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Telling The Story Of 'The Hardest Hit Unit In Iraq'
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The story my guest, Kelly Kennedy, tells is one that I haven't heard before
about Iraq. It's been described as a mutiny. It's the story of a platoon in the
hardest-hit battalion since Vietnam and why they decided they could no longer
fulfill their mission in the surge. They were tired and angry at the
insurgents, insurgents who paid children to throw grenades at the soldiers.
The men in the platoon were so tired and angry, they were afraid if they
returned to patrolling the streets, they'd lose control and murder civilians.
Kennedy was embedded with these men, the 2nd Platoon, Charlie Company, 126 in
June, 2007. She was with them on their worst day and on the day a first
sergeant committed suicide in front of his men. The platoon was in Hamadia, one
of the most violent neighborhoods in Baghdad. Kelly's new book is called "They
Fought For Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest-Hit Unit in
Kennedy covers health and medical issues for the Army Times, which is published
by Gannett, not the military. She served in the Army from 1987 to '93,
including tours in the Gulf War and Mogadishu.
Kelly Kennedy, welcome to FRESH AIR. One of the more dramatic events you write
about was when a 19-year-old, Ross McGinnis, threw himself on a grenade to save
four friends. Would you describe what happened?
Ms. KELLY KENNEDY (Author, "They Fought For Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy
of the Hardest-Hit Unit in Iraq"): Sure. Ross McGinnis was 19 years old. He had
big, brown eyes and this huge grin, and he was silly, just kept the guys in
giggles all the time.
And about a week before December 4th, they'd been out on patrol, and someone
threw a grenade into a truck, and everyone jumped out, and it turned out to be
a dud. So everyone was safe. And then Ross kind of made jokes about it, like no
way, man, I'd be jumping out. I'd be the first one out of the truck.
So they spent the next week kind of practicing, you know, throwing tennis balls
into the trucks and then diving out. And then on December 4th, they're out on
patrol, and the grenade came right in through Ross' turret, and he was the
gunner. And he sees it. He tries to catch it. He's chasing it around the
turret, and he's yelling grenade, trying to get the guys out of the truck.
And no one really understood what was happening, and they didn't have time to
react, but Ross knew what was going on. So he chased it all the way back down
into the truck. And then one of the other guys, Ian Newland, saw the grenade
and watched as Ross McGinnis threw himself against it and took the brunt of the
force of the grenade and died instantly, but saved four of his friends.
And that was really interesting to me, because you hear hero stories like that,
but you don't necessarily hear how that affects the men he's with. So they're
so grateful for what he did, but also always trying to figure out how they
could have saved him.
GROSS: And one man in particular, Ian Newland, thought that he could have done
more to save McGinnis. Ian Newland thought that he should have died, too. What
impact did that have on him?
Ms. KENNEDY: This is fairly common in combat stress, that these guys feel guilt
over things that there's no way they could have changed, that Newland didn't
have time to do anything to fix that situation.
So, he feels like every single day, he has to live up to this gift that
McGinnis gave him. And I think he's coming to terms with that now. He's working
on opening a horse ranch in Colorado, to try to help wounded veterans or
veterans dealing with PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder. But I think it's
something that he deals with every day and probably once an hour, just trying
to embrace what his friend did for him but then also live up to it.
GROSS: Now, you mentioned that, among other things, after the grenade, he had
traumatic brain injury, and that's a pretty common injury now, in Iraq, and
probably in Afghanistan, too, because â well, in Iraq because of the IEDs. I
think if you are in a vehicle that is hit or close to a vehicle that is hit by
an IED, the â what is it, the aftershock of that can cause a concussion or a
traumatic brain injury. Would you describe how frequently you think men in the
company that you were following ended up with traumatic brain injury, whether
it was diagnosed or not?
Ms. KENNEDY: Sure. There's varying degrees of a traumatic brain injury. In the
civilian world, we've always called them concussions. You know, it's, you know,
a football injury is a concussion.
So these guys were generally dealing with mild traumatic brain injuries, but
even a mild traumatic brain injury can cause short-term memory loss, really bad
headaches, confusion and the anger issues.
Some of the guys actually end up with epilepsy, with seizures. And these guys,
every single one of them had been involved in some sort of a blast, and a blast
wave actually travels through the brain, through your whole body, and they're
still sort of studying how that affects you. If this blast wave is going
through blood then tissue then bone, how does that affect it?
But there are guys who were saying they were hit in as many as 15 times, and it
was important for them â they felt like it was important for them to always go
out with their guys. So they're sort of try to scoot through on the testing
afterward to â the medics would do tests to see if they'd been injured, if
there had been a traumatic brain injury, and part of the test was a memory
test, you know, look at these three words, and then recite them back to me.
But the guys memorized all the words ahead of time so that they could keep
going out on patrol. So diagnosing it was difficult, anyway.
GROSS: So were there men in the company that you were following who were
diagnosed with TBI?
Ms. KENNEDY: Not while I was there. I mean, several of them had concussions,
and their medics knew that they had concussions. In one case, one of the
soldiers came back, and even having memorized that test, he couldn't recite the
words back. It was that bad. So they took him off for a while. He stayed behind
for the patrols while he was recovering for that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kelly Kennedy. She's a reporter
for the Army Times, and she has a new book called "They Fought For Each Other:
The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest-Hit Unit in Iraq." She embedded with
this unit in June of 2007.
You were with the company you were embedded with on their worst day. This was
in June 21st, of 2007. What made that day the worst day?
Ms. KENNEDY: Yeah, well, we'd spent a couple of days with them. I'd gone out
with that unit in particular because I'd heard they had a really amazing group
of medics, and I wanted to do a story about that. And I was also reporting on
combat stress, and I knew they'd been hit pretty hard.
So we went on patrols with them. Every patrol we went on, there was another
roadside bomb or an IED. And - I mean, usually they'd find them and blow them
up, but I think they were all â they were all scared already, because they knew
that there were more bombs out there.
So on the morning of June 21st, we went out on patrol with them, and then they
went out again, and the photographer, Rick Kozak(ph), and I decided to stay
back and do some interviews while they went out on that second patrol. And we
were actually sitting out on some picnic tables talking to the guys about
combat stress when we heard an explosion. And what had happened was a Bradley,
a 30-ton vehicle, had rolled over a massive, deep-buried bomb, and it was so
big that it flipped the Bradley over and left a hole the size of a Humvee in
And an interpreter, an Iraqi interpreter, and four of the guys died instantly,
and then a fifth guy was caught underneath the Bradley and couldn't get away as
it was burning.
And back at the aid station, all the guys knew was that this Bradley had been
hit. They didn't know who was in it; they didn't know how bad it was. They knew
it was on fire and that the guys were trapped inside, but they weren't hearing
any more information than that.
And we sat there for about an hour, just waiting. It was the worst hour ever,
waiting to hear what had happened. And then one of the guys heard over the
radio that they'd all died. And then as they were â as another unit, the 630th
MPs were responding to June 21st, to that Bradley explosion, one of their
female MPs was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, and it decapitated her in
front of four of her teammates in a Humvee.
And then their chaplain was coming out to assist, and as he was driving out,
they ran over yet another IED in a Humvee, and the driver's legs were pretty
messed up after that, and Chaplain Choi(ph) ended up with some pretty bad
And so they finally get back in, and everyone's dealing with that, and the
battalion commander comes out, Colonel Shocht(ph), and as they're preparing the
body bags and taking care of the guys, they notified the colonel that he needed
to go back to the main base, where they told him that his son had died that
day. He had a 13-year-old son who had a heart condition, and he died.
So I mean, the day just kept getting worse and worse and worse, to the point
where you wonder how anyone could deal with it. It was horrifying.
GROSS: Well, the men in the platoon were wondering how they could deal with it.
They were â why don't you just describe the range of emotional reactions you
observed among the survivors in this platoon.
Ms. KENNEDY: Sure. You know, it was all over the place, the way they reacted.
And there's a soldier named Gary DiNardi(ph) who was trying to get out of the
gate. You know, he's standing at the gate, trying to run out into the street to
help people, and the guards were actually holding him back, and he threw a
water bottle and was sort of stomping around.
There was another guy, Eric Osterman(ph), who very calmly started spreading
water down on the sand to try to keep the dust down and making sure other
people had water to hydrate. It was really hot that day.
The medics were very calmly going about setting up the aid station, and they
didn't know how many people they'd be bringing in. A lot of guys just sitting
down with their heads in their hands, and distraught and waiting.
And there was one soldier who was actually really upset that there were â that
the media were there on that day.
GROSS: The media, meaning you and your photographer.
Ms. KENNEDY: Exactly. They had dealt with so many reporters in the past and
generally did pretty well with it, but that day was so personal to them. And
they were so upset about coverage, in general, that, you know, their friends
would die, and it would come up as a number on the news, and no one would know
who those guys really were. And they just wanted people to know who their
friends were, who they'd lost.
And I think they were afraid that we were going to go back and do this
sensationalistic story and use it in a political way. That was their other
complaint, was that their stories were often used to show that the surge wasn't
working, and they didn't want it to be political.
So one of the soldiers, we were asked to go inside after a while. They're,
like, the soldiers need to calm down. So can you go inside for a minute? And
Rick and I had both been sort of standing way back. I mean, we understood what
had happened, and we understood that do to the reporting and the photography
that day, we didn't need to be on top of them, didn't need to make that day any
And I found out later on â we went to Germany when they came home â and one of
the guys, we'd been drinking beer and hanging out all night, and he started
crying and told me that he'd locked and loaded on me that day, that he was so
angry that he'd considered shooting me, and the guys pulled him back.
And he's someone I hear from all the time now. He's a good kid, but the moment
was so traumatizing for him, he just, he needed to take his anger out
somewhere, and I was sort of the target of that, so...
GROSS: My guest is Kelly Kennedy. Her new book is called "They Fought For Each
Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest-Hit Unit in Iraq." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Kelly Kennedy. Her new book, "They Fought for Each Other,"
is about a platoon that was in the hardest-hit battalion since Vietnam. She was
embedded with this platoon in June, 2007, and she was with them on their worst
day, a day she just described.
Now, one of the men shot himself not long after this worst day.
Ms. KENNEDY: Right.
GROSS: Tell us his story.
Ms. KENNEDY: His name was First Sergeant Jeff McKinney, and he was known for
singing on patrol, "Sesame Street" songs, and pretty squared-away. The other
first sergeants in the unit would go to him if they needed help with something,
they needed to learn something.
He had a new wife and a new baby, and he was talking about retirement and was
all excited about that, but he was also really stressing out over not being
able to take care of his men as well as he wanted to.
He felt like they weren't getting the food and the water they needed. So he'd
do things like not drink or not eat, and he wouldn't sleep because he felt like
he needed to be taking care of his guys constantly, and I think the combination
of those things, along with â he was with them, First Sergeant Kenny
Hendricks(ph), on June 21st, when they recovered the bodies. So he'd seen some
really bad things, too.
And he wasn't sleeping. He was acting strangely. His guys were noticing it. And
one day they went on a patrol, and he stepped out of the Humvee, and he put his
M4 under his chin and pulled the trigger in front of his men.
And one of the guys who saw it, and the medical records actually confirmed
this, said that at the last minute, he actually twitched his head to the side,
as if he realized what he was doing and didn't want to.
It seems to have been an instant, not-thought-out thing, not a â it wasn't like
he was planning it, and he hadn't been suicidal in the past. It just â that's
how his stress sort of erupted for him that day.
And the interesting thing about it was the other first sergeants, after it
happened, wondered if they were close to the same. They didn't look at it as,
you know, he's weak or we don't understand why he did this. They saw it as this
is a bad place, and we're going through a lot, and I need to take better care
of myself and my men.
GROSS: Well, shortly after the suicide, and after the worst day for this
platoon, they thought that they couldn't go out anymore, that they'd just kind
of hit a wall.
Ms. KENNEDY: Right.
GROSS: And although you were no longer embedded with the platoon, you write
about this. So I'm sure they must have told you in detail what happened, yes?
Ms. KENNEDY: Yes.
GROSS: Yeah, so you describe that the whole platoon marched, as a group, to the
mental health clinic. What did they have to say?
Ms. KENNEDY: Well, soon after McKinney's suicide, another â they'd been told to
go out on patrol, and they said that road's black, there's bombs on that road.
We know that we're not supposed to go on that road. And because of the weather,
they couldn't get back out to Apache during a sandstorm or something.
That mission for them got cancelled, and they sent out another company instead.
And those guys went out in their 30-ton Bradley and hit another deep-buried
IED, and June 21st happened all over again.
And these guys were in a different company, but they were friends, still. They
were guys they knew. And it felt like for the guys like their leadership had
let them down, had let them die. So yeah, they went to mental health, and they
said if we go on patrol in Hamadia, we're going to kill everyone in our paths.
We're so angry that we cannot function with any kind of ethical code at this
And the therapist and the mental health counselor said, you know, at some
point, you need to stand down. If you guys think that you're going to make bad
decisions and do things that are going to ruin your lives and others', then you
need to stand down.
GROSS: Okay, so you have this whole platoon that decides that they can't go out
again. They're even afraid that they're going to end up killing civilians and
going to jail for it, because they're that angry. They truly feel like they
cannot contain their anger anymore.
So what did their leadership have to say? I mean, you know, the mental health
experts agreed these men shouldn't go out. What did the leadership have to say?
Ms. KENNEDY: Well, the leadership was â there was definitely a lack of
communication. The company commander didn't know about the trip to the mental
health clinic, and he didn't know about the medications they were on.
GROSS: Was he new?
Ms. KENNEDY: He was fairly new, yeah. He'd come on in the spring, and this was
in the summer. But their platoon sergeant apparently hadn't relayed the
message. And the platoon sergeant, who was also a former drill instructor, felt
like they should be obeying the order. You know, even though he'd said in the
past that it was time for 2nd Platoon to stand back, he wanted them to go out
There was some talk about how it wasn't fair for 2nd Platoon to stand back,
because that just meant someone else had to go out in their place, but then the
company commander actually came out later and said I was disappointed that they
didn't follow my order. That's their job. That's the military mission. But I
respect them for what they did. I respect them for understanding where they
were at in that moment and for not going out that day.
GROSS: So in the long run, they weren't seen as either selfish or cowardly, but
as kind of accurately representing their state of mind in thinking that their
state of mind was an inappropriate state of mind to go out on a military
Ms. KENNEDY: Right. Ultimately, they were eventually seen as courageous for
GROSS: Was it considered a mutiny?
Ms. KENNEDY: You know, that's a word that some people in the battalion used. So
I don't think it was considered a full-on mutiny, once people understood the
background to it. But they definitely refused to follow an order, and it was
known within the battalion as the 2nd-Platoon mutiny.
GROSS: So just to make sure I understand correctly, when the platoon decided
they couldn't go out, and the mental health expert said you shouldn't be going
out, but then the command said, no, you need to go out, the platoon still did
not go out.
Ms. KENNEDY: Right.
GROSS: And so what was the immediate punishment, and what was the end of the
Ms. KENNEDY: They were administratively flagged, which meant that they couldn't
get awards or promotions or go on leave or anything like that. And that lasted
for about two months, and then the company commander said I think that's
They pulled the sergeants out of the platoon and gave them new leadership,
which the guys saw as punishment but the first sergeant and the company
commander saw as a way to sort of get them back in a fighting mode again.
I mean, they still had to cover their battle space, even with this platoon that
had sort of broken in the middle of the mission, so...
GROSS: So how much more time did they have after this mutiny?
Ms. KENNEDY: About three months after the mutiny, they went home.
GROSS: And did they all survive? Did everybody in this platoon who refused to
follow orders survive the remaining three months?
Ms. KENNEDY: They did, and throughout their tour, that platoon had lost men. A
platoon's about 40 guys. From that moment on, everyone was okay. There was one
more injury after that. It was a medic who was out on patrol and was shot,
Tyler Holladay, but he lived. He was okay.
GROSS: Kelly Kennedy will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book
is called "They Fought For Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest-
Hit Unit in Iraq." She covers health and medical issues for the Army Times. I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross back with Kelly Kennedy who covers
health and medical issues, including PTSD, for the Army Times. She's the author
of the new book "They Fought For Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the
Hardest Hit Unit in Iraq." She was embedded with this unit, 2nd Platoon Charlie
Company 126, in June 2007 and was with them on their worst day, a day she
described earlier in the interview.
What impact did that day have on you? Did you feel like you ended up with post-
traumatic stress disorder?
Ms. KENNEDY: Well, post-traumatic stress disorder is - it's - there's a full
range of symptoms you have to have, but people call some of those symptoms that
people generalize sort of as PTSD. When I got home I was blowing through stop
signs. I just didnât see them. I would get up in the morning to read the paper
and it would take me three hours. I was just very distracted. And I was sad for
about a year. I think in was in a mild depression. So Iâd say sort of some
anxiety issues for me. Nothing like what the guys are dealing with, the
nightmares and the flashbacks and that sort of thing and - I mean, I didnât
have any of the guilt kind of stuff to deal with. But it definitely helped me
understand a little bit about how something like that can affect your brain
and, you know, your outlook on the whole world as opposed to just what happened
GROSS: Well, what about the men after returning? You kept up with them. Did
most of them suffer from nightmares and flashbacks and anxieties of various
sorts as a result of their experiences in Iraq?
Ms. KENNEDY: I wouldnât say most of them. I'd say a lot of them. It sounds like
all of the medics are dealing with some things. A lot of the guys had
nightmares. I wouldnât say all of them have full-blown post-traumatic stress,
but I'm definitely hearing about guys who are leaving the military now with
disability benefits because they're not able to function as well anymore. I
think the rate in general is something like 20 percent for combat stress or
post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
GROSS: One of the people you thank in your acknowledgments is one of the medics
from the platoon that you were embedded with, Tyler Holladay. You thank him for
making you feel like part of the group, not just a reporter looking for a
scoop. You write a lot about the stresses of being a medic in Iraq, especially,
you know, with that a platoon anyways. And you say that the medics in that
platoon were taking on the men's psychological as well as physical problems,
treating them for psychological issues, and they were just absorbing all of
these problems and not having anybody to go to themselves. Now, he was very
seriously injured. What happened to this medic?
Ms. KENNEDY: Tyler was out on patrol and they were looking at abandoned
vehicles and trying to get rid of them. They were calling in to have someone
come pick them up. And as he was coming back from one of the vehicles, he got
hit by a sniper in the stomach. And I mean, a stomach wound is something that
the guys fear more than just about anything, because itâs hard to address
immediately as a medic. And for Tyler, it was terrifying because he was the
There wasnât another medic with him. So he'd done some training with his guys
to try to help them if they were in a situation like that or in case of a large
amount of casualties where he couldnât do everything himself. But all the
medics talk about how that first injury is the most difficult one to treat, so
he's surrounded by guys who haven't necessarily done it before and giving them
instructions, you need to do this. You need to use a wet bandage, not a dry
bandage, and he could feel his stomach filling with fluids.
And as he's telling these guys what to do, he's certain he's going to die and
he's telling them to tell the other medics that he loves them and he's just
sure he's done. And it turned out that if he'd had an appendix he would've been
- it would've killed him. But because his appendix had been removed, the bullet
didnât actually hit anything that he needed immediately and they were able to
GROSS: Tell us a little bit about some of the stresses that the medics in the
platoon you were embedded with had to deal with. Why was it so stressful for
Ms. KENNEDY: Well...
GROSS: And how were their stresses different than the stresses of the other men
in the platoon?
Ms. KENNEDY: Yeah, the infantry tends to be a little macho. So one of the
things they know can help for combat stress is to talk about it. But if youâre
a tough guy, it's really hard to talk to your buddy about it. So the medics,
who are not in their chain of command, were sort of a neutral sort of a safe
place to go talk and they knew that if they told the medics they weren't going
to go talking about it to anybody else.
So someone would be having nightmares and Doc Holladay would listen to the
stories about the nightmares and try to get the person back on track. Or
someone would have a really bad day, you know, see another dead body on the
street. For a while they were picking up 10 bodies a day, and need someone to
sort of talk it out with what he'd seen and Doc Holladay would listen.
And then when they did get casualties, he was not only treating the guys, but
if they died, he was the one who was identifying the bodies and loading them in
the body bags. So, it wasnât just that he was dealing with injured men, he was
dealing with his injured men. He was dealing with these guys who told him, you
know, their fears and their hopes. And their friends, they're the guys that
they drink beer with back home and I think it's a whole different thing for a
medic in the military as opposed to, you know, a regular doctor.
GROSS: Why did you join the military back in - was it '89?
Ms. KENNEDY: Yeah, I joined the National Guard when I was in high school, that
was '87, and joined the regular Army in '89, and it was to get money for
school. It was 1987 and there hadn't been a war for a very long time and I
wanted to pay for my college and it seemed like it'd be an adventure so I
joined the military.
GROSS: Maybe a bigger adventure than you thought because there was a war - the
Ms. KENNEDY: Right, and Somalia too. I ended up over there.
GROSS: Oh, okay. So, how did it feel to be a young woman who signed up in the
hopes of, you know, some adventure, getting some money for college, and
suddenly youâre basically in two war zones?
Ms. KENNEDY: Mm, yeah, it scared the heck out of me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KENNEDY: It really forced me to think about what I believed in personally.
I remember in Desert Storm, I was reading accounts of how soldiers were being
forced to fight for Saddam Hussein. So even if they didnât want to be involved
in that war or believe in what he was doing they were being forced to fight.
And I remember thinking, oh my gosh, how could I hurt somebody like that? How
could I shoot back, and that being a big issue for me. And then I remember
going to Mogadishu and having guys in my unit attacked or there was a Marine
who was killed. He was knifed really close to where we were set up and being so
angry that I felt like I could shoot back and having that knowledge without
having the background knowledge to understand what the people there might be
thinking about a bunch of Americans showing up. Yeah, so I think I learned a
lot about myself in that way that I wasnât expecting to learn.
GROSS: Well, Kelly Kennedy, thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. KENNEDY: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Kelly Kennedy is the author of the new book "They Fought For Each Other:
The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest Hit Unit in Iraq." She covers health and
medical issues for the Army Times. You can read the first chapter of her book
and find a link to her PTSD series on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, we listen back to an interview with writer Barry Hannah. He died
Monday. This is FRESH AIR.
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Barry Hannah: A Southern Literary Force Dies At 67
TERRY GROSS, host:
The novelist and short story writer Barry Hannah died of a heart attack Monday.
He was 67. We're going to listen back to excerpt of the interview I recorded
Larry McMurtry called Hannah the best fiction writer to appear in the South
since Flannery O'Conner. William Styron described Hannah as an original, one of
the most consistently exciting writers of the post-Faulkner generation.
Hannah wrote about the American South. He grew up in Mississippi and taught for
many years at the University Mississippi. He won the William Faulkner prize and
was a National Book Award finalist.
When I spoke with him in July 2001, his book "Yonder Stands Your Orphan" had
just been published. The title borrowed a line from the Dylan song, "It's All
Over Now Baby Blue." There are orphans and guns in the novel and plenty of evil
as a killer changes the lives of everyone around him. Hannah wrote the book
while getting chemotherapy treatments for lymphoma.
Here's Hannah introducing a short reading from the book.
Mr. BARRY HANNAH (Author): This is Man Mortimer, who is the evil that lurks in
this book and he likes to cut people. He comes from Missouri, and this little
piece about him.
At this juncture he had no plans to hurt people around the lake. He did not
like bodies of water much, had never seen the ocean. He was indifferent to
trees. Soil was hateful to him, as was the odor of fish. But like many another
man, forty-five years in age, he wanted his youth back.
He wanted to have pals, sports, high school girls. This need had rushed on him
lately. He lived in three houses, but he had no home. He did not like the
hearth, smells from the kitchen, an old friend for a wife, small talk. It all
seemed a vicious closet to him. He moved, he took, he was admired. But he had
developed a taste for young and younger flesh. This was thrilling and meant
high money. Men and women in this nation were changing, and he intended to
charge them for it.
Religion had neither formed nor harmed him. Neither had his parents in southern
Missouri. But he despised the weakness of the church, and of his parents, whom
he had gulled. He was a pretty boy born of hawk-nosed people. It was a curse to
have these looks and no talent. Long and lank. Hooded eyes, sensual lips that
sang no tune. Still, he quit the football team because of what it did to his
hair, claiming a back ailment that had exempted him from manual labor since age
14. There are thousands of men of this condition, most of them sorry and
shiftless, defeated at the start. Many are compulsive and snarling fools,
emeritus at 20.
GROSS: Is this character of Man Mortimer based on anyone?
Mr. HANNAH: No he's not. He's a compound and I've gotten just by looking around
and believing that I perceived evil in front of me. So it is imaginative but a
collected history of my impressions, I believe.
GROSS: You describe him as a quiet man, a gambler, a liaison for stolen cars
and a runner of whores, including three Vicksburg housewives. Describe his kind
Mr. HANNAH: His kind of crime is the kind of crime that begins out of laziness
and being admired by women. He finds he can make a living at it, and he
continues since he ran away from home in high school. He's not been
particularly violent but he has induced violence and suicides in others. He is
a thief. He has a stolen car ring, especially expensive SUV's. He's a man who
doesnât like to work and he doesnât like much of what's offered by nature. So
I've seen him as an alien without real pals and only a commercial connection to
He wants to join in society now but he only knows how to hurt, and that's the
basis of the book - evil when it reaches out to you and when it befriends you.
And in Mortimer's case, he likes to use a knife. He's dangerous and he has made
quite a deal of money off the casino life around Vicksburg.
GROSS: Has evil like Man Mortimer's kind of evil ever come into your life?
Mr. HANNAH: I've been around it. Usually evil is something you can't face. It
simply has to wear out. Sometimes you work for evil unwittingly. And I can't
think of a particular person right now, but I think I've felt the closeness of
evil in casinos and it brings out the old Baptist in me. I find the wretched
excess and the sort of zombified folks that attend and participate in casinos
pathetic and also dangerous in many cases.
GROSS: Now what about violence? There's some violence in this book. Has
violence come into your life? Have you witnessed it? Have you ever had a
violent streak yourself?
Mr. HANNAH: I liked to throw knives back in my drinking days. But no, I've
never been personally violent. I can't be an honest man though, and tell you -
but that I am occupied by violence. It seems to be out of my nightmares. And my
wife wishes I wouldnât write about violence, but as soon as the pen starts
going I become interested in it all over again and as if it's almost dictated
to me. I've been writing for 35 years and it's attended a good deal of my work.
At this point, I donât think I can do anything but confess that I am a student
- and of violence, because of what it does - because of how it quickens the
character of those around it.
GROSS: Youâve also collected guns, right?
Mr. HANNAH: I've collected guns. Yes.
GROSS: And have you used them? What kind of things do you use them for?
Mr. HANNAH: I have not used a gun in 10 years.
Mr. HANNAH: If I used them right now I'd shoot beer cans at the city dump. It's
a 22 rifle. Now, I donât have any real personal urge to shoot anymore. It just
past, and I've never shot at a human being, never threatened a human being, if
that's covering the subject.
GROSS: So what did you use the guns for?
Mr. HANNAH: You know, this is a difficult thing to explain to others about how
a gun is a piece of art. Guns are history. I like to look at the mechanism. I
like to feel the heft. And they are a kind of history. So that's about all I
can say. I donât collect guns anymore but I'm not sorry for the ones I have.
They just feel like a decent hunk of the past hanging on the wall.
GROSS: Describe where you grew up.
Mr. HANNAH: I grew up in Clinton, Mississippi, which is right outside the state
capital in Jackson. But it was a distinct village; about 2,000 people with a
little college - a little Baptist college. So that we had professors and â for
neighbors. And the culture of the Baptist church, the high school band, and the
football team. That was it. That was civilization as I knew it. Also there was
no crime. We disappeared sometimes in the summer at eight o'clock in the
morning, didnât come back until seven at night. There was no fear because we -
the whole village took care of us.
GROSS: Did you go to the Baptist church?
Mr. HANNAH: Oh yes, I did. Yeah.
GROSS: What was the oratory like in the church and do you think that that
influenced your sense of storytelling or the way you write?
Mr. HANNAH: The preachers did not, but the Bible itself has. I just, the
rhythms of the Old and New Testament, the King James version, are just as
solidly set in a person of my era who went to church as a moral foundation. I
make sentences, I'm sure, from Biblical rhythms. I've been called post-
Modernist but I doubt it. I think I just write in more fragmented ways and
narration. But the base of my sentences, although they are sometimes Baroque,
is I think from the Scriptures as far as I can feel it myself.
We read a lot of the Bible. We knew Scriptures by heart, especially Psalms and
a great bit of the Book of John, the Sermon on the Mount, and - from Matthew
and certain things like that were memorized. And I had them memorized until I
was 15-16 years old.
GROSS: Can you think of a line or a passage from the Bible that has the kind of
rhythms that youâre speaking of, and how they influenced you?
Mr. HANNAH: Yeah, it's something like the 23 Psalm. The LORD is my shepherd; I
shall not want. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow and so on.
But this had just a such wonderful basic human poetry in it. And I never was
sophisticated enough to consider the Bible as literature until I was - I never
even heard the term the Bible as literature until I was way into graduate
school. So I - in fact, I'd stopped going to church. But the church is - the
Scriptures are very much with me and more and more now I'm reading Mark and
John in the Bible. Not all the time but I just love the clarity and the mystery
at the same time.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. HANNAH: You bet.
GROSS: Barry Hannah recorded in July 2001. He died Monday of a heart attack at
the age of 67. His work is the focus of this year's Annual Oxford Conference of
the Book, which began today. The conference is dedicated to him.
Coming up, David Edelstein reviews Tim Burton's new film "Alice in Wonderland."
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Burton's 'Alice': A Curious Kind Of Wonderful
(Soundbite of music)
TERRY GROSS, host:
On the heels of an acclaimed exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern
Art, Tim Burton has directed a new special effects-laden adaptation of "Alice
in Wonderland." In this version, Alice makes her second trip underground at the
age of 19.
The film stars Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and as Alice, Mia Wasikowska,
who is memorable as a troubled athlete in the first season of the HBO series
Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: To enjoy Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland," you'll need to
accept that it's not by any stretch Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland" or its follow-up, "Through the Looking Glass," but a fancy
Hollywood hybrid. Yes, it uses "Alice's" characters and motifs, but the plot is
one part C.S. Lewis to one part "The Wizard of Oz". You could call it "C.S.
Lewis Carroll's Alice in Narnia with Johnny Depp as the Mad Scarecrow."
Carroll's delicious satire of English logic and manners, inspired by his
enthrallment with a little blond girl, has been turned into an action-packed,
feminist coming-of-age story. Alice, played by the Australian actress Mia
Wasikowska, is a young Victorian woman of 19 facing the marriage proposal of an
unattractive prig. She falls down a rabbit hole â for the second time, the
first time was when she was 6 â and arrives in Wonderland â or, as the locals
correct her, Underland â and no one believes she's the same Alice. But if she
is that Alice, a number of characters tell her, she has a destiny: to ride into
battle on the frabjous day against the homicidally petulant Red Queen and her
If you can get past the Hollywood revisions, "Alice in Wonderland" is rather
wonderful â or is that underful? Burton indulges in his penchant for
disproportion, so that nothing and no one in Underland quite fits â least of
all our heroine, who becomes very small, then very big, then teensy enough to
hide inside the Mad Hatter's hat; then vastly out of scale with the court of
the Red Queen, where she's greeted as a visiting giant.
As that queen â who's more like the first book's Queen of Hearts â Helena
Bonham Carter sports a double-sized head atop a normal-sized body, suggesting
an enormous, overdressed infant. The Queen's henchman, the Knave of Hearts, is
Crispin Glover's noggin set atop a spindly, elongated frame. It's a tad
disappointing when Anne Hathaway's beneficent White Queen turns out to have
normal proportions, though her pallor is unearthly and her red lips rimmed in
As anyone can tell you whose endured the lines in New York for the Museum of
Modern Art's Burton exhibition, there are few artists who can better mix the
circus and the sarcophagus, the Magic Kingdom and the mausoleum. For him, there
can be no true beauty without a touch â or a ton â of decay. Underland is full
of dead, twisted trees and giant moldy mushrooms. The movie is in 3-D in many
theaters, but Burton doesn't seem interested in immersing you the way James
Cameron does in "Avatar." His hedges and topiary create orderly layers of
space, and the foreground figures often resemble cardboard cutouts â which
strikes me as exactly how it should be, given the characters' playing-card
His usual leading man, Johnny Depp, reportedly decided that the mercury
poisoning that made many 19th-century hatters so mad would be evoked by his
phosphorescent green eyes and Bozo the Clown orange hair, and that his skin
tone and accent would shift according to his character's mood. His tea party
with the Dormouse and March Hare and Cheshire Cat takes place on what looks
like a bombed-out landscape.
(Soundbite of movie, "Alice in Wonderland")
Mr. JOHNNY DEPP (Actor): (as the Mad Hatter) It's you.
Unidentified Actor #1: (As character) Alice not. That Swiss (unintelligible) is
the wrong Alice.
Unidentified Actor #2: (As character) You have switched the wrong Alice?
Mr. DEPP: (as the Mad Hatter) Youâre absolutely Alice. I'd know you anywhere.
I'd know him anywhere.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DEPP: (as the Mad Hatter) Well, as you can see, we're still having tea and
it's (unintelligible) so kind waiting for your return. Youâre going to be late
you know, naughty.
Ms. MIA WASIKOWSK (Actress): (as Alice) (unintelligible)
Mr. DEPP: (as the Mad Hatter) Yes, yes, of course, but now youâre back you see
and we need to get on to the frabjous day.
Unidentified Actors: Scrumptious tea time.
Mr. DEPP: (as the Mad Hatter) Youâre investigating things that begins with the
EDELSTEIN: Depp's performance doesn't quite come together, but he brings an
infectious zest to everything he does that makes him seem like a summer-stock
actor crying, "Let's put on a show." And Bonham-Carter's Queen is a scream,
even if it owes quite a bit to Miranda Richardson's bratty Elizabeth I in the
BBC sitcom "Blackadder."
The fully computer-generated characters are not especially memorable. That
suggests that Burton, for all his graphic genius, responds most fully to flesh-
and-blood performers. He made the right call in casting Mia Wasikowska, instead
of a swan-necked Keira Knightley type. This Alice isn't the book's enchanting
logician. But Wasikowska, as she proved on the HBO show "In Treatment," can
seem at one moment over-defended and the next poetically transparent. Burton,
bless him, knows you can't computer-generate a soul.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can watch
scenes from "Alice in Wonderland," including a trippy tea party sequence, on
our Web site at freshair.npr.org, where you can also download Podcast of our.
I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR we hear from each of the five directors nominated
from an Oscar: Kathryn Bigelow, James Cameron, Lee Daniels, Jason Reitman and
(Soundbite of music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.