A thing that bothers me, narratively speaking.

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.

Posted: Monday, August 6th, 2012 @ 4:07 am
Categories: Blog.
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11 Responses to “A thing that bothers me, narratively speaking.”

  1. Cindylover1969 Says:

    Without cheapening your post in any way at all, Stephen J. Cannell (RIP) wasn’t responsible for Thomas Magnum (although he did appear on the show) – blame Donald P. Bellisario and Glen A. Larson…

  2. matociquala Says:

    Of course, you are one hundred percent correct. I pulled the wrong name out of the ether–Cannell did the other and more lighthearted 80s Vietnam Vet shows, like Riptide and The A-Team. Bellisario did Magnum and Airwolf. *facepalm*

  3. Amanda Says:

    I remember thinking to myself on one occasion of talking myself out of an anxiety attack (and stopping everything and cancelling plans to do so) about what a fucking waste of time the business was.

  4. dichroic Says:

    Yes. I’ve seen similar issues discussed before, with comments to the effect that people who aren’t severely damaged are not all that interesting. To me that comes way too close to glorifying disease, that whole tortured-artist thing. Artists deserve respect; artists who have produced art through or in spite of or because of damage or disease deserve more. Similarly for heroes. But it isn’t the illness that makes them deserving; it’s the art or the heroism.

  5. bettielee Says:

    I find the “turns steel into peanut brittle” particularly poignant after this post….

  6. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) Says:

    Come to think of it, that seems to go all the way back to Jake Cutter and Tales of the Gold Monkey

  7. Abi Sutherland Says:

    Thank you for this. I’ve linked to it from DFD, where I think it will be of interest and value.

  8. Anne Lyle Says:

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. It seems to me that this glamorisation of PTSD is part and parcel of the glamorisation of violence in general, with PTSD adding superficial “grit” and “realism” to the mix (note – I’m being sarcastic here).

    It was certainly something I had to consider when writing my own book. My hero has undergone trauma (vital to the plot, not just “character building”) and suffers nightmares as a result, but I didn’t want to give him full-blown PTSD because I knew how crippling that would be. I hope this doesn’t come across as trivialising the problem, though it hasn’t stopped some reviewers from describing him as “just another damaged ex-soldier” (the trauma is nothing to do with his combat experience, as it happens). A sign, perhaps, that it has become such an over-used trope that it is assumed to apply to any character with a painful past.

    On the other hand I thought K J Parker handles it exceptionally well in “Sharps” – professional fencer and ex-soldier Suidas Deutzel has classic PTSD, and it really screws up both him and his actions within the story. I would recommend it unreservedly to anyone who likes intelligent historical fantasy :)

  9. Lee Edward McIlmoyle Says:

    I never stop learning new and important things from you, you know. Not so much about your PTSD, which IS news to me, but news I almost don’t feel a right to have, because we’re not close enough friends at this time. So I thank you for this insight into you.

    What I have learned here is that I may not be thinking seriously enough about a certain protag of mine who definitely suffers from PTSD, even though I’m pretty sure date-wise, it wasn’t called that in his day. So far, he just has a trigger and a pretty wild reaction, and though I’ve intended to get deeper into it, I didn’t want to overwhelm the narrative of this first novel with it. However, since said novel kind of morphed into four, I suppose it wouldn’t be out of line to invest more energy into examining his trauma as well.

    So thank you. As always, knowing you, even in our limited fashion, has taught me something valuable.

  10. Mary Spila Says:

    May I repost?

    Like you I am a adult survivor of child abuse. It was only recently that I was able to figure out that my over-reactions to things is a PTSD reaction.

    Sharing your words, may help explain things to people where I can’t get my words to come out.

    In either case, thank you.


  11. matociquala Says:

    Absolutely, feel free to repost.

    I apologize for the common color issue–we’re working on it; for now I’m afraid it’s highlight-to-read the white on white comments. :-P

    We’re all spoiler free here!