After The War Novel

Review of “Still the Monkey” by Alivia C. Tagliaferri

   Ryan D. Beardsley

The impact of war is something that, when experienced first-hand, will leave a lasting impression forever on the mind of a soldier.

Those who do not personally witness the horrors of war will never fully comprehend the impact that such an emotional time has on a soldier’s psyche.

Williamsport native and author Alivia C. Tagliaferri is attempting to help civilians understand the impact of war on soldiers and the issue of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in her first novel, “Still the Monkey: What Happens to Warriors after War.”

Tagliaferri, a history major and a 1999 graduate of Penn State University, said she began writing the historical fiction novel in November 2003 as her way of supporting the troops the best way that she knew how — by writing.

“My goal was, and still is, to help friends and families of veterans better understand how their loved ones may change physically, mentally and spiritually after the traumatic experience of war,” Tagliaferri said. “I’m trying to help society understand the mental anguishes and the awareness I’ve discovered through researching PTSD.”

“Still the Monkey” tells the story of a Vietnam War veteran, Dennis Michaels, who has been suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for the past 25 years following the war. Michaels visits the Walter Reed’s Mologne House and walks into the life of Andrew Taylor, a casualty of the War in Iraq from a IED explosion that claimed both of his legs.

Together the warriors spend 10 days exploring the consequences of living with PTSD, the realities of survivor’s guilt, the morbid detachment of the “Body Bag Syndrome,” the nightmares and the pain that never seems to go away, according to the novel’s profile.

Tagliaferri didn’t start out to write a novel on PTSD, but actually began writing “Still the Monkey” as a screenplay.

After watching a television program on Vietnam vets reaching out and mentoring young wounded vets at Walter Reed and across the country, she found that she could better incorporate the present-day conflict, psyche of her characters and reach out to the young warriors of today and their friends and families as well as the older generation of combat veterans by writing the story as a novel.

Tagliaferri said that her passion for the novel began after visiting Walter Reed Hospital and seeing first-hand the reality and consequences of shrapnel and IED wounds.

“Reading reports in newspapers — black words on a white page — could not compare with what I saw at the hospital,” she said. “I will never forget that far-off look on the faces of the amputees who sat out on the hospital porch in their wheelchairs.”

Tagliaferri then took inspiration after she met a former Marine and Vietnam veteran who had been battling PTSD for many years. Although she took actual accounts from the veteran, the novel and its characters are still a work of historical fiction.

“The novel was partially inspired by a former marine who shared his stories of fighting for his country in Vietnam and of his 40-year battle against PTSD,” Tagliaferri said. “While the chronology of events in Vietnam historically accurate and the Vietnam veterans’ experiences whom I interviewed are recounted, many characters and scenes were created or dramatized wholly out of my imagination, as was the character of Andrew Taylor.”

Tagliaferri interviewed the former Marine and Vietnam veteran over a period of three months, developing a better understanding of the psyche of warriors and the life-long implications of PTSD.

According to Tagliaferri, the novel’s title comes from an Eastern philosophy that the mind is like a monkey, and that left unchecked or untrained, will swing from branch to branch, from the past to the future, never staying still long enough to live in the present moment.

“So the monkey is a metaphor for PTSD, as I’ve come to understand it,” she said.

She also uses the common phrase, “the monkey on your back” as a metaphor for PTSD as well as the Vietnamese zodiac symbol of the monkey representing great transformation and change.

Writing the novel took a toll on Tagliaferri’s emotional state as well, and she admitted that she had her share of sleepless nights while writing the novel.

“It was a cathartic experience,” she said. “I would wake up with nightmares. Writing the scenes that were very gritty, sad and dark, those are always the hardest to write. I would try and procrastinate those scenes throughout the day, but at night when I couldn’t sleep was when those chapters would get finished. Once I got it out and down on paper I was able to remove myself emotionally and get back to sleep.”

The finished product is now set to be published March 16. Although Tagliaferri hasn’t had any official feedback from critics yet, she has received positive responses from friends and families of veterans who requested an advance copy.

“I don’t know what type of commercial success it will receive,” she said. “But having those type of personal reviews really meant a lot to me. I also had a lot of love and support from my family and friends who enabled me to do this.”

Tagliaferri will do a book signing from 5 to 8 p.m. March 16 at Otto Book Store. She is currently working on her next project, “Understanding PTSD,” a manual that discusses how friends and families can best support returning vets deal with PTSD in a positive manner.

She also is looking forward to beginning her next book, which she said will be “a lot more light-hearted.”

Still the Monkey” is published by Ironcutter Media and retails at $18.95.

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