Autopsy of War
A Personal History
By John A. Parrish, M.D.
(Thomas Dunne Books, Hardcover, 9780312654962, 384pp.)
Publication Date: June 5, 2012
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On the outside, John Parrish is a highly successful doctor, having risen to the top of his field as department head at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. Inside, however, he was so tortured by the memories of his tour of duty as a marine battlefield doctor in Vietnam that he was unable to live a normal life. In Autopsy of War, the author delivers an unflinching narrative chronicling his four-decade battle with the unseen enemy in his own mind as he struggled with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Parrish examines his Southern Baptist childhood and the profound influence of his father, a fire and brimstone preacher turned Navy chaplain, while offering a candid assessment of the “God and Country” ethos that leads young men to rush wide-eyed into war. He describes the unimaginable carnage and acts of cruelty he witnessed in Vietnam, experiences that shattered his world view leaving him to retreat from his family upon his return stateside. Living virtually homeless at times, he visited veteran shelters and relived the horrors of war in a series of harrowing flashbacks as he dealt with suicidal thoughts. The author writes honestly and probingly of his episodes of infidelity and battles with sex addiction. Readers follow his steady journey toward recovery and his professional contributions in the field of medicine and technology, as well as a joint program with the Boston Red Sox and Massachusetts General Hospital to aid returning veterans. Perhaps most poignantly, Parrish speaks of his quest to discover the identity of one particular solider in Vietnam he could not save—and whose memory has haunted him ever since.
Autopsy of War is a soul searching memoir that is both an intensely personal narrative and a universally relevant trip through the world of war and recovery.
JOHN A. PARRISH, M.D., is the CEO of the Center for the Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology (CIMIT); the CEO of the Red Sox Foundation-Massachusetts General Hospital Home Base Program; and Distinguished Professor of Dermatology and former department head at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. He is the author of 12, 20 & 5: A Doctor's Year in Vietnam.
“Autopsy of War ranks among the most insightful and compelling memoirs of the war in Vietnam”
—VVA VETERAN magazine
“For 40 years, Parrish, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, has wrestled with his experiences in the Vietnam War, writing and rewriting his own story. Before the term post-traumatic stress disorder was coined, Parrish suffered the destruction of the war in personal ways, finding himself unfit and unable to reconnect to U.S. culture and personal relationships when he returned. Parrish was raised in the South by a strict father—a former military man and minister—who never recovered from the death of his first son. Married and the father of two young girls, Parrish was just out of medical school when he was sent to Vietnam and felt a fracturing of his personality that only continued as he compartmentalized the war and his life back in the U.S. As a U.S. Navy physician serving with the Marine Corps, he worked sometimes in triage at the base and sometimes out in the fields with soldiers, watching the horror of combat and learning from the grunts the drudgery of just trying to stay alive. On his return, as a catharsis, Parrish wrote 12, 20 & 5: A Doctor’s Year in Vietnam (1973) but could not banish his demons. His latest book is a deeply personal examination of the aftereffects of war that is often disturbing in its graphic descriptions but penetrating in its search for atonement.”—Booklist (starred)
“A distinguished physician reflects on a tormented life haunted by memories of his one-year war. Given his tumultuous upbringing, perhaps Parrish (Between You and Me: A Sensible and Authoritative Guide to the Care and Treatment of Your Skin, 1978, etc.) would have ended up on the psychiatrist’s couch in any event. However, this anxious, bright and dutiful son went on to Duke and to Yale for medical school. By then, married with two children and facing the draft, he volunteered for the Navy and served a 1967-68 tour in Vietnam. There, treating the horribly maimed and looking into the face of dying grunts, he acquired the “invisible wounds of war” that have haunted him ever since. Parrish’s recollection of that harrowing year and the collision of his Christian morality and boyish notions of soldiering with the war’s too-real trauma constitute this memoir’s most memorable passages. The rest is a dual tale of remarkable professional success and private pain and instability. After obsessively rewriting his own war story, silently visiting a homeless veterans’ shelter, living alone and celibate, or together with mismatched partners, Parrish finally sought help to treat his clinical depression. Only after exhausting a menu of spiritual remedies, finally getting with the right woman, submitting to an uncommonly adept therapist, reconnecting with his wartime hooch-mates, revisiting Vietnam, and today directing the Home Base Program (for veterans suffering from brain injuries and PTSD) has he found a measure of peace. After recounting his bumpy road to recovery, Parrish wonders if this unvarnished revelation of personal suffering amounts to little more than a continuation of the self-centeredness that drove him professionally and trashed his family. Some readers will answer yes, while others will credit him with an honest attempt to explain the full dimensions of an affliction we still know far too little about.
A useful introduction to the causes and consequences of PTSD.”
“Parrish served as a physician-in-training in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968, but suffered its psychic toll for four decades afterward. In this forceful, painfully rendered memoir, Parrish (12, 20, & 5: A Doctor‘s Year in Vietnam) recounts how his war apprenticeship shaped his later double life. He may have looked like he had it all as a distinguished Harvard-trained dermatologist and CEO of the Center of Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology, but to his family Parrish was a wanton philanderer, distant father, and guilt-ridden son and brother. In an excruciating account of Parrish’s downward spiral before treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder—from whose symptoms he suffered long before the term existed—he confesses to abandoning his family, becoming homeless, and suffering mysterious physical ailments. Only when Parrish finally began medication and counseling did the cloud of his depression start to lift, and though he lost his marriage, Parrish found love again, reconnected with the men who shared his wartime experience, and even returned to Vietnam to face one of the most frightening moments of his life. With this moving work, the exorbitant costs of a long-ago war seem all too fresh—and relevant.”
“A memoir, deep and thoughtful enough to be called an autobiography, by an Army doctor in Viet Nam who doesn’t present himself as heroic but may strike the reader that way, anyway (he certainly did to me). The combat-casualty triage horrors are stark and terrible and not sensationalized but not soft-pedaled, either. This was a year-long nightmare of gore, body parts, and death after death of vigorous young men (mostly), interrupted of course by near-miraculous rescues and recoveries. But the story really begins, and a different sort of heroism emerges, when Parrish’s war ends, for John Parrish was himself a classic post-traumatic stress disorder case. He would live an amazingly divided life, managing a distinguished medical career all the while he was developing near-insane obsessive behavior patterns, deserting his family, and living a near-vagabond private life. Recovery and redemption did not come cheap, but they came, and this beautifully told story ends on a note of grace and quiet triumph.”
—Sullivan County Democrat
"With courage and great candor, Dr. Parrish offers an intimate, compelling, and sometimes chilling narrative of his own struggles with PTSD. The author gives us not just the wisdom and expertise of a physician, but the firsthand testimony of a man who understands that wars don't end when the last shot is fired. Wars go on and on in human memory."
—Tim O'Brien, National Book Award winning author, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist
—Senator John Kerry
"Dr. John Parrish has once again shown remarkable courage. He writes about his own sufferings with painful candor, from death incomprehensible to him as a child to carnage witnessed as a combat surgeon. He is honest about his “impotence and rage,” grieving for those he cannot save. He remains committed to caring for warriors living with “invisible wounds” of war. His book is not really an “Autopsy.” It is a prescription for life."
—Congressman Michael E. Capuano
"As a combat physician from Operation Iraqi Freedom, "Autopsy of War" has awakened many of my own reflections on our ultimate powerlessness, but also of our never ending hope and genuine desire to ease the suffering of our fellow warriors and thereby heal our own wounds from having born witness to the inhumanity of war. Dr. Parrish bravely confesses his personal journey of grief, despair, and redemption... a journey taken by warriors past, present, and regrettably... future. This is the burden of the warrior class, so that we may live in a civilized society."
—Colonel John C. Bradley, MD, Chair, Department of Psychiatry, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center
“John Parrish's story is engaging. While very individually focused, the behaviors he explains will be familiar to many who suffer from these invisible wounds."
—General Peter Chiarelli, Vice Chief of the US Army (Ret.)
“John Parrish does a great service in the telling of his own story and his ultimate success in dealing with it can serve as an example for others.”
—General James Peake, MD, Former US Secretary of Veterans Affairs
“Although painful at times, this powerful and well-written book should be read by all who have experienced the psychological insults of war. It may be more important that it be read by the great majority of Americans who are not personally touched by war.”
—Bob and Lee Woodruff, authors of In an Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing