Crucial Books About Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

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In my interview with David J. Morris, the author of The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, we talked a bit about the reams of literature that he looked at in order to write the book. Memoirs of human struggle: war, rape, and the future all shaped the thinking behind Morris’ work. (He also mentioned that there has never been a cultural history discussing what role rape has played in our times, although the research and information is out there.) I wanted to share some of his picks, along with some new books, that wrestle with PTSD from novel angles.

Dispatches, Michael Herr

This 1977 classic of war reporting was one of the first books to look unflinchingly at the Vietnam War. Herr, a reporter for Esquire, produced a book that shows the hell that men go through. Morris said: “That was the only book that came with me every time I went to Iraq.”

Lucky, Alice Sebold

This book, a memoir of the author’s rape, was a huge influence for Morris, as it broadened his thinking about PTSD beyond simply the realms of war. Sebold, the author of The Lucky Bones, is raw and immediate in this powerful work.

Demon Camp: The Strange and Terrible Saga of a Soldier’s Return From War, Jen Percy

Percy, a University of Iowa graduate, was interviewing soldiers with PTSD when she met Caleb Daniels. Daniels had suffered great loss during the war, and he described his PTSD as a literal demon and ghost that would follow him around. In getting to know Daniels, Percy ends up going down the evangelical rabbit hole, ending up at a “demon camp” in Portal, Georgia, where one’s “demons” — PTSD included — are literally exorcised. A haunting look at the American response to war, tragedy, and pain.

Regeneration, Pat Barker

“One of the very, very best books written about shell shock and war trauma was written by a woman,” Morris said. The Booker Prize-nominated first book in a trilogy about the after effects of war, Barker’s novel uses real characters like poet Siegfried Sassoon, examining his life in order to show how men have suffered from shell shock.

Pattern Recognition, William Gibson

In Gibson’s work, Morris notes, there is a recurring theme along the lines of PTSD: “The ideas of how once you get an idea in your head, and you’re in a really stressful situation like war, you develop these antennae for pattern-making that can be helpful with erasing anxiety, but that can also lead you down these rabbit holes.” “Pattern recognition” was coined in a 1950s psychological paper about schizophrenia.

Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story, Mac McClelland

What feels revolutionary about McClelland’s memoir is its honesty that hey, PTSD is not just something that happens in the realm of war. It can be a human response to the contagious effects of tragedy; and for a human rights reporter like McClelland, it was a struggle that stood in the middle of her reporting. It’s an eye-opening look at how the human body responds to PTSD, and McClelland — a great journalist who is hard to write about without admirably calling her a “badass” — is brutally honest and present regarding how she coped with her trauma.