Trauma

It’s amazing the kind of lies we make up to soothe ourselves, make others feel better, or transform something into a truth.  It’s equally amazing how sometimes, some of the most unspeakable things that we pray are actually lies are in fact truth. 

I asked my writer friend Chris Warner; author, founder, and editor of Bearwolf Games to write me a blog post about one of his real life experiences.  He had this to say.

My last semester teaching university I made a terrible mistake.  I was teaching modern American history and I assigned two novels on war, Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, and The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien.  Both of these novels involve stream-of-consciousness narration that jumps back and forth time.

The Things They Carried is ostensibly nonfiction, but it openly admits to falsifying information.  Lying to make a point is a major theme of the book.  O’Brien wants the reader to understand the alien feelings and horror of his past, of his war, and that he has to stretch the truth to get us to understand what he felt.

Slaughterhouse Five takes the task further.  Vonnegut’s character is literally living his life in a random order.  Both books take a form that mirrors the flashbacks and false memories that are symptomatic of what was once called Shell Shock, and is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  I apologize if the name of that condition has changed again since my time studying it.  I’m not here to be insensitive.

The students, understandably, floundered through the readings.  Surrealism and post-modern insanity are hard enough on their own, and they’re being used to make specific points here.  Specific points about post-modernism and insanity.  Mental illness, not insanity.  Apologies.

The hard readings were not the mistake.

I got a certain pleasure from giving students novel and challenging material. In one sense I was pleased to be offering up the potential for self-improvement.  I indulged in some clichéd thinking, assuring myself that I was helping to “expand their minds.”  The pleasure was a little sadistic, though.  The pain was ultimately constructive, even sporting, and thus ethical by any sane measure, so there was room to indulge in some laughter at the headaches I was causing.  The first class day with a reading assignment was great fun.

When I looked out over class I could distinguish those who had read from those who had not.  On a normal day the ones looking self-assured will have read, and the ones looking down at their feet and trying to avoid your gaze will have not.  Some students come factory-default with better poker faces than others.  On a day after a Slaughterhouse Five reading, though, the symptoms were nearly reversed.  Those who had done the reading were bewildered and spooked.  They stared up at me wide-eyed or anxious, as though they had done something wrong by not understanding the finer points of self-referential literature.  Those who have not done the reading were feigning indifference.  They appeared more confident than they should have been in their attempt to look neutral.  Some shameless student would ask a question about the reading the moment I walked in the door and began my daily ritual of strolling around with a Dr. Pepper in hand, warming up the room like the opening act for a stand-up comedy show.  Shamelessness is a good quality in a student.

The Obama administration had declared an end to the war in Iraq.  Regardless of your politics, troop levels in Iraq were decreasing and that had some specific consequences for my classes.  Whether because of the end of coercive recall measures, or simply less enticing reenlistment bonuses, this was a time when a lot of Iraq veterans were retiring from the armed forces.  Thanks to decades-old programs, many of those found their way into college.  Some of them found their way into my class.  Between Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan, veterans made up about ten percent of my students that semester.  A few had served in multiple wars.

Conventional wisdom holds that the source of public speaking anxiety is the fear that your audience will know more about your topic than you do.  When I first started teaching it was easy to forget how long I had prepared for that part, and I was constantly afraid of just that thing.  One time I blankly read out a type-o from my lecture notes, declaring that the United States had “purchased” Texas from Mexico for four dollars, instead of four million dollars.  Nobody said a word.  They silently copied down the absurd idea.  I never was afraid of making a mistake in front of a class after that.

Not until the war semester.

Even if your audience knows more than you, will they have the poor taste to correct you while you are presenting?  Sure, I taught prohibition and the civil rights movement, but readings define the class.  This was a class about war.  Soldiers know more about war than I do.  Maybe not all of war, maybe not even most of war, but on one specific point they knew everything.  That was the point I made the class about: personal experiences of war.

I’m an idiot, yes, but teaching a class on war to a room full of wartime veterans was not my mistake.

“Chris, this is a History class,” I said to myself near the end of the semester. “You need to find a way to wrap all this fiction together and teach a lesson about history as a discipline.  How will you do that?”

“I know,” I thought, “I’ll have the students write an essay about a time that they have told a lie for a reason other than deception.  They can tell me about the story they told and why they told it, then they can tell me the real version of the story.  When that is all done I can make a really great point about how even honest witnesses are an unreliable source of ‘truth’ in an historical sense,” I answered, pleased with my brilliance.

This was the terrible mistake.

I spent a semester stressing the deep, personal horrors of the combat experience.  I spent a semester exposing the class to invasive, painful literature about war.  I did this to a class with far too many combat veterans in it.  Some of those were recent veterans, barely six months out, not yet acclimated to their new civilian lives, still seeing their military counselors, still having flashbacks.

When I offered them a place to tell the story that they couldn’t tell anyone else, they leapt for it.  I was told things in that essay that I cannot, either legally or in good conscience, share in significant detail.  I can only divulge some small, anonymized excerpts, in paraphrase.

One student experienced repeated, systematic abuse at the hands of government officials sufficient to produce a real, diagnosed case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Another student told a heart-warming story about a near-catastrophe in which he found himself in a tense standoff with a civilian that was resolved across a language barrier by a well-placed stick of gum.  At the end of that essay he clarified that the story in question was a lie told to family.  What really happened was that he killed the man.  When they searched his body for weapons they found the gum instead.  It was easy enough to piece together his intended heart-warming gesture of goodwill posthumously.

I was afraid that I might aggravate the conditions of recent veterans by teaching a class on war.  I didn’t know what might set someone on a downward spiral.  When you read publicly posted literature about rape you will often see [trigger warning] tags dropped at the beginning of anything remotely mentioning graphic violence.  Was I hurting people?

If I did I never found out.  However, I was told specifically that my choice to assign Slaughterhouse Five, and my explanation of its similarity to PTSD, provided significant help to at least one diagnosed sufferer of that disorder.

That made me feel better.  It turns out that in the aftermath of that class I was the one most in need of some reassurance.  I took a share of that class’s collective trauma onto myself.  I can only hope it helped, but that really wasn’t my job.  I was ill-equipped to do it.  They helped me, and have informed me in the process of refining and clarifying my stance on war.  For that, I owe them.

Here is the lesson I learned from them:  If you ever hear a story about some horrible event that may have happened in Vietnam or Afghanistan, or in the Vietnams and Afghanistans of our future, and you think to yourself, “Surely this is not true. This is unthinkable, even in war.”  You are wrong.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: A Travelling Essay | Bearwolf Games

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