A 21-year-old soldier is raped in her barracks by a fellow soldier, and she reports the assault right away. But Army commanders don’t trust her story, and instead of trying to bring the rapist to justice, they look for ways to delegitimize the woman. It’s a familiar narrative in today’s #MeToo environment, and in alumna Ryan Leigh Dostie’s memoir, Formation: A Woman’s Memoir of Stepping Out of Line, published on June 4, the reader accompanies Dostie – who was raped at 21 while serving in the U.S. Army – on her journey of pain, outrage, trauma, and survival, as she navigates the military and life beyond its hierarchy as a rape survivor.
Dostie, who holds an MFA in fiction writing and a bachelor’s degree in history from Southern, has been receiving a lot of attention for her book, even well before its publication. Last November, Formation was selected as Shelf Awareness’ “Gallery Love of the Week,” in an industry newsletter that reviews books not yet published. More recently, Formation was chosen by Amazon editors as June’s top debut, and it is listed as #2 in Esquire’s “Best Books of Summer 2019.” BookRiot named Formation one of its “50 of the Best Books to Read This Summer”; Patch named Formation one of “The 10 Best Books To Read In June”; and PureWow listed it as one of “9 Books We Can’t Wait to Read in June.” The book has also been reviewed on Publishers Weekly, Amazon, and Goodreads.
When Dostie joined the Army in 2000, she did so as a linguist. By now, she has studied six languages, and she had spent a year of high school studying in Japan. When she joined the Army, she intended to become a Japanese interrogator. However, the Army had other plans for her and sent her to the prestigious Defense Language Institute of Monterey for an intensive program in Persian Farsi, the language spoken in Iran.
In 2001, an enlisted man in her unit raped her, and she immediately reported the assault to her superiors, who were at best skeptical and unsympathetic. Even after reporting, Dostie was forced to continue working with her rapist. The commanders who questioned her about what happened pressed her on whether or not she had told her rapist “no,” and they tried to paint her as promiscuous, or to portray her as trying to protect her reputation by accusing her attacker of rape. In the end, the Army dropped the case, and Dostie was left with PTSD, which would eventually take a toll on her mental health and ability to function.
“The book is about rape and how the Army handles it,” Dostie says. But it also is a devastating account of what happens to a rape victim when she reports and is not believed. Dostie stayed in the Army after her attack, and in April 2003, when the Iraq War was well under way, she was sent to Iraq. She had been told that her PTSD “could be a problem if she was deployed,” and it was: she says of that time, “I was not mentally sound.” She did spend 15 months there, however, and her presence in a war zone, compounded by her PTSD, essentially added one trauma to another.
In April 2004, when the uprising in Sadr City occurred, after Saddam Hussein was caught, Dostie says, “We were all packed to go home, and then they said we had to stay.” She did return to the United States eventually, and says at first she felt fine but then started showing signs of PTSD. She got out of active duty in 2005 and eventually returned home to Connecticut, which helped her PTSD. She began to attend Southern and date the man who would become her husband.
An Honors College student and history major at Southern, Dostie wrote two honors theses: one was in history and one, a creative writing thesis, was the beginnings of Formation. She says the manuscript that would eventually become Formation had actually started in an introductory fiction writing class as a “sci-fi futuristic Civil War-type story about a woman in the infantry – a woman working with all men in this masculine military environment.” When she told English Professor Tim Parrish, who taught that course, that she had been in the military, he advised that the story should be about her own experience. She rewrote it into a story about a woman in the military in Iraq, and it became her honors thesis.
She graduated with her B.A. in 2011, and when she joined the MFA program in creative writing a few years later, she rewrote the honors thesis into her MFA thesis. Parrish says, “Having worked with Ryan on this material from the time she took her first Intro to Fiction class through her MFA thesis, I’ve seen how she earned this book, not only in terms of her incredible work ethic and steadfast growth as a writer, but maybe moreso as a person with the courage and steadfastness to confront and process so much awful history, to survive, and to make great art from her experience. This book is not only outstanding, it’s important.”
Dostie sold the book several days before the #MeToo movement broke, and she says now #MeTooMilitary is gaining traction. There has been a spike in the number of reporting sexual assaults in the military, she says, adding, “They’ve changed how you report it, but if you report, it can still affect your career.”
The Army is now doing SHARP (Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention) briefings to teach soldiers about sexual assault and harassment. The briefings can be effective, Dostie says, “but people have to take it seriously. They are learning about consent and what is sexual harassment. It’s about trying to change the culture.”
Dostie will be a featured reader at the SCSU MFA Program’s 10 anniversary celebration in fall 2019. Find out more about her upcoming local events (readings, book signings, etc.).