The Displaced Nation

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TCK TALENT: Donna Musil, Writer-Director, Lawyer, Activist & Proud Army Brat

The uber TCK-talented Donna Musil. Photo credit: Ray Ng.

The uber TCK-talented Donna Musil. Photo credit: Ray Ng.

Columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her latest interview guest.

Welcome back, readers! It’s been awhile. But I think the wait will be worth it as my latest interviewee is the super-talented writer, filmmaker and social change agent Donna Musil. Donna is also a fitting choice for the month when America celebrates Veteran’s Day. She made the award-winning documentary BRATS: Our Journey Home, narrated by Kris Kristofferson, about what it is like to grow up in a military family and the long-term impact it can have on a person’s adult life.

She is also the founding director of Brats Without Borders, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing awareness and support for military brats and other Third Culture Kids.

Donna’s interest in the subculture of military brats is personal. Born into a career Army family, she went to 12 schools by the time she was 16 and never had a hometown. Her family moved almost every year until she was seven, from Fort Benning, Georgia, to two other bases in Georgia (Athens and Macon, the latter when her father was serving in Korea and Vietnam); then to the enormous Army installation in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and to Charlottesville, Virginia, where her father was doing something at the university. They moved overseas twice: to Germany (Bad Kreuznach), followed by Fort Mason in San Francisco; and to South Korea—Yongsan Garrison in Seoul and then Camp Walker in Taegu (now Daegu), after which they were stationed in Fort Knox, Kentucky. Donna’s father died in the summer of 1976, two months after she turned 16, and her family had to leave base housing. They moved to Columbus, Georgia.

Talk about talent! BRATS was Donna’s very first directing effort. I had the privilege of getting to know her as one of my fellow authors in the TCK anthology Writing Out of Limbo.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Donna. Even though I’ve met and have interviewed plenty of Adult TCKs, my head is still spinning at the number of moves you experienced as a youngster. Once you reached young adulthood, did you settle in one spot or keep moving?
I stayed in Georgia for college, earning a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a law degree a few years later (the time in between I traveled and worked as an on-air radio newscaster). After law school, I practiced union-side labor law in Washington, DC and Atlanta. In the late 1980s, I quit practicing law to pursue a writing career, my childhood dream. After a few years in Atlanta, I moved to Los Angeles to “pay my dues” in the film business, but when the 1994 Northridge earthquake struck and destroyed half of my possessions, I stored the other half at my sister’s and moved to Dublin, Ireland, for two years to write. When I ran out of money, I returned to Georgia and began making the BRATS film. I lived in a crooked, old family lakehouse, which became my “base.” During the ten years it took to make and distribute the BRATS film, I also worked as a technical writer and/or attended writer’s residencies in Denmark, Spain, Paris, Taos, and Port Townsend (Washington).

Where do you live now?
In 2010, I moved to Denver to be near my sister and her family, and have lived there ever since, except when I’ve been on writer’s residencies—in France, Chicago, and San Francisco. (I’ll be living at a writer’s residency in Chiang Mai, Thailand, this coming winter.)

Donna Musil, already displaying her talents in Korea, 1975. (Photo supplied.)

Donna Musil, already displaying her talents in Korea, 1975. (Photo supplied.)

Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time?
I was happiest when we lived at Fort Mason in San Francisco when I was 11 to 13 years old. Interestingly enough, it was one of the least “military” of all of our assignments, just a block away from the famed Ghirardelli Square, overlooking the bay. I attended public schools, populated by an eclectic array of children, whose parents were everything from authors to restaurant owners to ballerinas. The racial makeup of the student body was about a third Chinese, a third white, and a third black and brown. I loved it!

I can imagine you thriving on the diversity. Was there anything else that made that time special?
Yes, swimming! I joined the Presidio Swim Club after watching Mark Spitz bedazzle the tragic 1972 Olympics, and began dreaming of my own (albeit unlikely) Olympic run. I walked to school every day and to swim practice every afternoon. I think I still hold the Marina Junior High School record for the most pull-ups for a 13-year-old girl—12! I loved everything about San Francisco—the culture, the diversity, the hippies on the beach. It was also the last year before my father got sick, so I suppose it was the end of my innocence. The next year, we moved to Seoul, Korea, for six months and then to Taegu, where there was no swim team, and my dreams of Olympic glory evaporated. My freshman class had ten students, total. We were surrounded by jaded, war-struck soldiers on their way to or from Vietnam, bars, prostitutes, and easy access to drugs and alcohol. You can imagine the results.

Because everybody needs a place to call home…

Let’s talk about BRATS. For readers who aren’t familiar, here is the trailer:


Were you surprised by what a hit BRATS has been with adult military brats and ATCKs? 
The reaction to BRATS: Our Journey Home has been interesting. I initially made the movie to figure out “who I was and where I was from,” but it quickly became apparent that it was less about me and more about the brat/TCK culture in general. I had been separated from the military life for twenty years when I began filming so was somewhat surprised to discover that most of the issues the movie discusses are just as relevant today as they were when I was a child—particularly the emotional and trauma-related issues.

In your essay in Writing Out of Limbo, you mention a teenaged boy who loved the documentary because it was the first time he had seen a family like his portrayed on film. You state: “I would do it all over again to hear that one comment. To make a difference in just one child’s life—no honor, award, or monetary compensation could ever compare.” That’s tremendous! But let’s also talk about your goal of affecting change within the military itself. How has the military responded?
To be honest, I would have to say that the military-as-a-whole has not welcomed the film or the research of Brats Without Borders (or any other “brat” groups) with open arms, nor have they helped us implement programs or provide resources to current and retired families that address the emotional needs of military brats/TCKs. There have been pockets of institutional and corporate support for a related art exhibit and workshops, as well as the film distribution costs, and Armed Forces Network has broadcast the film multiple times. The reactions have always been universally positive, but we could be doing so much more (with so very little).

So there are no military groups who have interpreted the film as a call to action?
In general, the military clergy and soldiers have been most supportive of our work and the military educational system and spouses the least supportive. It took me a while to realize that it must be hard to hear that the life you’ve chosen for your family (often a life better than your own childhood) also has its flaws. Many (high-powered) spouses are willing to hear and promote the positive legacies of growing up brat/TCK but tend to gloss over the painful legacies and attribute them to bad parenting instead of institutional pressures, traditions, or combat trauma. As a result, nothing much changes, and (as it has always been), brats/TCKs are forced to take care of their own emotional needs. Nowadays, people talk a little bit more about the sacrifice of military kids and groups give them free “stuff”; but they’re still not addressing their emotional needs (among other things) or considering what institutional changes might be made to ease their transitions and difficulties.

You must find that frustrating.
It’s particularly frustrating when I hear the institution and the media talk about the “lack of research” in this area, because it’s simply not true. We have the research. We’ve had it for 25 years. They just don’t always like what the research says. The military wants to downplay the negatives and the media wants to downplay the positives. Meanwhile, millions of dollars are being thrown into programs for military kids that are designed by people who haven’t walked the walk, or whose loyalties lie more with the institution or perpetuating their own existence than they do with the children. That may seem harsh, but I think it’s the truth. Perhaps one day actual brats and TCKs will be invited to the table and given substantial support, but I’m not holding my breath. In the meantime, we’ll just keep helping ourselves!

“Like many brats,…I could talk to, but didn’t trust, anyone.” —Donna Musil in Writing Out of Limbo

Let’s move on to talk about the TCK experience. Many of the sections in your essay for Writing Out of Limbo resonated with me; for instance, when you said: “There are lessons each of us has to learn in our lives, and the more we avoid learning a particular lesson, the harder God will knock us down, until we have no choice but to learn it (and move on to the next lesson….). Still I didn’t learn.” You mention trust issues, inability to handle disagreement or confrontation, and more traits that are common among ATCKs, for which you needed to learn healthier coping mechanisms. Has making and touring BRATS helped you deal with this? Or do your old TCK survival mechanisms still crop up from time to time (like mine do even though creating Alien Citizen helped me a lot)?
For good or ill, I think all of my TCK survival mechanisms are alive and well! I’ve just learned to manage them better, with experiences from the BRATS film, my new film projects, some very good therapy, a lot of reading, and a very kind, understanding, and patient fiancé.

Has making and touring BRATS helped Donna to deal with some of the TCK issues Donna describes in Writing Out of Limbo? (Cover art; poster art, supplied.)

Has making and touring BRATS helped Donna to deal with some of the TCK issues she describes in Writing Out of Limbo? (Cover art and poster art, supplied.)

Are you tempted, for example, to run away from confrontation/disagreement?
Yes, I’d rather flee, move, break up or leave. I’ve learned to temper that impulse by isolating myself and dealing with it after I’ve calmed down. I also still have a visceral reaction to mean-spirited, unjust, authoritative, or self-centered people, but instead of confronting them like I used to, I try to avoid them. I’m much less black-and-white about things—but perhaps that’s just the wisdom of age. I do make people earn my trust instead of instantly bestowing it, and vice versa. There are so many ways “growing up brat/TCK” still affects my life today; it probably shapes almost everything I do. As I get older, though, I try to build on the positive aspects of my youth and temper the less-than-positive legacies, which is often much easier said than done!

Do you identify most with a particular culture or cultures, or with people who have similar interests and perhaps similar cross-cultural backgrounds?  
I don’t identify with any particular culture or ethnicity, other than the brat/TCK culture. I don’t even have any real nationalistic tendencies. I don’t think America is “the best country in the world.” I think all countries and all people have their good points and not-so-good points; it just depends on what you’re most comfortable with. That said, I am definitely the quintessential American—independent, strong-willed, feisty, rebellious. Daniel Boone was my (great-great) uncle, his oldest brother Samuel my (great-great) grandfather, so I come by that spirit honestly. But my political sensibilities are more Scandinavian, like my grandmother’s side of the family. I enjoy being around other curious, open-minded “outsiders,” many of whom tend to have cross-cultural backgrounds. I try very hard not to consider myself, or any group to which I feel I might belong, “special.” That kind of thinking is the source of most of the world’s ills.

Do you have “itchy feet,” which still make you want to move frequently? Or would you prefer to have a home base and only travel for pleasure?
My poor fiancé. He was an educator brat—but basically grew up in one town in Germany. When we first started dating, I’d tell him all of the places I dream about living in: Vancouver, Canada; Austin, TX; San Francisco, CA; Chiang Mai, Thailand; Asheville, NC; and Paris, etc. Like any man, he wanted to give me what I wanted, but he couldn’t pin me down on what I actually wanted (one of the banes of being a brat/TCK). I was born and raised to be geographically and intellectually curious (the best legacy of growing up brat/TCK!). I like to stay somewhere until I want to go somewhere else—and my fiancé is okay with that, too. I don’t have any children, and his are grown, so it’s possible for us to live this way. Perhaps we’ll settle down in one place in the future. Denver is a nice town. We like it—for now.

Donna’s next act(s)

Returning to your work: I believe you are making another documentary? Tell us about it.
Yes, the film is called Our Own Private Battlefield. It’s the first documentary about the intergenerational effects of combat PTSD on military children, and how one Marine family is using art to help heal the long-term wounds of the Vietnam War. I still have a few more interviews to shoot. I’m hoping the lessons learned from this family will help generations of current and future military families deal with the traumas of war, both here and abroad.

Battlefield sounds amazing.
It’s actually a byproduct of the combined efforts of Brats Without Borders and Marine brat Lora Beldon’s organization, Military Kid Art Project, which teaches customized art classes to military children.

Your mention of art reminds me: I think an art exhibit is one of your other projects?
Yes, Lora and I founded the BRAT Art Institute this year and will host our first Military BRAT Art Camp in 2016, in conjunction with Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, VA. Right now we have a museum exhibit currently touring the country, called “UNCLASSIFIED: The Military Kid Art Show.” It won a Newman’s Own Award in 2012 and features over fifty years of military brat and veteran art from around the world, historical artifacts, and films about using art to heal trauma. The art camps will be part of a larger research effort to study how art can help military children deal with the traumas of war and multiple deployments.

Do you have any projects that don’t relate to the military?
Yes, my personal projects are much more eclectic. Besides a TV show based on brats in Korea in the 1970s, I’m also shopping a children’s animated film script based on African folktales (with a producer from Ghana) as well as a feature film screenplay about a modern-day union campaign at a small-town nursing home. My current writing efforts are focused on a murder mystery, based on (what I believe) is an unjust incarceration of an innocent man for over thirty years.

How can we follow your progress?
People can see my brat/TCK projects at www.USAbrat.org. Later this year, I will be putting up a personal page, donnamusil.com, for my non-brat/TCK projects.

* * *

Thank you so much, Donna! I think I can speak for the entire Displaced Nation in asserting that you’ve blown us all away with all the important and necessary work you do for military brats, veterans, and TCKs. Congratulations on your many extraordinary achievements! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Donna below.

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is a prime example of what she writes about in this column: an Adult Third Culture working in a creative field. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she is an actor, writer, and producer who created the solo show Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey, which has been touring internationally. And now she is working on another show, which we hope to hear more about soon! To keep up with Lisa’s progress in between her columns, be sure to visit her blog, Suitcasefactory. You can also follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

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5 responses to “TCK TALENT: Donna Musil, Writer-Director, Lawyer, Activist & Proud Army Brat

  1. Helena Halme (@helenahalme) November 11, 2015 at 6:48 am

    This is such an interesting interview. The lives of US army kids completely fascinate me. Rather than being a Brat, I was married to a British naval officer, and know a little of the way of life in the armed forces. But my husband left the Navy when our son was small, when he didn’t recognise his father and hid under the kitchen table after my husband had been on a particularly long patrol. Our son was two by then and had only seen his father a few times. The Navy life was hard for both of us, but for my husband his son’s reaction was a pivotal moment. I now write about those times and have published a half-biographical novel called The Englishman and a sequel, which is coming out at the end of this month, called The Navy Wife. You can find more here http://www.helenahalme.com
    Thank you once again for an informative and entertaining post!

    • ML Awanohara November 11, 2015 at 12:52 pm

      Hi, Helena. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. It made me wonder whether this “army brat” syndrome is universal, not just a product of American military culture. And if so, does the UK have a similar subculture of military brats? Perhaps former Displaced Nation columnist Jack Scott could enlighten us? (He grew up a British army brat…)

      It would also be interesting to hear from Donna on whether her film has found an international audience…

      On your book: Big congratulations!! We would be happy to announce in our revamped Displaced Dispatch and feature in our end-of-year roundup…

      • Donna Musil November 12, 2015 at 3:35 pm

        Hi, everyone! Actually, it does seem to be an international experience. I’ve met Irish, Italian, British, even a Russian military brat and our similarities far outweigh our differences. Clips from the Brats film are featured in a new online course for British military families developed by the Service Children’s Support Network and Oxford University, and I presented at a SCSN conference in London a couple years ago. I do think the British Army is trying (perhaps more than the Americans) to really listen now.

  2. Jack Scott November 12, 2015 at 8:10 am

    Indeed I was a British army brat for the first ten years of my life and my family lived in Malaysia in the late Sixties. For me the experience was truly life enhancing and my memories are in tropical Technicolor. It taught me to be more curious about the world and I’m certain this helped me cope better with my own hit-and-miss encounters with the expats of Turkey.

    The inherent opportunities and risks of life in the forces are better illustrated by my mother’s story. At the tender age of 21, she was swept off her feet by a penniless, pretty soldier boy with a twinkle in his eye. Plucked from a small provincial Irish town, she found herself on a slow boat to Germany. It was the class-riddled Fifties. Spouses were graded and places strictly observed – officers and their ladies, NCOs and their wives, squaddies and their women. Nevertheless, the experience was transformational. Mother got to do and see things that would never have been possible if she hadn’t uttered those fateful words, ‘I do.’ As a natural extrovert, she chucked herself into army life with gusto. She loved the camaraderie, the sparkling social life and the instant bonds she made with others in the same boat. Along the way she bore five children in various parts of the globe (I’m the only British-born) and for the most part she had a ball. The trouble began when my father was discharged from the army on the grounds of ill health. Only eight years later, at the age of 50, he died and my mother found herself facing destitution on top of widowhood. She picked herself up and got on with it. The army could or would not help.

    I’ve recent wrapped up my own experience of expat life in the second of my memoirs – Turkey Street, Jack and Liam move to Bodrum. http://www.jackscott.info/turkey-street.html

    Shameless plug over!

  3. D Davis November 12, 2015 at 8:18 pm

    Nice interview, Donna. I am so proud of you and our years of tough-loving friendship.

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