PTSD and avoiding the cliché



We’ve all seen it or read it. The traumatised hero who has an intrusive memory attack whenever we need some backstory, who falls apart throughout the story at downtimes but crucially manages to get it together when he or she needs to, at crunch moments. And then, at the end, the plot contrives to somehow put her or him in a similar position to the traumatic incident that started it all off. But this time, the hero overcomes it. Catharsis in action.

So, when I decided one of the protagonists of The Trauma Pool had PTSD, all those inevitable alarm bells went off in my head. How could I bring anything fresh to such well-trodden, trope-laden ground?

I started with research. Obviously. Because PTSD is very real, and very misunderstood and Hollywood, comic books and yes, the literary world too, have played their part in magnifying the confusion. The more I read, the more fascinated I became with who and what else was to blame for it. The military? Yes, to some extent. The establishment, absolutely, if you think of how endemic the idea was, even by the 1990s, that something like that could only happen to soldiers, and American ones at that. The spirit of wilful blindness that allowed ‘shellshock’ to be cured by electroshock, cigarettes on the tongue and hot plates at the throat, didn’t simply dissipate in 1914. Many psychologists as late as the 1994 rejected the idea that anyone under extraordinarily awful circumstances could be a sufferer.

It turns out that flashbacks, however handy as a cinematic or plotting tool, are one symptom among many. The sense of disassociation, bouts of hyperarousal, and the day to day onslaught on the personality and well-being as a result of the condition are trickier to portray, but just as importantly awful to have to deal with.

So, did I get rid of flashbacks? Well, yes and no. There are a couple In The Trauma Pool, but I decided to keep them far from revelatory, and not to hang them on the protagonist’s original triggering incident. The incident is never really shown. Why? Because with PTSD despite the fact that memory intrudes in such a real way making the sufferer relive events, it’s never whole, always fractured and lurks out of sight in terms of ‘normal’ everyday recall.

But in the end, this is a crime thriller, right? There has to be action. The protagonist has to be in the centre of it. How to resist the cathartic triumph over debilitating weakness that most plotting cries out for?

Well it’s all about… but no. No.

I’m not going to tell you. Just like the protagonist’s refusal of admission that he even has a problem, I’m withholding that little spoiler.

Avoidance.


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