I blame Donald Bellisario*.
Not in a bad way, exactly–but Magnum, P.I. started a trend. It hardly seems like something that would signify now, but Magnum (Which made Tom Selleck THE sex symbol of the early 80s) was groundbreaking because the protagonist was a Vietnam vet, with a certain amount of attendant damage–him and his war buddies–in an era when Vietnam was still very much a barely crusted wound in the American psyche.
The thing is, this was really the start of American fictional narrative’s love affair with PTSD as a kind of sexy, glamorized exceptionalism. Being a trauma survivor made you special, More worthy. It may have appeared earlier in books–the Rape Motivator for women seems to date back to the early years of the 20th century, in the pulps–but from my admittedly less than rigorous examination of American letters, Magnum seems to have made it sexy to be a survivor.
Magnum didn’t glamorize it, so much–it was more that Tom Selleck was so breathtakingly hot that everything about his character became fashionable–but imitators followed. And where Magnum made PTSD hot… soon, PTSD was making protagonists hot.
I have… a problem with this. Not with protagonists with post-traumatic response, but with the public perception of what PTSD is, how it works–and the way it’s become treated in narrative as a colorful character flaw rather than a real illness. It’s sort of like consumption in the Victorian era–something glamorous you can inflict on your heroine that will somehow miraculously make her tragic and angst-ridden and palely lovely, as rather divorced from the reality of hawking up chunks of lung until you die.
Not everyone who is exposed to trauma develops PTSD. Most peopke who do develop PTSD struggle at least as much with the reactions of their loved ones to their trigger behaviors as they do with the disease. Treatment is possible, though its complex and currently experimental. There have been a number of really significant advances in fixing the shit in the past ten years or so. (EMDR, the Chicago block–still very experimental, that last, but very promising.)
If you begin to suspect that I know something about this, it’s because I do. I’m an adult survivor of child abuse, and I suffer from chronic PTSD. Mine is complicated by the fact that it was not triggered by one specific traumatic event, but by a pattern of events over many years; this makes treatment and management all the more interesting.
The thing my post-traumatic response does not make me is exceptional, or heroic, or a protagonist, or an artist. It certainly influences my art; it has warped the hell out of it. Now, that warping may make it more interesting–a lot of people would rather look at a lightning-struck tree than a whole one–but it doesn’t change the fact that the tree is blasted, that it will never now grow the way it might have. But my damage does not make me a better or romantic person.
What it does make me is somebody who often struggles to be a decent friend, or a decent lover, because my trauma response is screaming at me to protect myself even when it’s not appropriate. It makes me somebody whose partner has to deal with her thrashing up in classic clonic night-terrors fifteen times a night when she’s under stress, whose friends have to deal with her completely broken fight-or-flight behavior, who–herself–has to deal with the irritating, embarrassing, time-consuming results of trigger behaviors. Who has to explain certain boundaries over and over again to people who think they’re unreasonable.
It makes me somebody who has to navigate a whole fuckload of tiresome, repetitive, totally predictable responses that use up energy and concentration and require constant self-monitoring. The really annoying thing is my trigger responses happen more often when I am happy and relaxed, because I let my guard down. Usually, these days, I can catch them before they become visible to people who don’t know me well.
And then there are the days when they blindside me utterly.
I lost a good twenty years of my life to learning to navigate the damage inside my head. I still lose days to it. That’s the reality of PTSD.
It doesn’t make me a protagonist. It doesn’t make me more interesting.
It’s just a fucking irritation I have to constantly navigate in order to get on with my life.
It’s a complication, is all. I choose to protag in spite of it.
*ETC from Stephen J. Cannell, my original brainfart. See comments.