How PTSD Can Change the Culture: An Interview With ‘The Evil Hours’ Author David J. Morris

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In The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, writer David J. Morris shows how the disorder has been a part of the human experience since time began, and how our understanding of it and treatment of it has changed throughout the years. Even today, the “PTSD” label is often misunderstood and misapplied, with the average reader seeing it as something that only affects veterans and rape victims (which is decidedly not the case). What a relief, then, to have Morris’ stunning writing and thorough research to make sense of it. As a former Marine, Morris writes vividly about life during and after war; and he also turns his eye towards the trauma that can arise from other categories including sexual assault and near-death experiences. We talked to him on the phone about how a greater understanding of PTSD could lead to a better culture, from veterans coming home to how colleges handle rape on campus.

Flavorwire: Your book is both powerful and beautifully written, and I wanted to know more about what it was like to write about trauma in a way that wasn’t just clinical?

David J. Morris: One of the things that comes back to the basic idea behind trauma is that it can be an experience that’s non-communicable, and that’s what makes it more traumatic: the idea that what has happened to you cannot be expressed, which almost redoubles your loneliness. When I got into [writing The Evil Hours], I sort of knew that, and I think that idea, if you let it sink in, can sort of motivate the writing to actually push it towards a better standard.

If it’s going to work, and if you’re going to have any hope of rendering the power of the moments that you survived, you have to work at trying to capture some of that — even if it’s beauty — which is kind of a paradoxical thing about trauma. There is this sublimity to it, this potential for deep insight. I think that’s one of the reasons that war keeps coming back, and extreme experiences keep creeping in — they’ve always been an essential part of Western literature. It pushes you to write better, because you want to be equal to the experience in some way.

Where did this book come from? What was the start of it?

As a former jarhead, former marine, I had lived in the shadow of PTSD for most of my adult life — not necessarily because I was suffering from it, but because at this point, it’s an inextricable part of the American military experience. As we’ve gone to war and stayed at war forever, it’s become a larger and larger part of the conversation, and one of the primary lenses by which people interpret the war experience, or the idea that battle is so twisted up in the PTSD concept that it’s very hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

It’s really well demonstrated in Phil Klay’s Redeployment. There’s a really good story in there called “War Stories.” There’s a moment in there where the veteran at a bar, his face is scarred, horribly disfigured, and he’s trying to tell this story to this actress who has this show coming up, a non-fiction show, which kind of includes some military experiences. He’s trying to tell a story, and she keeps interrupting him, and saying, “But that’s PTSD, right? PTSD, PTSD.” This character keeps squeezing him into the category of PTSD, and not letting this man tell his story. I thought that was a really good metaphor for the coming home experience, and the processing of trauma in whatever form. That’s sort of what it’s evolved into: PTSD has become this catch-all for the veteran experience.

You write about it a little bit, specifically how in this modern war, Americans, specifically, can be so inoculated from it. They can not read about it, they can not know someone who went to war. As a result, the community isn’t really talking about it. It’s very different from John McCain’s experience as a POW, where he came home as a war hero, and the elements came together so that the men of the “Hanoi Hilton” were acknowledged and as a result, in a position to manage their PTSD.

I think that’s one of the most important thing to recognize about our historical moment: no country in history has ever put more soldiers, and fought longer overseas, and impacted the state-side populace less. Which is really powerful in a sense. We’re at war, and we stay at war partly for that reason, because it doesn’t impact regular people.

One of the problems that PTSD presents is that there’s a way to treat it as a medical concept, and say, “Well, you have problems, we have this diagnosis, we can solve your problems.” When in fact, a lot of the pain, and confusion, and ambiguous feelings, and identity problems that returning soldiers suffer from are not PTSD, but they’re told that they are.

There’s a whole possible opportunity for learning and communicating wisdom — and the horror — that veterans have seen. If we don’t allow the wisdom to add to the culture, and we don’t allow people’s experiences to be heard, we run the risk, which I think is where we are now, that we don’t communicate the true horror of war. It’s not fully appreciated.

What it was like to dive into therapy, as both someone dealing with PTSD and writing a book about it?

The therapies are weird because there’s dozens of therapies designed to treat PTSD, and each one of them is kind of beholden to a particular theoretical viewpoint. In the book, I wrote about them chronologically, in the order that I went through them.

The one that I found the most disturbing, and newsworthy, and starling was the first one I went through, prolonged exposure therapy. The idea is, if you tell your story of trauma enough times, eventually that memory will loop its traumatic memory and become normal memory. And its based off these strict, tightly held and pretty doctrinal learning theories that you learn in Psych 101.

But it’s not clear that these ideas that you took up from animals and mammalian responses to stimuli can really be neatly translated onto human beings, who have much richer inner lives than a dog, to put it mildly. I had a really strong, adverse reaction to it, as have a number of people, for the simple reason that the therapy was derived largely for rape victims. Often times rape trauma is a single event that is extraordinarily powerful and damaging, but it tends to be singular in origin. It happens once, in most cases.

For a veteran, you live under the threat of death for months and months and months. In one case, I was dodging mortar every day for thirty days. War trauma has a different aspect to it that prolonged exposure doesn’t necessarily address. According to research, which has flaws, it does help 60 percent of the veterans who undergo it, and I have spoken to one of them. But I’ve also spoken to dozens of veterans who dropped out of therapy [because] it made their symptoms worse.

The use of trigger-warnings in academia and online is getting mainstreamed in a way to give everyone the chance to say, “no, I’m traumatized, I can’t deal with that subject.” I was kind of curious about what your perspective is on that idea.

I have some agreement with that idea, with respect to film, because as I describe in the book, I do find action films personally to be triggering. But I think I’m in the minority. Many of my veteran friends ran out to go see American Sniper. I just don’t see action movies anymore, personally.

But the idea that literature can be triggering, or that a book can be triggering, I find to be kind of foolish. This phenomenon has emerged from elite academia. One of the unspoken ideas of American academia of late is the almost Portlandia effect of “This needs to be the perfect world, where no one’s feelings are ever hurt. Ever.” For me, that’s related to the helicopter parenting phenomenon: Americans simply being insulated from normal adversity, which I look at as uniquely bad to the United States.

In the aggregation, this all has the effect of creating a dangerously insulated and isolated electorate. It highlights the contrast between the one percent that are in the U.S. military that goes out there and does the dirty work. When they come back, there’s even this greater sense of fear, distress, and confusion between the two groups because your average American citizen — keep in mind Harvard and the Ivy Leagues have not been affected by a war since Vietnam — so it is this really deep gulf between the two groups which serves both very poorly.

It’s also interesting to see the fact that colleges also have a problem with dealing with rape on campus. As an institution, they shy away from applying law to the situation, and it seems like the net effect is that you’re left with people who are traumatized, because justice hasn’t been served and the trauma hasn’t been acknowledged.

That’s one of the fundamental moral arguments of PTSD and why it’s good that it’s recognized. Prior to the institutionalization of post traumatic stress disorder, there was very little recognition that rape was a very serious crime. It’s interesting: it’s not one of the ten commandments, which is really fascinating when you think about it.

For most of human history up until the 1970s, there was very little recognition that rape had a long-term damaging impact on people. With colleges, when there was one instance when universities had the opportunity to be leading the way — which they were, arguably in the 1990s; there was a much more politicized sexual assault culture in the 1990s than there is now — now a lot of the rest of the political structure has swung to the right. PTSD is very important as a military issue, it’s very heavily associated as a veteran’s issue, but one of the most significant and perhaps overall beneficial societal impact it’s had is that it forced us to address rape. I think the degree to which we can use the particulars of the veteran experience to eliminate all of the challenges of the culture, we’re better off.