Anu Bhagwati’s parents, Indian immigrants, were not thrilled when their Yale-educated daughter joined the Marines, nor when her post-Corps life (which included graduate studies at Harvard) led to her working as an activist and yoga instructor. And yet, with the publication of “Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience,” Bhagwati’s parents surprised her.
“They’re really proud of me, which is not something I entirely expected!” Bhagwati said. “They were really moved when they read it. One of the most touching things about sharing the book with them was that they’re most proud of the fact that I want to help people. It’s not that the book came out; it’s that the point of the book was to help other women and girls.”
In “Unbecoming,” Bhagwati recounts her journey through a military life that included rampant sexism and sexual harassment. Although there were things she loved about the Marines, Bhagwati said, the pervasive negative attitudes and treatment of women were unbearable. Even after leaving the Corps, “I had to really find out who I was and what I believed in. I was so disillusioned,” she said. “There’s all of this talk about honor and courage and commitment. When I saw my peers or senior officers sweeping sexual harassment under the rug, I thought, where are the honor, courage, and commitment now?”
What helped, she said, was connecting with strong women, founding the Service Women’s Action Network, and learning to love herself. “Coming out of the Marine Corps, words like ‘self-affirmation’ weren’t part of the vocabulary!” she said. But yoga, therapy, and activism helped.
Work remains to be done, she added, and civilians need to help. “Whether or not we believe in the foreign policy that our government is engaging in, whether or not we believe in wars abroad, we have an all-volunteer force now, and there are kids every day signing up to do very dangerous and risky things in our names. How can we not support them?”
Bhagwati will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Harvard Book Store.
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Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.