Catharsis and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
The Things They Carried: Catharsis and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder “Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to” (O’Brien 20). Tim O’Brien is the author of The Things They Carried, a fictional memoir written from the perspective of the narrator, whose name is also Tim O’Brien. This fictional O’Brien experiences cover many themes, most notably those of fear, guilt and humiliation. In this novel, O’Brien uses a distinct blend of fact and fiction as an outlet for his actual experiences In Vietnam.
Because O’Brien suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder PUTS), he uses “story-truth versus happening-truth” to distance himself from his experiences. This make the reader feel the emotional power of the Vietnam War through the eyes of a soldier. PUTS is a type of severe anxiety disorder caused by traumatic events such as rape, abuse, or military combat, and any other event where there is the threat of injury or death. Formerly known as “shell-shock” and “combat fatigue”, PUTS Is a condition for which there Is no specific “cure” for.
Despite advances in psychology, a definite cure is elusive and there are only theories in which catharsis can be reached. PUTS is less common and can be mistaken for acute stress syndrome. The similarities have both disorders classified in the same category, where PUTS is a more advanced form of acute stress syndrome (Carson and Carson 223). The symptoms of PUTS fall into three main categories: first, “intrusion”, which “reflects the indelible Imprint of the traumatic moment” (Herman 35). This can Include flashbacks, where the victim Is repeatedly “reliving” the trauma. Securing distressing memories of the trauma, repeated dreams of the trauma, and varying degrees of physical reaction to tuitions that remind the victim of the trauma. The second category is that of “constriction”, which “reflects the numbing response of surrender” (Herman 35). This includes emotional “numbing”, in which the victim feels he or she does not care about day-to-day activities and situations, feelings of detachment from everyday life, an Inability to remember certain aspects of the traumatic event, a lack of Interest In everyday activities, and less expression of moods.
The victim may also avoid people, places, and objects that remind them of the traumatic event as well as feel as though they have no future. The third category is that of “hyperbolas” and “reflects the persistent expectation of danger” (Herman 35). This includes difficulty concentrating, an exaggerated response In things that startle or surprise the victim, hyperventilate (excessive awareness, scalar to paranoia), Reliability or severe outbursts of anger, and difficulties sleeping.
Other symptoms include “survivor’s guilt” (especially in military cases where a fellow soldier was killed or wounded), easily becoming excited (agitation), dizziness, fainting, and heart palpitations, fever, headaches, and paleness. In “Breaking the Mold: Tim O’Brien and Transcending Genre Lines” by Lucian M. Colt: PUTS affects both the velum’s conscious and unconscious thoughts. The the victim’s personal connection to it, the victim’s ability to distance him or herself from it, and the chronology and frequency of the experienced trauma. 10) The long-term effects of PUTS are devastating and life-changing. Long-term sleep disturbances, feelings and thoughts related to the traumatic event, preoccupation with the event and compulsive repetitions of actions related to the event are common. Many people develop specific social and nonsocial phobias, such as agoraphobia (voidances of situations where escape from the situation may be difficult), panic disorders with agoraphobia (panic attacks before situations where escape may be difficult), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (Carson and Carson 230-231).
In Abnormal Psychology: The Problem of Maladaptive Behavior, 10th Edition, Irwin and Barbara Carson state that “the risk of suicide in people with panic disorders is high, the risk is even higher in panic disorder cases that involved commodity with other disorders” (232). The rate of suicide in people with PUTS is high and dependent upon the trauma experienced. In Trauma and the Vietnam War Generation, Richard Kulak, William Schlesinger, John Fairbanks, Richard Hough, B. Kathleen Jordan, Charles Miramar, Daniel Weiss and David Grady found that “men who served in the Army (16. 2%) or Marine Corps (24. %) are considerably more likely than those who served in the other branches of the Armed Forces to have PUTS” (54). The Vietnam War was a disaster for the American people; not only was it severely opposed by the people, but it was a devastating loss for America. The opposition to the war was so fierce that it created the “hippie” culture, whose opposition to the war caused them to push the envelope and protest the government. During the American invasions, men were drafted to be sent overseas where they were exposed to horrific acts of violence and often lethal ambushes by the Vetting.
Tim O’Brien was one of these men, drafted into the Army not long after graduating college and was immediately sent overseas. In Writing Vietnam, Writing Life: Saputo, Henchman, O’Brien, Butler by Toby C. Herzog, O’Brien describes his feelings about the war and his experiences in basic training and the Army as being “god-awful” (99). O’Brien also alas about how his experiences in the Army were as horrible as any he had ever experienced. He describes basic training and his TIT training as “more horrific than my memories of Vietnam” (99).
O’Brien clearly hated the military and the way the Army treated its recruits: the way they were degraded as human beings, humiliated beyond normal measures, how the recruits were roughly pushed through a food line, the sleeplessness and stress, long, exhausting marches, and the onset of depression. Tim O’Brien is at a very emotional and difficult time in his life, and yet he was still able to hold on and keep his dignity. Toby Herzog asks this question: “Herzog: How did you manage to survive, psychologically, both basic training and TIT?
O’Brien: … You hold onto the slenderest bit of hope, the slenderest bit of ambition for yourself. Even though at times it feels you’re Just holding onto a little cobweb, you hold on for all you’re worth. It’s kind of a literary explanation, but it’s as close to the truth as I can get. You find some little strand inside you of strength, the way a Brininess”, the person that you value. There’s Just a little bit of it left, but it’s strong and you hold onto it-making promises to yourself, I’ll try to comport myself with some dignity. (Herzog 100) Despite the horrific conditions and the terrible experiences of basic, O’Brien fought through and stayed true to his humanistic values and his viewpoint of the war. He had a humanistic opposition to Vietnam, and describes Vietnam as “a barbarous, inhumane war, a war fought for uncertain reasons” (Herzog 98). He describes his feelings toward the war as guilty and like his story “On the Rainy River”, he contemplates crossing the Rainy River into Canada and “draft-dodging”.
Like the fictional O’Brien, he struggles with society viewpoint on being an American and Irving his country. O’Brien experiences in Vietnam were those of sheer terror and imminent doom. Everything from the smell to the sunrises disturbed and confused O’Brien to the point of madness. Though he was not directly involved in the infamous My Alai Massacre, he felt terrible about the events that had occurred. According to O’Brien, he still dreams about the minefields, the hostile villagers, and the small firefights.
The hostility and resentment of the villagers is especially something O’Brien remembers, and the fear of being the next one blown to bits by a landmine was a definite nutrition to the night terrors and dreams O’Brien faces. O’Brien also speaks on the fear, the grief, and the pain of the Vietnamese people during his tour of duty, and how that influenced the brutal savagery of their actions and those of his fellow soldiers. He admits to not paying attention much in basic and TIT, only learning the basic skills for survival, and barely knew how to fire a rifle.
Because O’Brien was not fully prepared, both physically and emotionally, he already shows one of the signs of a person who is more likely to develop PUTS. It is possible he already exhibited symptoms even before his deployment. If O’Brien has PUTS (he has already admitted to having night terrors, as well as exhibiting all the symptoms of this maladaptive disorder), what kind of treatments are there to make PUTS easier to cope with, and to relieve the despair and dysfunctional and make it easier to live with his traumas? Psychotherapy is one of the best “treatment” options for sufferers of PUTS.
Psychotherapy is a term that encompasses many different options for treatment of anxiety disorders. The most common of these therapies is behavior therapy. Research for this particular option for treatment has been focused on the variables hat help break down highly emotional responses to trauma, such as hyperventilate. In order for a patient suffering from an anxiety disorder to more fully cope with their symptoms, exposure therapy is used. A patient is exposed to a certain feared stimuli and is prevented from making an avoidance or an escape response.
More specifically, systematic desensitizing is used to allow the patient to get over fear- producing stimuli in gradients, where the stimuli vary from mild to very frightening. In vivo exposure is the most common of these, where the therapist forces the patient o experience the actual feared experience rather than imagining it. This is an especially useful treatment for PUTS, as the therapist can get the patient to talk about their experiences, making them relive them, while also giving them the coping skills needed to function in society. Way back home.
In WI, soldiers were sent home on ships where they could discuss with other soldiers what they themselves had experienced, as well as hear similar stories. The men returning from the Vietnam War were sent home on planes, and did not have enough time to talk to others about their experiences. They were thrown back into society, and as a result, were forced to hide the traumatic things they had done and experienced. As stated earlier, this leads to the symptoms of PUTS. Zillion, the term “bibliographer’ is used to describe sharing books and stories to help gain insight into personal problems.
Zillion argues that O’Brien book, The Things They Carried (ETC) is a bibliographic catharsis in which he purges his mind by separating himself from the war and writing down the things he remembers and gives them to another fictional character. When bibliographer was first introduced, it as used to aid children who shared books and stories with each other about difficult issues. By doing this, they created a community in which they could more easily cope with their individual problems. Zillion states that in 1980, bibliographer was introduced as a form of therapy to PUTS victims, specifically Vietnam War veterans.
Zillion says: “… Treatment is largely based on the idea of sharing one’s story and experience with a community or audience. Bibliographer is meant to create a healing community that fosters sharing and treatment through the reading and telling of stories. It s also used to make acceptable relationships readily available between the subject of the story, the victim, and in O’Brien case, the author, while maintaining an acceptable distance between the characters in the story, the victim, and the author.
This way, victims can discuss their sensitive issues symbolically by using stories and their characters as symbols for the victims themselves that distances the victims from having to refer to the one experiencing the trauma as “I” ” (Soil 16). As previously stated, O’Brien uses bibliographer to purge his mind of the disturbing and traumatic incidents that happened in the Vietnam War. He uses this exact form of bibliographer to reach his catharsis. This creates the “story-truth versus happening-truth” O’Brien has been praised as well as criticized for.
By writing, O’Brien forces himself to recall the details of his experiences as a soldier during the Vietnam War, therefore putting himself through in vivo exposure. Zillion says: “… His hyperinflation of fact with fiction may not Just occur because of the unreliability of the human mind to photographically recall all facets or an event, but may also include O’Brien hidden aspirations to change his experiences or their outcomes of the age” (Zillion 18). Critics have attacked O’Brien usage of fact and fiction in his works of fiction, like ETC.
Toby Herzog argues that O’Brien uses lies and deception by “mixing personal and historical facts and fictions in his works” (Herzog 893). Herzog argues that O’Brien makes it obvious both he and narrators are unreliable, yet he does not understand that someone suffering from PUTS is already not fully reliable. He also does not fully work. Appreciation and comprehension can come from the words on the page, not the readers’ dissection of actual facts. Zillion states “O’Brien never asserts that his adders should regard his works as historical textbooks” (6).
However, O’Brien does have a beautiful way of blending fact and fiction into ETC. In his title story, “The Things They Carried”, he lists both the literal and figurative things the men of the fictitious Alpha Company carry, blending truth with fiction from the very start. In “How to Tell a True War Story’, O’Brien states “In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen” (67). He uses this exact reasoning all throughout the novel, as well as paving his own personal experiences of guilt, fear and humiliation into those of the men of Alpha Company.
Ted Lavender dies a humiliating death, as does Kiowa. Jimmy Cross feels guilty about Lavender’s death. The fictional O’Brien contemplates leaving the country to dodge the draft. Because O’Brien is such a master at his craft, it is hard to distinguish when he is telling the truth or making something up. The four words on the title page often, “A work of fiction” are a clever and confusing trick to the audience. If you were to read a nonfiction memoir, it would be easy to believe everything on the page because it was lassie as “nonfiction”.
However, O’Brien incorporates “story-truth versus happening-truth” in ETC, causing the reader to immediately question the validity of the story. Zillion states: “The stories, and the details that are in them, are only real for a time, but should not be taken as doctrine or as a representation of what is true for each soldier. The stories represent O’Brien subjective truth about his experiences and o not claim to encompass an absolute truth for all soldiers’ experiences with the war.
The readers accept O’Brien recollections as true for O’Brien and not as a definitive, historical account for the occurrences of the Vietnam War, but rather as a representative of a greater trauma. His texts are representations of his experiences, feelings, recollections, and therapeutic dealings with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As Zillion states above, O’Brien usage of “story-truth versus happening-truth” is a “bibliographic catharsis”. By writing about his experiences, he trusts the audience to be emotionally and mentally strong enough to swallow the story without doubt.
The audience must also be able to read the story and not deny that there is some truth involved, and not to blame O’Brien for his trauma (remember, O’Brien opposed he war). He trusts that the audience will be able to share in some of his horror, guilt, fear, rage and humiliation. He hopes that we will respect him and because of this, he possibly can indirectly help another suffering soldier. Even though the Vietnam War is over, other veterans of that or any other war could read his novel and be helped by O’Brien writing.
In a quote from one of the pages before the stories in ETC: “This book is essentially different from any other that has been published concerning the “late war” or any of its incidents. Those who have had any such experience as the mended as a statement of actual thing by one who experienced them to the fullest. ” Noon Ransom’s Understandable Diary) O’Brien sells his memories to the public not only to make money, but to expel the terrible memories he has of the Army and the Vietnam War. His writing style makes his memories seem vivid and alive, however, he is also “yielding to the limitations of language” (Zillion 19).
Because O’Brien is writing, rather than verbalizing, his stories, it is hard for him to fully capture the intensity of the emotions he feels and had felt. In the story “Notes”, O’Brien explains: “By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You operate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened… And you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain” (152) O’Brien uses a blend of fact and fiction to help clarify and explain his experiences in Vietnam.
He uses “story-truth versus happening-truth” to show the reader what he saw and felt, so that “normal” people (people unaffected with PUTS) would understand why he is the way he is, have a deeper understanding of PUTS, and to experience the Vietnam War through the eyes of a soldier. Though O’Brien work of fiction The Things They Carried is entirely fiction, he weaves fact and fiction into a beautiful and terrifying portrait of the war and its legacy to Americans today.
He challenges us to look at ourselves, to put ourselves in his combat boots and imagine ourselves in the situation he was placed in: abandon his country in her time of need, or to fight for a cause he didn’t (and still doesn’t) believe in; to be called a coward and run, or to be glorified in American history as a vital part of the war on injustice in Vietnam. O’Brien mastery of his emotions on paper allows him to reach relief wrought in vivo exposure, one of the more effective treatments of PUTS. But this too is true: stories can save us” (O’Brien 213) O’Brien reaches a state of mind where he can be at peace with himself, and the fictional O’Brien feels the same way in The Things They Carried. In “The Lives of the Dead”, the fictional O’Brien ends his “memoir” with this: “And then it becomes 1990. I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now, still dreaming Linda alive in exactly the same way. She’s not the embodied Linda; she’s mostly made up, with a new identity and a new name, like the man who never was. Her real name doesn’t matter. She was nine years old. I loved her and then she died.
And yet, right here, in the spell of memory and imagination, I can still see her as if through ice, as if I’m gazing into some other world, a place where there are no brain tumors, and no funeral homes, where there are no bodies at all. I can see Kiowa, too, and Ted Lavender and Curt Lemon, and sometime I can see Timmy skating with Linda under the yellow floodlights. I’m young and happy. I’ll never die. I’m skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years (O’Brien 232-233).