Writing Her Way Through Pain

By Jean Van Dyke

The Lake Geneva area has long attracted a particular type of creative person, one who craves a certain amount of space and an easier pace of life. So it should be no surprise that nationally renowned author/ playwright Janet Burroway and her husband Peter Ruppert have called it home since retiring from their university jobs in 2007. Burroway is the author of plays, poetry, essays, texts for dance, children’s books and eight full-length novels. Her Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft is the most widely used creative writing text in America. She is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Emerita at Florida State University, and last year she was awarded the Florida Humanities Council’s 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award in Writing. Her most recent work is the memoir Losing Tim, about the difficult process of processing her son’s suicide.

WRITING TO MAKE ORDER OF CHAOS

During a reading at the Lake Geneva Public Library last year, Burroway discussed her long career as a writer. But her focus at this appearance was primarily on her latest book Losing Tim, a memoir about the death of her son, Tim Eysselinck, who served in the U.S. Army for four years and the U.S. Army Reserve for eight years, volunteering for deployments around the world, garnering glowing evaluations and finding his niche as a mine removal expert — a task aimed at saving lives.

Then the Army privatized Eysselinck’s job. “By the time Tim reached Iraq in 2003, half the jobs that had been done by soldiers from World War I to the first Gulf War would be farmed out to multinational corporations and their hired hands,” Burroway points out. So Eysselinck went to work for one of those corporations and continued his work as a civilian contractor who trained Iraqis in the disposal of improvised explosive devices and land mines.

Becoming enraged by the rampant corporate corruption and indifference to human life he witnessed, Eysselinck left that position and returned to his wife and daughter in Namibia. Two months later, he shot himself.

To cope with the tragedy, Burroway turned to her writing. “In response to losing Tim, I wrote a book,” she says. “It’s what I do. I had to do this. Sometimes you need to cry; I needed to write. Writing puts into order something that is chaotic.”

WRITING AND THE  LAKE LIFE

In fact, Burroway credits their move to Lake Geneva with allowing her to finish the book. “It was here [in Lake Geneva] that I finally found a way to write the final third of Losing Tim, which had eluded me for years,” she explains.

Burroway was born in Arizona and spent time living in Europe before settling in northern Florida, which she called home for 35 years. But when it came time to retire, Burroway and Ruppert bucked the general trend and moved north.

“We had speculated on where we would go when we retired from Florida State University, facetiously choosing houses everywhere we traveled: London, La Jolla, North Carolina, the banks of the Rhine,” Burroway remembers. “Peter was born in Hungary but raised in Milwaukee, and we often came to visit his family there. We also often spent a few days in Lake Geneva.”

“Three years after Tim’s death we had come to feel it was time we should make a move,” she continues. “I did not feel that I had to get away from the house where Tim was raised; on the contrary, I loved remembering him there, but I did feel that we needed a major change.”

“People say we’re crazy to ‘retire backwards’ to the cold north, but I love it,” Burroway says. “For a writer it is an ideal life.” Burroway credits the Lake Geneva library, the local chapter of the American Association of University Women and Lake Geneva’s Breadloaf Book Shop with helping to create a receptive audience for her writing here.

JOURNAL TURNED TO MEMOIR

Losing Tim began as a series of journal entries, a stream-of-consciousness put on paper. “It wasn’t at all chronological at first,” Burroway recalls. “My memory pattern, the expressions of grief shaped it. Then I had to put it in some sort of order, write it in scenes of memories. It wasn’t like a novel that keeps going on. I knew the ending. I wrote the last part over and over and over.”

Asked if she wrote the book as a means of reaching closure, Burroway adamantly states, “I not only hate closure as a concept, but also as a word.”

A substantial number of the memories in Losing Tim involve Eysselinck’s profound focus, from a young age, on weapons and the military. “His direction was early set,” says Burroway.

“Could I have dissuaded Tim about the military?” she ponders. “My son was one of those children who set his course as a toddler in love with military gear, and as a youth attached himself firmly to the concepts of honor, patriotism and the ‘warrior spirit.’ He went through college on ROTC, spent four years in the Army and eight in the Reserve, where he volunteered for every assignment: Bosnia, Republic of Congo, Angola and Namibia. His best qualities reflected his claim that he was born in the wrong age: he was stalwart, stouthearted, a patriot,” Burroway explains.

“I struggled with this. I am anti-war, anti-nationalist, left wing, and so forth. Tim and I agreed that our task was to love each other in spite of worldviews we could not share.”

“GET ME SOME HELP”

A portion of the book describes the struggles Eysselinck’s widow experienced after his death. All that was left to her at his death was a mortgaged house and enough money to support the family for about a year. The company Eysselinck had most recently worked for did not provide insurance.

As his destitute widow went to court to prove that Eysselinck suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and that she and her children deserved compensation (an effort which eventually failed), Burroway gradually came to believe that her son’s hidden suffering was part of a bigger picture of war crimes and shattered expectations. “The reality Tim believed in was no longer valid,” she explains.

Burroway also believes that often those who seek help for mental health concerns in the wake of PTSD are regarded as cowards. “In Iraq, American soldiers suffering from clinical depression and post-traumatic stress were treated with drugs and sent back to combat,” she says.

Burroway hopes that relating her son’s experiences might make a difference to others suffering from PTSD. “Diagnosing PTSD no longer requires flashbacks,” she explains. “Hypervigilance, sudden anger, suicidal thoughts and other symptoms are now being considered more in determining whether a veteran suffers from PTSD. But those around the veteran need to hear the cry for help. Tim’s last words to his wife were, ‘You’d better get me some help.’ Within minutes, he had shot himself, in front of her.”

Part of Burroway’s intent in writing Losing Tim was to help others facing such losses. For those who seek to help survivors of a suicide attempt, she suggests they “listen, if the survivor wants to talk,” but cautions: “Don’t try to fix it for them.” To the survivors, she says, “Forgive people if they are clumsy in their efforts to provide comfort. And remember — you are not to blame.”

For her own part, Burroway did turn to her friends for support in the aftermath of her son’s death. “The support I received from my writing group helped so much,” she remembers. She wrote the book out of a sense of wanting to help and give back. “I really wanted it to be useful to other people, because so many books were so helpful to me,” she says, citing William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking as two memoirs that were particularly comforting. Through her publisher, Burroway is working to promote awareness of Losing Tim to suicide support groups, parents of veterans, and veterans’ support groups. “I want it to make a difference,” she says.

And true to her nature, Burroway has continued to write. Since retiring, Burroway and Ruppert have split their time between Lake Geneva and Chicago, where Burroway works with theater companies like Sideshow Theatre Company. Her latest project is a musical adaptation of Barry Unsworth’s Morality Play and a new original play based on Losing Tim entitled Headshots.

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