It is perhaps a facile thing to say, but it seems to me that the first duty of every survivor is to simply acknowledge the existence of trauma, to accept that there are things in this world that can break us. Only then can we begin to make meaning out of everything that comes after.The Evil Hours, p. 59
** First, a content warning for the first few 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. **
I was paging through my journal today, looking for the notes I took when I first read The Evil Hours. It struck me that I found this book at one of the hardest moments in our PTSD journey. I was reading The Evil Hours when Jason and I re-started couples’ counseling. I was halfway through when we decided to officially separate and he moved out. I spent July 3, 2020 — the first day I woke up in the house alone — reading Chapter 5, “Modern Trauma.”
I finished the book on July 25, right after we moved back in together. A few days later, we realized that since Jason had left the household — even if it was only for three weeks — we had lost our domestic partner status and were both now legally single. No matter what shape we hoped our relationship might take in the future, the state decreed: You are no longer a family.
So when I sat down to reread it, I took my own intense affection and admiration for this book with a grain of salt. Like an inappropriate boyfriend, maybe I had just met it at a moment when I was a little vulnerable. I expected that I’d approach it with a more even, dispassionate understanding this time around. I assumed that in the cold light of day, David Morris wouldn’t look quite so perfect.
Nope. I’m still madly in love with this book. My underlines have underlines.
I love the intensity of the personal material. Morris is so clear-eyed and open when he talks about his reasons for going to war, his disappointment and frustration with a country he feels has failed to take military sacrifice seriously, his struggles to find adequate care and the slow, slow process of piecing his life back together.
I love the reporting, too, and Morris’ assertion that literature has as much (or more) to tell us about PTSD as neuroscience. When I look back on The Evil Hours today, I realize how much of my understanding of PTSD, of my own experience, comes from this book. PTSD as a disease of time? Morris first pointed that out to me (p. xii). That most people who suffer from PTSD are not veterans? That was Morris, too (p. 17). The obsessive sense-making of apophenia, which I had witnessed in Jason when he was at his most dissociative? Morris named that for me (p. 30).
The Evil Hours helps me make sense of the impulse to dismiss, belittle, rationalize, and paper over pain and trauma, as I discussed last week. Laughing on the phone with a colleague about those rejections today, I said, “What did I expect? I’m writing about how badly our society hurts people and about how women are left to clean up the mess. Nobody wants to hear that!”
Paraphrasing Morris, what I have to say is not only inconvenient to non-traums‘ peace of mind. It is a tangible threat to it.
In this moment of violent politics and racial terrorism, as we creep past three quarters of a million deaths due to the pandemic, the impulse to turn away from suffering, and from the costs of caregiving and who bears it, is strong. The atrocity hierarchy, the rank-ordering of suffering, is part of that turning away.
There’s been a lot of gatekeeping around which traumas counts as real trauma lately. For example, in October’s issue of The Atlantic, Eleanor Cummins argues “Although almost everyone has struggled with the risk of contracting a deadly virus and the resulting isolation and potential loneliness, a remote worker’s depressive episode, or an unemployed restaurant worker’s inability to pay their bills, has little in common with [rape or combat trauma]. They are no less important—no less deserving of attention—but we need better words to describe them, and other remedies to treat them.”
Her point is well-taken. Not everything is trauma. And not every trauma results in PTSD. Morris offers the “better words” Cummins seeks when he discusses the “dose-response curve” in Chapter 2. Not all traumas are equal, he writes. Natural disasters “result in substantially lower PTSD rates for survivors” than rape, for example. Only about 5% of female natural disaster survivors develop PTSD, compared with 45.9 percent of female rape victims. Morris suspects that some innate piece of human beings accepts the savagery of nature. But manmade terror, particularly if the perpetrator is intimately known, produces higher “doses” of trauma. “Post-traumatic stress, a disorder that is so often viewed as a problem of neuroscience,” Morris concludes, “is perhaps better thought of as a social wound, a damaging of the intricate web of relations that keep a person sane and tethered to the world” (p. 47).
The assumption that what most people have experienced during the pandemic is not genuinely traumatic is myopic and naive. In my neighborhood, as in many communities during Covid, we’ve seen a remarkable uptick in community violence, especially shootings. That unemployed restaurant worker Cummins dismisses may well endure existential harm that overwhelms her ability to cope — the classic definition of trauma — if that inability to pay her bills turns into an eviction and she becomes unhoused. And caregivers who face the suffering and potential deaths of people they love, and who fight for their families in systems that diminish their humanity but rely on their labor? We experience real trauma. These are deep social wounds. And they are festering.