Getting PTSD Right

By May 18, 2014Comms

I’ve written before about how PTSD is a phenomenon that’s poorly understood. More recently, I wrote about how the impact of killing of not only the killer, but every ancillary participant in the process several layers out. Both pieces were criticism, pointing out what we get wrong, both in the medical and speculative fiction communities.

But, it’s got me thinking, and the truth is that there are some people getting it right, and I wanted to point that out here. I figure the main reasons people read this blog is because they’re fans of my work and want to know more about me, or because they’re writers and want to see how the sausage is made. In service of the later group, I want to highlight some characters (and by extension, some authors), who I think portray PTSD well in the manner I understand it.

Keep in mind: I don’t see PTSD as a pathology. This position alone puts me at 180 degree odds with the medical community. I firmly believe that PTSD, as we define it, is a shift in perspective, a permanent change in personality which forever impacts how the sufferer engages with the world. As my essay in BEYOND THE WALL states, I think it is both enfranchising and debilitating.

I have also come out as firmly against the idea that people can own experiences simply by having them. I believe it is completely possible for a person who has never experienced PTSD inducing trauma to write compelling and accurate depictions of characters suffering from it, just as it is possible for people who have never fired a shot in anger to write compelling military fiction.

So, if you’re a speculative fiction writer looking for examples of authors who get it right, please consider the following ***MAJOR SPOILERS***:

George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire, Theon Greyjoy and Arya Stark: I’m not going to wax eloquently on this topic, since it’s covered in great detail in my essay Art Imitates War, in BEYOND THE WALL. If you want to read 16 pages of explanation of why I think Theon and Arya are good examples of the polar opposites of PTSD crippling and empowering people, off you go then.

Joe Abercrombie, The First Law, Ferro Maljinn: “The hate and the fury were gone, for the time being, but they had left a hole, and she had nothing else to fill it with.”

Ferro Maljinn is a former slave that features prominently in Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy (THE BLADE ITSELF, BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED, THE LAST ARGUMENT OF KINGS). She appears on the page already the victim of circumstances, with everyone and everything in her life ripped away from her.

Abercrombie’s win in the portrayal of Maljinn is twofold: First, he paints a radiation metaphor in her exposure to the magical Seed, which is ultimately what trips her over the line into insanity. The radiation metaphor is a good one, because it emphasizes that a person impacted by trauma is impacted permanently, and that who they are is different on the other side. You can cope with it, but you can never fix it.

Secondly, Abercrombie adeptly shows the cost of trauma on its victim, hand-in-hand with the real benefits. Again, this is deftly done through the vehicle of speculative fiction metaphor. Maljinn is superpowered by her contact with the Seed – gaining superior senses and the magical ability to project cold and shrug off damage. I have said before that PTSD rips away a curtain that is in place for most, and that once ripped away, it can never be put back. This is the case for Maljinn, who now sees the demons that flit about the lives of mankind, and is driven to madness by their nearness.

The ultimate example (and the most poignant moment of the series for me) is Logen Ninefingers final appeal to her heart (the two have a romance throughout the series that balances on a knife’s edge), losing out to the trauma, which has at last made her unable to connect with other people in any real capacity. Logen finally closes the door, leaving Maljinn scrabbling at the floor, her last chance at love walking out of her life forever.

James S.A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes, Detective “Joe” Miller: “You don’t have a right thing, friend. You’ve got a whole plateful of maybe a little less wrong.”

Detective Josephus “Joe” Miller is a man with a hollow life. He has lost the love of his life, his career is on the rocks, and his finances are in the toilet. He becomes obsessed with his latest case, the search for the scion of a rich household, Julie Mao.

Corey is a pseudonym for an outstanding writing duo, Daniel Abraham (whose Dagger and Coin series I can’t recommend enough) and Ty Franck. In the crafting of Miller, they skillfully illustrate the concept of moving goal posts, and how the normal life goals that people set are put suddenly out of reach. Miller is not a person who can simply reboot and start following the life course that so many of us take for granted: work a job, build wealth and a relationship, make a home and a family.

For Miller, years in law enforcement have ripped the curtain back permanently, and these things no longer have any meaning to him. PTSD sufferers faced with this scenario flail for new reasons to live. I flailed more of less successfully (though it was, and still occasionally is, touch and go), finding art and crisis service to be enough. Miller’s obsessive focus on the Mao case is an outstanding example of the kind of inexplicable laser-focus that trauma victims can have as they face the mirror each morning and ask themselves the question “Why should I bother?”

For many, we bother because we want to pay off our mortgage, see our children grow into honorable adulthood around us, stand in front of an applauding audience while we are promoted to company VP. Abraham and Franck understand, with an almost intuitive empathy, that after years in the suck, that isn’t going to cut it anymore.

Humans are intensely complex. There is no “correct” way to write about an experience as manifold and diverse as our reaction to trauma. But, if you’re a spec. fic writer who is looking for examples that really resonate with someone who spends a lot of time thinking about this stuff, I hope you’ll give messrs. Martin, Abercrombie, and Corey (Abraham and Franck) a try. In my experience, very few people get this stuff right.

These writers do.


Author Myke Cole

Myke Cole is an American writer of history and fantasy who leverages a lifetime in military, law enforcement and intelligence service to take you to battlefields, real and imagined.

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