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Autopsy of War: A Personal History [Kindle Edition]

John A. Parrish M.D.
3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)

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Kindle Price: $7.59
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Sold by: Macmillan


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Book Description

On the outside, John Parrish is a highly successful doctor, having risen to the top of his field as department head at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. Inside, however, he was so tortured by the memories of his tour of duty as a marine battlefield doctor in Vietnam that he was unable to live a normal life. In Autopsy of War, the author delivers an unflinching narrative chronicling his four-decade battle with the unseen enemy in his own mind as he struggled with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.


Parrish examines his Southern Baptist childhood and the profound influence of his father, a fire and brimstone preacher turned Navy chaplain, while offering a candid assessment of the “God and Country” ethos that leads young men to rush wide-eyed into war. He describes the unimaginable carnage and acts of cruelty he witnessed in Vietnam, experiences that shattered his world view leaving him to retreat from his family upon his return stateside. Living virtually homeless at times, he visited veteran shelters and relived the horrors of war in a series of harrowing flashbacks as he dealt with suicidal thoughts. The author writes honestly and probingly of his episodes of infidelity and battles with sex addiction. Readers follow his steady journey toward recovery and his professional contributions in the field of medicine and technology, as well as a joint program with the Boston Red Sox and Massachusetts General Hospital to aid returning veterans. Perhaps most poignantly, Parrish speaks of his quest to discover the identity of one particular solider in Vietnam he could not save—and whose memory has haunted him ever since.


Autopsy of War is a soul searching memoir that is both an intensely personal narrative and a universally relevant trip through the world of war and recovery.

Editorial Reviews


Autopsy of War ranks among the most insightful and compelling memoirs of the war in Vietnam”
—VVA VETERAN magazine

“For 40 years, Parrish, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, has wrestled with his experiences in the Vietnam War, writing and rewriting his own story. Before the term post-traumatic stress disorder was coined, Parrish suffered the destruction of the war in personal ways, finding himself unfit and unable to reconnect to U.S. culture and personal relationships when he returned. Parrish was raised in the South by a strict father—a former military man and minister—who never recovered from the death of his first son. Married and the father of two young girls, Parrish was just out of medical school when he was sent to Vietnam and felt a fracturing of his personality that only continued as he compartmentalized the war and his life back in the U.S. As a U.S. Navy physician serving with the Marine Corps, he worked sometimes in triage at the base and sometimes out in the fields with soldiers, watching the horror of combat and learning from the grunts the drudgery of just trying to stay alive. On his return, as a catharsis, Parrish wrote 12, 20 & 5: A Doctor’s Year in Vietnam (1973) but could not banish his demons. His latest book is a deeply personal examination of the aftereffects of war that is often disturbing in its graphic descriptions but penetrating in its search for atonement.”—Booklist (starred)

“A distinguished physician reflects on a tormented life haunted by memories of his one-year war. Given his tumultuous upbringing, perhaps Parrish (Between You and Me: A Sensible and Authoritative Guide to the Care and Treatment of Your Skin, 1978, etc.) would have ended up on the psychiatrist’s couch in any event. However, this anxious, bright and dutiful son went on to Duke and to Yale for medical school. By then, married with two children and facing the draft, he volunteered for the Navy and served a 1967-68 tour in Vietnam. There, treating the horribly maimed and looking into the face of dying grunts, he acquired the “invisible wounds of war” that have haunted him ever since. Parrish’s recollection of that harrowing year and the collision of his Christian morality and boyish notions of soldiering with the war’s too-real trauma constitute this memoir’s most memorable passages. The rest is a dual tale of remarkable professional success and private pain and instability. After obsessively rewriting his own war story, silently visiting a homeless veterans’ shelter, living alone and celibate, or together with mismatched partners, Parrish finally sought help to treat his clinical depression. Only after exhausting a menu of spiritual remedies, finally getting with the right woman, submitting to an uncommonly adept therapist, reconnecting with his wartime hooch-mates, revisiting Vietnam, and today directing the Home Base Program (for veterans suffering from brain injuries and PTSD) has he found a measure of peace. After recounting his bumpy road to recovery, Parrish wonders if this unvarnished revelation of personal suffering amounts to little more than a continuation of the self-centeredness that drove him professionally and trashed his family. Some readers will answer yes, while others will credit him with an honest attempt to explain the full dimensions of an affliction we still know far too little about.

A useful introduction to the causes and consequences of PTSD.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Parrish served as a physician-in-training in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968, but suffered its psychic toll for four decades afterward. In this forceful, painfully rendered memoir, Parrish (12, 20, & 5: A Doctor‘s Year in Vietnam) recounts how his war apprenticeship shaped his later double life. He may have looked like he had it all as a distinguished Harvard-trained dermatologist and CEO of the Center of Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology, but to his family Parrish was a wanton philanderer, distant father, and guilt-ridden son and brother. In an excruciating account of Parrish’s downward spiral before treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder—from whose symptoms he suffered long before the term existed—he confesses to abandoning his family, becoming homeless, and suffering mysterious physical ailments. Only when Parrish finally began medication and counseling did the cloud of his depression start to lift, and though he lost his marriage, Parrish found love again, reconnected with the men who shared his wartime experience, and even returned to Vietnam to face one of the most frightening moments of his life. With this moving work, the exorbitant costs of a long-ago war seem all too fresh—and relevant.”
Publishers Weekly

“A memoir, deep and thoughtful enough to be called an autobiography, by an Army doctor in Viet Nam who doesn’t present himself as heroic but may strike the reader that way, anyway (he certainly did to me). The combat-casualty triage horrors are stark and terrible and not sensationalized but not soft-pedaled, either. This was a year-long nightmare of gore, body parts, and death after death of vigorous young men (mostly), interrupted of course by near-miraculous rescues and recoveries. But the story really begins, and a different sort of heroism emerges, when Parrish’s war ends, for John Parrish was himself a classic post-traumatic stress disorder case. He would live an amazingly divided life, managing a distinguished medical career all the while he was developing near-insane obsessive behavior patterns, deserting his family, and living a near-vagabond private life. Recovery and redemption did not come cheap, but they came, and this beautifully told story ends on a note of grace and quiet triumph.”
Sullivan County Democrat

"With courage and great candor, Dr. Parrish offers an intimate, compelling, and sometimes chilling narrative of his own struggles with PTSD. The author gives us not just the wisdom and expertise of a physician, but the firsthand testimony of a man who understands that wars don't end when the last shot is fired. Wars go on and on in human memory."
—Tim O'Brien, National Book Award winning author, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist

“Dr. Parrish offers an astonishingly honest and candid depiction of the invisible wounds of war through the lens of his own personal struggles and his clinical work treating returning warriors. It’s an inspirational first-hand account which should help destigmatize psychological disorders and not just encourage those in need to seek help, but assure them that brighter days can lay ahead.”
—Senator John Kerry

"Dr. John Parrish has once again shown remarkable courage. He writes about his own sufferings with painful candor, from death incomprehensible to him as a child to carnage witnessed as a combat surgeon. He is honest about his “impotence and rage,” grieving for those he cannot save. He remains committed to caring for warriors living with “invisible wounds” of war. His book is not really an “Autopsy.” It is a prescription for life."
—Congressman Michael E. Capuano

"As a combat physician from Operation Iraqi Freedom, "Autopsy of War" has awakened many of my own reflections on our ultimate powerlessness, but also of our never ending hope and genuine desire to ease the suffering of our fellow warriors and thereby heal our own wounds from having born witness to the inhumanity of war.  Dr. Parrish bravely confesses his personal journey of grief, despair, and redemption... a journey taken by warriors past, present, and regrettably... future.  This is the burden of the warrior class, so that we may live in a civilized society." 
—Colonel John C. Bradley, MD, Chair, Department of Psychiatry, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center

“John Parrish's story is engaging. While very individually focused, the behaviors he explains will be familiar to many who suffer from these invisible wounds."
—General Peter Chiarelli, Vice Chief of the US Army (Ret.)

“John Parrish does a great service in the telling of his own story and his ultimate success in dealing with it can serve as an example for others.”
—General James Peake, MD, Former US Secretary of Veterans Affairs

“Although painful at times, this powerful and well-written book should be read by all who have experienced the psychological insults of war. It may be more important that it be read by the great majority of Americans who are not personally touched by war.”

—Bob and Lee Woodruff, authors of In an Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing

About the Author

JOHN A. PARRISH, M.D., is the CEO of the Center for the Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology (CIMIT); the CEO of the Red Sox Foundation-Massachusetts General Hospital Home Base Program; and Distinguished Professor of Dermatology and former department head at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. He is the author of 12, 20 & 5: A Doctor's Year in Vietnam.

Product Details

  • File Size: 1063 KB
  • Print Length: 384 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0312654960
  • Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books (June 5, 2012)
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #472,647 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Strange Book and Stranger Man August 1, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition
I read this with great interest being a Marine whose wounded went to 3rd Med Bn in Phu Bai. I have the utmost respect for those who served there and including the Author of this book. I went there as a WIA and returned to duty. My sniper partner took a mortar between the legs and went their in pieces and they nearly saved him, thank God they didn't in the end. Another sniper partner went there after losing a leg and they were wonderful. So my thanks go to all of them. That is why I was so excited about this book.

This is without a doubt one of the most honest accounts a man could write about his growing up years, his experiences in Nam and the many years thereafter. It is brutally honest and very interesting, through 75% of the book. The Author describes his struggles to find meaning to his experience. To me it would seem the meaning was laying there in front of him. As he describes, nameless faces that are endless. The book I think is absolutely brilliantly written.

So maybe three stars isn't the correct rating. But in the end of the book, after a lifetime of super success he describes his unrelenting search for meaning when it seems to me all along it is right in front of him. The late parts of the book to me go over board in describing his worldly accomplishments as a big time Doctor. It just took away from the brilliance of the first half of the book for me. It seemed to me in the end that it was the story of a guy who went to Vietnam with tons of unresolved issues from his upbringing and when he returned he blames all of that on Vietnam. I went to Vietnam with a drinking problem, starting at 14 and came home with one. I got sober at 28 and moved on. My friend who lost the leg came over smoking dope and came home to a growing drug problem that he finally kicked at 42.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Tormented Career July 3, 2012
This autobiography reveals a successful physician at the top of his profession who has struggled with undiagnosed post-traumatic-stress disease (PTSD) for over forty years. The author, Dr. John Parrish, attributes his psychic turmoil to his year in Vietnam as a Navy doctor treating front line battle casualties. Dr. Parrish spares the reader no details in describing his unrelenting and often bizarre attempts to purge himself of his inner demons. Dr. Parish has written a brave, powerful and intimate autobiography, which will almost certainly surprise and shock many of his professional colleagues at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

The interesting question, however, is "Does Dr. Parrish really have PTSD?" While his year in Vietnam subjected him to horrific experiences, Dr. Parrish also had a traumatic childhood as the son of a "demon possessed" Christian fundamentalist preacher-father. Many of Dr. Parrish's fantasies about war were developed early in his life and it appears were nurtured by him after his return from Vietnam. His mental anxieties are real and severe but may have been compounded by his highly developed analytical and imaginative faculties.

Dr. Parrish spends the better part of his adult life trying to answer the question "What was the meaning of his Vietnam experience?" To this reviewer this is essentially an unanswerable existential question. Overall, Dr. Parrish's book provides a fascinating look inside the mind of a mentally damaged but high achieving and creative individual.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars an exhibitionist's tale August 17, 2012
The book description of Autopsy of War suggests this successful dermatologist, John Parrish, will look at his four decade struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a topic I've grown more interested in as I've read ever more soldier memoirs. But after reading more than two-thirds of it, I returned it to the library. I think there is a line between unflinching and exhibitionist, and only the second leaves me feeling slimy after experiencing it. He starts with his parents' childhoods and the awful upbringing of his father, his born-again conversion to Jesus, and his adult life as a successful, hypocritical, mentally ill, narcissistic, philandering preacher. The author repeats his father's example, but adds a few chapters of his time in Vietnam, and finds success in dermatology instead of preaching. I do not deny his reality of living with the stress of flashbacks to the war, his nightmares, his fear of helicopters, his emotional disconnection, as a result of PTSD, but he was a philanderer before the war, during the war, and when he returned from the war. I read up to the part where he talked about finally agreeing to be monogamous again with a woman in his field with a similar warped childhood, who understands him and accepts him with all his faults. He writes about his grief in how he hurts those he loves, but his writing makes sure that the injuries will never be forgotten. Again, he's not like his own father who also left an autobiographical manuscript behind, that the author is hurt too much by to finish. How does he think his own children will feel with this manuscript?

He reports that his own therapists consider him depressed and narcissistic. He tells story after story of impulsive, obsessive and compulsive activities.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars story of a man's autobiographyI
I obtained this book with great interest. I was a corpsman with the 3d Mar Div in quang tri province the same year that this doctor was in country. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Its Dakota
5.0 out of 5 stars Must read
Prior to reading this book Dr. Parrish's book "12, 20, & 5 A DOCTOR'S YEAR IN VIETNAM" is a "must read" also, and it would be my recommendation that anyone who lived through the... Read more
Published 14 months ago by Ross Smith
1.0 out of 5 stars Sad man
A better title for this book would be "My Personal Struggle with PTSD". This book is a descent into the twisted life of a twice tortured man-first as a child and then as an Army... Read more
Published 15 months ago by scott
5.0 out of 5 stars PTSD and Success
I thought this was a special book. I picked it up by chance at the local bookstore and I began reading. I almost put it down when Dr. Parrish was writing about his early days. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Tony
1.0 out of 5 stars Disengenuous
I find this book vulgar on several levels. First and foremost the claims Dr. Parrish make regarding PTSD and his own struggles are narcissistic. Read more
Published 18 months ago by Tim Girard
4.0 out of 5 stars An Insight to War
Dr. Parrish writing style places you in the moment and you get a sense of what it was like to be in the bush and experience war up close and personal. Read more
Published 18 months ago by Jesus Godinez
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read
Dr. Parrish writes an extremely intimate portrait of a man and physician who is thrown into an alien world in more ways than one. Read more
Published 19 months ago by MD Hall
3.0 out of 5 stars Viet Nam Doctor
It's an okay book, but I did not finish reading it due to all of the psychiatric and psychological rambling. Read more
Published 19 months ago by Deano
5.0 out of 5 stars Autopsy of a War
Another great book giving the perspective of a Navy Doctor in country, brought back many bad memories but after the crying and the sadness came the acknowledgement "I was not... Read more
Published 22 months ago by ipad fan
4.0 out of 5 stars honest and brave
In a society where people are getting further and further away from sincerity, I found this book very sincere and honest. Read more
Published on June 17, 2012 by pinpin
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