Mike Muller is on the Advisory Board for Thuy Smith International Outreach. He is a Vietnam veteran, has a Ph.D. in psychology, and has counseled veterans for many years.  He writes novels under the pen name of Michael FitzGordon. 

When I was a kid there was a lot of conflict in my house, and I developed my own retreats, hideouts, and escapes.  I loved to climb to the top of my favorite maple tree, higher than the house, and above the conflict below.  I was so high that most people would never even think to look for me up there.  I could feel the trunk bending under my weight as the breezes blew.  Everything seemed more peaceful up there.  I could also climb out a branch and onto the roof of the house.  On the other side of the house there was a hackberry tree that made a shady dome over the roof.  Here again, I was perfectly hidden and at peace.

Another escape was reading.  We lived many different places, but I was almost always able to walk or bike to the local library.  I read adventure stories, science fiction, fairy tales, physics, geology, biology, herpetology, chess books, dog books, and anything that grabbed my interest.  I had my favorite authors.  I guess my escapism made me into a geek.  Some people don’t really notice that I’m a geek.  But at the same time I can be a surprisingly formidable opponent if I am forced to defend myself or someone else.

My father was a hustler, bookie, and night club proprietor.  He ran numbers, and considered himself to be exceptionally sharp.  He could beat people at chess.  When he learned I was interested in chess at age ten he wanted me to play with him.  I was afraid of him and did not want to play chess with him, much less be in the same room with him.  But if he told you to do something, you said, “yes sir,” and did it.  We always did what he said.  There was no other choice, except to be cursed and knocked down.  So for a week or so my father and I would play chess in the evenings until he realized that my beating him was not a fluke.  I don’t think he ever liked me much after that.  When I was an adult I once tried to get back into playing chess, but my heart always started beating too fast for it to be fun.

We lived out in the country for a while, and there was no library nearby, so I joined the Science Fiction Book Club to receive books by mail.  I would also buy books on astronomy, because man! you could really see the stars out there.  I preferred “hard” science fiction, i.e., not fantasy, but fiction based on possible projections of the future given current scientific knowledge.  Star Wars is hard science fiction; Superman is fantasy.  As I matured, my interest in science fiction waned because most of the science fiction lacked emotional and psychological complexity.  Many of the adventures were nothing more than immature fantasies.  The main attraction of the stories was the sense of wonder at the marvels of science and the natural universe.  At this time in my life Kurt Vonnegut appeared as I was transitioning from simple science fiction into a world with more psychological complexity and ambiguity.  I read everything of his that I could get.  He had a wacky kind of Dave Barry or Carl Hiaasen humor in which the mindlessness of normal human behavior was seen as being quite ridiculous.

I don’t think I ever read Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, which was based on his experiences as a POW in Dresden during WWII.  It was published in 1969 when I was in the army and on my way to a different war.  In 1972, when I was back from Vietnam and enrolled in graduate school in English, the movie was released.  It seemed like a wacky blend of war novel and science fiction.  I enjoyed the movie tremendously, but I did not really understand it very well.  I just thought it was wacky.  A few years later, after I had switched from English to psychology in graduate school, I was reading a Vonnegut novel, and I noticed a passage that had a clinically schizophrenic  aspect to it.  I had that same sense of regret I had experienced before.  It seemed that once again I was losing one of my favorite authors as I matured emotionally and intellectually.

A few years later I learned that Vonnegut’s son had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and I thought to myself that I had been perceptive to notice a schizophrenic trend in his father years before.  Now his son, a physician, believes that perhaps bipolar disorder would have been a more accurate diagnosis.  When I was a staff psychologist at the student health center of a major university I worked with a psychiatrist who had a theory about working with the many bright and creative students who came to the mental health service.  Many young people will have their first psychotic break when they are of college age.  Perhaps this is due to the development of the brain, but perhaps it is also due to the stress of being away from home and at college.  The psychiatrist said that he tried to moderate the use of antipsychotic medication, to find that balance to “tighten up” the creative student’s concentration without going so far as to make them lose their looseness of cognitive associations, and their creativity.  If they lost their creativity, of course, it would be a major loss and crisis in their life.

I drifted away from Vonnegut.  But recently I watched Slaughterhouse Five again, perhaps in part because I remembered how sexy Valerie Perrine was in the movie.  Much had changed in me since the last time I read or viewed anything by Vonnegut.  I had spent several decades counseling veterans with PTSD.  I had conducted groups for WWII POWs for about ten years.  I also had come to the reluctant acknowledgement that I too had PTSD based on my childhood, my time in the war, and my many years of working with war veterans and the horrors of war.  I guess I was a very different person the second time I watched Slaughterhouse Five.  I was stunned! It brought tears to my eyes.  The movie had little to do with science fiction!  It was a stunning creative achievement in which the author made it possible for the reader or viewer to see the horrors of war without being overwhelmed.  The protagonist’s coming “unstuck in time” was a depiction of flashbacks.  The book was published in 1969; PTSD and psychological flashbacks were not well known until 1980.  The protagonist was frequently transported to the planet Tralfamidor.  This was his escape from the horror, just as I, as a boy, had my own escapes, and still do.

I subsequently watched the movie, Mother Night, based on Vonnegut’s novel.  A double agent in Nazi Germany must actually participate in the evil if he wishes to maintain his cover.  In doing good he is corrupted by the evil.  It is a brilliant depiction of the difficulty of not being corrupted by evil in this world.  A novelist can be like a double agent.  Graham Greene said that the plot was like a bone that you gave to the watchdog so you could sneak into the reader’s mind.  Joseph Conrad said that he was trying to make the reader see.  Creative artists can try to create works that are popular, will sell, and will appeal to the superficial.  They may think they are giving a bone to the watchdog so that they can sneak in with deeper meanings and vision.  But they may also be corrupted like the double agent, selling their souls to the devil.

Mike Muller:  MACV CORDS operations advisor, Binh Chanh District, 1970.  Briefing officer for DEPCORDS Ambassador Funkhouser to CG & staff, III Corps Vietnam, 1971.  In addition to briefing the staff I briefed visiting officials such as the Secretary of the Army.  I was in Vietnam for one tour.

Disclaimer: If you are needing more extensive assistance or counseling, we can supply you with a list of available agencies to assist you. No blogs are ever meant to substitute a person seeking help through professional counseling.

4 thoughts on “Vonnegut: PTSD and Creativity

  1. We’re on the same page, Mike. I touch on PTSD and Slaughterhouse-Five briefly in my upcoming biography of Vonnegut, but your experiences add insights only you could have articulated.

    Best,
    Charles J. Shields
    And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Holt, November)

  2. I. too, have used books to escape the painful realities of life, ever since I was a little girl. So many novels are about crime, murder, war, and other horrors. I have often wondered how the authors who write about evil, in-depth, and in great detail, can possibly remain untainted by it. I have to skim through and skip over the worst parts of many crime and suspense novels, because my imagination is just too vivid. I also worry about how I am being affected, by the novels I read.

    1. We have bad dreams, night after night, and read stories and watch movies that have conflict, dangers, and evil in them because, as Freud observed, we have a desire or need to master our fears. We want to know that we can win in the face of all the dangers and problems that the world presents. So when I read a book or watch a movie I am not looking so much at the nastiness it depicts as I am at the way of mastery, transcendence, or overcoming that it presents. I’m not so impressed with Tarantino, for example, who just dumps the products of his animal unconscious onto the screen. In his work there is little depiction of the glory and light to be found in humans overcoming all the evil and danger and conflict that this world throws at us.

  3. “We have bad dreams, night after night, and read stories and watch movies that have conflict, dangers, and evil in them because, as Freud observed, we have a desire or need to master our fears.” That makes sense. I don’t enjoy books or movies that have nothing but horror and evil, with no transcending love, bravery, and morality.

    Speaking of bad dreams, I’ve been having some new nightmares lately, very different from the dreams I usually have. I’ve been puzzled by these dreams. Now, in light of what you said about the desire to master our fears, they make some sense.

    Life is very interesting!

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