October 4, 2016KR OnlineNonfiction

An Inquiry into Epigenetics

on top of,
(or in addition to) . . . genetics

Epi: on top of, like a padlock, clasped around our DNA, until something—(a toxin, good love, a war)—flicks it open. Epigenetics isn’t the study of the DNA; it’s the study of the lock and the key.

genetics: before I was born, my father sent his mother a letter from Vietnam. It said:
Those jets take off all night long while I’m trying to sleep.
We’re right in Da Nang right near the airstrip, so it sounds like they are coming through our little house.
Those supersonic jets are really loud.

My son runs to my room at all hours of the night. He has since he could walk. The ghosts follow Sam, sometimes ethereal, more often wrapped like mummies.

The scientists are saying: Epigenetics has proven that changes in gene expression are passed down to our offspring for at least one generation. Epigenetics can’t decide which chromosomes go to Yourbaby or Grandbaby, but it can decide which chromosomes wake up and express themselves, which get to speak the hell up and which have to shush.

My father’s letters also said:
We’ve had rifle classes, pistol classes, Marine Corp history classes, guidance classes, interior guard classes, government classes, and first aid classes. We’ve had six hours of hand-to-hand combat classes and three hours of bayonet classes.

Many years I’ve researched my father’s war. Years I’ve worried about Sam’s ghosts.

And his letter said:
Oh, that cake you sent me didn’t look too much like a cake when I got it. I wasn’t here more than a couple hours and I had an M-14 and twenty rounds. (Now I have to go because this is my last sheet of paper.)

One of the only times I remember seeing my father, he took me out for pizza then dropped to the ground, covering his head after a red balloon burst.

Neurobiologists Kerry Ressler and Brain Dias breed fear into mice. They take male mice and fill the air with acetophenone, a chemical that smells like cherries. Each time Ressler and Dias fill the room with the smell of cherries they administer small electric shocks to the mice. When those same mice are later exposed to acetophenone but no shock, they “shudder” and show other signs of fear. The scared mice go on to father pups that shudder when exposed to acetophenone despite not once being shocked themselves. That generation of mice, too, fathers pups that shudder when exposed to the sweet smell of cherries, despite never being shocked.

When I was sixteen I wrote my first term paper. I stumbled upon a topic called post-traumatic stress disorder. Soldiers from Vietnam, I learned, did not take the long, slow boat home but instead were plucked from the jungle one day, dropped into their childhood bedrooms the next.

So mice can inherit PTSD triggered by the smell of cherries. Some scientists call this a breakthrough. Others call it bogus, because, what’s the mechanism? Find me, they say, your demyelinated cherry-leery, scaredy-cat-chromosome and place it in my disbelieving hand.

My son, at age two, pointed at a military airplane in the overcast Michigan sky and his whole body shook. Though we never knew why, he called that plane and all others, “ah bomb.”

A graduate school classmate of mine once read an essay about my father and said an alcoholic Vietnam Vet who abandons his children, has trouble with the law, and dies unhappy seems awfully cliché. I should change the story, she said, if I possibly could.

I agreed.

When the drumbeats sounded in protest against the war in Iraq, I brought my son to rallies, first in a sling then in a stroller. He bounced up and down to the rhythm of a sideline bongo and he held a cardboard sign that said, “No War!”

At the age of four, Sam said to me:
In my dream, the ghosts come into my body to decide if I am alive or dead. They are too cold.
Haunting, I realize, does not distinguish between the physical or the imagined, the literal or the metaphorical. Haunted expresses itself as haunted.

My sister-in-law wrote songs to honor my son’s nascent vocabulary. The Airplane Song went like this: “Wait! What’s that thing over there? Flying high in the sky over there? It’s ah bomb! It’s ah bomb! It’s ah bomb, bomb, bomb bomb bomb!”

There’s a photo of my son hanging on our wall. He’s wearing denim overalls and tiny shoes and holding the pint-sized sign that says, “No War!” Call it sweet or crazy or sad; I call it proof: this boy was raised to opt out. Legally, I believe we’d call him a conscientious objector.

For years, I thought my father rode in a helicopter that dropped napalm. Now I can’t confirm whether that’s true or a story my young mind made up to explain his demons. Either way and because of stories told on that red-balloon night, I’ve pictured Kim Phuc, the naked girl, running while my father hovered inches above her. I imagined he didn’t want to be there, doing that, but he did anyway, and I imagined he saw the faces of the villagers who fled.

My son’s thoughts are blisters.

Erik Erikson, a psychoanalyst who studied trust versus mistrust, intimacy versus isolation, “the hazards of existence” (and militant nonviolence) says the epigenetic principle is where “anything that grows has a ground plan, and that out of this ground plan, the parts arise, each part having its time of special ascendancy . . . ”

I reach out to a Marine named Dave who fought on Monkey Mountain the same time as my father. He doesn’t recall ever meeting my dad, but he’s confirmed they were in the same place at the same time. Offering himself as a proxy, he shares memories. In an e-mail loaded with photos he explains, “Here’s a shot of naval gunfire hitting targets south of us . . . a couple of night shots of the air base getting hit during the Tet Offensive . . . a few shots of a Navy jet that crashed on the edge of our road. Nothing too graphic, just the stuff we would send home to Mama or our sweethearts.”

Fresh from the jungle and asleep in his childhood bed, my father woke to his little sister, pouncing on him by way of hello. He bolted upright, grabbed a letter opener, and aimed it at her throat.

My students and I read The Things They Carried. We read about dog tags and cigarettes and heat tabs, and we talk about the literal things the men in Vietnam carried. We talk about how Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills. Then my students write about people they love by listing the things they carry. I learn about the insides of a mother’s purse and a brother’s coat pocket and a war buddy’s field notebook. One man describes a jail key he once carried in his pocket, rubbing it when he felt tempted to go astray to remind him he never wanted return to prison, which was poignant, because he was writing this from our prison class.

My father has been in jail and my father has been in Vietnam. It surprises me when I realize I have no idea what he carried.

I do know what he left behind.

For my birthday I pay a psychic to contact my father’s ghost, but I’m not sure he shows up. I want to confirm my term paper-epiphany from twenty years prior. Instead, the psychic smiles and she says, “You’re the apple of his eye. He’s pointing at his eye and saying you’re the apple.”

Research doesn’t know about any apple in the eye, but it has plenty to say about anxious mothers. Scientist Michael Kobor finds a parent’s anxiety “leads to discernable changes in [the offspring’s] ‘epigenome,’ measurable more than a decade later. This literally provides a mechanism by which experiences get under the skin.”

When Sam was a baby he cried for six months straight. I’d pat his back and rock him and tell him the most comforting thing I could think to say: I know, I know.

It’s nighttime and I know that sound. Even when Sam is ten: I hear his feet slam against the floor, then run toward me like a man pursued. In bed at night, the unquiet part of my mind waits for the door to bang open, for my son’s body to pass through.

A human narrative woven with genetics and war. Is this a new story or the oldest? A kid took a trip from Sioux City, Iowa, to Monkey Mountain, where he was given an M14 and twenty rounds, where he heard supersonic jets and watched the sun rise for two years in the jungle. That kid did or did not lower a helicopter on villagers and watch them flee. He later came home, slaughtered cows for a living, had babies and left babies. That kid’s middle daughter got left, felt left, grew up, gave birth to a butter-skinned, burnt sugar, sleep-light boy with restless legs. The two boys never met, but they intersect in time and space. One kid stepped off the boat in 1967 Vietnam and each blast that resonated in his chest cavity vibrates—four decades and two generations later—inside a Lego-strewn room on a hill in Saint Paul that holds a red rug at the end of a bed, which belongs to a boy who runs from death day and night.

For one scientific second, let’s blame epigenetics for our ghosts.
For one scientific second, let’s imagine my son was drafted before birth.

It sure was a funny feeling anchored off the coast last night, watching the flares going up and the lights all over on top of the hills.

The ghosts come into my body to decide if I am still alive or dead. They are so cold.

We’re right in Da Nang right near the airstrip so it sounds like they are coming through our little house.

When Sam runs toward me like a man pursued, I make eye contact and he pretends he’s not afraid.

Jennifer Bowen Hicks was a 2014 Bread Loaf Rona Jaffe Scholar in nonfiction whose work has been honored with a Tim McGinnis Award from the Iowa Review, a Best American Essay notable mention, a Pushcart Prize special mention, the Arts & Letters Prize, and more. Her essays and stories appear in Iowa Review, North American Review, Third Coast, Rumpus, and elsewhere. She is the founder and artistic director of the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop and teaches creative writing in prisons throughout Minnesota.