Reading Erin Celello’s absorbing novel, “Learning to Stay,” I felt frustration, anger and fear alongside the protagonist, Elise. Her story is fictional, but vividly reflective of many true stories of military families.
In Celello’s book, Elise is the young wife of Brad, a National Guardsman who returns from Afghanistan with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Elated that her husband is home in one piece, Elise soon discovers Brad has injuries she can neither see nor understand. “Learning to Stay” describes her journey through a life she no longer recognizes.
Having no experience with war injuries or military life, the author said she based the story on exhaustive research. Personal interviews provided first-hand information about living with brain injury and post-traumatic stress. Extensive academic research about these diagnoses and treatments added more depth.
I was skeptical at first about a military outsider tackling this subject matter, but the book’s authenticity banished any doubts before I finished the first chapter. Celello has done her homework, though she admitted having some reservations too.
“I kept thinking it seemed sort of audacious for me to write this,” she said. “Then I would talk to people who had these experiences. They would say they wished they could write a book like this, but for them it was too close to their experience, and they thanked me for taking it on.”
The most helpful resources, Celello said, were hundreds of blogs written by military spouses, revealing their experiences with TBI and PTSD and their deepest thoughts and emotions.
“When people blog – they might sensor things a little bit, but they are not sensoring to the extent they might if you were sitting there with a tape recorder.”
When Celello told me about this part of her research, I knew this is what made her book so compelling and familiar to me. Though fictional, it represents true stories told in the voices of those living through them.
She said knowing the story was true-to-life affected her emotional involvement in the writing process.
“Doing the research and coming across all the statistics and the difficulty of the situation for so many of these families. That was never far from my mind,” she said.
The story is not set in a military community, and that choice was purposeful. Celello said she wanted to show the experiences of veterans who are not surrounded by a support network.
“So many soldiers serving in these two wars have been drawn from the National Guard,” she said. “I thought that was an important thing to highlight. Here are these families, and they’re out there and they’re living next door to you and you may not even know that they are struggling with these issues.”
Reading a true story about brain injury, “Where is the Mango Princess?” by Cathy Crimmins, raised this question for Celello: What do you do when the person you’ve married is no longer the person you are married to?
“That’s something that a lot of marriages and relationships go through in the course of a lifetime or decades,” she said.
Celello said she’s drawn to explore both societal issues and personal connections. Telling the story of a couple wrestling with the consequences of war was a fitting way to do both.
“I thought well, there’s a really important issue and also a natural way to explore this question,” she said. “Their spouse comes home and they’re not the same person and they might never be the same person, and what do you do with that?”
“Learning to Stay” is more than a believable and readable story. It presents the personal consequences of war, an important issue both inside and outside the military community.
“I did constantly think … ‘Who am I to be writing this?’ Celello said. “In a way it’s none of my business, yet it was a story I felt like was important to tell and I would at least give it a shot and hope that I did it justice.”