Tag Archives: psychological trauma

Creative Mind Under Stress

The recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain sparked my mind to return to my interest in what happens when psychological trauma rules a mind and life rather than the mind confronting it and healing. I didn’t know either Spade or Bourdain so I’m not writing about them specifically. But I chose to make the protagonist of the Perceval series a 30-something American man, Evan Quinn, who suffered severe psychological trauma as a child and who has an aversion to any kind of psychiatric treatment because in his America the government uses psychiatric treatment as an instrument of mind and behavior control as well as a way to make someone disappear. I wanted to explore through Evan Quinn the possibilities of untreated psychological trauma. How does the mind deal with the psychological trauma? How do the mental coping mechanisms affect behavior? How do they affect the person’s thinking? Just as the physical body has its responses to trauma, so does the human mind to psychological trauma.

When a person experiences a life-threatening situation, or a situation the person perceives as life-threatening, and the person is powerless in that situation, the mind experiences psychological trauma. Some examples (not all the possibilities) of such a traumatizing situation: natural disaster, car accident, combat in war, being the victim of attempted murder, being mugged at gunpoint, being raped, and especially for children, being abused physically, sexually and/or emotionally. Once the threat is over and the person is safe, it’s important for him or her to talk about the experience, to debrief. This includes talking not only about the facts of the situation but also how the person felt, what the person was thinking during the situation, and what, if anything, the person did in response to the situation. For example, I live in Minnesota, and during tornado season over the years I’ve heard of a small town being hit by a devastating tornado, and then witnessed residents of the town talking about their experience with the media, being heard and supported, helped and comforted. This is actually a very important step toward healing the psychological trauma of the natural disaster. But what happens when the traumatized person cannot talk about the event immediately afterward and receive support, help, and comfort?

Evan Quinn experienced abuse as a child growing up. He was a powerless, defenseless child abused by a person he trusted to protect and defend him. For any child, this betrayal and injury can have a devastating effect on the child’s psyche including dissociation at the time of the trauma. When there’s no outside intervention to protect the child afterward as there was none for Evan, the mind copes by compartmentalizing the thoughts and emotions of the memory of the trauma. In other words, the mind puts the memory away in a closet. The memory isn’t gone, though. The mind takes steps of its own to protect itself and the child. So, for example, the child may become quiet, sad, afraid, and hyper-vigilant in contrast to previous behavior. The child’s thought processes change. It only takes one trauma to do the damage, and subsequent trauma reinforces the mind’s coping measures. Each person is a unique individual, and so each person will respond in a unique and individual way to a psychologically traumatizing event(s). There is a common coping mechanism, however, that manifests as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Evan Quinn has PTSD. He’s grown up living with his abuser, putting the memories of the abuse away in a mental closet even as he remembers witnessing his father abusing his mother and her response. He makes it to adulthood because of classical music and his friendship with the Caines, especially with his mentor in music, Joseph Caine. In Europe, he’s far away from his abuser and he’s finally safe. It’s usually at this point that PTSD begins to really make itself felt because the circumstances no longer require its coping and protective function. Memories will pop out of the closet in the form of flashbacks, also affecting mental function, sleep, and emotional control. For women, depression is common, as well as acting out in inappropriate ways. For men, there can be acting out, sometimes violence, paranoia, as well as depression. Hallucinations, auditory and/or visual, are not uncommon. A profound sense of hopelessness and uselessness, deep hot rage and short temper, and despair can pervade daily life. None of this happens all at once but develops over time. PTSD is a symptom of unresolved psychological trauma.

In Perceval’s Secret, Evan begins to become aware of his PTSD and it’s recognized by Klaus Leiner who offers Evan help. Evan receives other offers of help, but his aversion to psychiatric treatment and his belief that there’s nothing wrong with him prevent him from accepting those offers. The PTSD affects his thought process and the choices that he makes. How his life progresses after that is what the Perceval series reveals. My big discovery, as the writer that Evan chose to tell his story, was that power plays a crucial role — having power over others, being powerless vs. feeling powerless, and the desire to feel powerful vs. actually being powerful in oneself. And I feel often that I am only scratching the surface of this complex human experience and condition, as well as its relevance to current human life.


Fiction vs. Reality

nydailynews.com/Anne Sophie Chaisemartin/AP

nydailynews.com/Anne Sophie Chaisemartin/AP

My reaction to the terrorist attacks during the last few months has been horror, yes, but also something else.  There’s been a sense of unreality to it all, like the psychological trauma has begun to numb me from the reality in order to cope. The destruction of humans and self-destruction of humans have reached some sort of pinnacle. I’ve also thought, “Not again.

Then oddly, my writer mind wonders if a thriller writer somewhere is taking notes in order to make a terrorist attack in a novel more realistic.  A second later, I’m horrified at that thought. And yet….

There’s a saying that truth is stranger than fiction.

Vendela Vida wrote an essay about reality vs. fiction at nytimes.com entitled “Highly Unlikely.”  Vida’s musings about using her real experiences in her fiction reminded me of my “Write What You Know?” post here last month.  In that post, I wrote about not using personal experience or real people in fiction.  Vida wrote about using a specific experience in fiction and being told that it was improbable.  We want our fiction to be real but not surreal, to be probable, even though the reality it may be based on is totally bizarre.  Using reality as inspiration is something else, like using the terrorist attacks in some way for fiction.

One of my preoccupations is the effects of trauma on the human mind.  We are attentive to the effects of physical trauma, getting medical help for people who have been injured in an attack, accident or disaster.  But what about the effects of living through such trauma on the mind?  This is what has been on my mind as one terrorist attack after another has been occurring the last few months.  Those of us who see these attacks from a distance, on the TV, or read about them on the internet or in newspapers and news magazines, could become numb to their horror and pain.  The people who were in the middle of it, were injured or witnessed the violence up close, could become numb through dissociation, could develop PTSD.

Writers can explore the psychological effects of trauma through fiction.  I know because I have and continue to do so in the Perceval novels.  The character(s) with PTSD did not experience a terrorist attack, but another life-threatening trauma that created a profound sense of powerlessness and helplessness that was never recognized by the people surrounding them.  What happens to someone when psychological trauma is not treated?


And this is where it’s possible to stray into that “truth is stranger than fiction” territory that readers tend to label as improbable.  And yet, it’s necessary to ground a character’s PTSD behavior in reality, i.e. what has been observed and established as symptomatic of PTSD.  Someone suffering from it won’t always be aware of it, and in fact, a first step in treating it is to become aware of the behaviors, the emotional symptoms, and the psychological symptoms like dissociation.  Until the trauma and its emotional and psychological effects have been confronted and processed, the person will remain in a PTSD loop, getting triggered into flashbacks or dissociation.

How to write about all that plausibly?  By putting the character in a plausible situation that would trigger the PTSD.  Then by using specific details to capture the PTSD experience.  I asked someone who had experienced PTSD and the healing process to read Perceval’s Secret in order to double check that what I’d written was plausible.  It was a huge relief to hear that it was.  But I could have just as easily gone off the rails and exaggerated symptoms in order to make the PTSD point.  And that is a serious mistake — exaggeration.

As writers, we cannot escape reality, not if we want our readers to believe us.  The trick is to make certain that we don’t make our fiction stranger than reality.

Evan Quinn, Antihero

Antihero: a central character in a story, movie, or drama who lacks conventional heroic attributes.

Matt Damon as Tom Ripley in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (1999)

Matt Damon as Tom Ripley in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999)

They are the protagonists you love to hate.  Protagonists that are more villains than the archetypal heroes.  They exhibit clinical narcissism and grandiosity.  They usually lack the self-awareness necessary for change.  Are they capable of growing and developing self-awareness?  What would it take?

I’ve made no secret of my fascination with antiheroes.  I wrote about them in 2010 here.  I’ve been intensely interested in how a human being becomes such a person.  With my antihero Evan Quinn, I wanted to explore three things: how an American would react to a totalitarian dictatorship, how an American would deal with emigration to another country under circumstances echoing Russian emigrants who left the USSR in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and what could happen with someone whose PTSD is left untreated.

Americans now are more familiar with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) because of our military veterans and their suffering with it.  PTSD is not unique only to war veterans, especially those who saw combat.  Anyone who experiences extreme psychological trauma in which he feels threatened and powerless to protect or defend himself can develop PTSD.  This includes children who experience physical or sexual or psychological abuse, accident survivors, domestic abuse survivors, survivors of crime, and survivors of natural disasters.  It’s important for the survivors of trauma to talk about their experience and how they felt as soon after the trauma as possible.  Talking begins the process of psychological healing from the trauma.  So when the media descends on a town destroyed by a tornado, for example, and starts interviewing the survivors, that is helpful somewhat.  The media, however, are not trained to guide the survivors through processing their experience and feelings so they don’t get stuck in the psychological flashback loop characteristic of PTSD.  Not everyone will develop PTSD after major psychological trauma.  I don’t know why.  I have not heard that researchers have figured that out either.

Perceval’s Secret is the beginning of my exploration into Evan Quinn’s psychological present and how that affects his choices and his life.  We don’t like to think too much about the powerful effects our past experiences have on our lives, but they make us who we are.  That’s also true with Evan.  Joseph Caine and his family provide a sanctuary for him that, I hope, may give him what he needs to break out of his PTSD.  However, in the subsequent four novels, I really put him through the ringer as far as his choices are concerned.  In Perceval’s Secret, he only begins to notice the effect having power and control exerts over him.  I have the final scene of the final novel in my mind, although I’m still uncertain how it will end.  The question for the Perceval series is this: Does Evan Quinn have the capability to redeem himself, and if so, how?

Other antiheroes have been far from redemption.  Their creators have seen them as psychopaths, incapable of human connection and empathy, and without conscience.  Dexter Morgan of the Dexter series of novels (and TV shows, although these took a different direction than the novels) is an example, or Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels.  Hannibal Lecter.  Looking farther back in literature, there’s Kafka’s K, Camus’s The Stranger, Holden Caulfield, Tyler Durden and the Narrator in Fight Club, Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s mysteries, Scarlett O’Hara as one of the few women anti-heroes, and yes, even Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series.  There’s also a long list in film and TV of antiheroes.

What makes an antihero?  What in a character’s past makes her the villain in her own story?  That’s part of Evan’s story, too.  Not many antihero creators dive into that murky sea.  I believe his past holds the key to Evan’s healing.  Now if I can just convince Evan….