This week, I was planning on writing about alien abduction and how Vonnegut uses the Tralfamadorians to explore the relationship between free will and trauma in the second third of Slaughterhouse-Five. Then, re-reading the novel, I was stopped short by the long series of scenes describing Billy Pilgrim’s arrival at the prisoner of war camp.
Billy and the other American enlisted men are welcomed by a cadre of old-timers, English officers, who have prepared a feast and practiced a theatrical version of Cinderella to welcome the new arrivals. After six days on a packed, slow-moving prison train with little food and water, Pilgrim responds by dissociating and laugh/shrieking for so long that they take him to the medical tent and knock him out with morphine. The rest of the new arrivals eat heartily and proceed to get desperately, deathly ill.
In the overfull and heaving latrines, under a hastily posted sign that reads “Please Leave This Latrine as Tidy as You Found It!,” Billy Pilgrim finally meets the narrator of Slaughterhouse-Five, who is moaning that he has “excreted everything but his brains.” The English old-timers, having fed a feast of rich food to a trainload of starving and traumatized people, are “catatonic with disgust” that their generosity is literally turning to shit.
And I had this moment of horrified recognition — I’ve been that traumatized person shitting on the kindness of others. I can’t deny it. I’ve also watched people who are genuinely trying to help turn ugly and judgmental when I didn’t respond with what they felt was appropriate gratitude. In my house, we call this a “bummer epiphany.”
Let me be clear: our friends and family made it possible for Jason to begin to heal, and probably saved our relationship. They threw us a fundraiser that netted enough money that we could hire an aide to help Jason take care of his activities of daily living and make it to work for a whole year. People delivered an endless stream of soup and smoothies to our backdoor when Jason’s jaw was wired. They threw another fundraiser a few years later to help with a new round of unexpected costs. After the failed hospitalization, a half dozen of our closest friends built an all-volunteer psych ward in our living room: someone came by to check in on Jason every day for months, until we finally climbed out of that particular crisis.
Yet managing generosity in PTSDLand is harder than it might seem.
I was reading recently about John and Julie Gottman’s research on what makes relationships work. Not surprisingly, they find that generosity and kindness win the day. Couples that stay together acknowledge and engage each others’ bids for attention and connection. Couples that split respond to such bids for intimacy with indifference or hostility.
Writing about their work for The Atlantic in 2014, Emily Esfahani Smith quoted Shakespeare: “My bounty is as boundless as the sea/My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.” Kindness and generosity are self-perpetuating, Smith argues. “The more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves,” she writes, “which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.”
Here’s what the Gottmans miss: To nurture mutual respect and affection, attention has to be met with reciprocity. And PTSD, like many chronic diseases, interrupts the mutual give-and-take – the equitable exchange – in relationships.
For the first few years after the attacks, I couldn’t expect much generosity or kindness from Jason. The trauma shut some of the best parts of him down, including his gentleness, his open-hearted giving, his trust, his humor. His survival and healing took up nearly all of his attention. Yet I needed to put far more energy into the relationship than I had in the past.
In my other relationships, it was the opposite. Jason and I were receivers of unimaginable generosity, but we couldn’t reciprocate. Sometimes my community’s support was so extraordinary that I became overwhelmed and shut down. My inability to return these waves of love left me feeling angry. And then guilty that I was angry. And then so, so tired of feeling guilty and angry.
Much as it disappoints me, one thing I’ve learned from PTSD is that my love is not infinite. Not my ability to give it, and not my ability to receive it, either. But how generosity is offered can make a real difference to traumatized people’s ability to accept it.
Vonnegut offers two scenes of generosity – one tyrannical and one full of quiet respect. He says of the horrible generosity of the English officers:
They were so elated by their own hospitality, and by all the goodies waiting inside, that they did not take a good look at their guests while they sang. And they imagined they were singing to fellow officers fresh from the fray.Slaughterhouse-Five, p. 121.
Then, when Billy wakes from his morphine dreams and accidentally stumbles into barbed wire, a Russian prisoner of war shows him another kind of generosity, a humbler, more reverent attention:
A Russian, himself out in the night to take a leak, saw Billy dancing [stuck in the barbed wire]—from the other side of the fence. He came over to the curious scarecrow, tried to talk with it gently, asked what country it was from. The scarecrow paid no attention, went on dancing. So the Russian undid the snags one by one, and the scarecrow danced off into the night again without a word of thanks.
The Russian waved to him, and called after him in Russian, ‘Good-bye.’Slaughterhouse-Five, p. 158.