Mary-Louise Parker: Military Life Is Misunderstood by the Left and the Right

Tony Award-winning actress Mary-Louise Parker says the stereotypes that accompany being in the military, and growing up in a military family, don't really apply.

Mary-Louise Parker:  I think that people have an idea that there is one kind of mind, one kind of mentality that is attracted to the military and that’s not necessarily true. It can be true. I do understand it and maybe in this day and age it’s more true than certainly when my father went into the war but my father was in three wars and he was a massive lefty. You know he was the most politically open minded liberal person and he used to say no one hates war more than a soldier, you know. He helped my brother get conscientious objector status during Vietnam. And he would have helped him get into the war if my brother had felt that was what he was compelled to do politically and ideologically. So I did not grow up in a conservative household at all. I grew up in a household where there was a very strong code about honor and about morality which is a tricky word. But it wasn’t honor that I necessarily equate with the military itself. I equate it with my father and his spirit and who he was. And it would have been like that were he – had he worked in a deli, had he been a lawyer. That’s just who he was. And he was quite uncommon.

You know, he was open to everyone. And he was a feminist and he was, you know, all of my friends who were gay or if you were transgender. I had a friend who came to dinner one night who brought his girlfriend who was in the eighties there were these people they were called walk-ins and they said they were – their bodies had been invaded by aliens. And my dad just, you know, talked to her. He was really interested in her.

I said what did you think about it. He said, you know, she was a perfectly nice girl and what do I know, maybe she was. It’s just really unless you were really rightwing or he could sometimes bristle at people who were maybe a little too forthcoming about their wealth, you know. People who were very into talking about, you know, sports clubs and vacations and things. He didn’t like to hear people bragging about money and things like that. But I think that’s kind of a right wing thing he always associated that with. And he wasn’t into that so there is a perception of the military that’s not entirely true. I understand where it comes from but it’s not 100 percent accurate.

My father had retired from the military when I was four but that still, you know, the residue of that remained. It lingered and it hung in the air, his experience in the war, you know, and it was something unnamable that was very often came out in his behavior in a really negative way, in a very frightening way, in a very upsetting way. And I was always able to separate that behavior from my father himself. And I don’t think it’s because I was an exceptionally perceptive child. I think it’s because my father, the spirit of who he was was so strong and so indomitable that that shone through and I knew who he was as a person and I knew there was this other thing that sort of would come into the room that was like a fog that he was not in control of that he was not proud of. It was almost like he wasn’t driving the car anymore and I knew it’s a rather pedestrian way of saying it but I knew it wasn’t his fault. Do you know what I mean? I knew that wasn’t him. And as he grew older and mellowed and those experiences receded a little bit as other ones became sort of more into what he was. Do you know what I mean? That sort of went away somewhat.

And that other person was able to resonate much more and I wasn’t necessarily afraid of that other thing coming back so much. And that also is a testament to his spirit and that he was intelligent and he was always trying to better himself and always reading and he was an amazing listener and was so grateful. He was, he really had gratitude to some sort of art form, you know, and generosity. And I think those things over time rather than him – the grew him, you know, and I think over time as people tend to sometimes their spirits diminish or they stop looking and moving past themselves he just, only his spirit only got larger. And it sort of eclipsed that difficult part, that hard part that I grew up with that, you know, trails me as well now is part of me. And that can only be the result of a 19 year old very sensitive boy going into the war at a time when that was the honorable thing to do, that was not only – not necessarily expected, fairly expected but it was the honorable thing to do.

When people think of war people think of movies, people think of games, people think sometimes of photographs, people think sometimes of stories. But in general I think they think of things which are one step removed from what war actually is. And if you actually delve into that and you think of the Korean War for example and walking through, you know, 30 below zero and there are – the ground is littered with men most of whom are under the age of 30, many of whom under the age of 25, you know, their bodies blown to bits that have also been stripped of their clothes so that other people could use their clothes and they’re frozen. That’s not the kind of thing people think of in terms of reality. They think maybe it brings up an image they saw in a movie, a game, a something. They don’t think of it as reality.
And in the forties I think it was partly because there wasn’t a widespread depiction of it in the media. Do you know what I mean? It was something imagined which I think is always a million times more potent, the imagination. No one was facetiming from the war. No one was calling from the war. You waited for letters. You waited for, you know, cryptic descriptions of what was horrific and, you know, inferences which were, you know, like put ice in your veins.

I think now people don’t have any understanding of what war is. I really don’t think the modern mind can take it in and I don’t think – I think it’s almost been polluted too much to be able to – I think there needs to be some kind of reeducation. I don’t know what that is, I don’t know if that’s possible but I think in order for it to stop people have to understand what it is and I think there’s an acceptance of it. Otherwise people is oh yeah, there’s people at war. There’s people in Afghanistan. People don’t really understand what that means.


Tony Award-winning actress Mary-Louise Parker isn't the first person you would associate with a military family upbringing, but that may be the point. The closer you get to a person — in this case, her father, who fought in three wars as an American soldier — the more your stereotypes of them melt away. While the American armed forces are composed of a smaller segment of the population than ever before, there is still great diversity in their ranks.

In the case of Parker's father, who told her that "no one hates war like a solider," their was an undying critical attitude toward politics and deployment that came directly from his experience in battle. He was, according to Parker, a magnanimous man who checked his ego and presuppositions before getting to know you. There was a downside, too — a direct byproduct of the wars he fought it.

The post-traumatic stress he suffered affected his daughter, and the rest of the family, in a way that carried through generations. Yet Parker knows it wasn't him "driving the car." What also carried through from his generation to his daughter's was a sense of what war is really like. We think of war as a television news program or a video game scenario, says Parker. But the reality is something far different, far more distressing. If that knowledge is lost — knowledge of what war is really like — then we risk sending our friends and loved ones into battle for unwarranted reasons.

Parker's book, in which she discusses the legacy of her father as well as other men in her life, is Dear Mr. You.

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Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

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There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

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The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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