Comedy And Trauma With Allison Gill
Incoming / March 6, 2020
0:00:02.6 Show Intro
So. Say. We. All.
From So Say We All and KPBS in San Diego, welcome to Incoming, the series that features true stories from the lives of Americans veterans, told in their own words, straight from their own mouths. I’m your host, Justin Hudnall. Our guest today is best known around the country as a comedian, a singer-songwriter, and most recently, the host of the Webby award-winning podcast, Allison Gill. She’s also a veteran of the US Navy’s nuclear program, during which a lot of darkness occurred, that she’d later channel as inspiration for her art.
I don’t play those songs anymore, because they wouldn’t fly now. Whereas before, the whole Me Too movement, it did.
Incoming with Allison Gill will be right back in an NPR Minute.
0:01:00.3 Female Announcer
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Welcome back to Incoming, where we’re speaking with singer-songwriter, comedian, and host of the Webby award-winning podcast Mueller, She Wrote, Allison Gill. Allison and I had a great conversation about comedy and our changing culture, the tight rope artists walk between effective, speaking truth to power, and how that spoonful of sugar that provides to make the medicine go down, can leave a sour taste in the mouth of the person serving it. But first, you’re going to hear a story told by Allison on one of our live stages, titled Coping Mechanisms. Here’s Allison Gill.
I ran out of college money. The college money my dad had willed me after only four semesters. So in 1994, at the age of 20, I dropped out, and moved to Los Angeles. To be a musician, and an actress. Thank you. I’d grown up on stage playing piano and guitar, singing, acting, dancing. So I thought I’d have a go at it, for serious, since I couldn’t finish school. In hindsight, I was killin’ it, you guys. I was acting in big films, playing in bars and coffee houses, hanging out at the Emmy’s. But I was too young and naïve, and impatient, to recognize my success. So I felt like a failure. And I ended up joining the Navy. Which had been romanticized in my family. My parents fell in love when my dad was in the military. So I thought I’d travel the world and find a man. Or at least finish college, and find a man. I was one of the first women accepted into the nuclear program. I went to bootcamp with 84 other females. But when I got to nuke school, the balance shifted. There were four of us, and 600 men. That’s 150 dudes for every woman. I was literally and figuratively isolated from the start. My living quarters were on the opposite side of base, in the old staff housing, because the barracks didn’t have female facilities. All the men had to take sensitivity training, because of me. They even sent a dentist to give me my pap smear, because there was no gyn on base.
So when I was actually invited to a barracks party, I jumped at the chance. Having just finished bootcamp, my wardrobe was limited to the standard issue dungarees, a super sexy and now obsolete uniform consisting of a long sleeve button up shirt, and high waisted bell bottom jeans. I walked into a room full of men playing spades and dominos and drinking games, and I made my way around the party till I found a group to settle in with. This was a group of people, incidentally, who had promised to literally take a bullet for me. So I didn’t even think twice about the fact that I was the only woman in the room. This was my family. These were my brothers. My shipmates. I ended up talking to a cute guy, and I was having such a good time that I didn’t notice the hour until we were the only two people left in the room. I would love to tell you what happened next, but I don’t know. What I do remember, is stumbling into the police station at four in the morning, wearing only a blanket, and bleeding. I told the Master at Arms that I thought I’d been raped. He led me to a cold room with a slick, waxed floor, and sat me down on one side of a metal desk, under a single industrial pedant lamp. I was too young to know how cliché a scene that was. I sat there, terrified, nineteen. Fresh out of boot camp. Compliant, obedient, broken down, and without a sense of self. A blank slate with no esteem.
That’s when the interrogation began. Why had I been at that party? What was I wearing? What was I drinking? Why was I drinking? Was I flirting? Did I have a boyfriend? Were we fighting? What happened in the police station that night was the real trauma. Because I can recall every second of it. A second man then came in and briefed me on the consequences of filing a false rape report. He said I could be court martialed, that I would lose the most prestigious school in the Navy, lose my rank, and my rate. I would lose all my benefits, including my GI Bill, my sixty thousand dollar signing bonus, and I’d probably be dishonorably discharged. He even told me I would be charged with adultery, because my rapist was married. And I’ll never forget his parting words as he ushered me out of the police station wearing only a blanket. Why don’t we chalk this up to what it really is? A series of bad decisions on your part. I was terrified. They’d convinced me it was my fault. I was ashamed. And I definitely didn’t file a report. I fully believed it was a serious of bad decisions on my part. That self-blame was so deep in me that years later, I would repeat the bullshit they fed me, to my best friend, after she had been raped. You shouldn’t have flirted with him, you’re smarter than that. You shouldn’t have put yourself in that situation. Their words, coming out of my mouth. And it is the biggest regret of my life. After the assault, I reached into my limited bag of coping tools, and the first thing I found was booze. My relationship with liquor went from light and fun to utilitarian and medicinal, before I was even old enough to legally drink. Drinking was the best way for me to keep up this charade of self-blame, and ignore the truth. I found myself drinking with my classmates during any free time we had. We would drink every night after mandatory study hours, and we would drink so much that I could barely keep it down during the mandatory two mile run in the morning at zero four thirty. But so many other people were puking during the run that it seemed completely normal. I learned a lot about booze over the decade I used it as a survival tool. Specifically, that it’s a super temporary solution that does more harm than good.
See brains are amazing things, they never stop working on your behalf. But you can only keep them quiet for so long. So when alcohol was no longer doing the job, I launched the more sex initiative. [Brief audience laughter.] Using sex to cope uses the same mechanism as an eating disorder. It’s about regaining control over your body. So having all sorts of sex at my own discretion, on my own terms, was how I achieved that. It was a preemptive strike. Shock and awe. Like my brain was initiating sex with people before they could rape us. I even traded sexual favors for test questions ahead of time with one of the teachers. Boy, I sure showed him. Ironically, he was my heat transfer and fluid flow instructor. But sex eventually became a chore, killing any kind of meaningful relationship during the subsequent fifteen years. The loneliness, compounded with the trauma, worsened my depression. And it compounded the need for different adaptation strategies. That’s when I began overachieving. And it’s the only coping mechanism I’ve never quit using. After the rape, I dove into my schoolwork. I studied until midnight every night of the week, and I raised my grades from a 2.8 to a 4.0. I graduated nuke school with a perfect score, despite drinking, depression, and crippling anxiety, armed with only booze, a stack of books, and the heat transfer and fluid flow test questions. [Audience laughter.] It would turn out though, that even overachieving can backfire. Because when I filed my claim for PTSD with the Department of Veterans Affairs, it was denied three times over five years. And not only because I had no proof, the VA said I couldn’t have been raped, because my grades got better. They reasoned that no one’s grades get better after a traumatic event.
After many years of failed attempts to cope using booze, sex, and achievements, I turned to yoga. Which I won’t talk about too much, because people want to hear about yoga like they want to hear about CrossFit and being vegan. [Audience laughter.] But I’ll say this, the word yoga is from the Sanskrit to join, or to yoke, and knowing that traumatic events drive a wedge between the mind and the body, mitigating that duality with yoga is very powerful way to heal yourself. I remember my first yoga classes feeling very uncomfortable, during hip openers, and heart openers. And other, vulnerable positions. I would break down sobbing sometimes, because I was processing events instead of ignoring them. Which led me to believe that yoga is the best non-medicinal treatment for PTS, and I’m still trying to get the VA to pay for it, instead of the mountains of antipsychotics, SSRIs, MAOIs, benzodiazepines, and antidepressants. Often pushed with pain medications that could render me flatly affected, comatose, or even dead. I’ll take yoga, thanks.
Many years later I would stumble upon my favorite coping mechanism, or rediscover it rather, and almost completely by accident. See, I was a musician by trade, before joining the Navy. A serious musician. A classically trained coffee house feminist angry Lilith Fair minor chord musician. But one fateful night, in 2004, I went to a Flaming Lips concert. And Liz Phair was opening. If you know those bands, you know that’s a weird combo. And when Liz Phair was on stage, most of the Flaming Lips fans were ignoring her, milling around, getting drinks. Until, she started singing a song called Hot White Cum. The whole place stopped, and turned to look at the stage, like a needle had come off a record. You could see their furrowed brows and confused looks, asking, is she singing about cum? And then the chorus came again, and yes, she was singing about cum. And I realized what I had to do. [Light audience laughter.] I had to write songs about cum. [Loud audience laughter.] I had to, because that’s what people were paying attention to! I started an imaginary band called the Crooked Bush. [Audience laughter.] Our first album was called Giraffe Deepthroat. So many of my songs were about rape, and I didn’t even know it. As a musician and a comic, I wasn’t aware of why I wrote what I wrote until much later. If ever. And I recommend you creative types go back and revisit your old work. There’s clues in there about who you are that you may have never realized. I don’t play the songs anymore, for several reasons.
First of all, I’ve moved on. Comedy evolves. They served their purpose. Most important, if ingested without irony, they definitely perpetuate the rape culture. I’ll give you a small example. [Sound of guitar playing.] I went to the bar, to meet my young man, he ordered me up a tall black and tan, and after that one came two, three and four. As I finished ‘em off, he continued to pour. When I asked him why he kept filling my cup, he said I’m doing my best to get you liquored up. When I asked him why he said here’s what he thunk. Girls are more fun, to fuck when they’re drunk. We’re more fun to fuck when we’re drunk. We’re more fun to fuck when we’re drunk. Just give us some liquor and you’ll bed us quicker. Just give us some booze and we’ll spread the good news. Just give us some Jack, we work best on our backs. We’re more fun to fuck! Tell your brother! Good luck! We’re more fun to fuck when we’re drunk. Hilarious. I was writing songs about rape that I could laugh at years before I even realized I had even been raped. Maybe I was prepping for myself for the big reveal with humor. So even though these songs are retired, my jokes are still largely about sex, and drinking, and rape, because that’s how comedy works. We take our trauma, and we spin it into gold, to make you laugh. We’re like twisted alchemists. We laugh at our own sadness to vanquish it, getting it out of our heads, and into the world. Then repeating it, over and over. Kind of like exposure therapy. Laughter kept me alive in the years before I even knew what I was up against. And making other people laugh with reworked trauma is cathartic. In fact, a guy I was dating one time asked if I wanted to try rape fantasies. I was like, no. He goes, that’s the spirit. [Horrified laughter.] Thank you. [Audience laughter, clapping.]
Allison Gill, thanks for joining us on Incoming.
Can we talk about gallows humor, and where it came into your skill set?
Yes. Well, tell me what. What is your definition of gallows humor?
That’s interesting. I think it’s my kind of humor, the kind of humor that makes everyone around me uncomfortable except for other people who have been through extreme circumstances.
Or as a way to deflect the bad, bad, no good very ugly feelings with laughter, as a way to minimize.
Yeah. And that album I sent you over, the live recording, that was well before I had full knowledge and diagnosis of PTS. And it, unbeknownst to me, my brain was working its own magic, right? It was writing these songs, writing these stories, writing these poems. Pretty much unbeknownst to me what they meant. I don’t know if you’ve ever done that, you’ve painted something, written something, made a peace of music, and you look at it and you’re like I don’t even know what that means.
Yeah those little moments of creation where you’re aware that you don’t have awareness over 95% of your brain. But it’s doing stuff.
0:16: 53.4 Gill
Yeah. So my brain, after the trauma, its main job is to protect me. I think in order to do that it made really unconventional jokes, that I thought everyone could relate to, and it turns out they could. Basically, I don’t know if it was to cover it up, or cope with it, or both.
A R M R(sp?) is what the song is called. So, we, abbreviate things is fun. (?), alcoholism(?) induced ritual. Well it’s two am and I don’t know (?). You might think it matters but you’re all the same. My speech is a really slurred (?) blurb, so order me another Hurricane. Well I just want sex I’m way too drunk to c[bleeped](?). Don’t freak out and () think you’re the one. Don’t bother putting up a fight, your only job is to go all night, and I’ll give your penis back when I’m done. The room might be spinning, (?), I’m gonna tell you how (?). The sex would be better if we were less sober, but I don’t think I’d fuck you if I (?). Well it’s last call, so you better pound your beer. [Chorus singers: Pound your beer!] We don’t have to go home but we can’t stay here. [Chorus singers: Can’t stay here!] Pay my tab and get your keys in fifteen minutes I’ll be on my on my knees. And if you don’t take me home, you must be queer. [Chorus singers: Must be queer!] The room might be spinning but we’ll go on sinning, and I’m gonna tell you why because. [Chorus singers: Why because!] The sex would be better, if we were less sober, but I don’t think I’d fuck you if I was. [Chorus singers: If I was!]
I would rather make people laugh, then anything else. And while I practice gallows humor, it’s not so dark or so alt that people get, I don’t get ooooo a lot. It’s more like ohhhh, and laughter that way.
Did you find that the military in general, the men and women you served with, had a relationship with humor that was different from civilians?
Yeah, because we had a lot of acronyms. For reals though, the humor was all sex-based humor in the military. It is just entirely sexually based. It’s just a bunch of sexually frustrated people, I think. I don’t know. But it always seemed to revolve around phalluses, I can’t figure out why.
They are empirically funny.
Missiles and bombs are all shaped, I don’t know, I don’t know what it is. But it, they are inherently funny. But I can’t figure it out. Everything, even down to the language we would use in the BMRs, in our maintenance review, had sexual undertones to it. Just really male and female parts, the cavitation of a pump causes pounding and knocking. Everyone’s in class, Beavis and Butthead laughing, It’s just thick, in the air, it’s just a culture.
0:21:04.8 Justin We’ll be back, after this.
0:21:12.6 Justin Welcome back to Incoming and our guest today, Navy veteran, comedian, and Webby award-winning podcaster, Allison Gill. Can you talk about your relationship with the concept of feminism, and how you interacted and intersected with it originally and how it’s evolved over your career?
Oh, goodness. Yeah. It’s kind of hard to explain, because a lot of people would see my old stuff as not feminist, or anti-feminist. Or perpetuating the rape culture, even. Because it kind of celebrated and laughed at it, instead of condemning it and ridiculing it. I don’t play those songs anymore, because they wouldn’t fly now. Whereas before the whole MeToo movement, it did. It did well. And now I don’t think it would go over. And I’ve also evolved too, to a different place. I recognize the necessity of that humor, at the time, for me, and how others related to it. But truth be told, the irony was lost on a lot of people. I felt that more and more.
Kind of reminds me, something that Dave Chapelle said in an interview, or was said about him saying to his friends, that he became concerned that people weren’t laughing at his sketches and jokes as he intended them, as satire, but racists found something in that for them too, you know.
Right. Like my song about girls being more fun to be with when they’re inebriated is, I don’t mean that. But people took it literally. And were like, yeah! And would try to buy me drinks. I’m like, you missed the message a hundred percent, buddy. But there’s nothing in the song—there’s no sarcasm font in the song. You just have to know me. And not everybody knows me.
I’m a weird Catholic though, I don’t have any kids. That I know of, right? I was in the Navy, I could have kids (unintelligible), I don’t even know. You’re supposed to have a grip of kids when you’re Catholic, but whatever, I failed. It was on purpose, totally on purpose. But I don’t have to worry about swearing around them, so that’s probably the best part of that whole thing. But I went to Catholic school for twelve years. Did you go to Catholic school? Did they make you sign a virginity contract? [Audience member: No!] No? Why is that funny? [Audience laughter.] Mine was okay though, it said I promised not to have vaginal sex. So I found the two loopholes in your contract. Yeah. So I got some new Catholic traditions. My favorite tradition hat I like to do, you guys ever see at Christmas time, people put up those giant plastic nativity scenes? Hokey plastic nativity scenes, lightbulbs up Jesus’ butt? If you have one and the Jesus is still there, I’ll take the Jesus. I’ll steal the Jesus. At any given time you could open my trunk, there’d be like, twenty Jesuses in there. [Audience laughter.] Jesi? I don’t know what’s the plural? [Loud audience laughter.] We never had to work that out, right? And they all have little post it notes on them, because I’d write the addresses for where I took them from. I’d bring them back on Easter. It’s the right thing to do.
Justin Do you still feel any conflict today with this wedge of modern activism that I refer to it is terminally sincere, where even though I agree with everything they’re saying, it’s just such a bummer?
I have a couple of songs, I think over the entire career of the life of that music, I think two people got offended. One was a young girl who called in to the radio station, said that wasn’t cool, and the other was a lady who was angry at her husband for singing along to the lyrics and she gave him a punch on the shoulder and dragged him out by the ear.
Because you’re still active in media and comedy, and music and art, and our culture today kind of discourages comedy from the major issues we’re rightfully confronting and dealing with. But we’re doing it now in an almost terminally sincere way, and I’ve never heard so many people say that’s not funny—
Right. There’s the whole Samantha Bee issue, calling Ivanka a feckless, you know, C word. And then having to apologize for it. I was like you shouldn’t apologize, that was a funny joke. And she is.
I’m a child of the 80s and 90s and when I was growing up, I felt like censorship was aimed at us from the right political spectrum. I’m still very much where my politics were back then, but I feel like the censorship is now coming down from my own, people I agree with. And I’m not saying, I would never get on the whole political correctness bandwagon, because we all know that’s just code for being a white nationalist, unapologetically.
Well we come from the age of explicit lyrics, when they started labeling albums, that whole Tipper Gore, thing. That was our censorship, and we were like no, don’t do it. The you saw the black and white parental advisory, explicit lyrics label coming out on your CDs. And cassettes, I think as early as cassettes. But yeah, I’ve run into a lot of people, I’ve been told I’ve been kicked out of the feminist club, because I support sex work—because I’m not a sex worker but there’s nothing wrong with it—or because somebody got on me because I said I was pro-choice, and not pro-abortion. I wasn’t being feminist enough, because I didn’t love abortions. Which is an odd concept to me. It’s not a party.
Right, I’m pro healthcare but I don’t want to celebrate heart attacks.
You know, comedians used to do college tours, all the time. We don’t so much, anymore, because of that PC culture. I know that every generation says this, and of course you don’t want to do the dog whistle for nationalism, either, and be like oh, you PC culture, buh. But you do get beat up a lot, and it takes people who know you to stand up for you and say, that’s, you’ve got the wrong idea. Again, that’s one of the main reasons I don’t play any of these songs anymore. Things would be thrown at me. Even though I think it was the Dean of Creative Writing at SDSU called me a modern feminist. When they heard my album. I think you can go too far with it, and I think that’s kind of what you’re talking about.
Like a chilling effect, maybe, on the arts, or comedy in general.
Right, And we saw it play out, with the Roseanne Barr, and then Samantha Bee. One of those was objectively right, and one of those was objectively wrong. And I know everybody says comedy and art are subjective, I disagree. But what Roseanne did was use an ancient, disgusting, racist trope, and what Samantha Bee did was tell a joke. Which landed. Audience loved it, I thought it was hilarious. And we shouldn’t be apologizing for jokes. Especially when they kind of fall under that umbrella of first amendment, free speech, speaking to power.
Right, with full knowledge that comedy’s not evergreen, like you say, maybe there’s an element to your work and satire in general, that it succeeds when it puts itself out of relevance.
Another big part of your work is politics, and all the modern ways it gets expressed, including social media, gang fights, playing—one thing I’ve noticed has come to your aid is being a veteran. It kind of tweaks that thing where the people on the political side you tend to be sparring with have so wanted the military and veterans to be in their wheelhouse, that it’s almost kind of jarring to realize not all vets are on that lawn chair, with them.
And a lot of them aren’t, actually. It is odd, I’ve noticed a trend now. The ones that are left, the hangers on, who support this administration have gone full, I call it full (unintelligible), just out of their minds, they don’t care if I’m a veteran. I am a POS because I support refugees, and asylum, and healthcare for everyone, and education, and they’ll say something to the effect of well, what have you ever done for this country? And I’ll tell ‘em, and they’ll go oh that’s too bad, that our great country would take a POS like you. Well, I was there. Where were you? Bone spurs? I don’t know what happened to you. To me it doesn’t make that much of a difference, because I got a lot of impostor syndrome going on, because I was in the Navy, under Clinton. We read books. That was our thing. I was in the nuclear program, which was a tough program, but we never went anywhere. We were done. With our two-week war in the Gulf. Even though I got a National Defense medal, I think they handed those out to everybody upon arriving to bootcamp, just had the one. It’s kind of sad, I’d rather not have any, then just one little free one there. But I went out and quickly got expert pistol and expert rifle so it wasn’t alone. It doesn’t seem to change their minds anymore. Or it doesn’t seem to be something that—if you’re a liberal, it doesn’t matter. You’re in the bad category. And I think that used to make a difference, but those folks, have kind of fallen off the Trump train, if you will. But the ones that are left, are dead set no matter what, are you a bad person.
I swear like a sailor. Here’s why. Two reasons. First, I was a sailor, in the Navy. [Audience cheers and claps.] Anybody else, military? Sweet. Thank you. I don’t know why I gave you the black power salute. As-salaam alaikum. Thank you. That means thank for your service. I think. Right? No, probably not. But yeah, I joined the Navy like, twenty-five years ago, you guys. I’m old. And it was so long ago, I was one of the first women in the nuclear engineering program, one of the first women ever. [Audience cheers and claps.] Thank you. Paving the way for all you ladies, if you want to nukes in the Navy. There, I just wrote a song for you. It’s weird to be there with three girls, two of them are married, there’s me, there’s like 600 dudes. Whoa. It was so weird. They weren’t ready for me. First of all, there was no ob/gyn on the whole base. So I needed to get my birth control pills, and they’re like, what?! I need to see a, you know, gyn. What? You know what they fucking did? They sent a dentist. [Audience laughs.] Like, how’d they work that one out? She needs her vagina checked out, he’s a mouth guy…send him in! Put him in there! Dentist doing my paps, you guys. But now my vagina has braces, so it’s fantastic.
What do you think has changed in the comedy scene in the time when you entered it, and this new crop of young twenty-year olds cutting their teeth on stage?
Especially for women.
Yeah, the reservoir of material that I had at my feet is probably smaller, the jokes have to be more thoughtful, and mine have had to evolve that way too. It’s not like I still use all my old terrible jokes. They’ve had to evolve as well. And there’s certain phrases that have to drop out, certain things that have to change, and have to be modified. And I think it’s just the more politically correct world to be in as a comic, but it also poses kind of a good challenge. And I think it’s good that people aren’t just dropping n-bombs on stage or whatever, but I think what’s good about it—do you remember Howard Stern, when he was on Clear Channel? Before he got his own Sirius XM contract, and he had to play within the rules? I thought he was much more clever, and far funnier, when he had to deal with that. I think it pushes young comedians now to be more clever, without the shock value of something that might just be offensive.
Can you talk about your initial experience with the Veterans Administration as a veteran, who was seeking services, and how that influenced your decision to go work and reform them one day?
Well, I had a great experience with the VA, when I first got there. The veteran’s health administration. The veteran’s benefits administration. I know everyone says it’s one VA, but in order to get your health benefits you go through the compensation and pension process, which is very back logged and very difficult. Bureaucratic, hard to navigate. You can’t do it by yourself, you have to get a VSO or a representative to help you. I had a guy here at the county San Diego services help me with my claim, and it still took five years, almost five years, three rejections. But I was still getting care at the VA, because you don’t need to—for military sexual trauma you don’t have to have a rating to get care at the VA. You just get it. Which is great. They’re now doing that for mental health, and they’re doing it for folks who have other than honorable discharges as well, which used to not be a thing. But a lot of those 22 suicides a day come from that batch. So they’re like, we gotta help all the veterans. Well, good. But, the actual healthcare system I ended up working, I didn’t have a problem with. I liked very much. What I wanted to get into it for was to, I don’t know. Get into enough of a position of power where I could help shape legislation. That was important to me, because I just wanted to make sure the VA kept making the correct decisions. Like for example, helping our transgender veterans. Or creating health programs for the LGBTQ+ community, whatever, insert issue here. The VA’s been out in front on all of it. I’ve been very pleased with that, and I’m glad to be there to help work with other veterans who have MST, and PTS, and help work on legislation for that. Particularly with the reporting system in the military, but that’s not really from the VA side. But I got into it because, Obama. He community organized me. He said ask not what your country can do, and I said yeah, man. I applied, it took me six months to get a GS-5 position with a Masters degree. It’s hard to get in, even as a veteran. I took the executive oath of office the same day he did.
Well, now we’re under the Trump administration. And one of the things we’ve seen, when he got around to appointing people to government agencies was the heads of the agencies he appointed are clearly bombs, meant to make the organization dysfunctional, or collapse it.
The EPA Chief, Scott [Justin, overlapping unintelligible?] Pruitt—
Exactly, thank you.
—completely hates the earth. Yeah. The Secretary of Education has nothing to do with education, just Erik Prince’s (sp?) sister.
And one thing that’s not unique to this administration, it’s been floated in past conservative administrations, is the concept that why do we need the VA? Why not privatize everything? If you were going to encounter somebody kind of considering that line of thinking, what would you say to them?
No. That’s a very, very bad idea. It’s very expensive. If you look at the choice program, which is our contracted, purchased care, in the community, so if a vet comes in and we don’t have an appointment for sixty days, because we’re so backed up in a specific clinic that you need care in, we’ll send you, go to this doctor, and we’ll pay for it. But they can charge 115% of Medicare rates, and we have to pay that bill. The taxpayer has to pay that bill. Whereas direct care is much cheaper, true for Tricare as well. You think about an active duty service member getting his or her care on the base, in the military treatment facility, that is far less expensive than sending them out to a private doctor. I can promise you this, I’m not worried about it, because every single veteran’s service organization, whether it’s Veterans of Foreign Wars, or DAV, is very very, 100% against this, as are all veterans. I don’t know any veterans who are for the privatization of the VA. And you will rue the day that you go against that voting block.
Can you talk to us about the process by how you became involved with The Invisible War, and for those who haven’t seen it or heard about it, talk a little bit about what it accomplished and what it was made to be?
Sure. I was seeing my therapist, who happened to be the head of military sexual trauma at the San Diego VA, Dr. Carolyn Large(sp?), she’s not with the VA anymore, I’m sad about that. She was an amazing doctor, and she told me they were making a movie about MST. I called them up and they go oh my gosh, your story, we need it, come up, we have one last round of filming. I just barely got in under the wire. I went up and filmed the story, I had never told anyone my story outside of my therapist. No one. Not my family, not any friends, nothing. I had my jokes, but they weren’t direct. They were indirect.
It’s a pretty big leap to go from telling your therapist, to—
Telling a movie.
Telling a movie, exactly. Did you have any trepidation about making that leap, or was that like, all or nothing?
I did, I was really worried about my job, but I was also at my wits end. So I just did it. What happened, what ended up happening, was pretty amazing. It was really cathartic, for me, in that when I went to see the movie—and first of all it’s important to note that nobody would agree to do this movie, including myself, when I said we’re not bashing the military, I’m not in for that. And she said it’s funny you ask that, every single person has wanted to make sure we aren’t doing that, and we aren’t. So it’s really great in that way. But when I went to see the movie, keeping in mind I had never told anybody, I saw, my part was in a montage of other women who were saying the exact same things I was saying. The things that were said to me, the things you heard in my piece. About reporting, being in trouble, being charged with adultery and all that. I had never heard that before, and felt way less crazy.
That solidarity. Reality is an agreement of two?
It was validation. Especially with the VA telling me we’re not filing your claim, it didn’t happen. From that point on I was like, yes, now I know. And that was kind of my group therapy. A huge group. But still sort of my group therapy.
Was there any kind of resentment over the fact that it had to take a movie to move that mountain?
Yeah, that makes me really angry. Because I know there were thousands of women who weren’t in a movie who are waiting for their claims to go through. Since I filed my claim, the claims process has been eased, a bit. They don’t require quite as much as they required for me. They realized it was traumatizing to do that to people with mental health issues, like, no, you’re lying, your story didn’t happen, and have a nice day. Oh and by the way we’re the government. It retraumatizes you. The fact that I was able to get my claim through because I was in this film is wholly and totally unfair.
So you’ve been using your powers for good ever since.
Been trying. Been trying.
Well on that note, if a woman, young woman, was continuing joining the military today, what advice would you have for her?
That’s funny, everybody asks me that, and it changes on a daily basis—
—but if I said not to, it wouldn’t be because of the culture, the potential rape culture that they face. It would be for other political reasons. But I wouldn’t join this particular military, right now. Just because of all the potential problems we could be facing. N `1ow they’re sending JAG lawyers to the border, to work on immigration cases. You could be stuck down there for 179 days, doing a job you should be paid twice as much to do that you’ve never done before. Or you could be sent to the Korean Peninsula, that sounds safe and fun. I would have advised against that. But if it wasn’t for that, I’d say absolutely. The camaraderie is incredible, I never regretted joining the military, I’d never take it back, and I’d never do anything differently. I might not have gone to that party that night. But you know, sauce for the goose. I wouldn’t ever tell anyone not to join because of that.
We’ll be back right back so you can hear more with Allison Gill, right after this.
Welcome back to Incoming, where we’re speaking with comedian and songwriter Allison Gill. What do you think is something in general civilians don’t understand about the military that you would like to correct?
The tribal understanding. That when you leave the military, you have lost your family. Your tribe. And there’s nothing like it in the civilian world. Even if you have a family, that it’s not the same. That’s probably one of the biggest misunderstandings about why people end up committing crimes, or harming others, becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol. Or turn out to be jerks. I think that’s a big piece of it. I would want people to understand that more, I think.
That it exists.
Yeah. That that’s a big part of a problem, and I’m not telling society to get tribal, I’m saying understand that’s how different it is. It’s also part of the trauma for military sexual trauma, because you’re now betrayed by somebody who is in your tribe. It’s not just a stranger, or a friend you’re dating, even a boyfriend. It’s somebody who’s your family, and that betrayal it’s a different level.
When you became involved in the comedy community, did that in any way supplant or transition from tribe to tribe for you? Did that hit that, tastebud you were looking for?
Probably. I hadn’t thought of that until you just set it, but yeah, there’s definitely a community. As is there a community at KPBS, or the community with the writers that we work with, or the comedy community. Again, that whole humor thick with sexual undertones is there as well. It kind of feels homey.
It’s like nothing ever changed.
I got to find a group of really disgusting minded people to hang out with, where do I go? Comedy, comedy is the key.
If you encountered a service member who was about to term out in a couple weeks and you could give them one piece of advice, what do you think it would be?
Go to the doctor. Get everything on your medical record. Get anything you’ve forgotten, tinnitus, your knee has been hurting, anything that’s been bothering you, don’t be like, ah, that’s only for people who need it. Anything that’s ever happened to you in the military, if it’s not documented in your record, it’s not going into the VA, and it’s not going to be covered. Unless you’ve got some other massive disability, then you’re covered for everything. But. Just document, document, document. And take a TAP class. Not dancing, transition assistance program. And find out about your benefits. The problem with that is that there’s millions of them. I learn about benefits, and I’ve been out for twenty-five years, that I didn’t even know that we had. Go somewhere, find that booklet, do your homework, look at all the benefits you get. Because you’ve earned them. And they’re there for you. It’s not like you’re taking them from someone else. It’s not a zero-sum game. If you go and get those benefits doesn’t mean some veteran worse off than you didn’t get it. It’s there for everyone, ever. There’s enough for everybody.
What do you think is at the root of that psychology that’s so common among veterans, and their resistance to seeking care, because they somehow feel somebody else had it worse? Everyone knows someone who had it worse, if you’ve been around long enough.
And only two percent of us are combat vets, anyway. It’s the old impostor syndrome, and I think it’s humility. I think anybody who, and I don’t want to do blanket statements there’s always exceptions, but people who sign up to defend the constitution and defend our country are generally good people. Humble people. And that impostor syndrome is real, whether you’re military or not, happens in the regular world too. Just always having to talk up, feeling like if anyone really knew the real you, you would be out on your butt, you know. I think it’s just, going through boot camp, being in the military, there’s just a certain level of, I guess an unwritten rule, that you have to look out for others…I don’t know, it’s an unspeakable thing, I can’t put words to it.
Might be out of our pay grade, maybe.
Everyone just knows it. It’s a feeling, describing it is very difficult. I guess it has a lot to do with the tribalism that exists.
Alright, so tell us where we can find your stuff.
Oh! Well, you can go to allisongill.com, I’m on Twitter @allisongill.
My buddy, Allison Gill.
Thank you for having me.
When we recorded that interview you just heard with Allison Gill, the jury was still out on whether or not she was allowed, as an employee of the Veterans Administration, and therefore the federal government, to keep her job and also announce she was in fact of the aforementioned Webby award-winning podcast Mueller, She Wrote, which chronicles the investigation of Robert Mueller, and now the impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump. Since then, in a turn of logic that could only come from the federal government, it has been decided that while Allison Gill cannot publicly identify herself as the host of Mueller, She Wrote, other people, myself included, are allowed to mention it all we want, without there being consequences. So, go figure. I say that to explain why, during our interview, I did not bring up her role as host of the podcast in conversation. But that’s okay, because you can go hear her show yourself at muellershewrote.com. Listening to my conversation with Allison again just now, I’m struck at how even the relatively short amount of time that’s passed since recording and airing this episode, how much my own opinions on the changing nature of comedy in our culture have shifted. Maybe it’s because I feel like every time I turn on Netflix, there’s a new standup special by a male comedian titled something like Triggered, which contains a rant about how people are too PC these days because people got mad at him when he said something offensive about gay or trans or Chinese or black people or fill in the blank. And I’ll always fight for the right to say those things in free speech writ large, but to be honest, they’re just not that funny anymore. Or interesting, or controversial. They all come off sounding like the angry out of touch uncle you only see once a year at holiday gatherings. But when marginalized people, whether queer, or belonging to racial or religious or cultural minorities—and I would include veterans in that statement—satirize the very stereotypes and injustices aimed at them? It feels fresh, and transgressive, and revolutionary. I think of how it would come off if a civilian made fun of a veteran with PTSD, but my Marine friends do it to each other all the time, out of love. Because it helps them cope.
We’ll be exploring more about the role of comedy and the military on our next episode, when we talk to Paul Szoldra, creator of Duffel Blog, the online satirical news site often referred to as The Onion of military culture. Beloved by veterans and active duty service members alike, including General James Mattis. So, be sure to subscribe to the podcast, and give that a listen when it drops. That’s our show today. Allison’s performance of her story about coping mechanisms was recorded live by So Say We All at Border X Brewing in the heart of San Diego’s Barrio Logan, as part of La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls Festival. Incoming is produced by myself, Justin Hudnall, Jennifer Pepperpot Corley is our editor and sound designer, at KPBS Kirk (sp?) is our audio engineer, Kinsey Moreland is podcast coordinator, Lisa Morrissette Zap(sp?) is operations manager, and John Decker is program director. Support for Incoming comes from the KPBS Explorer program, the California Arts Council’s Veterans Initiative in the Arts, and the supporting members of So Say We All. You can find us on the web and learn more at sosayweallonline.com, we highly encourage you to do it. Also please subscribe to Incoming, drop us a rating and a review, it helps us out so much, through Apple podcasts, or wherever else you like to do your podcasting. We’d love it if you dropped us an email to share your thoughts and stories with us, at email@example.com. Thanks for listening, we’ll talk again soon.
Musician, comic and Navy veteran Allison Gill invites us into her alchemy of metabolizing trauma through comedy.
About the Show:
Incoming showcases the true stories of America’s military veterans, told in their own words, straight from their own mouths. Produced by So Say We All, a 501c3 literary and performing arts nonprofit, in collaboration with San Diego’s NPR station KPBS.
Incoming is a KPBS Explore series that tells true stories from the lives of America's military — told in their own words, straight from their own mouths. Produced by So Say We All, a literary and performing arts nonprofit, Incoming features voices of people from all walks of life associated with the armed forces. This series showcases the raw, honest voices of men and women who have served in every capacity and branch of the military. If you're interested in sharing your story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.