Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Book review: The Enigma of Survival - the underworld of trauma

Mac McClelland

Reviewed by SALLY SATEL

The evil hour descended on David Morris in the summer of 2009. The former marine and war reporter was in a theater watching a movie with his then girlfriend and suddenly found himself pacing the lobby with no memory of having left his seat. 

Later, his girlfriend explained that Morris had fled after an explosion occurred onscreen. He began having dreams of his buddies being ripped apart. When awake, he would imagine innocent items—an apple or a container of Chinese takeout—blowing up. 

Pathological vigilance took root: “Preparing for bed was like getting ready for a night patrol.” The dreams persisted. “Part of me,” he admits, “was ashamed of the dreams, of the realization that I was trapped inside a cliché: the veteran so obsessed with his own past that even his unconscious made love to it every night.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder is the subject of two new books, one by Morris and another by war reporter Mac McClelland. The symptoms are crippling: relentless nightmares, unbidden waking images, hyperarousal, sleeplessness, and phobias. As a diagnosis, it has existed colloquially for generations—“shell shock” is one name that survives in the modern idiom—and it has particular resonance because of this generation’s wars. (Most soldiers are spared it, though the public tends to think they are not. A 2012 poll found that most people believe that most post-9/11 veterans suffer from PTSD. The actual rate has been estimated at between two and 17 percent.)

Morris thinks the symptoms—a body and mind reacting in fear long after the threat to life and limb is gone—hardly encompass the experience of PTSD. Historically, we might have sought out not only shrinks but also “poetry, our families, or the clergy for solace post horror.” Profitably, Morris turns to everyone: the Greeks, the great poets of World War I, historians, anthropologists, and yes, psychiatrists and psychologists.

From such wide consultation comes a masterful synthesis. The Evil Hours interweaves memoir with a cultural history of war’s psychic aftermath. Morris chronicles the development of PTSD as an official diagnosis and its earlier incarnations in other wars. From Homer’s Odyssey to the venerated war poets, from the crusade for recognition by organized psychiatry to the modern science of fear and resilience, Morris gives a sweeping view of the condition, illuminated by meditation on sacrifice and danger and, in his words, “the enigma of survival.”


Morris wants to know: Why does the world look so different since he got back from Iraq? How is the Veterans Administration fighting PTSD? What does one do with the knowledge gleaned from a near-death experience? How does one tell the untraumatized majority about the conditions that constitute the underworld of trauma?.. read more: