Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Fiction, Part 4: Lord Peter Wimsey

“There were eighteen months… not that I suppose he’ll ever tell you about that, at least, if he does, then you’ll know he’s cured… I don’t mean he went out of his mind or anything, and he was always perfectly sweet about it, only he was so dreadfully afraid to go to sleep….”
– Lord Peter Wimsey’s mother attempting to describe his difficulties from second-hand experience

In the first part of this series, I talked about how PTSD is experienced in real life versus many of its more popular and less accurate portrayals in fiction.

In the second and third parts of this series, I went into more detail with four examples of PTSD in fiction: Sinclair in Babylon 5, Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, the apocalyptic version of PTSD postulated in World War Z, and Josh Lyman in The West Wing.

While these depictions are somewhat successful, even extremely so, they tend to be either one-off Very Special Episodes (Babylon 5, The West Wing) or bittersweet finishers (World War Z, The Lord of the Rings). Writing about a character experiencing PTSD is already a difficult affair; writing about a character living with PTSD is much, much harder. So often we think that the most exciting part of PTSD is when it explodes, an event that supposedly either leaves a shattered mind behind, or must be immediately mostly or completely dealt within the next few chapters, lest the aftershocks shake the plot and character relationships too much.

Thus, there is one more example I want to discuss that particularly sticks out in my mind, because it covers the long-term portrayal of a character with PTSD who nevertheless is functional: Lord Peter Wimsey, one of the famous sleuths in the mystery genre. His author, Dorothy Sayers, whatever else she may be, had a very good grip on chronic PTSD.

Chronic PTSD

How people react to PTSD, or even if they get it, varies according to the characteristics of the trauma exposure and the individual, in no precise formula of any sort. But given a long enough exposure to severe trauma, and what might be considered “normal” PTSD can switch over at some point to chronic PTSD. Months to years of war or abuse will do this, for example.

In chronic PTSD, symptoms will persist for many years, because the brain, dynamically adaptive as it is, has changed so dramatically structure-wise and chemical-wise. As a result, the treatment of chronic PTSD is different than for relatively shorter-term traumas—and this is why diagnosing PTSD correctly can be so important. Going the wrong treatment route either way is not helpful, and often actively harmful. For instance, extinction therapy (repeated exposure until symptoms go away) does not, for perhaps obvious reasons, help in most cases of chronic PTSD.

For dramas and adventure stories, chronic PTSD might seem to be a character development endpoint, even a character usefulness endpoint. Literary novels might like to lever this kind of thing as a bittersweet ending.

But this is not so in real life.

PTSD, even chronic PTSD, doesn’t describe a personality or even most of a personality—I think of that kind of generalization as PTSD Zombiefication. PTSD is simply a disorder, even if it is a particularly bad one. Like depression, or even like cancer, PTSD sufferers have their ups and downs, their good years and bad years, much less good days and bad days.

So yes, someone suffering from chronic PTSD can realistically be an amateur sleuth, if we adjust “realism” to the theater settings of the amateur detective novel. In such an environment, being slack is not a healthy characteristic.

PTSD as a Driving Force

Even readers without a keen sense of what PTSD is like tend to admire the Lord Peter Wimsey series for the psychological portrait of its main character, which is rather unusual in the detective mystery genre. While detective characters tend to have major character quirks tending towards the neurotic, those are usually exposed to add spice to an otherwise dry puzzle; as a rule, development is for the plot, not the characters. Wimsey is a rare bird indeed, especially within the amateur detective sub-genre—grim and gritty hard-boiled P.I. novels and police procedurals tend to have more internal drama room to work with, not that they always use it.

A wise man once told me that detective characters need something in their personalities that drives them to solve mysteries. It’s not a hobby to simply pick up, like stamp-collecting or bird-watching or even puzzle-solving, however often that reason may be used as a pretext by just about every amateur detective in fiction. It’s an obsessive occupation that sometimes develops into high risk, and shows the ugly side of humanity far more often than not. Amateurs also run against the police force, or whatever else might pass for the establishment protectors of law, and that takes quite a lot of ego and assertiveness (and, most of all, rightness) to manage.

That might seem an antithetical drive for a chronic PTSD sufferer to have—after all, murder mystery solving is swallowing trauma again and again and again in a detective series, and Lord Peter got his PTSD from his time as a soldier during the horrors of World War I. This puzzled me for a while, actually, though it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the stories.

And then I realized that when he’s solving a puzzling and dangerous mystery, something that drives the adrenaline of a type of person who’s already leaning that way in the first place—one of Lord Peter’s functions in World War I was as a spy—he probably feels normal. He certainly is very functional, much to the expense of everyone who assumes he’s just a shallow fop. At a pressing time when other people might lose their wits, a PTSD sufferer can be surprisingly calm and sharp, even during their own bad periods. That’s Lord Peter to his shoes.

But the important thing to remember is that there’s a limit: if something triggers your PTSD even once during this time, everything crumbles, whether the adrenaline pumping or not. And that also happens to Lord Peter.

How He Got There

Lord Peter Wimsey was a World War I veteran on the front lines; that tends to be enough of an explanation with regards to how he got PTSD in the first place, and even its chronic characteristic. The event usually pointed at as the smoking gun is that a shell exploded near him and buried him alive in rubble, and it wasn’t until a day later (and not a quiet day) that his men could get him out.

But the specifics, as always, differ from individual to individual. There’s always something that sticks out in someone’s experiences, because that’s how the PTSD gets triggered repeatedly afterward.

For Lord Peter, this trigger unfortunately seems to have been due to having sent men under his command off to die in horrible nightmare battlefields that he himself also experienced.

Thrilling and brain-wracking missing jewel mysteries are alright, usually harmless enough; but the high point, the murder mysteries, almost always send a man or woman to the gallows as a matter of course. Even if the guilty kills themselves instead, Lord Peter—technically rightly so—blames himself for causing their death. Even the fact that they are guilty in the first place doesn’t ease his anguish, because what soldiers during any war weren’t guilty of acts that would be considered high crime in peacetime?

Heck, even if the guilty was a nasty piece of work, Lord Peter still triggers.

Poor man. He has two intrinsic characteristics that are at serious odds to each other: the drive to solve high-profile crime, including murders, so that he feels normal and useful; and the trigger that is sending someone off to die, which makes him ill and has induced a complete BSOD 1 at least three times, probably more, during his career.

That’s not all there is to Lord Peter, of course, because PTSD by itself isn’t a personality, but that’s part of him. The other parts of him are, yes, that he is a very sweet and somewhat overly optimistic fellow, who happens to be observationally smart and very canny, and those characteristics aren’t negated, or even overshadowed, by the fact that he has PTSD.

His symptoms often don’t show up until the end of the books, but they’ve been known to show up in the middle of the plot, and in the penultimate book, Busman’s Holiday, Sayers covers his reaction in far more detail than most writers would feel comfortable with.

PTSD-Related Highlights of the Series

Of course I pay attention to these. Some would say it’s very limiting to view the series from the point of view of PTSD, but you know, it’s so rare to run across functioning yet PTSD-riddled characters that I just can’t help it.

Only some of the novels are listed here; the ones that aren’t tend to just feature Lord Peter’s semi-suicidal tendencies when it comes to trying to confront murderers because he feels really, really guilty. Even Unnatural Death, which I really don’t like, has it. It’s normal Lord Peter character background.

One novel notably has no PTSD allusions at all: Have His Carcase, wherein I must assume that the guilty party was so random that not even Lord Peter could feel sorry over the affair, which is really saying something. (It’s not a bad mystery in and of itself, and it’s technically one of the better older cipher mysteries, and I really liked the mock Russian play script.)

No Wimsey short stories allude to PTSD either, no matter how murderous the culprit, but sometimes one needs a break, and really, the one with the littlest Wimsey viscount is very cute.

Whose Body?

The first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Sayers and many of her critics consider it the least of the series, but that’s still much better than much of the fare in the detective section. Sayers was a much younger writer at the time, and it shows, but this novel will always have a near and dear place in my heart, because Lord Peter Wimsey triggers a little over halfway through, and that’s something that doesn’t happen often in fiction (and perhaps was one of the reasons Sayers considers the book “lesser”, though I think there are better candidates for that position, Unnatural Death getting my vote).

Actually, I really enjoyed watching Wimsey struggle and actually disappear for a little while, with his friend, Inspector Charles Parker, temporarily taking up the reins (and that’s where third-person narrative saves a writer). Sometimes you do get overwhelmed, but Wimsey still ended up solving the mystery before his PTSD completely knocked him out for the count—then again, the solution and realization does tend to trigger him.

Notably: there’s quite a strange second-person chapter near the end that made me think, “Yes, that really is rather like one of those walking nightmares I’ve had, poor devil.” That doesn’t occur again in the rest of the series.

By the way, Whose Body? is in the public domain under both U.S. and Canadian law, but not so under most Berne Convention countries, including the United Kingdom. So if you live in North America, you can visit your local Project Gutenberg repository to find it.

Clouds of Witness

Lord Peter Wimsey’s family can be idiots, and his brother is very much so an idiot, even if a friendly one, and Lord Peter has to keep his brother from the gallows (and during the novel, must contemplate having to send his sister instead, and you can imagine how much fun that was for him).

It follows rather sequentially from Whose Body?, which I liked, because Lord Peter gets dragged away from the retreat his nerves so badly needed, into a situation where he had to engage on full thrusters anyways. He managed it, and while there are no breakdowns, I liked that he was able to do so, and in particular I liked that he wasn’t dropped by Sayers simply because he’d completely broken down from the events of Whose Body? Too many writers, I think, would have discarded Wimsey before a second book.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

This is perhaps my second-favorite Wimsey book from a PTSD perspective. After World War I, which was particularly awful because it combined the intimacy of old world combat with the body-shattering efficiency of new world weaponry, there were a lot of PTSD cases walking around. It actually was considered quite normal for young men who survived the war to suffer from it (indeed, the commonness of PTSD was inspiration for Frodo’s PTSD in Lord of the Rings). Lots of missing limbs and scars, too, it has to be said.

And yet, these young men weren’t considered evil, weak, or even necessarily broken. Oh, they were still thought of as damaged, make no mistake about it—one of the trails is obscured by the possibility that someone’s PTSD was triggered, and that one of the motives might very well have involved an all-consuming flashback. But undamaged people in the book, by and large, were not only sympathetic of the damaged ones, but also to treated them as functional, if sometimes odd, human beings. To me, it felt like reading science fiction—reading about a world where PTSD was considered normal, rather like depression today.

Of course, also like depression today, some characters weren’t sympathetic to the young men at all; these were mostly old men, who shook their heads and said things that summed up to, “We were better in the older days, these younger men are weak, obsessive, and stupid”—which is a very modern attitude towards PTSD. I understood more deeply one of Siegfried Sassoon’s lines in his poem, “Repression of War Experience”:

There must be crowds of ghosts among the trees,—
Not people killed in battle,—they’re in France,—
But horrible shapes in shrouds—old men who died
Slow, natural deaths,—old men with ugly souls,
Who wore their bodies out with nasty sins.
2

The Nine Tailors

Jo Walton reviewed this book on Tor.com a while ago, and it’s really quite good, one of the best of the series. And also, Lord Peter’s PTSD kicks in almost in time to kill him, and keeps a firm grip of him after.

Gaudy Night

To many, the best of the series, and to many more still, the best of the Lord Peter and Harriet Vane 3 combined mysteries. It’s an Oxford novel to boot, and talks a little bit about Harriet’s experience with Lord Peter’s reaction to either The Nine Tailors or Murder Must Advertise case, though I suspect it was probably the former.

Busman’s Honeymoon

This is my first-favorite Wimsey book from both a PTSD and a normal amateur detective fiction fan’s view. And also the last one (and the second-to-last Wimsey story penned completely by Sayers; the absolute final, sort of, would be “Talboys,” which someone in the estate scraped up from her pile of drafts and published).

The PTSD episode is in the epilogue for the most part, along with the “eighteen months” attempted explanation by his mother. It’s realistic in both its shock and its subtlety, but the best part is that, during those bits, Lord Peter isn’t alone anymore.

… and after

There are two further novels, Thrones, Dominions and Presumption of Death, collaborations between dead Dorothy Sayers and living Jill Paton Walsh. I have quite a few complaints about them, but probably the first and foremost is that Lord Peter’s PTSD is treated as a simple wimping out guilt, rather than a much more complicated disorder that triggers from a guilt that is shaped by the disorder itself.

Oh well. Nothing lasts forever, good or bad. Not even chronic PTSD, the end of which is something I personally look forwards to.

Next time (at some point in time, because these articles are hard for me to do), some kind of wrap-up, with further reading recommendations. I’ll include recommendations from previous comment threads, and this one, and around and about the web, etc. I just realized I have another example of PTSD portrayal on Tor.com already: my review of Terry Pratchett’s Nation from last year.

Originally posted at Tor.com.

Addendum

It was pointed out to me that I was dismissive about my conclusion that Peter was no longer alone in Busman’s Honeymoon, because he was already no longer alone: Bunter, afterwards his valet, was the one to help pull him out, inch by inch, from his stupor after his return from the front—a tale also covered by the epilogue of Busman’s Honeymoon. And, if Sayers wasn’t so in love with Peter, who’s to say where that relationship might have gone?

Posts in this series: IntroductionBabylon 5 and LotRWWZ and West WingLord Peter Wimsey

Notes:

  1. Blue Screen of Death, if it happened to your head instead of your computer. [back]
  2. It was also the older generation that had sent the younger generation off to die in the fields of the Somme and elsewhere, and Sassoon never, ever, ever, ever, forgave them. Coming home from the front to that attitude must have been like getting kicked in the face. I talk a little about, and quote the full public domain poem, on my blog. [back]
  3. Dorothy Sayers: luckiest author with a crush on her main character ever. It’s not every author whose favorite character also happens to be a lot of actual readers’ favorite character, and very few authors are skilled enough to do a self-insert that isn’t a Mary Sue to everybody else, and then make a lot of money on it. [back]

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Fiction, Part 3: WWZ and West Wing

“It doesn’t sound like something they let you have when you work in the White House….”

“As long as I’ve got a job, you’ve got a job.”

— Josh Lyman and Leo McGarry, his boss, in The West Wing

In part 1, I talked about how Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is actually experienced in real life, and the general ways in which fiction often gets it wrong.

In part 2, I covered in detail two specific examples of PTSD portrayals in Babylon 5 and The Lord of the Rings.

Part 3 is going to cover two more portrayals in detail, both more realistic, sometimes even more positive, than induced Set Piece PTSD or the “destroyed forever” implications when PTSD is used as a bitter(sweet) closure to a story.

Post-Apocalyptic PTSD

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (by Max Brooks)

“I’ve heard it said that the Holocaust has no survivors, that even those who managed to remain technically alive were so irreparably damaged, that their spirit, their soul, the person that they were supposed to be, was gone forever. I’d like to think that’s not true. But if it is, then no one on Earth survived this war.”

— Jurgen Warmbrunn, several years after WWZ

Out of the current plague of zombie narratives out there, World War Z is not only one of the first, but the most innovative, realistic, comprehensive, and nuanced book about a post-apocalyptic zombie event. Contrary to many of its sub-genre successors, World War Z’s pseudo-documentary format allowed it to cover different aspects world-wide across international boundaries, exploring the ramifications—ecological, commercial, political, cultural, societal—that a terrible zombie infestation, one that nearly brings the entire world to its knees, would wreak.

Naturally, the book also looks at the lingering psychological effects of this post-apocalyptic “war.”

One of the factors—though by no means the only factor—of the severity of a PTSD case depends on the root cause of the traumatic events involved. PTSD brought on by non-intentional means—natural disasters and accidents are the primary examples—tends to be less severe than PTSD that results from trauma caused by human hands. The more intimate, prolonged, and intentional the involvement of other people, the worse the trauma.

A zombie invasion raises an interesting question: is such an event a force of nature, since zombies are without sentience (in most literature at least, including World War Z)? Or, because zombies used to be living people, still look like people, and in the worst cases are actually loved ones, is this perceived by the human mind as being violence with human intent, even betrayal? Whatever the answer, PTSD is as guaranteed to be involved with a not insignificant portion of the human population, just as hundreds of WWI veterans suffered from PTSD.

A really good writer can have a trauma blast with this sort of scenario. I’m rather surprised that they don’t take advantage of this more often. Indeed, trauma pops up in just about every “interview” covered in World War Z. PTSD ranges from a man who discovers that he can no longer walk down a street without thinking about how to kill people; to shell-shock-like symptoms that affect the soldiers who eventually curtail the zombie invasion after months, even years, of combat; to people who lose their minds and try to act like zombies; and more. In fact, the shell-shock (I like to think of it as Z-shock) is regarded as normal by the psychologists involved with the troops at the end, and anyone who didn’t “break,” even a little, under such pressure is more than a bit concerning.

In fact, an entirely new kind of trauma, arguably a severe variant of PTSD, is brought up by Brooks in World War Z: Apocalyptic Demise (or Despair) Syndrome (ADS). In a manner like PTSD, this disorder showed up in populations even after they reached safety points, while the entire world was known to be under siege, and that the human race might not survive. So great was the stress and hopelessness that people would “go to sleep one night and not wake up the next morning,” even if they were perfectly healthy. One interview is devoted to a man’s attempt to combat ADS—and though his success rate is unrealistic, the fact that this kind of wide-ranging psychological disorder was speculated upon at all is something that most post-apocalyptic books don’t even contemplate.

Is ADS realistic? Perhaps, and perhaps not. We haven’t really had an extended apocalyptic mass-PTSD generating scenario for the human race. But then again, there are a lot of people who still don’t believe that PTSD is real or anything other than “not wanting to let go.”

The Strange World of Triggers

“Noël,” The West Wing

“Well, I know it’s going to sound like I’m telling you that two plus two equals a bushel of potatoes, but at this moment, in your head, music is the same thing as—”

“—as sirens….”

– Dr. Stanley Keyworth talks about triggers with Josh Lyman

Much as I love The West Wing, and much as it kept an awful lot of its plot lines going through multiple episodes, ultimately as a series it tended more than most (save for Lost) to drop a fair amount of threads, even main characters, randomly. But for all that, the program covered many issues rarely touched upon by other dramatic series, even today, and that included areas outside of politics.

“Noël” was done as a Very Special Episode, and it’s only in “Noël” that we see any of Josh Lyman’s symptoms show up after being shot in “In the Shadow of Two Gun Men.” And yet “Noël” was executed so well, including the creators Showing Their Work when it came to portraying Josh’s PTSD, that I forgive them this flippancy.

There were many ways, both big and small, that carried the day through for “Noël”; I mean, even the secondary thread of the episode featured PTSD in a holocaust survivor visiting the White House and seeing a picture of her father’s (killed in the camps) there.

Camera shots. Lighting, setup, and framing being a director’s prerogative, The West Wing had some of the best camera work around for “realistic” dramas, unequaled in that genre since. “Noël” was no exception, and indeed, had special camera work, particularly the transitions, giving viewers the shifting sense of present and past that immersive episodes of PTSD can present. Drifting between the psychological session, the recollection of events real and disguised, and the triggered episode of music, the filming and cutting was fleet of foot and achieved, as close as is possible, an actual PTSD episode. Contrary to stereotypical presentations, PTSD most often does not present as a clear-cut, sequentially cohesive flashback.

Subtle expression. As I mentioned before in the tarp explanation of PTSD symptoms, it’s not often the case that the entire tarp on traumatic, live memories is entirely exposed, but more often that corners and edges lift, allowing the subconsciousness a glimpse of the horror beneath. This affects behavior in often subtle ways, not immediately transitioning into Set Piece PTSD, and not suppressing entirely as What PTSD?. As we watch the episode, Josh begins and stays at “stage 1” for most of the time, including the point where he begins to scream at the president. As Leo McGarry comments after the disastrous meeting: “I don’t think you were fully conscious in there.” Leo knows what he’s talking about, even as Josh is horribly mortified at his own actions.

Subtle triggering. In many stories featuring some poor bastard with PTSD, triggers are often simple: like a car backfiring or fireworks going off. These are indeed real triggers for war veterans or people who have been involved in intercity shootings, but for others suffering from PTSD—and even veterans—triggers can be more insidious.

For Josh, it began with researching a pilot who committed suicide the day of the episode, with a simple comment: “It wasn’t the plane.” What haunts Josh even more is that the pilot shared his birthday—and in anyone’s mind, sharing a birthday is a strange tie in the subconscious. Here the trigger is difficult to state, because it darts in and out of the net of mental associations that the brain makes all the time—useful for everyday living, learning, and survival; but also produces strange triggers from everyday events. This trigger is mostly emotional.

Josh’s second trigger turns out to be music, probably because the high brass holiday music that Toby selects has the same harmonics in some senses as the sirens that sounded when they took Josh away from the site of his near-deadly shooting. After that initial linking, Josh’s brain quickly, and without his awareness, starts to associate all music with sirens, to the point where Yo-Yo Ma’s wonderful cello concert is not quite so wonderful for Josh. This is one of the worst thing about triggers; they can quickly bring along friends, and it’s not always under your control.

Gradual build-up. As I mentioned previously, Josh doesn’t repeatedly segue into full-blown PTSD during the episode; instead, he stays at stage 1, and works his way through the stages into stage 4, when he has that violent episode in his own apartment. This progression also isn’t linear, but follows a more exponential curve—which is very realistic. A slower linear progression is likely also experienced by some PTSD sufferers, but in my experience progression either levels out or accelerates in this manner.

On television, this is often as close to a portrayal to “everyday” PTSD as one is likely to get.

Throughout this, I have to mention my love for Leo McGarry, which was cemented after this. Not only does he recognize from the reports of his staff that Josh is having problems, he also realizes that Josh’s outburst wasn’t intentional and was influenced by his trauma. Not many people have the background, the sensitivity, or the guts to make that leap of understanding—and not many would get Josh the help he needed, much less stay around afterward and be supportive. Too often those who suffer from PTSD are left to fend for themselves.

“Noël” breaks my heart afterward with its final realistic touch: Josh isn’t healed instantly by his session with the awesome psychologist that Leo brings along to the White House. When Donna leads Josh home, they stop at a caroling group singing “Carol of the Bells.” Josh stands there and stares and stares and tries not to react, but the carol slips into the sound of sirens, and Donna leads a shell-shocked Josh away.

Next time, I’ll talk about one body of work: Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mystery series. Among intrepid amateur detectives, Wimsey suffers a severe setback that few other mystery writers have bestowed upon their main characters: he’s a veteran of World War I with PTSD. When it comes to investigating violent crime, this is kind of a handicap.

Posts in this series: IntroductionBabylon 5 and LotRWWZ and West WingLord Peter Wimsey

Originally posted at Tor.com

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Fiction, Part 2: Babylon 5 and LotR

“How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand there is no going back. There are some things that time can not mend. Some hurts that go too deep… that have taken hold.”
The Lord of the Rings, the movie 

In part 1, I talked about the characteristics of memories involved in PTSD, as well as a summary of what fiction often gets wrong about PTSD.

For this part and the next two, I’ll discuss more in depth specific examples of fictional PTSD I’ve encountered that mostly get it right. A little wrong, but mostly right (some more “mostly” than others).

To start off, here are two examples; one from a popular SF TV show, Babylon 5, and one from a very popular fantasy novel, The Lord of the Rings.

Reliving the Battle of the Line

Babylon 5: “And the Sky Full of Stars”

“A career officer—like your father, and his father, and his father…. Smart money said you’d make admiral one day. So what happened, Commander? Where did you fall off the merry-go-round?”
– “Knight One” to Sinclair

For me, Jeffrey Sinclair was the coolest commander of Babylon 5, though he only lasted one season. Other fans called his character wooden, mostly pointing their fingers at the actor, and perhaps I would have thought so too, had he not said in the first episode, describing the “Battle of the Line,” of which he was the sole survivor:

“And the sky was full of stars. Every star an exploding ship—one of ours.”

and that was when I forgave the wooden acting, because a common reaction of people with PTSD is to attempt to stop feeling—the logic being that shutting down your emotions all the time means you won’t feel anything when the intrusive memories do occur. This works about as well as you can expect in real life, which is to say, not very well.

In fiction, it tends to work phenomenally well.

And so it did for Commander Sinclair, up until episode 8, “And the Sky Full of Stars,” when two idiots code-naming themselves Knight One and Knight Two decided to try a little futuristic psychology on Sinclair so they could get at a suppressed memory 1 from the battle.Using magic highly advanced technology, one of them basically mind melds with Sinclair and pokes his memories in manipulative ways that only visual moving media can do justice. With this, they eventually manage to rip off the entire tarp 2 covering Sinclair’s traumatic memories.

While one of them is still linked up in Sinclair’s mind.

I like to call this episode “Sealed PTSD in a Can” for various reasons.

Though there are certainly large aspects of Set Piece PTSD about this episode—particularly since, apart from the revelations of Sinclair’s memory blackout, nothing else carries through in the rest of the series—I think it’s a good place to start with when looking at PTSD depictions.

Most people don’t think of Sinclair’s actions here as PTSD-based, because in the episode we see the symptoms only after Sinclair has been kidnapped and hooked up to the machine, and simply put everything down to the magic machine. But I would call attention to the following:

  • We first see Sinclair in his bedroom (although it’s all in his mind) waking up from a nightmare involving the Battle of the Line. He doesn’t act as if this is the first time he’s had similar nightmares. That alone is not necessarily an indicator of PTSD, but juxtapose this with:

  • the vivid memories from the Battle of the Line, which is a joybox of PTSD-inducing truma, as Sinclair is in active communication with his squadron while they all die as the Minbari ships explode them out from under him,

  • and that he still sees the dead members of his squadron as blaming him for surviving. Significant to this is that Knight One and Knight Two can only play with what’s already in Sinclair’s head. Along with:

  • the now recovered memory of his dead friend’s helmet spinning in space in front of his eyes just before being captured and tortured by the Minbari for several days,

  • all ending with him becoming something of a screaming maniac when the Minbari surrounded him in that circle thing of theirs.

We relive along with Sinclair the Battle of the Line again. And again. And again. Because of how well-paced the episode is, and the way that every run is analyzed from a new perspective, this doesn’t tire out viewers, but the constant exposure to the visuals is similar in feel to flashback episodes in their immediacy and inescapability.

Towards the last act of the episode, the Knights manage to push Sinclair into full flashback mode, resulting in him lashing out, causing permanent mental damage to one and killing the other, and escaping from the machine. However, to the creative team’s credit, Sinclair does not automatically recover, and instead runs through the station in full flashback mode until confronted by Delenn, and then fainting.

And then… the episode ends. For the rest of the season, Sinclair’s trauma doesn’t return, even though There Are No Therapists on the station, and any possibility that it might have returned and been managed and/or resolved was removed when they tossed Sinclair off the station (and permanently removed when he went back in time to found the current Minbari civilization) .

He was replaced by John Sheridan. Good old, never a day of PTSD, happy veteran John Sheridan, who obviously wasn’t at the Battle of the Line but did manage to explode an entire Minbari cruiser, thus side-stepping the whole “helpless, hopeless, terrified” trauma storyline.

Oh well. The rest of the series was still good.

Destruction-Tested to the Finish

The Lord of the Rings

“When the memory of the fear and the darkness troubles you, this will bring you aid.”
– Arwen bestowing the Evenstar to Frodo 3

World War I mass-introduced shell-shock—what PTSD used to be called when it appeared in soldiers—across a wide streak of the young male population in Europe. In one of the worst battles of WW I alone, the Battle of the Somme, the British suffered over 57,000 casualties, with over 19,000 dead.

Thus it was that WWI veteran and Oxford professor, one J. R. R. Tolkien, wrote the following in “The Grey Havens”, the final chapter of The Lord of the Rings:

[Sam] was not at home in early March and did not know that Frodo had been ill. On the thirteenth of that month Farmer Cotton found Frodo lying on his bed; he was clutching a white gem that hung on a chain about his neck and he seemed half in a dream.

“It is gone forever,” he said, “and now all is dark and empty.”

But the fit passed, and when Sam got back on the twenty-fifth, Frodo had recovered, and he said nothing about himself.

Through bearing the soul-corrosive One Ring all the way from Rivendell to Mount Doom, one could say that the original Frodo Baggins was stress-tested until destruction. And indeed, this was the experience of the most unfortunate soldiers in the first world war; Robert Nichols said once, comparing the before- and after-war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, “War has defiled one to produce the other.” Frodo’s trauma doesn’t involve war, but Tolkien recognized it as being no less traumatic.

The type of “fit” that Frodo has is more usual to PTSD sufferers; it’s outwardly quieter, but no less consuming than the Set Piece version that has people rampaging through corridors with weapons. Indeed, Frodo is so despairing and not at all psychotic that people who know only the stereotypes of PTSD would say that he’s more depressed than traumatized. Especially since everyone knows that he endured; these days it’s all too common for people to forget that those inflicted with PTSD have it because they endured in a situation others might have committed suicide over and did not, in fact, break entirely.

In fact, I’m convinced that Frodo’s susceptibility to PTSD was the reason why he, alone of the Ring’s long-term bearers, did not fall to temptation long before Mount Doom, which would have resolved a lot of his psychological tension. Were we to make Jack Bauer the ring bearer, things wouldn’t have turned out so well. 4 Mind you, that doesn’t mean that PTSD is a good thing for him to have or develop.

Many people note that Frodo’s departure from the Grey Havens can be thought of as a symbol for death. In his fit, clutching the Evenstar—his passage onto one of the boats heading into the West—he can be thought of as desiring to die, but mostly I find that the PTSD afflicted just want peace—dying not necessary (or it would have been done long before).

Frodo’s PTSD, given the length of time he was almost constantly exposed to the ring, is probably chronic—though not all PTSD cases are. But like many chronic conditions, PTSD is manageable, even though the days may seem dark.

Unfortunately for Frodo, There Are No Therapists in Middle-Earth. Perhaps there are some in Aman. 5

While I love Babylon 5 and Lord of the Rings, they don’t present optimal presentations of PTSD (especially not Babylon 5), but neither are they derogatory, marginalizing, or too misleading.

Next time we’ll cover the varieties of PTSD presented in World War Z, which goes one step further than many SF books in developing an entirely new related disorder, alongside a well-done Very Special Episode of The West Wing, which is helpful for discussing triggers in PTSD. Lord Peter Wimsey is going to have a post all to himself.

In the meantime, Rachel Brown has more information and recommendations about PTSD and recommended non-fiction about trauma/PTSD and fiction (TV, manga, fantasy, science fiction, narrative non-fiction, and more).

For those who want a basic but thorough guide to PTSD, I add to her recommendations The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook. If you’re a writer, I would start there.

Posts in this series: IntroductionBabylon 5 and LotRWWZ and West WingLord Peter Wimsey

Originally posted at Tor.com.

Notes:

  1. “You have a hole in your mind.” [back]
  2. See part 1 about the tarp allegory with respect to PTSD. [back]
  3. In the movie it went to Aragorn instead. For some reason. [back]
  4. Given all the crap that goes down in 24 that’s done by Jack alone, it really, really wouldn’t have gone well. [back]
  5. The main continent of the Elvish “heaven”. [back]

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Fiction, Part 1: Introduction

Moonlight and dew-drenched blossom, and the scent
Of summer gardens; these can bring you all
Those dreams that in the starlit silence fall:
Sweet songs are full of odours.
– Siegfried Sassoon, “The Dream”

I have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Which is difficult to admit, because fiction—the medium through which people most often learn about the experiences of others—tends to imply that those who suffer from PTSD are non-existent at best, broken as par of course, and dangerous lunatics at worst. And sometimes the only depiction available in a story or series is the “worst” scenario.

It’s a little upsetting, not least because people fall back on the stereotypes presented in fiction when they know you have PTSD.

But, like anything else, occasionally fiction gets it right.

In this post I’ll discuss the caricature of PTSD in fiction; in a second post, I’ll talk more in depth about some specific examples that mostly get it right (and, in one case, pretty much all of it right).

Before I cover either, however, I ought to describe how PTSD is actually experienced. This goes rather beyond the Merriam-Webster definition or, to be frank, the times when fiction would like to show off PTSD.

Parasites of the Mind

PTSD is the intrusion of traumatic memories in life. It’s important to note that these memories intrude upon life, like an unwanted relative intrudes upon the peace and order of your household; they aren’t simply a remembrance. This effect is due to the way these particular kinds of memories are stored.

They say that memory is not digital, by which they mean that the storing of memories is an imperfect process compared to, say, videos or pictures. Information is lost as memories are integrated into long-term storage, often removing much of their vividness and immediacy, putting them at a distance.

Traumatic memories in PTSD aren’t integrated this way. Your brain says DO NOT WANT, and as a result, they remain unprocessed—vivid and, unfortunately, so immediately accessible that they slip into consciousness at the drop of even tiny triggers.

But because you need to deal with everyday life, you need to put these memories somewhere other than your immediate attention, and so a compromise is reached: you toss the equivalent of a tarp over them.

And then, for the most part, you’re functional. Just like unwanted aunts or uncles, the traumatic memories aren’t around most of your life.

But just like tarps, sometimes the winds of real life blow across your memories. Maybe it’s a gentle but persistent zephyr that blows up a corner or side of the tarp, letting loose merely a potent aspect of terror or fear or hopelessness. Maybe a stronger storm wind blows off full corners, and you get something more immersive, shall we say.

And sometimes a hurricane whips up out of nowhere and tears off the whole thing. You can guess what happens then.

I called these episodes “waking nightmares” before I knew what they were.

The tarp comparison means that, in other words, a trigger can result in anything from

  • a slight change in behaviour, which can be so subtle that neither you nor those around you are aware of it until you completely lose composure, i.e. sudden expressions of anger or fear. The most common occurrence of PTSD intrusion.

  • partial reliving of one or more senses that occurred during the original trauma. Examples include abject fear, physically shivering, senses of gut-churning disgust, strangling sensations. This doesn’t occur anywhere near as often as the first type.

  • the stereotypical full flashback, where you entirely relive the full memory. You disassociate entirely with the present, and you probably will have an extremely vague recollection later, or even none at all. This is actually pretty rare, and many afflicted with PTSD may never experience it.

When I said the tarp was a compromise, I didn’t say it was a good compromise. And obviously the way towards healing is actually integrating these memories properly.

But do you really want to permanently integrate memories of rape camps, war, or child abuse?

I didn’t think so. The cost of waking nightmares seems surprisingly cheap next to full integration, although it isn’t, really.

Some people are more vulnerable to PTSD than others, some situations are more prone to produce PTSD than others, and severity can vary. The people who aren’t vulnerable are the ones you want to turn into Navy SEALs. Fictional characters, on the other hand, tend to be rather binary about this….

There Are No Therapists

“One must wonder why Jack Bauer isn’t Ax Crazy by now.”
– TVTropes.org

Let’s face it. It’s annoying for a writer to deal with characters and trauma that’s not actively forwarding a plot point or other. And let’s also remember that in many societies, one of the easiest ways to lose audience sympathy is for a character to be mentally ill. You’d have to work that much harder in characterizing your protagonist and that much harder in plot synthesis.

And yet, trauma is undoubtedly an interesting part of saying who your character is. And, well, forwarding plot points. Indeed, some of the most memorable parts of fiction occur when a character “loses it”.

That is why There Are No Therapists in much of fiction, even where they’re badly needed.

And because trauma seems… easy, like feeling sad, surely everyone knows about that!… this also leads to a certain amount of Did Not Do The Research with respect to more complex disorders like PTSD. Don’t even get me started on some of the Armchair Psychology that can also show up.

Thus results two main branches of PTSD portrayals in fiction:

A. What PTSD?
B. Set Piece PTSD

In What PTSD?, a character may witness horrible things, experience horrible things, be forced to do horrible things. During these events and perhaps a few days, even only hours later, the character is conveniently recovered enough to move to the next plot point or to the denouement. Butchered human carcasses, murder, torture—it doesn’t matter. Actual PTSD is never a possibility for the main character.

This is the purview of military science fiction. Actually, any military fiction. And actually, a lot of fiction across all genres and mainstream. I can count on the fingers of one hand fiction I’ve run into that doesn’t invoke this pattern, including works that I very much enjoy.

Despite the name, What PTSD? may feature PTSD in a marginalized way. For instance, something like PTSD may be referred to, but its actual treatment is short (which is odd, since the average minimum for recovery of “mild” PTSD is around three months 1) and offscreen. Or PTSD symptoms are used as a simple flag to mark other characters as weak, broken, and just not as good a person as the protagonist. Fiction that uses What PTSD? in this way will drop the matter into a dark hole after it has expired its usefulness to forwarding plot.

On the other end of the scale is Set Piece PTSD. It bears a surface similarity to the intrusiveness of PTSD, but without all the subtleties that would have allowed PTSD symptoms to be more than the instigator of plot points, a convenient plot barrier, or a crippling affliction of secondary characters.

In Set Piece PTSD, PTSD only occurs as flashbacks—full and frontal, leading to actual unconscious physical attacks, gunfire, and other extreme drama involving the endangerment of others and self. At all other times, the character often lives in What PTSD? Land. There is no in between.

Set Piece PTSD is wonderful to give to villains, either proving that they’ve passed beyond a moral event horizon or are imperfect in karmalicious ways. “Out, out, damned spot!”, wrote Shakespeare, making the use of this very old indeed.

It’s also wonderful to give a kind of neutered Set Piece PTSD to protaganists as well, because it helps block plot and gives them a just-debilitating-enough weakness while keeping them mentally pure and sympahetic. Any number of stoic characters who happen to be war veterans are like this.

Oh, and you can use it to get characters to see Thestrals.

Set Piece PTSD is often not mentioned outside of forwarding plot points or creating Very Special Episodes, but it’s kept in the toolbox for later use.

Yeargh.

And this is all fine and well for writers, who don’t need to waste time researching trauma or fiddling with its depths, and for the readers who are blissfully unaware of what the actual follow-through of seeing Thestrals means.

It is not at all fine for those of us with PTSD, who wonder what the hell the rest of the world is on, because we want some. Also, the whole “you are pathetic and weak, because you allowed yourself to break like this. If you want to matter, you must be fixed instantly. Chop chop!” message is a bit, well, depressing. PTSD doesn’t just happen to “weak” people, it happens to most people when presented with the appropriate circumstances, including school shootings, bombing terrorism, and the aftermath of severe natural disasters.

There’s some work here to be done by writers.

Next time: Living With PTSD While Solving Mysteries, Battling Aliens, Questing—You Know, the Little Things in Life.

Posts in this series: IntroductionBabylon 5 and LotRWWZ and West WingLord Peter Wimsey

Originally posted on Tor.com.

Notes:

  1. Source: The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook, by Glenn Shiraldi. And yes, it is available for the Kindle. [back]