Catherine Madison's The War Came Home With Him
By Meleah Maynard
Even as a kid, Catherine Madison (B.A. ’73) knew that her father, Alexander “Doc” Boysen (M.D. ’49), had a secret. But standing by his bedside as he lay dying in 2002 at age 78, she still didn’t know what it was. After years of begging to hear what happened to him during the Korean War, she and her two brothers had only fragments to go on—Doc had one black ankle that was frozen during the war, had suffered at the hands of a cruel guard called "The Tiger," and he had survived a winter death march on which many men died.
A manila envelope, discovered after the author's father's death, revealed his secret past.
That’s it. Doc wasn’t going to tell his story and he wasn’t going to allow his daughter, a respected Twin Cities journalist and editor, to tell it either. But when Madison and her brothers were clearing out their father’s house after his death, they yanked on a drawer in an old metal filing cabinet in his office, pulling it all the way out. Peering into the empty space, they found a Department of the Army manila envelope stuffed with papers. On it, in their mother’s handwriting, were the words, “The Whole Story!!” (Their mother, Margaret Boysen (B.S. ’48), died in 1995.)
In her new book, The War Came Home with Him: A Daughter’s Memoir (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) Madison tells two interweaving stories based on Doc’s writings, a scrapbook her mother kept, and accounts by soldiers her father knew. The first story belongs to Doc, a young U.S. Army Medical Corps captain captured in North Korea in 1950 and held as a prisoner of war for more than three years. The second is her own, as the daughter who grew up struggling to make sense of a broken and sometimes cruel man who didn’t realize he had brought the horrors of war home to his family.
Madison talked with Minnesota Alumni about her approach to the book, how the experience of writing it helped change her perception of her dad, and her hope that the book might help other military families going through similar struggles.
Do you think your mother wanted you and your brothers to find that envelope so you could finally know the story and tell it?
Yes. I’m sure she did. She knew that he wouldn’t tell us anything but that he had written a lot down, and even gotten some information from other POWs. I think he told her a lot of what happened to him, too, because he couldn’t spell and was always asking for her help.
Why was he so intent on not sharing what happened to him?
It’s complicated, but I know that thinking about it caused flashbacks. If he was even walking through a room and a war movie was on TV, he would have three nights of nightmares, my mother said.
Speaking of nightmares, it’s painful to read what you went through as a child. Your dad was so volatile, and you were often afraid for good reason. There was the time you vomited while forcing yourself to clean your plate as commanded and your dad made you eat the vomit. As a teenager you were just five minutes late for curfew and he punched you in the mouth when you got home. The first time he told you he loved you was the day before he died. It must have been terribly hard to write these things.
I went through so many emotions. It was like a roller coaster. I cried a lot. Ultimately, I realized that he did the best he could and he did truly love me in his own way, but couldn’t show that. It’s a shame that couldn’t have happened while he was alive.
In your book you unravel your dad’s story, explaining in graphic detail many of the atrocities he and his fellow POWs endured, particularly the death march when the unimaginably cruel Korean officer nicknamed “The Tiger” makes the already frail men march miles through snowy mountains. Many of them didn’t make it. When did you realize that his harsh treatment of you as a child was related to his experiences?
It took a while. But the more I researched and wrote, the more I understood how post-traumatic stress disorder numbs emotions and destroys intimacy. This helped me see how much the war came home with him, and I know that happens for a lot of military families. I’m hoping to talk with veterans groups and families and it’s my utmost hope that the book can help other people.