Blaming Japhy Rider: Memoir of a Dharma Bum Who Survived
by Philip A. Bralich, Ph.D. (Togo 1978)
$17.99 (paperback); $35.95 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65)
PHILIP BRALICH HAS WRITTEN A BRAVE BOOK. His memoir, Blaming Japhy Rider, depicts the unsettling tale of his struggle to recover from a tragedy that occurred during his Peace Corps service.
In 1978 in their first year in Togo, West Africa, he and his wife, newly married before entering the Peace Corps, set off for home in Lama Kara on their motor scooter after a party with other Volunteers. He was driving, with her riding on the back, along a rutted dirt lane when they were hit by an oncoming car sending them flying off the road into a dried river bed. He heard her calling for help but he couldn’t move or even turn over to see where she was. His leg was broken and the bone had been thrust through the muscle and flesh of his calf. He woke in a hospital in Wiesbaden, Germany with life-threatening and excruciatingly painful wounds to his leg. But worse than his physical anguish was what he learned next; his wife had died five days before from her own improperly attended to injuries. She had succumbed to shock and gas gangrene of her leg.
What followed were months and then years of recovery, scores of operations and daily debridement of his leg to cut back dead and dying flesh and bone, procedures that had to be endured for medical safety with minimal or no anesthesia. They are almost unbearable to read about and as such left this reader in awe of what he was able to withstand. But what finally overwhelmed him was his psychic pain. Though he lost most of the use of his leg, his biblical agony was that he had been the driver and he had survived while his wife hadn’t.
What is most original, and involving about Bralich’s story is his subsequent quest for salvation. He set out to find answers to his existential questions. Was he culpable in bringing about her death? Could he live with whatever truth he found? Could he possibly find resolution and even happiness again, or at least succeed in subduing the angry voices from within?
Bralich is a demonstrably brilliant man and one who is most comfortable with an intellectual quest. In the beginning instead of seeking solace in conventional western psychotherapy, he turned to eastern spiritualism, where he voraciously and assiduously read Zen and Tibetan Buddhist literature, gradually giving himself over to its rigorous healing practices. Through many years each step of this phase brought insight and comfort for a time, but inevitably after a period of peace the furies would rise up again and he would have to move on to the next possible cure for his sorrow. When he eventually turned to western thought, working his way through Jung and finally to Freud, he seemed to gain the deepest insights into the source of his psychic distress, which he self-diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. His superior intelligence served him well in this segment of his pursuit. His explication of Freud’s theories is extraordinary in its lucidity and insight, though the problem is that a major tenet of Freud’s talking cure is that one has to talk to another human being. You can’t do it all on your own.
Throughout the thirty years of his intensive search for mental wholeness he also manages to complete his PhD in linguistics, patent an original linguistics syntactical theory, develop an erudite computer program based on that theory, hold down a series of teaching positions, present academic papers at professional conferences, and be hired at the prestigious Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California as an Assistant Professor with the mandate to prepare members of the military for language training. By the end of his narrative he has compiled an impressive resume and comes close to having a long term relationship with a lovely, supportive Japanese woman. However, he never quite wins the battle over the accusing internal voices. The original trauma was too enormous, occurring at a vulnerable moment in his life, when, as an innocent, idealistic young man, he was adjusting to a new marriage, under the added pressures of living and working in a culture vastly different from his own.
Many of us suffered hard times during our tours of duty, thrown around by events that included blows to our developing sense of self, but I would conjecture there are few episodes in the 50 year history of the Peace Corps that compare to the dire severity of what Philip Bralich endured and that even fewer of us can purport to have been as brave and honest as he in confronting our own post-Peace Corps psychological frailty.
In closing it must be noted that the Peace Corps did their duty in his case. They saw that he got the proper care by med-evacing him to Germany, thus saving his life, and followed through with medical stipends and living subsidies during the long years of his rehabilitation. They are to be commended for that.
Marnie Mueller’s Peace Corps book, Green Fires: A Novel of the Ecuadorian Rainforest, was a winner of the Maria Thomas Award for Fiction and an American Book Award. The Climate of the Country, her second novel, is set in the Tule Lake Japanese American Segregation Camp, where she was born. My Mother’s Island, which takes place in Puerto Rico, was a BookSense76 selection and is currently under option for a feature film. She is at work on a non-fiction book, Triple Threat: The Story of a Japanese American Showgirl.