Mary graduated from the College of William & Mary with a degree in philosophy in 1973.  She worked as a print journalist in Virginia, and later as a freelancer.  Since 1985 she has been married to James V. Wertsch, PhD, who is a professor at Washington University in St. Louis.  They have two sons, Nicholas, and Tyler.


CONTACT INFO:
 

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Mary Edwards Wertsch

Author and expert on military brat identity
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Appearances, bio, contact info, interview by Sam Britten
 
BIOGRAPHICAL INFO:

Mary was born on July 23, 1951, in Portsmouth, Virginia, while her father was attending the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk.
Her father, David L. Edwards, was a career Army infantry officer who graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1936 and fought in the Pacific in WWII.  He grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, the son of Welsh immigrants.  Her mother, Dorothy, grew up in Athens, Georgia; she was an artist and, after Col. Edwards retired, an art teacher in public schools.  Mary has one sibling, her brother David, born in 1940.
 

If you have any doubt this was a military family, take a look at the Christmas card photo below, sent out in December, 1945.  Mary's parents and  brother (age 5) are poking their heads out of the gun turrets.

David became a world traveler and photo journalist who is particularly known for his images of Mongolia.  His spread on the Kazakh eagle hunters of western Mongolia appeared in National Geographic in September, 1999, and one of those images was included in the Best 100 Photos from the first hundred years of National Geographic.  He has a studio in Flagstaff, Arizona, and a
website.

This, by the way, is what my brother looked like when we lived in Germany, early 1950s, age about 12:



Mary's father was stationed in France from 1961-64.  Mary attended a dependent school the first year, and a French school, L'Ecole Internationale in St. Germain-en-Laye, for the next two.  The photo of her class during the equivalent of US 6th grade is below. Mary is on the end of the middle row, right side, in dark sweater.  If you've read Mary's blog--specifically, the entry "What the Cat Knew," you know all about the pictured teacher, identified as the dread Monsieur D.  
RECENT APPEARANCES

March 2009:                

see the Armed Forces Network video! 

Mary spent 10 days in Germany at the request of the US Army Garrison at Baden Wuerttemburg and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.  

   
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As the featured speaker in the program "Military Brats:  The Good and the Grief," sponsored by the Religious Education department of the Chaplains' service, IMCOM-Europe, she gave six presentations to mixed audiences of military chaplains, parents, social workers, youth program leaders, and others in Heidelberg, Mannheim, and Kaiserslautern (Ramstein/Landstuhl).  That was followed by two presentations at the annual BGCA conference for DoD youth program leaders, which this year was held at the Edelweiss Lodge in Garmisch.

The six Army presentations, which were made to varied audiences of service members, their spouses, chaplains, social workers, and others, focused on military childhood and helping the audiences understand the unique cultural shaping of military children.  Mary believes that because the roots of the military brat are radically different, generally speaking, than those of their parents or their caregivers, their strengths and their needs can be overlooked and 
 
their behaviors misinterpreted.  She offered examples and suggested
steps to stengthen the resilience of children and help  adults "read" them more accurately.

Mary concluded the trip to Germany with a talk and a workshop at the annual conference for military youth leaders given by Boys & Girls Clubs of America.  These presented information about cultural shaping and about specific ways youth leaders can help military children understand themselves, build their strengths, and help them cope with the many challenges of military life. 

 

 

 

An Interview with Mary Edwards Wertsch


by Samuel L. Britten

Mary Edwards Wertsch is the author of the 1991 non-fiction book, Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress.

The outcome of five years of intensive research, the book closely examines the experience of military brats, describing the patterns of shared experience in childhood and tying these to their psychological legacies, positive and negative, in adult life. Wertsch draws on the body of published military family research, adds her own findings, and interweaves the life stories of her military brat interviewees, which are inspiring, heart-wrenching, and, to her military brat readers, eye-opening in their familiarity.

A military brat herself, Wertsch was born in 1951 to a Southern mother and a West Pointer father (class of 1936) who served 30 years in the Army Infantry. In the course of her childhood she attended 12 schools and lived in 20 houses. She spent two years in Germany and three in France, during which she attended a French public school. In 1973 Wertsch graduated from The College of William and Mary with a degree in philosophy. She worked as an investigative reporter and feature writer before writing Military Brats. She is married and lives in St. Louis with her husband and their two sons, and in addition to writing now also teaches poetry-writing to inner city elementary school children. She is one of the founders of Operation Footlocker, which travels the country from gathering to gathering of military brats, seeking to unite them in the recognition of their common heritage.


SB: Mary, what first motivated you to write this book?

MW: Well, like many another military brat, I grew up somehow thinking that other people had roots, but I did not. In my head I called myself a Nowhere Kid, meaning that I did not come from anywhere and there was no place that would remember me. I actually thought that my first chance to become a Somewhere Kid wouldn't come until I was 18 years old and moved away from home. I must have looked upon military childhood as the longest gestation period on the planet.

Then, around 1980 or so, I saw the movie "The Great Santini," from the novel by Pat Conroy. I was thunderstruck; it had never occurred to me that other military families might have been like mine. I remember thinking, "Maybe I am a Somewhere Kid." Then I read the novel, which I loved, and after that I went to the best bookstore in Chicago to buy a non-fiction book that would explain to me the ways military families are alike and how that comes about. I never doubted such a book would exist; it was so obvious to me that it had always been needed and I assumed several authors would have addressed the subject.

Needless to say, I was astounded that no such books existed. At first I didn't believe it. Then I resolved to write one myself. Circumstances worked against that, though, for five more years. The death of my father, in 1985, was the impetus to start research. In the wake of his death I needed to read that non-fiction book more than ever, to put my family and all my other brat experiences into perspective. Therefore I had to write the book that I needed but could not find.

SB: I've noticed that you referred to the book The Great Santini in a number of places in your book. What is it about Santini that most impressed you?

MW: Pat Conroy's accomplishment still astounds me. He created such realistic characters and dialogue, and with dynamics among them that weren't just convincing but were absolutely revelatory in their mirroring of military family life. I believe Conroy's fictional Marine Corps family is the most authentic military family in literature, period.

As you know, Conroy wrote the introduction to my book. When he sent me the manuscript of the introduction, I saw that he had written, "Wertsch has given us our first family portrait." I phoned him up and said, "No, Pat. You gave us our first family portrait. I gave us our first family analysis!"

SB: I've heard others say, and have thought myself that "The Great Santini" validates… or at least perpetuates many of the stereotypes which civilians have of us, but which were not true for my family. For example, while my sister and I were taught to say "yes, sir," we never stood in formation - though sometimes we certainly *felt* like that was the case.

MW: Once in a while I hear someone raise the stereotype objection to Santini, chiefly in reference to the father character, Bull Meachum. Once someone told me that the opening scene in the officer's club was so unlike anything real officers would ever do that she discounted all the rest of the film. Now I could respond that I have heard enough stories to justify both the scene (how about Tailhook?) and the character, and that in any event Pat Conroy is a Marine brat tried and true, and knows exactly whereof he writes. But the point I really want to stress is that any military brat who rushes to dismiss "Santini" as an exaggeration is missing the great truths of that book.

So what if the kids in a given family never had to stand in formation; in plenty of other families they did, or they had to pass inspection Saturday morning, or make their beds so their dads could bounce a quarter off of it, or eat dinner in "square meal" style, like a harassed plebe at a military school. The point of the depictions presented in "Santini" is not that every military family does things in exactly that way, but that a military family is different from a civilian family; it exists inside the culture of the military; and it is saturated with that culture to varying degrees, and manifests this to varying degrees. There are no exceptions, in my opinion. A family cannot exist inside the Fortress without being shaped by it.

Further, I would say that every military brat who sees the film or reads the book understands this message on some level, even if they object to some detail or other to try and distance themselves from it. In the course of my research I did a little experiment. I asked the same question of civilians and military brats who had seen the film. I asked, "So, do you think the father in the "The Great Santini" loved his kids?" In every case, the civilian would say, "No! Of course not!" like I must have lost my mind to even ask. And in every case the military brat would answer, "Yes! Of course he did," as though nothing could be more obvious. The point is, we understand military families like Pat Conroy understands military families. We know that love from a macho, authoritarian, (not to say alcoholic) father like Bull Meachum comes in coded form. We understand that, and because of it we have sympathy for every single member of that family--kids, mother, and father too.

SB: As you began collecting material for your book, was there anything you learned which surprised you?

MW: I began research with the notion that I might find a few major areas in which the experience of military children was very similar--enough, perhaps, to suggest that we do come from Somewhere after all. Not a place on a map, but a set of powerful common experiences that link us.

What I had in mind at the beginning were a few real biggies: frequent moves, the threat of father loss, father absence, authoritarian families. What I found in interview after interview astonished me: The similarities among us in childhood *and* adulthood are legion, and the resulting cultural identity cuts across lines of gender, race, and class.

What I was finding was that The Fortress, my neutral term for military culture, shapes its children in ways so powerful and deeply penetrating that we are forever different from the civilians around us, even as we work in civilian careers, marry civilians, raise civilian children. For instance, the values we carry through life tend to be significantly different from those of the civilians around us, and this frequently causes friction or frustration. Nevertheless, these are values we hold dear and that we have no wish to change.

That was the astonishing Big Picture I was getting. But the similarities in the minutiae of daily life were equally jaw-dropping. I continually revised my interview questions as I went along. Soon I was opening an interview with questions such as, "So, did your family keep its duty roster on the refrigerator?" And my interviewee would gasp and say, "How did you know?"

SB: So what is it that makes us so unique?

MW: I want to answer this very clearly, because people so often misunderstand what I am saying. I have always listed a group of common experiences that, taken together, add up to a radically different childhood than that of typical American civilian kids. But as soon as I start the list, citing, for example, frequent moves, people are liable to exclaim, "Well, plenty of civilian kids move frequently too!" Naturally I am not claiming that only military brats move a lot. I am claiming that the particular combination of experiences adds up to a childhood that shapes and orients us very differently. Some of these factors are: frequent moves, authoritarian families, extreme patriarchy, protracted overseas experience, parental absence, the threat of parental loss in war or preparation for war, and militarization of the family in its day to day life. Obviously these factors can vary in degree. In addition, there are factors such as alcoholism which are not present in all military families, to be sure, but which have such a powerful and similar impact on the families that do have an alcoholic parent that military brats from such families have a whole additional layer of experience in common.

On top of all this, we must keep in mind that these things were not happening to individual families in isolation from one another. Most military families spend a significant portion of their lives residing on or very near military bases. My point is that family life is submerged in a larger subculture which is the warrior culture. This, in fact, is something no civilian child has as a home culture.

SB: How is this unique combination of experiences reflected in adult military brats?

MW: See if you recognize some of these qualities: ability to mimic accents or pick up languages; ability to make friends easily--and forget them easily; fear of loss in relationships, which causes some brats to avoid long term relationships and others to break them off early; frustration with civilian sloppiness, lack of punctuality, and cavalier attitude toward promises made; strong sympathy for soldiers; difficulty staying in the same place for long; tendency to pick as life partner someone raised in only one or two houses; strong preference for working for one's self or at least with a great deal of autonomy as opposed to a closely supervised situation within an organization. The list could go on and on.

SB: Mary, you're speaking to my heart. But do you think the childhood of an MB is really any more difficult than that of civilian kids? I mean, obviously there are some benefits and experiences which non-brats miss out on.

MW: The military brat experience is full of strong positives as well as strong negatives. In my book I stress that military brats who are still working through their woundedness must not make the mistake of overlooking those strong positives. In fact, even in the most dysfunctional of families, a military childhood is likely to bestow some of the very strengths we need to overcome the negatives. But those strengths are not activated if the individual bearing them refuses to recognize them as an equally valid part of their Fortress legacy.

In addition, the brats who have had the good fortune to live overseas have that rich experience as a resource. Overseas experience can change a child's life. It changed mine.

But I have to say here that while the positives are critically important, the overall picture of military brat childhood in general is one of overwhelming loss. This is primarily due to the number of moves. The impact of frequent moves is twofold: The child quickly learns that everyone in his or her world will be swept away, apart from the immediate family; and the child in most cases will not have the opportunity to become close to his or her extended family. Both these effects are destabilizing and disorienting, as well as painful. Moving a lot also confers some important strengths, but I'm not sure anything ever makes up for the emptiness caused by so much loss. We just have to learn to live with it.

SB: Yes, and it seems this will become even more problematic as more military families have active-duty fathers *and* mothers. From my own personal experiences, I know it's hard to say goodbye to friends, and that finding closure is difficult. I once found out that my mother had warned my friends to watch out for me picking fights with them, because it was an easier way for me to separate myself from the relationship. Initially I was furious with her, but later came to realize that she was right. In your research, did you find any others who used this as a way of avoiding goodbyes?

MW: I wish I had known to ask that question. I feel certain many would have said "Yes, I did that too." What this makes me think of is some research done on Navy couples. It was found that fights are common just before deployments, for this very reason--to lessen the pain of the separation.

SB: What do you feel are the most important things for parents and teachers to know and understand about military brats?

MW: Statistics show that most career military people come from rural America and small towns. That suggests that most military parents did not grow up as military brats themselves. Very likely the same is true for the teachers in dependent schools. The natural human tendency, however, is for all those adults to presume that military children are just the same as they themselves were in their own rooted childhoods: same needs, same strengths, same attitudes. That just isn't so.

Military parents need to question their own assumptions about their children, and think harder about the effects of the military way of life on their kids. There are many things parents can do to prevent or treat the typical problems of military brats such as depression, loneliness, anxiety about an absent parent, and anger at their own powerlessness. There are other things parents can do to recognize and value the very different strengths their children have developed than they themselves had at the same age. Most of these things are simply the common sense actions of caring parents who have tuned in to their kids as individuals distinct from themselves.

Teachers also need to first of all recognize that they are working in a unique subculture. The faces in their classrooms may present a rainbow of hues and ethnicities, from Puerto Rican to Inuit, Cherokee to Swedish American. While teachers these days are trained to handle multicultural classrooms and to affirm the rich traditions these ethnicities represent, I wonder how many of them recognize that from the child's point of view, ethnic identity almost certainly takes a back seat to the cultural identity that affects every moment of their lives: and that is the identity of the military brat. Teachers can expect military brats to have all the characteristics and problems of other children their age--but they will also have characteristics and problems unique to military brats. Teachers need to understand this thoroughly if they are to read the kids correctly and handle them wisely.

The single most important thing teachers should do for brats is also the single most important thing parents should do for them: and that is to *validate the military child's experience and his or her feelings about that experience*.

I would hope that eventually, dependent schools would go beyond this to specifically encourage the brat identity and cultural heritage, in the classroom and in the wider school community. Knowing what I do now about military brat identity, I don't want to see any more generations of brats grow up thinking they are Nowhere Kids.

SB: When you think about encouraging the "brat identity and cultural heritage," what specific things do you have in mind that a teacher could do?

MW: There are probably a lot of things I could suggest, since I am a teacher myself now. I think the teacher should show right away, at the beginning of the year, that he or she is very aware of the military brat cultural identity, and should make this a recurring theme throughout the year. For instance, the children should do a lot of writing about aspects of their experience, and there should be an opportunity for students to voluntarily share what they have written with the class.

There could also be a classroom discussion of values, in which military brats talk about their own values and how at times their values have differed from those of the cultures around them--even American civilian culture. That in itself could potentially lead to some ideas for a community project.

I like to think that sometime a multi-colored classroom of young military brats might like to make a strong and positive statement out in the civilian community against racism. The U.S. military has been exemplary in its handling of racism and in educating its members against that kind of thinking; military brats live this out in the DODDS schools in a way that even their parents do not. Brats can be powerful voices against racism--and the main reason this doesn't happen more often, I think, is that the cultural identification of military brats has been lacking. Young brats need to know they are Military Brats, and that means something.

SB: I can see where this might happen in a dependents school, but what of the civilian schools where MBs are a small minority. Like many other brats, I was the only MB at my last high school. How can a teacher in a civilian school do this?

MW: Good question. I would not expect a civilian teacher in a civilian school to understand one thing about military brats. That is asking too much. This is where sensitive, aware parents are very important--because the parent *should* know where that child is coming from. In the teenage years, though, sometimes the parents are not the ones most likely to be effective with their child. In that case, we have to hope that the military brat's own well-developed skills result in the friends and mentors who will make a difference. That's probably what happens most of the time, and it is a good example of brat strengths--for the social skills of the military brat are formidable. By that I mean that MBs know how to make themselves likable--the sort of person that their peers want to befriend and that adults want to mentor.

SB: If you could make one statement of encouragement to military brats, what would that be?

MW: To brats who are still growing up inside the Fortress, I would say: Know who you are--a military brat like millions who came before you and millions who will follow. If you really understand that you are part of a continuum through history, you will start to know who you are and where you are from. The life can be hard, but you have strengths others lack. And remember, another brat will always understand.

To brats who in adulthood are trying to understand the things that happened in their families, I would say: It helps to be clear about your objective. Here's a suggestion. Aim for the three C's: Clarity, Compassion, Connection. Clarity about what happened, always striving for balance, for seeing the good as well as the bad. Compassion, for your parents and siblings who may not see things as you do, but who have pain and pride of their own that should be respected. Connection, with other brats, who are in themselves the rich treasure of our Fortress heritage.

SB: Thank you, Mary. Through your book, I think you've done a great deal to help military brats better understand themselves. Hopefully, others will come to understand us better as well.

MW: Many military brats would like for the society at large to understand us better. I say, forget about that. It will come in time, perhaps. The most important thing of all is for us to understand ourselves, within the cultural framework of our being military brats--and we still have a very long way to go on that score. No group can expect to be understood better than it understands itself.

Copyright © 1998, 1999 by Samuel L. Britten. All rights reserved.

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