Telling is a conversation starter meant to bridge the gap between civilians and military. Only 1% of the U.S. population has ever served in the armed forces. “So that means 99% gets all their information about the military from television or the movies,” Metze says. “This show is a way for the audience to hear stories and points of view that they will never hear anywhere else.”
Of course civilians can easily find statistics and news stories about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, PTSD, the VA, and emotional and psychological trauma. But Wei is quick to point out the deficiencies of such a theoretical approach to understanding the military.
Senior Airman Jenn Hassin and Lt. Col. Steve Metze shared their military experiences on stage at Telling: Austin.
“We have a ton of access to information and opinion about the military, but very little actual access to how that’s impacting us directly and how it’s touching our communities. What we see are these ideas and historical events, and not these individuals who actually live with us. [The show] is a way of listening to the world and feeling our own integration with it, rather than picking up a newspaper.”
One current issue that has taken a human face in Telling is military sexual trauma, or MST. The Austin show closed days before the Pentagon’s release of a survey estimating that 26,000 people in the armed forces were sexually assaulted in 2012. The Austin production included two accounts of MST: the stories of Lance Corporal Regina Vasquez, who had been raped by two of her fellow Marines at motor transport school, and Senior Airman Jenn Hassin, who had been harassed and groped by her instructor at basic training.
Hassin, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, had reported the instructor once she finished basic training. He was court-martialed and sentenced to prison. Vasquez, on the other hand, had been threatened with death if she reported the rapes. She’d kept them a secret throughout her deployment to Okinawa, where she’d endured further discrimination and harassment. Only in 2010—after more than 11 years of silence —did she begin to talk about the assaults and process the experience through art, writing, a documentary, and advocating for changes to prevent and improve response to sexual assault in the military. But repeating the story night after night, in front of a live audience, took a different kind of courage than being interviewed for the documentary.
“It’s very therapeutic to be able to come out and educate the community on behalf of what we experienced,” Vasquez said after the show. “It’s therapeutic for everybody, including whoever watches the show, because in one form or another they’re all connected, audience and cast.”
That sense of connection is what drives Wei’s work. Too often, he says, returning service members are expected to process their experiences on their own, or in therapy—settings that shield the public from knowledge of what they endured. Like it or not, all Americans are implicated in the work the military does overseas; the least we can do, Wei says, is listen. “When we ask [the military] to do something for us, we should absorb that, because it’s our experience as well as theirs,” he says. “It allows a community to adapt and to expand its understanding of what we’ve asked these people to do.”
Forums for that conversation are limited. Many civilians are curious about what it’s like to serve in the military, but have no idea of how to ask. Veterans, on the other hand, are wary of opening themselves up to misdirected criticism of military policies.
The resulting silence is partly a product of Americans’ tendency to self-segregate based on political orientation. “Neither the typical leftward-leaning or rightward-leaning response to the war has anything to do with war,” Wei says. “You’re either antiwar, which is a tiny response to a massive situation, or you’re prowar, which is the same. Neither of those deals with the complexity of the situation.”
The tension between military and civilian life is as old as war itself. Through “Telling: Austin,” Wei met University of Texas classics professor Paul Woodruff, a Vietnam veteran, who organizes readings of ancient Greek texts dealing with war and soldiers’ transition back to civilian life. Hearing the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Oresteia at Woodruff’s Memorial Day reading for veterans transported Wei back to Humanities 110 at Reed.
“It was really fascinating to go back to those texts after working with Telling these last six years,” Wei says. “As a Reed student, I’d read them in historical and literary contexts, but they’re really experiential. The passages we were reading talked about the experiences of these soldiers coming back, in a really visceral way.”
Wei grew up in Northfield, Minnesota, where his father worked at Carleton College. An uninspired student in high school, he took a year off before applying to Reed. He quickly grew to love Reed’s combination of intellectual and social life that centered on the library, where most nights he’d settle in to study in the smoking lounge for five or six hours.
Professors like Dieter Paetzold [German 1963–86] and Ellen Keck Stauder [English 1983–2012] made a lasting impression. “They’re smart and deeply read, but most of all they were just patient,” he says. “There are plenty of brilliant people out there who don’t have time for other people—and these folks devoted their lives to having time for other people. It’s an amazing thing.”
After graduating from Reed with a degree in English, Wei—along with classmate Whit Draper ’87—played guitar and bass with the band Back Porch Blues, which opened for the likes of B.B. King and John Lee Hooker. He dabbled in photography and painting before deciding to commit to writing and an MFA at Sarah Lawrence. The fiction-writing years were fruitful: he won the Glimmer Train Fiction Open in 2002 and has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes. His work has been published in the North American Review and the Iowa Review, among others.
For now, Wei has concluded he’s better suited to the work of the Telling Project than the comparatively solitary life of a fiction writer. Yet to explain that conclusion, he still uses the language of an English major. “I’ve been working with veterans for eight years—six years on this project—because I feel like this is the most important story that’s happening in our country right now. We are at war, and I don’t see another thing that’s going to have an impact on our soul as a nation in the same way.”
The infinite shades of that story were what resonated with Metze and what led to his closing-night catharsis. “The biggest thing I learned was how varied the experiences in the military are,” he says. “I’ve been in the army 24 years, and I’ve done three deployments, and none of those seven people’s stories were stories I’d expected to hear or had heard before. I was really shocked about how much I did not know about the military.”
The collective curiosity of both cast and audience is the force that powers Telling. That desire to know will bring the project to five more cities, including New York and Washington, D.C., this fall. It’s a desire that Wei can trace in his own life, all the way back to his undergraduate years.
“At Reed you learn to follow your curiosity, and you learn that the more passion you put into that, the more reward you receive in return,” he says. “I fell into Reed, and I fell into this Telling thing. It was by accident that I started working with veterans at the University of Oregon. But having discovered this kind of kernel of my own ignorance—and curiosity—I was going to follow it. Of course I was going to follow it! That’s what I learned how to do at Reed.”