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'Starbursts in the darkness': Author Tim O’Brien speaks at Franklin Hall


Tim O’Brien, best known for his book “The Things They Carried,” tells a story about his family Oct. 29 at Franklin Hall. O’Brien spoke as part of The College of Arts and Science's “Remembering and Forgetting” Themester series. Joy Burton

Author Tim O’Brien described memories as, “starbursts in the darkness” — when recalling a memory, you cannot remember every distinct detail, only short fragments of it. O’Brien mentioned you probably couldn’t remember everything that happened just yesterday, let alone something that happened one day in 2008.

O’Brien spoke Tuesday at Franklin Hall where he discussed the themes of remembering and forgetting that are present in his memories from childhood and the Vietnam War. The talk was part of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Themester 2019. Following the talk, O’Brien had a book signing.

O’Brien, now 73, did not have his first child until he was 58. His new memoir entitled, “Dad’s Maybe Book,” is a collection of letters to his sons that he described as “messages in a bottle.” While writing the book, he realized how much he actually forgot about his life, as most of his memories, if not all, were beginning to fade. O’Brien said he is too old to be around for his son’s college graduations or to see them blossom into fully grown adults, so he hopes to leave behind his voice for them whenever they need to hear it.

“True enough, most of the events of my early years, all the way through middle age and now into old age, have gone wherever our lives finally go — maybe into a hole,” O’Brien said. “And it’s also true that my sons will experience the same melting away process. Still, like my own father, I hope to leave my sons with at least some sense of my enormous love for them.”

The award-winning author also retold some of the moments he remembered from fighting in the Vietnam War, like bullets zipping past his head and crouching behind a bush while a hand grenade was launched toward him. As he grows older, he struggles with the process of how his memories of the war went from being way too real to being hazy and almost too surreal to have even happened.

O’Brien is known for his Pulitzer Prize finalist and New York Times Book of the Century “The Things They Carried,” which documents linked semi-biographical recounts of his experiences in the Vietnam War. He is also known for another war novel entitled “Going After Cacciato,” which won the National Book Award in 1979. In 2013, O’Brien was awarded the Pritzker Literature Award for distinguished work in military writing.

“Not only I, but probably all of us, spend vast wads of our time, most of our lives in fact, immersed in forgetfulness,” O’Brien said. “Erasing from our thoughts that death awaits all of us. Perhaps this is a necessary defense against the paralysis that might set in if we were to endlessly contemplate our own mortality.”

As O’Brien expressed his outrage, which in his definition meant “ferociously caring,” he stressed the idea that our memories will fade into oblivion and that what is going on right now will not exist in the future.

“Maybe forgetfulness is a defense against madness itself,” O’Brien said. “When it comes to finality, our own extinction, forgetfulness may be a help as we move through a world that can’t be survived.”

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