungarian Pastry Shop's Author's Wall, which pays homage to books written at or inspired by the cafe.
In her work, Benedict depicts worlds far from the Upper West Side: Iraq, Afghanistan and small town veteran communities. In both her fiction and journalism, she has explored and investigated sexual assault in the military, the dynamics between soldiers and civilians, and the disproportionate toll that war often takes on women and children.
Her latest novel, “Wolf Season,” chronicles the lives of three mothers and their children whose worlds intertwine after a hurricane devastates their small town in upstate New York.
On March 22, Benedict will join journalist and fiction writer Priya Malhotra in conversation at the Kalahari Building on 116th Street to discuss “Wolf Season.” Benedict gave us a glimpse into her story of survival, trauma and the importance of family.
You've been writing about female veterans and war for quite some time. Where did the inspiration for the particulars of “Wolf Season” come from?
[For] the first book I wrote about Iraq, “The Lonely Soldier” [an expose into sexual assault in the military], I'd interviewed more than 40 women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the military. And one of them did actually live in the woods with wolves, and a child that she had conceived in Iraq had been born with a disability ... this woman isn't Rin and Juney is in no way her child. I never met either of them, it was just a telephone interview. But this image of this veteran deep in the woods sort of protecting herself with wolves really sat in me for a long time, you know. That was really the trigger for this whole book. And then I lived through a hurricane in my house upstate, around where the novel is set.
You render the wolves in such vivid detail. How did you do your research on them?
I found that there's a wolf preserve way in northwest New York, a place called Wolf Mountain that is open to the public. So I went and spent a long time there just watching the wolves close up ... I discovered after the fact that veterans and wolves are kind of a thing.
Really? So how does that figure into the book?
What Rin sees in the wolves is not unlike a lot of other veterans: she's attracted to their wildness, and fierceness and independence, and their warrior-like qualities that she admires, having been a soldier herself, but also feels protected by them, and comforted by their pack mentality, which is like family. So they offer all these things, as well as being really beautiful.
The three mothers in the book each have their own ways of coping with trauma and pain. Beth, for instance, drinks to cope with her husband's deployment, and his domestic abuse. What was it like to write that relationship?
It was a challenge. I mean, I have through my career interviewed survivors of domestic and sexual assault hundreds of times. I also trained as a rape crisis counselor a long time ago so that I could be a more sensitive and understanding interviewer. All of that told me a lot about what goes on in such relationships, and there's a particular side to it with veterans because PTSD and flashbacks often do manifest themselves in violence in the home, and it's a huge, huge problem among veterans.
We haven't talked about the Iraqi part of the book. Naema's story in particular, is so crisp. How did you make it so rich with details?
I interviewed quite a few Iraqi refugees, which helped me. Not for their stories, specifically, but to get things right. So I would tell them Naema's story, or I would ask them things like, when you fled Iraq, where did you go first? ... they were really helpful, and they loved the idea of helping me with a novel about their experience without my putting them in any sort of danger by writing about them, as I might as a journalist.
You've been writing about sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military long before the #MeToo movement. Do you think the military is having its moment of reckoning now as well?
There are people in the military who are trying to make it happen, but they've been trying to make it happen for a long time. I mean, every time there's been one of these major scandals, going back to the '80s and '90s with Aberdeen and the Tailhook scandal, and then again when my work [“The Lonely Soldier”] came out, and that inspired the film “The Invisible War” that got nominated for the Oscar [for best documentary feature] in 2012. When there's a great big expose on sexual assault in the military, which my book was, each time there are lawsuits, and there are women speaking out, there are journalists investigating, and there's a flurry of attention, then it disappears ... It all comes down to one problem, which is that the military refuses to take the investigations and prosecution of sex crimes out of the chain of command and put them into non-military hands, which is what Canada and the U.K. do ... Senator Gillibrand [D-NY] did in fact put forth a bill a couple years ago to make this very thing happen, and it was defeated ... But she's talked about trying again.