We are born in debt, owing the world a death. This is the shadow that darkens every cradle. Trauma is what happens when you catch a surprise glimpse of that darkness, the coming annihilation not only of the body and the mind but also, seemingly, of the world. Trauma is the savagery of the universe made manifest within us, and it destroys not only the integrity of consciousness, the myth of self-mastery, and the experience of time but also our ability to live peacefully with others, almost as if it were a virus, a pathogen content to do nothing besides replicate itself in the world, over and over, until only it remains. Trauma is the glimpse of truth that tells us a lie: the lie that love is impossible, that peace is an illusion. Therapy and medication can ease the pain but neither can suck the venom from the blood, make the survivor unsee the darkness and unknow the secret that lies beneath the surface of life. Despite the quixotic claims of modern neuroscience, there is no cure for trauma. Once it enters the body, it stays there forever. … Trauma is our special legacy as sentient beings, creatures burdened with the knowledge of our own impermanence; our symbolic experience with it is one of the things that separates us from the animal kingdom. As long as we exist, the universe will be scheming to wipe us out. The best we can do is work to contain the pain, draw a line around it, name it, domesticate it, and try to transform what lies on the other side of the line into a kind of knowledge, a knowledge of the mechanics of loss that might be put to use for future generations.The Evil Hours, p. 41-2
It’s been an interesting month. I went on my first international research and reporting trip since before the pandemic, an exceptional story-collecting expedition to Madrid, Ourense, and Barcelona, Spain. I even squeezed in 36 hours beside the Mediterranean among the ancient Roman ruins of Tarragona.
With my incredible colleague Andrea Quijada and the human rights nonprofit Voice of Witness, I’ve been collecting global first-person narratives about the digital welfare state for a book of oral histories. The slow resumption of international travel means I can finally re-engage in one of my favorite activities: the (fully vaccinated, masked and constantly Covid test-taking) joy of speaking with strangers about their lives.
I’ve had less luck trying to talk about my own life, though. In mid-October, right before I left the country, I circulated two pieces of writing to possible publishers: my first public attempts to write about PTSD outside this blog.
The response to the first – a proposal for a memoir based on my experience — was basically: “We don’t think many people will buy a book about caregiving and trauma because people with PTSD – and their loved ones – are simply too tired to read. Could you just write another book about technology instead?”
The response to the second – a personal essay – was: “PTSD can’t possibly be as bad as you say. Maybe you’re doing it wrong? We think you and Jason are outliers, not representative of other PTSD-impacted couples. And anyway, could you write more about Jason and neurology and less about yourself and caregiving?”
I found the responses both frustrating and fascinating. On one hand, they seem to imply, PTSD is such a big deal that those of us struggling with it don’t have the energy to even be curious about our own lives. On the other, my writing about how challenging it was for us to navigate was interpreted as somehow overblown, dubious, unconvincing.
If we take David Morris’ description of trauma seriously – “a surprise glimpse of that darkness, the coming annihilation…the savagery of the universe made manifest within us” – I guess these dismissive, denial-laced responses should not have surprised me. The impulse to minimize, to belittle, to deny, to rationalize, to turn away from the realities of trauma is of course strong. We’ll talk about this more when we get to Judith Herman’s wonderful book, Trauma and Recovery.
But the responses did shock me, giving me a kind of emotional whiplash. Somehow, I think I thought that the private work of writing about our experience was going to be the hardest part. Jason and I have had such difficult conversations during my research. I’ve managed such intense feelings of vulnerability while writing. I’m surprised that I’m surprised that the public work of getting the writing to readers is also going to be a battle.
Because of course it is. Of course. This is one of the things about PTSD: the language of trauma is everywhere, but we don’t really want to talk about it. We don’t really want to hear.
This is why I’m so excited we’re reading David Morris’ fascinating, heartbreaking, courageous book The Evil Hours over the next six weeks. Morris was a Marine and a military-embedded journalist in Iraq between 2004 and 2007. The Evil Hours is both personal and sweeping, clinical and literary, and it changed the course of my personal struggles with PTSD.
In my hardest days, I turned to Morris’ book to learn about PTSD’s long and complicated history (“post-traumatic stress is a dim figure shuffling before the lens of history … [since] the battle of Marathon in 490 BC,” page 65). Morris helped me understand the nature of traumatic time (“Traumatic time doesn’t just destroy the flow of the present into the future, it corrodes everything that came before,” page 110). The book highlights the role Vietnam veterans played in forcing the country to recognize the disorder, and explores the complicated role the Veteran’s Administration plays today as both clearinghouse of PTSD research and cultural and diagnostic gatekeeper for the disease. (Morris’ description of his experience with the VA’s gold-standard treatment, Prolonged Exposure, in Chapter 6 is absolutely harrowing.) Finally, and perhaps most importantly, The Evil Hours gave me hope that traditional and alternative treatments might provide a way forward.
As you can tell from the lengthy quote above, it’s also a beautifully written book. There is something in it to challenge everyone, no matter what you think you know about trauma. If you allow yourself to really engage the book, you will be changed by it.
If you are following along, here’s the reading schedule for The Evil Hours:
Prologue, Introduction and the first two chapters (pages xi – 59 in the 2015 hardcover edition) — Thursday November 18
Chapters 3 and 4 (pages 60-131) — Thursday December 2
Chapters 5 and 6 (pages 132-212) — Thursday December 9
Chapters 7-9 and the epilogue (pages 213-272) — Thursday December 15.
Alibris has new and used copies starting at 99 cents, Powell’s has a a few copies for about $10 including shipping. If you live in the Cap Region of NY, the Upper Hudson Library System has paper and electronic copies as well.
If you’re not up for the printed word this month, Morris did a lengthy interview on Fresh Air, which you can listen to here: https://www.npr.org/2015/01/20/378586235/in-the-evil-hours-a-journalist-shares-his-struggle-with-ptsd
And if you are joining us for the first time, WELCOME! You can find the list of blogs in this series, in order, here: https://virginia-eubanks.com/ptsd-bookclub/.
Content warnings for the first two chapters of The Evil Hours: Combat. Lengthy descriptions of an IED explosion, and feelings of being trapped in a potential ambush, but no death (in Chapter 1: Saydia); brief description of a flashback/dissociation in the Introduction.