Q&A with Tracy Crow, author of Eyes Right, Confessions of a Woman Marine
In the late ’70s, Tracy Crow joined the Marine Corps, not quite sure what she was signing up for. While she couldn’t, as a woman, serve in a combat unit, she nevertheless fought during her entire 10 years as a Marine, primarily to prove herself. Her battle became one against herself, as she realizes at the end of her memoir Eyes Right, when her military career goes up in smoke at the threat of a court martial. Eyes Right is a clear-eyed self-portrait of a teen who bootstraps her way out of a troubled family, and it is also a rare inside look at the Marines from a woman’s perspective. These days, Tracy Crow is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., and the nonfiction editor of Prime Number magazine.
Interview by Annette Gendler
Eyes Right reads like a thriller, which is unusual for a memoir. Did you deliberately choose to create this effect by framing the story with the interrogation and threat of a court martial?
The current structure of the court-martial frame wasn’t my first choice. I started linear, from childhood. One day during a beach vacation with my ex-husband’s family, a brother-in-law listened to me describe what I was writing, and blurted, “What makes you think anyone is going to care about your story?” I felt sucker-punched. But that was the moment I realized I had to use the court-martial as the opening. For a long time, I felt like a sell-out, as if I were throwing over something possibly artful for a cheap hook. I’ve let go of that now. Whenever readers tell me they’re hooked from Page 1, I want to thank the ex-brother-in-law.
Do you feel, now that you’ve written the book, that you have a clearer idea of your motive, your drive, behind joining the Marines and fighting for a career in the Corps?
Absolutely. For two decades before starting the memoir, I wandered through life with all this … stuff … floating around in my head. I could be doing something as simple as brushing my teeth and burst in tears from a flashback related to the humiliation I felt over my leadership mistakes, and the loss of my career and marriage. I suffered enormous bouts of depression, all of which went untreated. I’m sure a therapist would have probably diagnosed PTSD. We’ve come to associate PTSD with combat service, but PTSD is related to trauma, period. When I began to write about the experience — and through the unfiltered lens of a memoirist — I finally began to reflect on the motives that compelled me to join the Marines, and those that ultimately drove me to sacrifice everything for the Marines.
The narrator seems to be mainly at war with herself. A good example is the episode of the mountain climb, when she disregards the concerns of her jeep driver, Corporal Gomez, who senses that she’s ill and repeatedly entreats her to give up. Would you say she keeps ignoring a basic code of self-preservation, less to show her allegiance to the Corps then to prove something?
Had Gomez been senior to me in rank, I would have had no choice but to heed his concerns. Yes, I was at war with myself. At times, I felt at war with everyone and everything in my life, but this was always related to my desire to prove I was capable of doing my job, and determined to overcome certain demons from my past.
Following up on this idea of self-preservation, the narrator’s resignation from the Corps after her affair with a general could be seen as her finest hour as a Marine. She defends her honor, she sacrifices for others, and she holds all the power once she makes her decision.
Looking back, do you feel you indeed could only be the best Marine if you left?
The sacrifice of my career felt absolutely necessary at the time. Later, when I discovered that General Hopkins received a second star and command of the ground operating forces in the first Gulf War, I felt oddly conflicted. On one hand, my sacrifice appeared even more significant because it allowed a quite competent Marine Corps general the opportunity to orchestrate one of the most successful combat operations. On the other hand, I realized I was the only one who had suffered in all this. But, to use a metaphor, the Marine who jumps on a grenade to save everyone is reacting selflessly. If I had known then what I know now about abuse of power and accountability, I might have had a serious talk with my 28-year-old self before she leapt on that proverbial grenade. However, knowing her the way I do, I know she’d still jump.
Throughout Eyes Right, up until the conversation with Sergeant Flowers in which the beans of the affair with the general are spilled, the narrator seems very alone. And even that encounter with Flowers seems like a brief moment of closeness that occurred as a result of circumstances, rather than a sustained friendship. The narrator’s marriage doesn’t seem built on friendship either. Did you always feel very alone in your life as a woman Marine?
Even after all these years, my first reaction to this question is to rush a defense for my first marriage. My first husband, also in the military, did the best he knew how. He could never understand why I couldn’t be satisfied with just being the wife of an officer and the mother of a beautiful baby girl. Sadly, I didn’t have the skill set then to communicate what I was feeling. We had an implied understanding that whatever happened to me in my job as a public affairs officer was to be left outside the door of our home. He was content to have me return safely. He didn’t want to know the details about my experiences. I sometimes wonder if one reason for this book is to finally explain myself to him. Yes, it’s true that I felt very much alone in my life as a woman Marine.
In what way were the 1980s ground-breaking for women Marines? Do you feel you were a pioneer in this?
Every generation of women for the past 100 years has been ground-breaking. Certainly, today’s generation of military women who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan are breaking ground. But today’s military woman, for better or for worse, wouldn’t be serving in the Middle East if not for the sacrifices of my generation. And here’s why: Before my generation, every woman had to choose between motherhood and military career. If she became pregnant, she was immediately discharged. Done. Thanks for playing. However, thanks to the generation of women before me, the regulations changed to allow pregnant women the option of staying. So my generation became, in a sense, the first Marine moms. Our commanders, men and women, didn’t know what to do with us. Men, who had already resented women in the Corps, found more reason to resent us. Women commanders, who had forfeited their fertile years for a Marine Corps career, resented us just as much. Do I consider myself a pioneer? Yes, but one who stands on the shoulders of those fine, gutsy women who served before me. And I’m more than happy to hold up the women who followed me.
The quote of your grandmother’s that you share when you try to come to terms with losing your fertility after another failed pregnancy was very moving: “God takes away the gifts you refuse.” Do you still feel this spiritual take offers an explanation, or at least puts the sad happenings of life in order?
When my grandmother uttered those words, I remember being struck by the childlike thought, God must be pretty angry if he’s going to take back his gifts. Of course, I don’t feel that way now. My grandmother died from cancer when I was a young teenager. I’m grateful I was able to conjure her words during a tough time.
You’ve gone on to write the military conspiracy thriller An Unlawful Order under the pen name Carver Greene. Would you say that given your personal experience, this is going to be your genre?
I envision another 3-5 books for the Carver Greene/Captain Chase Anderson series. But I hope to write in several genres. An Unlawful Order, a work of commercial fiction, was actually an exhilarating writing experience. Even though the novel is based on true events and people, the characters still surprised me with their dialogue and motives. Often, I wondered how I would remove myself from a painted corner, thanks to an impertinent character, but I did. At least I think I did, based on reader responses. The sequel to An Unlawful Order will have to wait, though. Right now, I’m 150 pages into a new, non-military-related project.
Interviewer Annette Gendler is a nonfiction writer and teaches memoir writing at StoryStudio Chicago.