Ex-Stripper Army Wife Talks Military Marriages, War, PTSD, and Secret Shoe Phones
Diablo Cody wrote a smart book about being a stripper and then went on to get famous for her film Juno. Lily Burana wrote a smart book about being a stripper and then went on to marry a military officer. Clearly, Burana and Cody have a lot to talk about.
Burana’s new book I Love a Man in Uniform (read an excerpt) is part humor, part how-to, and part classic fish-out-of-water story. But it’s also a serious memoir about change and compromise, depression and post-traumatic-stress, loneliness and perseverance, and the imperfect individuals behind the red, white, and blue facade.
The book reads like a travelogue of an oft-misunderstood subculture, and it works so well because she begins her journey as much of an outsider as her readers. "Thus began the relationship between Army Guy and Anarchy Girl," Burana writes in her introduction. "Ours isn’t a red state-blue state relationship -- more like red state and smash the state."
Below, she answers Diablo Cody’s questions about anthropology, experimental psychological treatments, judgey faces, deviled eggs, and secret military telephones. The two will also appear together on May 15 in Los Angeles at a burlesque-themed benefit for Operation Bombshell, Burana’s nonprofit for military wives.
Diablo Cody: The details in your book are so vivid and specific that they read almost like travelogues. From dancing to the rodeo world to the Army, you have a way of infiltrating these fascinating little societies. Have you always had this anthropological bent? And is Army life the most mysterious subject you’ve tackled?
Lily Burana: I wouldn’t confuse an anthropological bent with natural-born nosiness. I like peering inside the world’s medicine cabinet. Wait -- I mean that metaphorically; you can still invite me to parties! I’m always interested in how a subculture fits together, what the language is, what things connote status or are considered embarrassments. I like that the world contains so many smaller, unique worlds. In some ways, I pretty much view what I do as a form of travel writing, giving readers a glimpse into a culture they may have little to no exposure to.
The Army is definitely the most mysterious, most intimidating subject I’ve delved into. Partly because the Army remains closed-off to the civilian world and it totally psyched me out to become part of it. I think I’d seen too many military movies with old men in uniforms pounding their fists on conference tables and yelling "YOU DON’T KNOW HOW HIGH THIS GOES! WE CAN DESTROY YOU!" So I came to it with the Hollywood-fueled paranoia that it was like the Mafia in green polyester. I was so scared, I was sure I’d lose a pinkie if I messed up somehow.
Writing about the military was intimidating to me because it is so well-documented by soldiers and pundits and veterans and historians and know-it-alls, and also because there’s so little written by and about Army wives. We have our own soapy show on LIFETIME -- and for what it is, it actually has gotten a lot of things right -- but books? Pfft. There are so few. For the first few months of writing, I had "model citizen disease" -- like it was totally up to me to do it right and write perfectly and be this unassailable goddess of military domesticity and a Pulitzer-Prize-grade pageant queen to boot.
Turns out, I had to fly by the seat of my pants, write like a sloppy fool, and just be willing to lose the crown and the sash as Mrs. Perfect Army Wife. And, lo and behold, the ragged edges are what people seem to be responding to most.
DC: Your PTSD journey really affected me as a reader. I wanted to know more. Can you tell me more about the treatment you pursued, and do you think your PTSD would have gone undiagnosed had you not met Mike?
LB: EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is controversial. It is based on therapist Francine Shapiro’s observation that when negative, traumatic memories are accessed in the mind, the eyes move back and forth rapidly, almost like REM sleep. EMDR uses the eye movements and left brain/right brain stimuli to basically take these "hot wire" memories and cool them down so you’re not constantly triggered by them.
On the face of it, EMDR seems kind of silly. But then, so does sitting in a chair talking about what has bothered you for so long and expecting it to get better just because you voiced it aloud. EMDR is not viewed as a legitimate treatment by some people, but the accepted treatment of "blah blah blah" talk therapy wasn’t working for me, so I figured, what did I have to lose by trying EMDR? It isn’t administered by a guy in an orange robe trying to get you to fork over your life savings and follow him into the desert, so I figured why not? It didn’t cost more than conventional talk therapy, or take any more time. I didn’t want to be a drugged out zombie and I didn’t want to be hypnotized or have memories "erased" or anything like that. So it seemed promising.
I know mileage varies, but EMDR has worked brilliantly for me. Victoria Britt, whom I saw for treatment, is quite experienced with trauma therapy. She’s not a bargain basement therapist with a laser pointer going, "Ooooh, follow this back and forth!" then turning you loose to put a gun in your mouth later. She is expert at pacing and using breathing and acupressure points to keep you in balance so you’re not just this big walking wound, which is very, very important. You can’t just wander into the depths of your psyche for an hour then leave the therapist’s office without some "come-down" care. You need to end each session in a relaxed state, because these are heavy, heavy life-and-death memories you are dealing with.
Had I not met Mike, I really don’t know where I’d be. So many people who were abused as children have "intimacy issues" as adults -- it can be hard to take long-term relationships seriously when you were set up so young to not trust. One of the things that Victoria said to me, which I think is quite beautiful, is that sometimes two people come together in order to heal. I believe that is true in my marriage.
DC: You talk about some of the judgment you faced when you first became an Army spouse. (Meow!) How do you think the book will be received in that community? I personally thought the book was really positive and reverent, but then, I’m negative and irreverent.
LB: On one hand, I have military wives coming out of every corner of the country saying, "OMG, me, toooooooo!" after reading the book. Not that there are so many ex-stripper military wives (but there are more than a few!), but so many women feel emboldened to admit that they, too, feel that gut-churning, heart-thumping mix of pride and frustration as military wives. That nexus between your self and your service to this larger community is an intense spot, and in social settings, we’re groomed specifically to be non-controversial, so in each other’s company face-to-face we don’t often get to the heart of certain matters. And there is still the longstanding urging to "not bring shame" upon the military, by, you know, admitting it’s not perfect and you’re not perfect, which gets old. How much game-face can one girl have? I say that as someone who *loves* the Army as a family unit.
That said, the institutional response has been mixed. Some good friends who were mentors to my husband, and who are at the pinnacle of their careers, like, guys who have their own flag set out before they enter a room (!!!! how do we get in on this?!) have written very moving notes of support to us. But then I got punted from signing books at the West Point cadet book store because my presence would be "inappropriate." There’s this.
DC: This is such a dumb question, but I’m a slob and am fascinated with how organized military guys are. Have any of Mike’s rituals/quirks rubbed off on you?
LB: True story: Today, Mike walked into my office, made his patiently loving "I’m not judging you" judgey face, then picked up the old empty yogurt container that was on a high shelf near my desk, and threw it away. So, I feel you on the slob front. He and I really are like Felix Unger and Oscar Madison -- if left to my own devices, I would live in a sty. Just throw some orange peels in there for me to eat and let me wallow. I’m a savage, I admit it. But over time I have come to see the benefit of being organized -- for instance, you can find things when you need them. I am continually amazed by the efficiency of this system! How novel, how handy!
Chaos gets less appealing as time goes by and I am getting neater. Slowly. For instance, the other night, I had to get out of bed to shut the bedroom door because it was open a crack. A crack. Unacceptable. Which shows you that people really can change. A little. I truly wish I were a neatnik, but I’m one of those people who just doesn’t *see* certain messes until they’re about to topple over and crush me under their weight. I’m clean, but I’m very, very cluttery. My closet looks like Goodwill exploded. It’s so sad.
DC: Do you feel like you’re fully part of the Army family? I was struck by the "Welcome to the Army" bridal butt-tapping ritual you described. It’s not like marrying a guy, it’s like marrying a whole organization. When did you feel like you belonged?
LB: For a long time, I’d say, a couple of years, I was very uneasy, like being an Army wife ran counter to everything I valued about myself as a characteristic -- being an independent loudmouth. And I know that was part of why I crashed so hard. Once I got my head straight, that misfit feeling lessened, though it never went completely away. It’s challenging when your primary social currency is sarcasm and everyone around you is earnest and polite. But sometimes, the snark breaks through and I do appreciate it. One extremely conservative Christian general, at a retirement ceremony over which he was presiding, looked at all the people clinging to the back wall, afraid to sit up front, and he motioned everyone forward with this almost papal arm motion and said, "Come on up. This isn’t church!" At one of the countless buffet receptions I went to, this Captain and I were jockeying over the chafing dish for the last of the stuffed mushrooms. He was about to edge me out of the dish completely when he turned the handle of the the slotted spoon toward me in concession and said, "If we don’t eat stuffed mushrooms, the terrorists win!"
I started to feel like I belonged when I could go through an entire social function seamlessly -- from the hostess gift to the small talk to addressing everyone properly, and still manage to have a meaningful conversation with another wife during the whole proceeding. It’s a very self-conscious environment, a mixed Army function, so it takes a while to relax when you are new to it because it feels like such a performance -- and in many cases, it is! You are absolutely being judged as an extension of your mate. Seriously? I wish there was an I CAN HAZ BUNDT CAKE website of captioned photos of awkward military social functions: "I’m in yer kitchin, eatin’ yer devulled eggz1!"
I will mention this as an interesting barometer of social awareness within the Army: A friend of mine went to a military wedding where the bride and groom *both* got the fanny-tap with the saber guard’s sword. Granted, the groom was already in the military, but they were making A Statement.
DC: Fantasy question: If you had to join the military, where would you see yourself fitting in? Who is Major Burana?
LB: I would totally be Military Intelligence, like my husband, but with a linguistic specialty. For starters, it’s a branch that is open to women -- not all of them are. Also, I like running in and screaming "FIRST," and MI’s motto is "Always Out Front." MI is nosing around before anyone else gets someplace, and I’d appreciate knowing seekrit stuff before anybody else and using that intelligence for a good purpose. I feel strongly that I would enjoy any job that required steaming open mail and eavesdropping and translating. Third, I’m completely convinced they really have shoe phones like Maxwell Smart. Don’t let them tell you any different. Who doesn’t want a shoe phone?