Apologies for the blog jam! A reporting trip to Arkansas, launching a series on automation and carework, and the need for a couple of mental health days knocked my schedule all out of whack. I hope to return to weekly Thursday posts starting June 10.
[Billy Prior] put his head in his hands, at first, it seemed, in bewilderment, but then after a few moments he began to cry. Rivers waited a while, then walked round the desk and offered his handkerchief. Instead of taking it, Prior seized Rivers by the arms, and began butting him in the chest, hard enough to hurt. This was not an attack, Rivers realized, though it felt like one. It was the closest Prior could come to asking for physical contact. Rivers was reminded of a nanny goat on his brother’s farm, being lifted almost off her feet by the suckling kid.Pat Barker, Regeneration, p 104
Though intended to capture a very specific kind of WWI-era English manhood, a shocking amount of what Pat Barker says about masculinity and trauma in her 1991 novel Regeneration resonates in this time, this place.
As recently as 2020, a study by Elizabeth Neilson and her colleagues at the Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center in Houston showed that there is a very tight link between attachment to ‘traditional’ norms of masculinity and the occurrence and severity of combat PTSD symptoms. This is true whether the veteran at risk identifies as a man or a woman.
Remember when I said in my introduction to Regeneration that I always found it funny that reviewers couldn’t figure out why a feminist would write a novel about male soldiers? This is what those reviewers missed – Barker is a feminist novelist less interested in glorifying the female and more interested in dissecting the harm perpetuated by blind adherence to inflexible gender expectations.
The damaging norms Neilson identifies include emotional suppression, self-reliance, a focus on physical strength, and need for control. Generally encouraged and rewarded in military culture, these norms lead to more incidence and severity of PTSD. They limit potential for community support and mutuality. And in the end, they hinder access to treatment and limit its efficacy. In short, rigid adherence to gender binaries probably kills many people with PTSD.
On my first reading of Regeneration, I couldn’t get this image of Billy Prior out of my head: so desperate for human contact — and so unable to ask for it — that he repeatedly butts his psychiatrist in the chest. This scene also helps make sense of Billy’s troubling relationship with women throughout the trilogy. He is desperate for healing touch, for closeness and physical intimacy, but rejects it as weakness, dependency, terrifying vulnerability. And thus rejects, demeans, belittles and hurts those who offer comfort to him, or fail to.
But Rivers isn’t buying Prior’s rejection of human closeness, or gender roles more generally, and that’s part of what makes him such a fascinating character.
What was it he’d said? ‘I don’t see you as a father, you know.’ Looking up from the rug in the front of the fire. Laughing. ‘More a sort of … male mother.’ … [Rivers] disliked the term ‘male mother.’ … He distrusted the implication that nurturing, even when done by a man, remains female, as if the ability were in some way borrowed, or even stolen, from women — a sort of moral equivalent of couvade. If that were true, then there was really very little hope.Pat Barker, Regeneration, p 105
Rivers chooses to ground his hope in the ability of all of us to mother (or father) those we care for through illness, despair, moral injury. Perhaps even to mother (or father) ourselves, as Audre Lorde famously declared.
[F]athering, like mothering, takes many forms beyond the biological. Rivers had often been touched by the way in which young [officers], some of them not yet twenty, spoke about feeling like fathers to their men. Though when you looked at what they did. Worrying about socks, boots, blisters, food, hot drinks. And that perpetually harried expression of theirs. Rivers had only ever seen that look in one other place: in the public wards of the hospitals, on the faces of women who were bringing up large families on very low incomes, women who, in their early thirties, could easily be taken for fifty or more. It was the look of people who are totally responsible for lives they have no power to save.Pat Barker, Regeneration, p 105
Rivers, like Lorde, acknowledges that care takes place in contexts outside our choosing. In his case, to “cure” patients of their horror of war is to send them back to the Front to relive those horrors again. This must also be true for those who nurture and heal after racial terrorism, understanding as they do that recovery can only ever be partial as long as those who are harmed must return to an unreconstructed, unreconciled society that will traumatize them again.
There’s so much more to say about gender norms and trauma. (We haven’t even begun to consider how gender norms impact those who suffer PTSD after sexual assault, for example.) Feel free to chime in through the comments section, below!