Fri
Dec 11 2009 6:20pm
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Fiction, Part 4

“There were eighteen months... not that I suppose he’ll ever tell you about that, at least, if he does, then you’ll know he’s cured... I don’t mean he went out of his mind or anything, and he was always perfectly sweet about it, only he was so dreadfully afraid to go to sleep....”
– Lord Peter Wimsey’s mother attempting to describe his difficulties from second-hand experience

In the first part of this series, I talked about how PTSD is experienced in real life versus many of its more popular and less accurate portrayals in fiction.

In the second and third parts of this series, I went into more detail with four examples of PTSD in fiction: Sinclair in Babylon 5, Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, the apocalyptic version of PTSD postulated in World War Z, and Josh Lyman in The West Wing.

While these depictions are somewhat successful, even extremely so, they tend to be either one-off Very Special Episodes (Babylon 5, The West Wing) or bittersweet finishers (World War Z, The Lord of the Rings). Writing about a character experiencing PTSD is already a difficult affair; writing about a character living with PTSD is much, much harder. So often we think that the most exciting part of PTSD is when it explodes, an event that supposedly either leaves a shattered mind behind, or must be immediately mostly or completely dealt within the next few chapters, lest the aftershocks shake the plot and character relationships too much.

Thus, there is one more example I want to discuss that particularly sticks out in my mind, because it covers the long-term portrayal of a character with PTSD who nevertheless is functional: Lord Peter Wimsey, one of the famous sleuths in the mystery genre. His author, Dorothy Sayers, whatever else she may be, had a very good grip on chronic PTSD.

Chronic PTSD

How people react to PTSD, or even if they get it, varies according to the characteristics of the trauma exposure and the individual, in no precise formula of any sort. But given a long enough exposure to severe trauma, and what might be considered “normal” PTSD can switch over at some point to chronic PTSD. Months to years of war or abuse will do this, for example.

In chronic PTSD, symptoms will persist for many years, because the brain, dynamically adaptive as it is, has changed so dramatically structure-wise and chemical-wise. As a result, the treatment of chronic PTSD is different than for relatively shorter-term traumas—and this is why diagnosing PTSD correctly can be so important. Going the wrong treatment route either way is not helpful, and often actively harmful. For instance, extinction therapy (repeated exposure until symptoms go away) does not, for perhaps obvious reasons, help in most cases of chronic PTSD.

For dramas and adventure stories, chronic PTSD might seem to be a character development endpoint, even a character usefulness endpoint. Literary novels might like to lever this kind of thing as a bittersweet ending.

But this is not so in real life.

PTSD, even chronic PTSD, doesn’t describe a personality or even most of a personality—I think of that kind of generalization as PTSD Zombiefication. PTSD is simply a disorder, even if it is a particularly bad one. Like depression, or even like cancer, PTSD sufferers have their ups and downs, their good years and bad years, much less good days and bad days.

So yes, someone suffering from chronic PTSD can realistically be an amateur sleuth, if we adjust “realism” to the theater settings of the amateur detective novel. In such an environment, being slack is not a healthy characteristic.

PTSD as a Driving Force

Even readers without a keen sense of what PTSD is like tend to admire the Lord Peter Wimsey series for the psychological portrait of its main character, which is rather unusual in the detective mystery genre. While detective characters tend to have major character quirks tending towards the neurotic, those are usually exposed to add spice to an otherwise dry puzzle; as a rule, development is for the plot, not the characters. Wimsey is a rare bird indeed, especially within the amateur detective sub-genre—grim and gritty hard-boiled P.I. novels and police procedurals tend to have more internal drama room to work with, not that they always use it.

A wise man once told me that detective characters need something in their personalities that drives them to solve mysteries. It’s not a hobby to simply pick up, like stamp-collecting or bird-watching or even puzzle-solving, however often that reason may be used as a pretext by just about every amateur detective in fiction. It’s an obsessive occupation that sometimes develops into high risk, and shows the ugly side of humanity far more often than not. Amateurs also run against the police force, or whatever else might pass for the establishment protectors of law, and that takes quite a lot of ego and assertiveness (and, most of all, rightness) to manage.

That might seem an antithetical drive for a chronic PTSD sufferer to have—after all, murder mystery solving is swallowing trauma again and again and again in a detective series, and Lord Peter got his PTSD from his time as a soldier during the horrors of World War I. This puzzled me for a while, actually, though it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the stories.

And then I realized that when he’s solving a puzzling and dangerous mystery, something that drives the adrenaline of a type of person who’s already leaning that way in the first place—one of Lord Peter’s functions in World War I was as a spy—he probably feels normal. He certainly is very functional, much to the expense of everyone who assumes he’s just a shallow fop. At a pressing time when other people might lose their wits, a PTSD sufferer can be surprisingly calm and sharp, even during their own bad periods. That’s Lord Peter to his shoes.

But the important thing to remember is that there’s a limit: if something triggers your PTSD even once during this time, everything crumbles, whether the adrenaline pumping or not. And that also happens to Lord Peter.

How He Got There

Lord Peter Wimsey was a World War I veteran on the front lines; that tends to be enough of an explanation with regards to how he got PTSD in the first place, and even its chronic characteristic. The event usually pointed at as the smoking gun is that a shell exploded near him and buried him alive in rubble, and it wasn’t until a day later (and not a quiet day) that his men could get him out.

But the specifics, as always, differ from individual to individual. There’s always something that sticks out in someone’s experiences, because that’s how the PTSD gets triggered repeatedly afterward.

For Lord Peter, this trigger unfortunately seems to have been due to having sent men under his command off to die in horrible nightmare battlefields that he himself also experienced.

Thrilling and brain-wracking missing jewel mysteries are alright, usually harmless enough; but the high point, the murder mysteries, almost always send a man or woman to the gallows as a matter of course. Even if the guilty kills themselves instead, Lord Peter—technically rightly so—blames himself for causing their death. Even the fact that they are guilty in the first place doesn’t ease his anguish, because what soldiers during any war weren’t guilty of acts that would be considered high crime in peacetime?

Heck, even if the guilty was a nasty piece of work, Lord Peter still triggers.

Poor man. He has two intrinsic characteristics that are at serious odds to each other: the drive to solve high-profile crime, including murders, so that he feels normal and useful; and the trigger that is sending someone off to die, which makes him ill and has induced a complete BSOD1 at least three times, probably more, during his career.

That’s not all there is to Lord Peter, of course, because PTSD by itself isn’t a personality, but that’s part of him. The other parts of him are, yes, that he is a very sweet and somewhat overly optimistic fellow, who happens to be observationally smart and very canny, and those characteristics aren’t negated, or even overshadowed, by the fact that he has PTSD.

His symptoms often don’t show up until the end of the books, but they’ve been known to show up in the middle of the plot, and in the penultimate book, Busman’s Holiday, Sayers covers his reaction in far more detail than most writers would feel comfortable with.

PTSD-Related Highlights of the Series

Of course I pay attention to these. Some would say it’s very limiting to view the series from the point of view of PTSD, but you know, it’s so rare to run across functioning yet PTSD-riddled characters that I just can’t help it.

Only some of the novels are listed here; the ones that aren’t tend to just feature Lord Peter’s semi-suicidal tendencies when it comes to trying to confront murderers because he feels really, really guilty. Even Unnatural Death, which I really don’t like, has it. It’s normal Lord Peter character background.

One novel notably has no PTSD allusions at all: Have His Carcase, wherein I must assume that the guilty party was so random that not even Lord Peter could feel sorry over the affair, which is really saying something. (It’s not a bad mystery in and of itself, and it’s technically one of the better older cipher mysteries, and I really liked the mock Russian play script.)

No Wimsey short stories allude to PTSD either, no matter how murderous the culprit, but sometimes one needs a break, and really, the one with the littlest Wimsey viscount is very cute.

Whose Body?

The first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Sayers and many of her critics consider it the least of the series, but that’s still much better than much of the fare in the detective section. Sayers was a much younger writer at the time, and it shows, but this novel will always have a near and dear place in my heart, because Lord Peter Wimsey triggers a little over halfway through, and that’s something that doesn’t happen often in fiction (and perhaps was one of the reasons Sayers considers the book “lesser”, though I think there are better candidates for that position, Unnatural Death getting my vote).

Actually, I really enjoyed watching Wimsey struggle and actually disappear for a little while, with his friend, Inspector Charles Parker, temporarily taking up the reins (and that’s where third-person narrative saves a writer). Sometimes you do get overwhelmed, but Wimsey still ended up solving the mystery before his PTSD completely knocked him out for the count—then again, the solution and realization does tend to trigger him.

Notably: there’s quite a strange second-person chapter near the end that made me think, “Yes, that really is rather like one of those walking nightmares I’ve had, poor devil.” That doesn’t occur again in the rest of the series.

By the way, Whose Body? is in the public domain under both U.S. and Canadian law, but not so under most Berne Convention countries, including the United Kingdom. So if you live in North America, you can visit your local Project Gutenberg repository to find it.

Clouds of Witness

Lord Peter Wimsey’s family can be idiots, and his brother is very much so an idiot, even if a friendly one, and Lord Peter has to keep his brother from the gallows (and during the novel, must contemplate having to send his sister instead, and you can imagine how much fun that was for him).

It follows rather sequentially from Whose Body?, which I liked, because Lord Peter gets dragged away from the retreat his nerves so badly needed, into a situation where he had to engage on full thrusters anyways. He managed it, and while there are no breakdowns, I liked that he was able to do so, and in particular I liked that he wasn’t dropped by Sayers simply because he’d completely broken down from the events of Whose Body? Too many writers, I think, would have discarded Wimsey before a second book.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

This is perhaps my second-favorite Wimsey book from a PTSD perspective. After World War I, which was particularly awful because it combined the intimacy of old world combat with the body-shattering efficiency of new world weaponry, there were a lot of PTSD cases walking around. It actually was considered quite normal for young men who survived the war to suffer from it (indeed, the commonness of PTSD was inspiration for Frodo’s PTSD in Lord of the Rings). Lots of missing limbs and scars, too, it has to be said.

And yet, these young men weren’t considered evil, weak, or even necessarily broken. Oh, they were still thought of as damaged, make no mistake about it—one of the trails is obscured by the possibility that someone’s PTSD was triggered, and that one of the motives might very well have involved an all-consuming flashback. But undamaged people in the book, by and large, were not only sympathetic of the damaged ones, but also to treated them as functional, if sometimes odd, human beings. To me, it felt like reading science fiction—reading about a world where PTSD was considered normal, rather like depression today.

Of course, also like depression today, some characters weren’t sympathetic to the young men at all; these were mostly old men, who shook their heads and said things that summed up to, “We were better in the older days, these younger men are weak, obsessive, and stupid”—which is a very modern attitude towards PTSD. I understood more deeply one of Siegfried Sassoon’s lines in his poem, “Repression of War Experience”:

There must be crowds of ghosts among the trees,—
Not people killed in battle,—they’re in France,—
But horrible shapes in shrouds—old men who died
Slow, natural deaths,—old men with ugly souls,
Who wore their bodies out with nasty sins.
2

The Nine Tailors

Jo Walton reviewed this book on Tor.com a while ago, and it’s really quite good, one of the best of the series. And also, Lord Peter’s PTSD kicks in almost in time to kill him, and keeps a firm grip of him after.

Gaudy Night

To many, the best of the series, and to many more still, the best of the Lord Peter and Harriet Vane3 combined mysteries. It’s an Oxford novel to boot, and talks a little bit about Harriet’s experience with Lord Peter’s reaction to either The Nine Tailors or Murder Must Advertise case, though I suspect it was probably the former.

Busman’s Honeymoon

This is my first-favorite Wimsey book from both a PTSD and a normal amateur detective fiction fan’s view. And also the last one (and the second-to-last Wimsey story penned completely by Sayers; the absolute final, sort of, would be “Talboys,” which someone in the estate scraped up from her pile of drafts and published).

The PTSD episode is in the epilogue for the most part, along with the “eighteen months” attempted explanation by his mother. It’s realistic in both its shock and its subtlety, but the best part is that, during those bits, Lord Peter isn’t alone anymore.

... and after

There are two further novels, Thrones, Denominations and Presumption of Death, collaborations between dead Dorothy Sayers and living Jill Paton Walsh. I have quite a few complaints about them, but probably the first and foremost is that Lord Peter’s PTSD is treated as a simple wimping out guilt, rather than a much more complicated disorder that triggers from a guilt that is shaped by the disorder itself.

Oh well. Nothing lasts forever, good or bad. Not even chronic PTSD, the end of which is something I personally look forwards to.

Next time (at some point in time, because these articles are hard for me to do), some kind of wrap-up, with further reading recommendations. I’ll include recommendations from previous comment threads, and this one, and around and about the web, etc. I just realized I have another example of PTSD portrayal on Tor.com already: my review of Terry Pratchett’s Nation from last year.


1. Blue Screen of Death, if it happened to your head instead of your computer.

2. It was also the older generation that had sent the younger generation off to die in the fields of the Somme and elsewhere, and Sassoon never, ever, ever, ever, forgave them. Coming home from the front to that attitude must have been like getting kicked in the face. I talk a little about, and quote the full public domain poem, on my blog.

3. Dorothy Sayers: luckiest author with a crush on her main character ever. It’s not every author whose favorite character also happens to be a lot of actual readers’ favorite character, and very few authors are skilled enough to do a self-insert that isn’t a Mary Sue to everybody else, and then make a lot of money on it.


Arachne Jericho writes about science fiction and fantasy, and other topics determined by 1d20, at Spontaneous ∂erivation, and also thinks waaay too much about Sherlock Holmes. She reviews at Tor.com on a semi-biweekly basis. She suffers from chronic PTSD and the holidays are really quite hell.

18 comments
Azara microphylla
1. Azara
I can remember when I first read these books as a young teenager, and naively thought Lord Peter was just a wimp. Then I read Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves and other First World War writers, and got some idea of how bad shell-shock was. But it took years more to realise that this wasn't just some once-off historic phenomenon, but something that still affects people now. So thank you, Arachne Jericho, for this interesting series of posts, which have educated me quite a bit more on the subject.
Russ Gray
2. nimdok
These articles you've posted have been very interesting. I haven't read the Sayers books but I did notice the treatment of Frodo's "illness" in the Lord of the Rings and wondered if that's what the author was trying to portray.

A psychiatrist friend of mine says that the EMDR treatment (eye movement desensitization and reprogramming) can be very effective. He published a paper about it and now limits his psychiatric practice to helping people with PTSD. I don't understand how the treatment works, but have first-hand reports that it does.

I think your comments about how it is treated in literature (and in life) are right on - some people get it, some don't, and some writers have handled it much better than others. It makes more sense when it's a part of a character's personality, compared to when it's the author's way of disabling the character so something can happen.
David Dyer-Bennet
3. dd-b
Reducing the stories to "just" PTSD would be wrong, annoying, etc. But writing an article that focuses on those issues passes muster for me.

The Wimsey mysteries are among my very favorites, and of course I'd made the PTSD connection (by the end it's hard to miss). I agree that she handles it much more thoughtfully than most authors.
Arachne Jericho
4. arachnejericho
Azara,

You're welcome. I'm very glad that people find the series informative.

(This sounds very trite, but writing the articles in the first place makes me feel like all the years are not a total waste of my life.)

nimdok,

Thank you.

I've heard about the effectiveness of EMDR too, and it sounds weird, but if it works, that's awesome. (I kind of think of it as possibly akin to LASIK surgery for near-sightedness.)

dd-b,

Re: not reducing literature to "just" PTSD - I agree. Plot and characterization are much bigger than PTSD, and the best stories incorporate multiple elements done well together. I enjoy the Wimsey series, and all of the fiction I've talked about, for much more than just the PTSD aspects. I just pay more attention than usual to them when they show up, because it is such an intimate issue for me.

Some folks cringe when writers get physics wrong in SF, or mythology wrong in fantasy, or, say, the particulars of horse racing wrong in mystery; getting trauma, and in particular PTSD, wrong is what makes me cringe. And obviously reducing stories to any of these individual aspects is an incomplete picture---but they are interesting aspects to discuss and to point out when they're done well and when they aren't.
Janice in GA
5. Janice in GA
The Wandering Pedant wanders by to note that it's Thrones, Dominations, not Thrones DEnominations.
Daniel Abraham
6. DanielAbraham
Well, actually "Thrones, Dominions." Not Denominations or Dominations. They're two kinds of angels, like Seraphim and Cherubim. But whatever.

I agree that the Jill Patton Walsh sharecropping aren't in the same class at Dorothy Sayers ones. But I want to put in a good word for Jill Patton Walsh's solo books. The collaboration wasn't as good as either of their solo stuff.

I've been looking forward to this entry in the series, and you've done a fine job of it. I'm not a PTSD sufferer m'self, but some of the folks near and dear to me live there. Now I'm looking forward to the wrap-up. :)
Arachne Jericho
7. arachnejericho
Janice in GA, DanielAbraham,

You're quite right about Thrones, Dominations; I always get dominations confused with denominations, because they look so alike to me, though the meanings obviously aren't. I remember the Thrones and the Dominations mostly from a roleplaying game I've forgotten the name of....

I also got Busman's Honeymoon's title wrong the first time I mention it here, mixing it up with the phrase that Sayers plays upon, "Busman's Holiday." Le sigh.

DanielAbraham,

I can believe that Walsh's solo books are quite good, because there were some aspects of Presumption of Death that were very good---just not the Wimsey parts. She seems extremely skilled at setting, and Sayers is a very hard act to follow; Walsh can't come anywhere close to either the language or the very deep and common play upon literature (and lots of it) of Sayers, and simplifies some of the more subtle characterization of Wimsey (another reason why Presumption of Death succeeds somewhat better than Thrones, Dominations---she focuses on Vane for something like 90% of the book, who she's much better at).

And thank you for the compliment. :) This was the hardest post by far of the series to write, mostly because of the detail, which causes me some amount of pain to explore; all the posts have to some extent, but this is the most affecting from my point of view. But it's worth it.

The wrap-up will probably be most cathartic.
Steven desJardins
8. stevendj
Actually, Whose Body? was published in 1923, so it isn't in the public domain in the United States, and you won't find it in Project Gutenberg.
Janice in GA
9. Christopher Byler
(re Busman's Honeymoon) It’s realistic in both its shock and its subtlety, but the best part is that, during those bits, Lord Peter isn’t alone anymore.

Hmm. This seems a little dismissive of ex-Sergeant Bunter's role caring for his former CO through some of his episodes in the earlier books. (Indeed, if Sayers had been just a little more open-minded about certain issues, there'd be no need to introduce Harriet at all... it occurs to me that I am very probably not the first person to have had this idea.)
Arachne Jericho
10. arachnejericho
stevendj,

Hmmm. You're right. But it wasn't that way before....

1923 was one of those weird years, and you had to have a renewal record on file for it to remain copyrighted today. The records that can be found at Stanford's Copyright Renewal Database are notoriously only nearly complete, for a long while, Whose Body? was considered public domain.

Looks like the renewal record for Whose Body? was just discovered, for 1935, and PG pulled Sayers' work from US Gutenberg servers. It's taking longer for the word to stretch around the web.

Whose Body? remains public domain for Canada, and can be found here (search down a couple times) but this is obviously not a legal site for people in the US to download books from.

Christopher Byler,

I did think about that part, but not enough apparently. That's an interesting part of all this as well, because Bunter was instrumental in pulling Wimsey out of his eighteen months. That's canon testimony as well, from Lord Peter's mother, also present in the epilogue of Busman's Honeymoon, as well as this being shown in the same (passage containing, "I have known him to drive all night").

I've always thought of the relationship between Lord Peter and Bunter to be more of a brother-type relationship, but yes, it could have been interpreted to be more intimate, and that's a valid interpretation in my opinion. However, I myself have been rather close to various people in Bunter's style, but haven't had a sexual attraction, except in two cases (one male, one female). This particular situation could go either way.

Bunter/Wimsey has been thought of quite a few times, so you're not alone by any means---see the TVTropes entry for the Lord Peter Wimsey series. If we look towards the Walsh books, there was a certain amount of, ah, removing the uncomfortable hypotenuse by marrying off Bunter, which never felt right to me.

I think Sayers was fated to introduce Harriet Vane anyways, whether she was that open-minded or not. She loved Lord Peter rather... a bit much. Bunter wasn't going to get any action, sadly.

Apologies for leaving this bit out. I was starting to feel a little fatigued by that point, even though I love Busman's Honeymoon. Not a good excuse, but all I've got.
Arachne Jericho
11. arachnejericho
Christopher Byler,

Now that I think about it some more, probably I attached much more significance to the romance between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane because that's what was there. It is very difficult to achieve for some people with PTSD, and to see Lord Peter at that point, whoever he was with... it could have been Bunter, but it ended up not being so.

I phrased things wrongly in the post, I think. I want that kind of romance, but it's not currently possible, which makes me very sad, and so I just left it with "he's not alone anymore," which is not strictly true. "He's in an intimate relationship now"? I'm not sure what the right thing is to say. It's not an area I have much experience with, so it's difficult for me to articulate and impossible for me to fully explore at this point in time.
Janice in GA
12. XyzzyMagicat
I love your four pieces on this topic, though I have to think a lot about what I want to say in response... I've had both forms of PTSD almost my entire life, and nasty experiences have worsened it a few times over to boot.

I did want to highly recommend the book Too Scared To Cry by Dr. Lenore Terr, as well as her other works. Even though TSTC is about PTSD in kids, most of it applied to my reactions as an adult as well, and made me feel far less "alone" in the world than anything else has in a long time.
Arachne Jericho
13. arachnejericho
XyzzyMagicat,

Thank you. And *hugs*.

I will add that to the recommendations list. It's a book I see recommended again and again.
Janice in GA
14. merlin513
Another amateur sleuth from that era that shows what I always took to be PTSD signs is Albert Campion by Margery Allingham.

He served in the Intelligence Branch and was described in the latter novels (after the war) with similar symptoms. But, Ms. Allingham never went into the details like the Lord Peter stories did. It was just lurking out there on the fringes of her character.
Caryn Cameron
15. galeni
Thank you for this. Now I'm off to reread Wimsey. I think all this is maybe why I adored Peter so much -- he faced his demons and survived and it gave me strength to help face mine.

Best wishes.
Janice in GA
16. denelian
this is probably the only comment i will ever make here [i tent towards lurking anyway...]

but.
you have convinced me to look up these books
and PTSD is... not fun to live with. i hate having to explain it, and have found it generally easier to avoid people than try to talk about it it is a VERY pleasant change, to see someone talking so openly and pragmatically . it gives me hope that someday, SOMEday, it won't be like this anymore.

thank you
Janice in GA
17. Brian3
A friend of mine has undergone EMDR many times and finds it extremely useful. The theory, I think, is that it keeps your amygdala from dominating the cortex, so you can think in a connected way about the trauma, and from what he's described it's very effective at doing that. As I recall, it's rated badly by evidence-driven psychiatry, but I think that exposes the weaknesses of the kind of analysis they're doing more than anything else. What they're responding to is that on purely statistical terms it doesn't have a striking success rate. Quite possibly it doesn't, but it's not a cure for anything in itself, just a tool, and wouldn't be useful if applied by a therapist who didn't understand something about trauma. If you gave a piece of charcoal to most people you wouldn't get much art, either.

David Drake is very good when it comes to writing about PTSD. See Redliners or his RCN series, for example. Adele, in the latter, is both high-functioning and very defined by PTSD, and is both working her way out of the original trauma and constantly retraumatizing herself in different ways, actually by acting as part of the group of people who are helping her heal, who are in the military. Some Golden Harbor is a very good example.
Janice in GA
18. returntoyoursenses
Thank you for this insightful ptsd series and nation. i am revising a curriculum, return to your senses, for bodyworkers and other health care professionals learning body-centered trauma care.
over the years, i too have identified fictional characters with ptsd and characters who should have had ptsd but responded more like "toons": drop 'em over a cliff; flatten them with a tank and they pop up, dust off their clothes..... Huh?
i want course participants to read what you've written and at least one of the books you've reviewed in hopes of making people more aware of (1) cultural denial of ptsd (2) clues that might get the attention of health care professionals .
i'm touched by your courage.
take care,
carol

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