In leading his patients to understand that breakdown was nothing to be ashamed of, that horror and fear were inevitable responses to the trauma of war and were better acknowledged than suppressed, that feelings of tenderness for other men were natural and right, that tears were an acceptable and helpful part of grieving, he was setting himself against the whole tenor of their upbringing. They’d been trained to identify emotional repression as the essence of manliness. Men who broke down, or cried, or admitted to feeling fear, were sissies, weaklings, failures. Not men. …
The change that he demanded of them — and by implication of himself — was not trivial. Fear, tenderness — these emotions were so despised that they could be admitted into consciousness only at the cost of redefining what it meant to be a man.Regeneration, p 48.
This May, we explore an extraordinary novel about masculinity, caretaking, class, queerness, and trauma: Regeneration, by Pat Barker.
Regeneration is the first book in a trilogy for which Barker eventually won the Booker Prize. The novel follows soldiers, doctors, and their friends and family through shared experiences at Craiglockhart, a military psychiatric hospital in Edinburgh that treated officers for shell-shock and neurasthenia during World War I.
The book breathes imaginary life into a number of actual historical figures. Dr. William H.R. Rivers was an English anthropologist studying kinship and also a psychologist who treated patients at Craiglockhart during the war. Siegfried Sassoon, a decorated officer and poet, published “Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration,” creating a publicity disaster for war supporters. Wilfred Owen, whose 1920 poem Dulce et Decorum est stirred a generation and is still read in classrooms today. (If you haven’t read it since middle school, you should go back and read it now. It’s excruciating and moving in equal measure.)
The book also includes wholly fictional characters, like the protagonist Billy Prior (the similarity in name to Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim can’t be accidental). Burns, who can’t eat. Anderson, an army surgeon with a debilitating fear of blood. Willard, who has developed traumatic paralysis. And late in the novel, Callan, who is unable to speak. The cast of fictional characters also includes Sarah Lumb, a munitionette whose exposure to sulfur while building weapons on a factory line has turned her skin yellow, earning her the nickname “Canary Girl.”
Doing my research, I read lots of reviews published in the early 1990s, just after the book was released. One thing I was struck by is how often reviewers, puzzled, asked things like, “Pat Barker is a feminist novelist. Why is she writing about men and war and shell-shock?” You can picture me laughing, and then shaking my head, and then getting sad. Like somehow, the injuries — moral, mental and physical — suffered by male combatants in wartime aren’t ultimately also borne by the women in their lives. Or perhaps our ideas about masculinity are not a key piece of the puzzle in how trauma is experienced, persists, and is eventually healed?
So that’s where we’ll start next week: with masculinity, trauma, and caregiving. If you don’t have a copy of Regeneration, grab one from your local public library or favorite bookseller. We’ll talk about Part 1 of the novel, Chapters 1-7, next week!
Content warnings for Regeneration: While there are no actual battle scenes in the book, Barker does describe traumatic wartime incidents of Craiglockhart patients, so there are a number of accounts of killing, seeing friends killed, explosions, and other combat-related violence. There is a very veiled and brief suggestion of child sexual abuse. Billy Prior does not have a great commitment to sexual consent. In the last third, the book includes a harrowing account of what I would call psychiatric abuse, including the use of electric shock.
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