While reading a book to review, it’s usually useful to fold over a page's corner to make it easy to come back, to reflect on each noteworthy passage, whether it’s something upsetting, shocking, moving, infuriating, inspiring or frustrating. With former Marine Anuradha Bhagwati's “Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience,” it feels like a good strategy initially, when the book's second page contains the unsettling line, “my trolls had refrained thus far from sending me rape and death threats, the kind usually sent to my civilian women counterparts when they spoke their minds.” Then, again, on Page 17, which has the dismaying words, “When curves arrived officially one summer, my father called me fat and disgusting. I can't even look at you, he said...” But then you find yourself folding down the next page, and another, and another, until more than half the book is folded down, rendering the tactic useless as a reference but testimony to the story's potency.
Bhagwati immediately grabs our attention in the opening pages when she does verbal battle with an Army general on Fox News about women in the changing — or unchanging — military culture. The book then essentially tells three stories, and while it is too long and often heavy on unnecessary detail, each part of Bhagwati's life is riveting, but also disquieting for what they reveal about the darker side of human nature and for trauma's lasting and powerful hold.
We first learn of Bhagwati's childhood under the heels of her domineering and traditional Indian parents. They disapprove of her love for basketball and pressure her to be a perfect student. But they also attack her developing sexuality while imposing their own racist views on her social life: “Two women kissing. It's disgusting,” her mother says upon learning 16-year-old Bhagwati has a girlfriend. “If you do not end this now, I will kill myself.” And when she is at Yale and has an African American boyfriend, her father says, “What on earth are you trying to do to your mother.”
The second section is the most substantial, and depressing one, focusing Bhagwati's training to be, and then becoming, a Marine Corps officer. She struggles to find her footing in this tear-down-a-human-to-build-a-warrior environment while chafing at the double standards for women, who are not expected to perform pull-ups or run like a man, who are not allowed to serve in combat and who are generally isolated within the Marine culture. There are moments of triumph, such as when she is danger of flunking out of training until an officer says she is failing because she is lazy. Then, she does the unthinkable: speaking out of turn to insist, “This candidate is not lazy. Sir.” This impresses the officer enough to earn her more time. She revels in the physical hardship and more than keeps up with the men, whether it's in the grueling runs or on the firing range.
But what becomes apparent early on is that the isolation of women is intentional and cruel — she is exposed, continually, to a culture intent on traumatizing her. “Bhagwati, looking at you makes me never wanna have sex with a woman again,” one staff sergeant snarls.
It's shocking (fold that page over), until it becomes routine.
Another staff sergeant humiliates her in front of the platoon she was commanding by propositioning her, “'Do you like to dance, you know, salsa, merengue ...' The guy gently swayed his hips.” So fold that page over too. In Thailand, her fellow Marines spend much of their time drinking and whoring, but one comrade, resentful of her success — or just her presence — confronts her in the street, punching her in the jaw in front of a crowd. Other Marines blithely show her their porn collections, starting with the bestiality section. She is harassed by her captain's long hugs — “his slimy embrace.” Outspoken as always, she stands up to him for being unfair to a (male) Muslim Marine. The captain retaliates with a poor evaluation.
Miserable and filled with self-loathing, she begins breaking down emotionally. She sleeps around with many of these specimens, even though that further undermines their respect and repeatedly jeopardizes her career. Despite her unhappiness, she continues fighting not just for herself but for her fellow female Marines (even though she rarely finds solidarity there). She pushes hard to bring consequences to a staff sergeant who was preying on young female recruits, only to find a colonel eagerly covers up the problem. Fold all those pages too, but be prepared because it happens all over again with a vicious lieutenant just a few pages later, when Bhagwati, by now a captain, steps in to protect more women. Yet the higher-ups take the men's side.There were men, especially in the younger generation, who were respectful and who treated her equally, and there were older Marines who were righteous and noble, who stood up not just for Bhagwati but for what was right, for what the Marines could and should be. But the sexual harassment and the knowledge that the Marine ethos accepts — and even encourages — it does too much damage. Eventually, Bhagwati leaves the Marines, even though the rest of the book shows she can't really escape.
The third part of the book deals with Bhagwati's attempts to heal herself and change the Marines. It is, unfortunately, the least successful part of the book. Much of it is heartbreaking, as she struggles with PTSD and depression as well as a Veterans Affairs bureaucracy that seems, according to Bhagwati, particularly uncaring about women traumatized by fellow military members. Yet much of this section is empowering and inspiring as she helps found the Service Women's Action Network and makes her next battlefield the halls of Congress, where she helps push for changes to the way military sexual assault and harassment is dealt with as well as getting the ban on women in ground combat lifted. Eventually, she leaves the network and finds healing, even joy, in teaching yoga to veterans.
Still, there are too many mundane scenes, about dealing with impersonal VA administrators, for instance, and she picks too many fights, with writers, filmmakers and politicians, including Rep. Jackie Speier of California, whom she both attacks and praises, in a way that leaves the reader confused. To some extent, this is because she's often unforgiving of anyone who isn't perfect, who won't push themselves to reach exacting standards of excellence. This is the lesson she learned from her parents and the Marines, but she has absorbed these lessons too well. (At one point, she thinks about joining the Air Force but rejects them as too nice, too soft.)
Given the abuse and threats she faced from other veterans — and from unsympathetic civilians — her feeling of isolation is understandable and her persistence is astonishing. She is passionate about the need to change the culture of misogyny in the armed forces, stating “why don't we consider misogyny as much of a threat to the health of our veterans as any other injury from service.” So yes, fold that page over too.
“Unbecoming” Anuradha BhagwatiAtria Books, 336 pp., $27
Anuradha Bhagwati at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books: Bhagwati appears at 2:30 p.m. on April 14 in conversation with Noel Alumit, T. Kira Madden, James Oseland and Jacob Tobia.