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 Dystopian Promise of Neo-Liberalism

September 6, 2016 § 3 Comments

I spent late last week laid up with the flu.  This means I read. A lot.  I don’t have the patience for TV when I’m sick, unless it’s hockey.  And since it’s late August, that didn’t happen.  While laid up, I finished Jonathan Lethem’s early career Amnesia Moon, and also ploughed through Owen Hatherley’s The Ministry of Nostalgia.  On the surface, these two books don’t have anything in common.  The former is a novel set in a dystopic American future, whilst the latter is a polemic against austerity and the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom.

But both point to a golden era past.  In the case of Amnesia Moon, obviously, given its  dystopic future setting.  And Hatherley is perplexed over the British right’s ability to control a public discourse of British history and memory.

In Amnesia Moon, the protagonist, a man named Chaos in some situations and Everett Moon in others, finds himself in Vacaville, which is actually a real place, about halfway between Sacramento and San Francisco in North Central California.  In Vacaville, the residents are kept unstable by the central state: they are forced to move residences every Wednesday and Sunday.  The majority of the residents work mind-numbing jobs, including Chaos’ love interest, Edie.  The society is run by the gorgeous, who are featured on TV every night, parading about in an early version of reality TV.  The people of Vacaville love and worship them.  All of pop culture in Vacaville has been re-written to venerate the president and the ruling class.  But most insidious, everything in Vacaville, for all residents, is based on ‘luck,’ a state-sponsored system based on a test administered by bureaucrats.  Not surprisingly, those with the best luck are in the ruling classes.  And then everyone else is organized and assigned their place in society based on their luck.  Not surprisingly, our Edie has bad luck: her ex-husband has lost his mind, so she is a single mother with two children.  She is also kept in place by a desperate government official, Ian Cooley, who is in love with her.

Compare this to Hatherley’s view of the United Kingdom in 2016:

We find ourselves in an increasingly nightmarish situation where an entirely twenty-first century society — constantly wired up to smartphones and the internet, living via complicated systems of derivatives, credit and unstable property investments, inherently and deeply insecure — appears to console itself with the iconography of a completely different and highly unlikely era, to which it is linked solely through the liberal use of the ‘A’ [i.e.: austerity] word.

See the similarities?

On Reading: My Books of 2013

January 2, 2014 § 5 Comments

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I read. A lot.  In 2013, I decided to track the books I read for pleasure, so I created this stack.  It got dangerously tall and slightly unsteady around November.  This also doesn’t include the other two dozen books I read for classes and research purposes in 2013.  But of this stack of 33 books I read in 2013, I can happily report that almost all of them were excellent reads and all but a couple were, at least for me, important reads.  I have blogged about some them already. (Kim Eichlen’s The Disappeared; Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints (and here) Teofilio Ruiz’s The Terror of History; C.J. Shivers’ The Gun; Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind (also here); Terry Eagleton’s On Evil; and Amy Waldman’s The Submission).  Time permitting, I will write about more of these books.

So, for those wondering, the best non-fiction book I read last year was Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind, with Eagleton’s On Evil a close second.  As far as fiction goes, I’d say it was a tie between Hilary Mantel’s Bringing Up the Bodies, Zadie Smith’s NW and the grande dame of CanLit, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.  Here’s the interesting thing: I’ve never liked Atwood.  I’ve always thought that her ability as a writer couldn’t cash the cheques here imagination wrote.  But Oryx and Crake has caused me to re-think my position.  The next two books in that trilogy, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam are in my stack of books to read already.

The only truly disappointing book I read in 2013 was the 1993 Booker Prize winner, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, by Roddy Doyle, the great Irish novelist whose work I have always enjoyed.  Tant pis.

On the Difference between being a Reader and a Writer

June 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

Upon the recommendation of the fine people at Argo Bookshop, I read Italo Calvino‘s If on a winter’s night a traveller, which was in and of itself an excellent read, a meditation on the multiple meanings of reading, amongst other things. I was struck by a discussion between the protagonist, The Reader, and The Other Reader, who at least got a name, Ludmilla.  Both The Reader and The Other Reader have been continually frustrated in their attempts to read a book, any book, as they are continually met with incomplete manuscripts, so they get into their novel, only to have it end.  Up to this point, it has been due to publisher’s errors and problems in the actual process of printing and binding the books.

But The Reader has made a contact within the publishing firm, who has given him reign to peruse the completed manuscripts, and he excitedly tells The Other Reader when they meet in a café.  He then wants to rush back to the publisher to continue their investigation.  But she refuses.

Why don’t you want to come?

On principle.

What do you mean?

There’s a boundary line: on ne side are those who make books, on the other those who read them.  I want to remain one of those who read them, so I take care always to remain on my side of the line.  Otherwise, the unsullied pleasure of reading ends, or at least is transformed into something else, which is not what I want.  This boundary line is tentative, it tends to get erased: the world of those who deal with books professionally is more and more crowded and tends to become one with the world of readers…I know that if I cross that boundary, even as an exception, by chance, I risk being mixed up in this advancing tide; that’s why I refuse to set foot inside a publishing house, even for yourself.

It is clear that for The Other Reader, this is her own stance.  Of course, within a few chapters, she has violated her position.  But that’s irrelevant.  What is relevant is the point she raises, and the separation between authors and publishers and readers.  I had a thought similar to this last week when I was in Archambault looking for a book.  I didn’t find what I was looking for, a history book, but I did see my friend Simon Jolivet‘s book on the shelf.  Now, this is not surprising, Simon wrote a book, based on his PhD dissertation, and it got published.  That’s the way it’s supposed to work in academia.  In fact, that’s the very process I am presently engaged in myself.  And certainly I have known many, many authors throughout my academic career (to say nothing of the fiction writers I know).  And certainly, books get treated differently in academia than in the general public: we have to publish them if we want to survive in our field, it’s part of the job (which is why I find it obnoxious when people presume that because it’s summer I’m doing nothing if I’m not teaching).

And yet, it’s one thing to see my professors’ books on the shelf in the bookstore, it’s another to see a friend’s, especially when we did our PhD’s together.  It’s not an incredibly profound statement, I realise, but there is still something rather exciting about seeing your friend’s book on a shelf in a busy downtown Montréal bookstore, to know that people have bought it and read it and will continue to do so, and to finally have it sink in that this will also happen for me, my book will be on these same shelves and people will buy it and read it, beyond the academy (I hope).

But does that change my relationship with reading, both fiction and non-fiction? I doubt it.  And, of course, The Other Reader eventually realised that herself when she started to get mixed up in book production and forgery rings.

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