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.
I was thinking about all the writers who may have had PTSD: Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Erich Maria ReMarque, C. S. Lewis, Kurt Vonnegut, James Jones, J. D. Salinger, Ernest Hemingway. PTSD can be very socially isolating. One of my great- great grandfathers, who lost an eye in the Civil War, lived out the end of his life in a cabin in the woods. Why do so many people with PTSD tend to become reclusive? Is it because they have lost their trust in people, and so tend to be nervous and jumpy around them? If you expect good things from people, then you will derive feelings of security, love, and companionship with them. Or perhaps those with PTSD just get tired of the people around them not being able to understand or empathize with their point of view. So those with PTSD often tend to become isolated.
It seems to me that writing can fit well with this syndrome. Writing is most often a solitary profession. Writers need to be able to tolerate and even enjoy long periods of solitude. Writing is also a way of trying to sort out and understand the meaning of what happened to you, and the meaning of what is going on in the world. Therefore, I do not think it would be at all surprising if we discovered that quite a few writers were people with PTSD who were trying to sort out the meaning of what happened to them and the meaning of human nature in this world.
I was recently viewing an old film of an interview with James Jones, and he was talking about writers as observers of society who were thus doomed to be outsiders. This resonated with my own feeling of being an outsider. Yet he clearly had PTSD, and had the cynicism and anger and protectiveness that so often accompany PTSD, and I wonder if his feeling like an outsider was as much or more from his PTSD than his work in life as a writer. Perhaps it was the tsunami of war and PTSD that propelled him toward being a writer.
But each writer is different. When I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina I do not have a sense that he had PTSD. He apparently served in a war zone, but he was from the upper classes, and I wonder if he served as an officer who was insulated from the action. He writes beautifully, but there is no sense of inner devastation that comes with PTSD. He unquestionably shows a profound sensitivity to social nuances and the psychology of the upper classes. He describes with clarity and finesse the psychology of Anna leading up to her throwing herself under a train. Why then is there not that same clarity and finesse in describing the psychology of men in combat?
I think J. D. Salinger clearly had PTSD, although he never wrote directly about his war experiences, which were horrific. I think the cynicism and alienation of his young character, Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye, is actually the cynicism and alienation of a man with PTSD. Salinger became quite reclusive, and drove around his property in a Jeep wearing a military jacket.
I’m very curious about C. S. Lewis. When I was younger I liked science fiction. But I tried several times to read Lewis’s science fiction trilogy: Perelandra, Out of the Silent Planet, and That Hideous Strength. It was so stuffy, dry, and British that I always lost interest. A few years ago I listened to a series of lectures about his life and work. This led me to read Mere Christianity, in which he gives a lively, far from stuffy, non-denominational defense of Christianity. In his earlier life he had forsaken Christianity and become an atheist who was very adept at debating and defending his atheistic point of view among the academics at Oxford University. He was raised as a Christian, but his mother died when he was nine years old. His father sent him and his brother off to a boarding school that had a hazing system in which the older boys tormented the younger ones. Furthermore, the headmaster was apparently an overbearing man who was subsequently hospitalized for mental problems. The young Lewis was miserable. He had lost his mother and been sent away from his home and his father to live in a cold and hostile environment. These kinds of experiences in childhood tend to make one more vulnerable to later traumatic experiences. I wonder if these traumatic experiences led to him forsaking his belief in God. He also served in WWI, and was wounded. He referred briefly to the horrors of the trench warfare, but never wrote about it in detail. He and his good friend had a pact that if one of them was killed, the other would care for the dead man’s family. His friend was killed, and Lewis suffered another loss to death. He kept his pact and took care of his friend’s mother for the rest of her life, bringing her to live in his home, and even calling her his mother. Some have wondered whether he actually had a romantic relationship with this woman, while others have observed that she was difficult, and that there was probably no romantic relationship. Yet there was no other romantic relationship during that period of his life! After she died he fell in love with Joy Gresham, but she died of cancer a few years later.
Given this pattern of experiences in Lewis’s life I would not be surprised at all if had PTSD. But as far as I know he never wrote directly about his war experiences. He did write about his devastating grief. He couldn’t seem to catch a break. He experienced one death after another. His mother, his friend in the war, his friend’s mother, and finally his beloved wife. He had met and married his wife late in life, and was “surprised by joy,” but after only a few years she too died. He developed a torturous relationship with God, and wrote about his attempts to try to understand why God had taken away
so many of his loved ones.
One of the patterns of PTSD is that of delayed onset. A person in combat keeps a stiff upper lip, and dissociates from his fear and anger in order to function effectively and survive in combat. After the war he continues to dissociate and function effectively. “It didn’t bother me. Those guys who get PTSD or become ‘nervous in the service’ are weak.” Then, years later, the person is overwhelmed by the symptoms of PTSD and is forced to admit that in retrospect he can see that he’s had the symptoms all along, but has suppressed or hidden them, either consciously or unconsciously. He thought it was normal, for example, to be so hypervigilant. Then in later life he
had a brush with death or some other traumatic event that brought it all out. I think we see this with C. S. Lewis. In his late life he was devastated by the loss of his wife. Was it just an excessive grief? I don’t think so. I think he was devastated in a way that was consistent with PTSD. He was questioning God and wanting to know why this could be such a world as this. Here is this man with latent PTSD writing so many books and providing so many answers for so many of the important questions in life, and suddenly in his late life he feels devastated, like a fool with none of the answers. I’d be willing to bet that he had PTSD.
Other Related Posts by Mike:
- The Puzzle of PTSD
- The Stigma of PTSD
- Inter-generational PTSD, What is it Really? (Part One)
- Inter-generational PTSD, Another Perspective (Part Two)
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.
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