For most Vietnamese, the unceasing conflict that engulfed their country for decades, including the indescribably brutal Japanese invasion and occupation, the war to evict the French and the subsequent “American War, which officially ended in 1975 and which left behind enormous physical and emotional devastation, life had taken on almost surrealist atmosphere of mental numbness. Le Ly Hayslip personally experienced the worst of what happens when civilians become trapped between warring enemies. Raised a Buddhist in her small village near Da Nang, which would become a major U.S. military installation, her introduction to war began at the age of 12 when American helicopters landed suddenly in her village. From then on, her life was torn apart, with the Viet Cong suspecting her of being a traitor their cause and the government suspecting her of communist sympathies. In short, much of her early life was spent in a war, during which she was brutally raped by Viet Cong guerrillas and imprisoned by the government, left emotional wounds that are unlikely to completely heal despite her eventual escape to the United States.
As a Buddhist, it is interesting that Hayslip’s memoir, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, is heavily influenced by Biblical concepts, most notably with the title of her book and with the observation in Chapter Six that Vietnam had come to exist “between heaven and earth,” a phrase drawn from the Book of Genesis, with its references to heaven and earth. Buddhists do not place much emphasis on the concept of a “soul,” yet Hayslip’s memoir is replete with instances in which she suggests a fervent belief in such a concept, most notably in her description of the horrific rape to which was subjected. After describing her rapist’s “evil breath,” she describes his penetration of her as follows:
“The force of Loi’s twisted soul had entered me and killed me as surely as a knife. . .What Loi had killed inside me could not be buried, yet I already felt its weight – like a shoulder pole or tumor on my soul.”
It is, however, in Chapter Six, titled A Question of Faith, where Hayslip brings into focus the full measure the brutality to which the Vietnamese were subjected, including by her own countrymen. Describing the inhumanity that has engulfed her country, with soldiers from Korea, Morocco, and other allies of the United States routinely carrying out brutal atrocities against Vietnamese citizens, often in retaliation for some Viet Cong terrorist attack, she writes “Like the Japanese of World War II, they seemed to have no conscience and went about their duties as ruthless killing machines. No wonder they found my country a perfect place to ply their trade.” And, later, reflecting upon the duality of evil inherent in that war, Hayslip describes Vietnam as caught in “the evil vortex between heaven and hell that my country had become.” The key to deciphering Hayslip’s description of the “evil vortex” into which her country had slipped, however, is not in Biblical scripture. Rather it is some of the less benevolent interpretations of scripture found in the writings of William Blake, the English artist and poet from the period known as Romanticism. Blake's well-known work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, provides the basis for Hayslip’s perception of a world in which she has known mostly pain: “Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.” To this product of the war in Vietnam, her country had come to sit squarely in that netherworld between polar opposites.