“A few hours before I am raped, two officers in a bar try to corner me and steal my panties.” And with that jarring first line, Formation by Ryan Leigh Dostie begins, hitting the ground running. A lyrically written novel that embodies the Hemingway quote, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein,” Dostie lays bare the deepest depths of herself in this debut memoir. In boldly and candidly telling her truth, Dostie inspires.
Formation dives right into the trauma that will change Ryan Dostie forever – the night she is betrayed in the worst way by a fellow soldier when he rapes her. The events that transpire after this heinous act of violence shines a blaring spotlight on the culture of toxic masculinity within our own military. And what happens when our women warriors refuse to ‘go gentle.’
Raised surrounded by a group of powerful women, Ryan Leigh Dostie was never a girl destined to be a shrinking violet. Taught to embrace her own worth and desires from a young age, unintimidated by barriers that could get in her way, Ryan grows from a wonderfully wild little girl into a brilliant, spunky, adventurous young woman. So it’s no surprise that promises of thrilling endeavors draws Dostie to the army as a linguist. The army turns out to be both wonderful and terrible. And never what she expects.
Thrust into a male-dominated establishment unwelcoming to women, Dostie still manages to hold her own in the army with grit and sharp wits. But, after the vicious assault she suffers in her barracks room that night, when Ryan doesn’t adhere to the subliminal rule of ‘shut up and suck it up’ that’s been drilled into her since basic training, the commanders that are there to protect her utterly – and willfully – fail her. Even with a crime scene, with physical evidence, they look this woman in the eyes and tell her they don’t believe her. They cherry pick her statements, selecting snippets that suit their fabricated retelling of the crime. They bully, sneer, blame, and try to humiliate her for speaking up. They protect a rapist. These leaders chosen to be thus because of their valor and great endevours, force a victim to bare the shame of an assailant, shame that never belongs to her. While her attacker walks around albatross-less, she is ostracized like a leper, even though she’s not the one clothed in the boils. It is a second violation.
Even when recounting the turbulence, Dostie always seems to find moments of light within the dark to focus on. Instances of kindness and compassion from friends, from family – even a few strangers – are made evermore poignant for their rarity. And as she wages this war for justice, Dostie soon gets sent off to fight in another war, all the way in Iraq.
Her battle scars take on the form of PTSD.
What follows is Dostie dealing with the aftermath of trauma and war. Can you ever really heal from something from which there is no closure, no justice? Ryan answers this question by showing us. In present-tense, she immerses us in another time. You feel every nuance of emotion as your own. All the rage, disbelief, heartbreak, triumph, resilience – it seeps into your amygdala. Formation is not just sitting down and reading a book. It is leaping into another dimension to stand juxtaposed with Dostie in her shoes.
Formation is a story for everyone. Though we all may have different backgrounds and journeys, the human experience is universal. Formation, at its core, is a starkly human journey. Dostie’s writing vividly captures the marrow of what it is to be human. The one truth we all know is that life is both gutting and glorious. We all have faced adversity, we have all been vulnerable to someone we trust, we have felt the burbling of happiness in our bellies, and we have all fought for something that mattered. It is by being utterly real in her humanity that Dostie connects powerfully with readers from all walks of life.
The message in Formation is a timely and vital one in the #metoo era. The message is this: you are not alone, and you are never to blame. The way rape victims are treated is not acceptable. There is nothing in this world that justifies sexual assault. And the tradition of victim blaming needs to end. Sexual assault survivors deserve justice, for their voices to be heard. Not omitted. Consequences are for perpetrators, not victims. And the military cannot hide the way sexual assault has been grossly mishandled within its walls forever. It has to stop. We need to be the ones to fight for those changes. To fight for those who have been silenced. I have high hopes that Formation will shake up this world, and help those who have lost their voices find them.
Formation is a vindicated fist raised in the air. A rally for change. A self-reclamation, a narrative repossessed. It is a woman whom, even when she feels shattered to bits like Humpty Dumpty, has a lionhearted spirit that burns undimmed, as incandescent as it did when she was a child. A spirit that their barriers never did stop. It is a woman who has been heard. A woman who is believed.
Formation is a book whose echoes will linger with you long after you’ve closed the pages.
5/5 stars, and HIGHLY recommended. Formation lives up to all the hype, and is well-deserving of its spots at the top of summer reading lists. I look forward to more work from Ryan Leigh Dostie in the future, and foresee a bright career ahead. Now, book and author, go soar and make waves!