“Part of trauma’s corrosive power lies in its ability to destroy narrative. … Stories, written and spoken, have tremendous healing power both for the teller and the listener. Stories in the form of literature help us to understand the enigma of survival.”David Morris, The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (p 17)
As you know if you’ve read the introductory materials for this series, my partner was the victim of two attacks in late 2015 that left him with a debilitating and chronic case of PTSD.
In the beginning of this year, I was diagnosed with PTSD as well. A mild case, but a real one.* I believe it arose, in part, from being around my partner’s symptoms – emotional volatility, hypervigilance, withdrawal and numbing – especially in the close quarters required by the pandemic. This is what clinicians call “secondary trauma.”
But my case also came from more primary sources. Among them was a sense of profound isolation. I scoured libraries, online databases, and the web for books and articles that spoke to my experience as a PTSD caregiver. I found almost nothing. So, instead, I started collecting books that were almost right, that were useful enough: fiction, memoir, critical theory, medical research, clinical reflections, primers for achieving social justice and community safety. These books helped me forge my own safe path through the whirlwind.
But why books? Isn’t reading about PTSD a bit like doing algebra about dance?
The embodied nature of trauma – and the importance of working with the body to heal PTSD – has, thankfully, gotten increased attention in the last few decades. I’ve benefited from EMDR and somatic experiencing therapies myself. But, as David Norris says above, PTSD is also a disease of narrative. And I’m a writer. Reading and writing about my experience has been a hugely important part of my process of healing.
What follow over the next year are the twelve books that most helped me cope. I hope that the insights I draw from them are useful, and that these mini-essays spark conversations that help us all understand each other better.
This month, I’ll reflect on what is perhaps the most classic work of fiction about PTSD, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death. On April 7, I’ll post a short blog about PTSD, “trauma time,” and perhaps space aliens. I’ll focus on the first third of the novel, Chapters 1-3.
Content warnings for this material: Slaughterhouse-Five contains scenes of military violence, particularly the firebombing of Dresden, of a prisoners of war camp, and of military execution. There’s a brief discussion of torture, but no actual scene of torture. One soldier punches and kicks another. Also, Vonnegut’s narrator is pretty wrenchingly sexist.
Some people find Vonnegut’s dark humor a little off-putting or dismissive. Stay aware of your response, and if it’s bugging you or activating you, just stop. This isn’t school! None of this reading is required!
Myself, I find his style very validating. Our household engages in a lot of dark humor, too. Jokes that we certainly wouldn’t share with non-traumatized people give us a degree of comfort, bond us together, and buck up our resilience.
When I realized I had accidentally scheduled this series to launch on April Fool’s Day, I thought about waiting a day or two before moving forward. Then, I thought to myself, “This is exactly the kind of dark humor Vonnegut would appreciate.” So it goes.
* It’s funny how many of us feel the need to prove that we “deserve” a diagnosis of PTSD. We don’t do that with cancer – if you have a mild case of cancer, no one’s like, “Oh, Stage 1? You don’t really have cancer, then.” Mac McClelland talks about this in Irritable Hearts – she calls it the “atrocity hierarchy.”