Trauma and Memory

January 18, 2017 § 3 Comments

I read David Means’ novel, Hystopia, last week.  It is an alternative history of the 1960s and 70s in the United States; a novel within a novel.  Hystopia, according to the editor’s notes, was actually written by a Vietnam vet named Eugene Allen,  shortly before he killed himself in 1973 or 1974.  In Hystopia, JFK survived Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet, and continued on as president and is now in his 3rd term (the scholar in me wonders how he got passed the 27th Amendment, mind you).  He oversaw a massive increase in American involvement in Vietnam, much greater than that of his successor in real life, Lyndon Baines Johnson.  And, of course, there was no Great Society policy initiatives. He was eventually assassinated in Springfield, IL, in 1970.  But this is not the interesting part.  The interesting part is what happens to Vietnam vets when they get home: they get enfolded.

A new branch of the government, Psych Corps, has attempted to use drugs to deal with the horrors that the soldiers in Vietnam saw, with a caveat: they only accept men who are not physically disabled by the war.  At the Psych Corps HQ, the vets are fed an anti-psychotic drug and ‘enfolded.’  Psych Corps re-creates the source of the trauma and PTSD for soldiers, they are forced to relive it, and in so doing, their memories are essentially wiped.  Thus, veterans who have been enfolded don’t remember their experience in the war, such as the ‘hero’ of the novel, a veteran named Singleton.  Singleton, we eventually realise was an officer in Vietnam and commanded the unit that also included the other main characters of the book.  But he has no recollection of this. The only thing that connects him to Vietnam is a horrible burn scar on his left side.  Singleton’s scar comes from a friendly fire caused by a soldier calling in the wrong co-ordinates for a fire bombing, resulting in his own death.

Now employed by Psych Corps, Singleton falls in love (against regulation) with a fellow officer, Wendy, and sets off to Northern Michigan to track down Rake, a former member of his unit and a failed enfold.  Rake, meanwhile, has kidnapped the beautiful but deeply troubled, Meg, whose boyfriend and first love was the soldier who got himself killed.  Meg is also Eugene Allen’s sister.

Immediately after Hystopia, I picked up Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, for a new researh project I am undertaking.  It turns out that Hystopia and The Body Keeps The Score are directly related for my purposes.  I am still only about 100 pages into the book, but van der Kolk is talking about his early experiences in the field of psychiatry in the early 1970s (the same period the fictive Eugene Allen was writing his novel, incidentally) and his first clients, including Vietnam vets at the VA in Boston.

He writes about what trauma does to the brain, using a vet as an illustration.  This guy was a high functioning, and very successful criminal lawyer in Boston.  But, he was completely empty inside. He went through the motions at home, with his family, at work.  He felt violent impulses and thus recused himself from his family, spending weekends at a time drinking heavily in an attempt to get his war experiences out of his head. He had been a platoon leader, and watched helplessly as he lead his men into an ambush. They were all killed or wounded.  He was not.  The next day, he took his wrath out on a Vietnamese village, killed at least one child and raped a woman.

As I read this story, and others, I couldn’t help think of Hystopia, and the vets being drugged to forget stories such as this veteran’s.  In the late 1980s, van der Kolk began experimenting with PET scans and, ultimately, fMRIs, by which the traumatising event is re-created, according to a script, in order to discover which parts of the brain are triggered.  It turns out it is exactly the same parts of the brain that one would expect to be triggered during a traumatic event. More to the point, the participants in these experiments reported feeling exactly as they did during the original event.  And thus, van der Kolk notes, his colleagues began to wonder about how to use drugs to treat PTSD patients, using the information from the PET and fMRI scans to learn which parts of the brain neeed to be treated.  Or, in other words, exactly what happens in Hystopia when the soldiers are enfolded upon return from Vietnam.  The difference, of course, is that enfolding works for the majority of patients.  There is no cure-all for PTSD for us in the real world.

Nonetheless, van der Kolk notes that we tend to respond to deeply traumatising events, whether something as graphic and terrifying and terrible as his Vietnam vet, or other traumas such as sexual assault, rape, being beaten as a child, etc..  And I found myself wondering about how our brains work to incorporate these memories and recast them in terms of society, how our memories and our traumas are never ours alone, but also belong to our wider society.  Our memories are formed, re-formed, and re-fined in light of our interaction with society, of course.  And it is difficult to tell where our individual experiences end and our societal imports begin, or vice versa.

And as I embark on a this project, I am wondering where that dividing line is between our own personal traumas and where society intervenes in the reconstructions of the narratives we tell ourselves about our experience.  What makes our traumas unique and what makes them like other victims of traumatising experiences?

The Value of Research

March 12, 2014 § 3 Comments

I find myself annoyed by complaints about government money being “wasted” on research.  The argument is simple, and simplistic: obscure research is a waste of taxpayer money and should be stopped.  There are countless examples of allegedly obscure and useless research paying off.  But I like this one the most.

I recently read Siddartha Mukerjee’s epic The Emperor of  all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, a rather deserving Pulitzer Prize-winner.  In it, Mukerjee tells a brief story about an obscure biophysicist, Barnett Rosenberg, at Michigan State University, who was conducting research to find out whether electrical currents would cause bacterial cell division in 1965.  Exciting stuff.  Mukerjee describes what happened next:

When Rosenberg turned the electricity on, he found, astonishingly, that the bacterial cells stopped dividing entirely.  Rosenberg initially proposed that the electrical current was an active agent in inhibiting cell division.  But the electricity, he soon determined, was merely a bystander.  The platinum electrode had interacted with the salt in the bacterial solution to generate a new growth-arresting molecule that had diffused throughout the liquid.  That chemical was cisplatin.

Cisplatin, it turns out, was part of the next generation of chemotherapeutic treatments of cancer in the 1970s.  And it led to improved survival rates due to that treatment (as well as insane nausea).

Nevertheless, Rosenberg’s apparently obscure discovery in a lab in East Lansing, Michigan, led to thousands of lives being saved, extended, and cancers put into remission.  Thus the value of research.

It turns out that this is a especially prescient given the recent state of cancer research, at least, in the United States.  According to the Sunday Boston Globe last weekend, industry is coming to provide more and more research money, both in terms of absolute and relative numbers, in the past few years.  At Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, one of the world’s leading sites of cancer-related research, industry funds have risen steadily as a total of funds in the past decade; today, 22.7% of all research moneys come from industry (the remainder from the federal government).  The same is true at the rest of the nation’s leading cancer centres.

The consequences of this are very real.  As government cutbacks lead to reduced investments in research, industry increases its involvement.  This is in and of itself not a bad thing, but pharmaceutical companies have a bottom line and are looking for profit.  And it’s not unheard of for the companies to interfere in the research. For example, industry-sponsored research trials more often lead to positive results for the drug being tested.  Many of the researchers interviewed for the Boston Globe story are ambivalent about industry-funded research, but recognise it can be the only source for funding.

But, industry-funded trials will not lead to the kinds of developments like that of Rosenberg, this model is not equipped for obscure research or, for that matter, long-term research and trials.

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