In 1994, the photojournalist Kevin Carter took a picture of a starving toddler, head bowed to the ground, watched over by a vulture in the background. The sickening image of famine in Sudan pitched him to fame and earned him a Pulitzer Prize. Three months after winning the Pulitzer, Carter killed himself. In his suicide note he said he was “haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses… starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners.”
Carter’s death is an object lesson in the trauma of the witness. We do not have to suffer violence or calamity ourselves to be traumatized by them. Or: witnessing traumatic events is its own trauma. If this rather moderate contention sounds obvious, Mac McClelland’s story shows otherwise. If it doesn’t sound obvious, that is because every consumer of news is now a witness to violence and calamity, albeit through a camera lens that blurs the distinction between witness and spectator. As Susan Sontag noted, one effect of seeing so much disaster imagery is that “a catastrophe that is experienced will often seem eerily like its representation.” Image saturation has altered the way we understand seeing: it no longer counts as an experience unto itself.
In 2010, McClelland, then a journalist for Mother Jones, was on assignment in Haiti eight months after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated the country. Her mission was to report on the sexual assault that had become epidemic in the chaos following the quake. She spent her days going from tent cities to hospitals, interviewing survivors and advocates overwhelmed by the magnitude of this manmade aftershock. Against a background of rape, one moment broke to the fore: “I saw something,” she says.
That’s all. I’m not going to tell you much about it. I witnessed something very suddenly. It had something to do with a rape. I was extremely startled by the scene and by the sudden screaming—not mine, but the closest I’d ever been to anyone’s complete and abject terror. So close and so shocking that I lost myself to it.
A dogged investigator could piece together the moment she elides to protect others’ privacy, but in a way it doesn’t matter. What matters is she saw something. Something to do with a rape.
Something that triggers post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. When she says “I lost myself,” she’s not being poetic. She’s describing dissociation: as if astral projecting, she sees the scene from outside the car where she sits. The camera zooms out; a catastrophe that she experiences seems eerily like its representation. Other symptoms follow. Parts of her body go numb. She gets blackout drunk every night. When she returns to the U.S. she has sobbing fits, flashbacks, and fantasies of gruesome violence.
But many people, McClelland included, don’t think she’s really earned PTSD. Nothing bad happened to her, after all. She just saw something. When McClelland writes an article about her PTSD, the backlash is fierce: “I mean all of Port-au-Prince is suffering from PTSD and I’m supposed to care about some woman who parachutes in for a couple of weeks and has the luxury to leave whenever she wants because she’s been inconveniently traumatized?” She’s a mere onlooker to violence that others are actually suffering.
Yet as she researches her condition McClelland discovers that “psychological trauma is an experience or witness of threatened or actual death, serious injury, or sexual violence.” Witness and threatened are crucial words—one need not “experience” anything, in the narrow sense of the verb, to suffer trauma. Nor is PTSD quite the work of a moment; traumatic events are more likely to lead to PTSD if they follow other traumas or occur under otherwise threatening or unsafe circumstances.
McClelland’s circumstances certainly qualify. Just starting in Haiti, there’s the doctor at her hotel who pressures her for sex, explaining that “he was a gentleman, in that he lost his erection if a woman started to fight him off.” (Later he explains that the solution to this gentleman’s problem is to violate the woman with an object.) The day after the trauma her driver takes her to an isolated room and pushes himself on her, a situation she escapes with luck and quick thinking. A few days after that her fixer spends half an hour trying to cajole her into sex while she tries to think of new ways to say no. Then there’s what happened before Haiti—an assignment where some violent men talked about gang-raping her, and a rape in college that she never quite names as such.
It’s a lot. It’s also far from extraordinary.
Most women live with a constant low-level fear of sexual violence buzzing like white noise in the background. For some women the buzz is less white noise than radio chatter. And of course the fear is not idle; by some estimates one in six American women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Add that trauma to an environment of fear and the result, often, is PTSD.
Although we think of it primarily as a veteran’s ailment, the most common cause of PTSD in the U.S. is violence against women. Absurdly, being female is considered a risk factor for developing the disorder, as if women’s bodies, and not the world we live in, made us vulnerable to it. Of course, most people who experience trauma—that is, most people—don’t develop PTSD. And women aren’t the only group with disproportionate rates of PTSD. The recent article “Battling America’s Other PTSD Crisis,” for instance, chronicles the pervasive trauma in violent neighborhoods that primarily afflicts poor black people. Perhaps it should be called America’s other other PTSD crisis.
Traumatized by sexual violence, McClelland seeks violent sex. “I could not process the thought of sex without violence,” she says. “My choices were to picture violence I controlled, or to picture the abominable uncontrolled things that had happened to rape survivors I’d met. I pictured the former often.” It’s not uncommon for trauma victims to crave this kind of reenactment. To will your trauma is to control it. McClelland enacts her violent fantasies with an old lover, and it works, paradoxically exorcising the grisly visions from sex. To be clear, the violent sex she desires is consensual: “someone forcing me, while I struggled, with my permission, to have sex with them.”
Here I thought, not for the first time, that women’s collective sexual trauma may go a long way in explaining that vexing phenomenon much debated in the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey: female submission fantasies. The trauma is not confined to the one-in-six. Remember, it can come from the mere threat of violence (and it doesn’t usually lead to PTSD). By my estimates that means a hell of a lot of women traumatized by sexual violence. What safer place to confront that pain than in fantasy, defined by its very opposition to reality? Insofar as women eroticize powerlessness, they tame their own scarring experiences of powerlessness. To will your trauma is to control it.
Meanwhile, another kind of film is playing on the same reel. McClelland is meeting cute with a Frenchman.
This is, after all, “a PTSD love story,” and the PTSD and the love strike at the same moment. What timing the universe has.
When McClelland arrives at her hotel in Haiti she meets Nico, a French soldier serving as a UN peacekeeper. Something draws McClelland and Nico together, and a few hours after meeting they kiss, parting “with surprising resistance and inappropriate quantities of tenderness given the circumstances.”
Tonight the kiss, tomorrow the cataclysm. On the strength of that kiss, and without a common language, they email back and forth the following day. That is the day McClelland sees something whose afterimages she cannot shake. Romance and trauma intermingle. The day after that, when they have sex for the first time, she can’t feel her body.
They profess their love before parting. When she returns home the romance flowers, though they can hardly hold a conversation and she’s swan-diving. McClelland knows how crazy it sounds, “blathering about how my soul mate was this guy I’d fucked one time, in the middle of a mental health crisis.” But Nico starts learning English and their love persists through the Sturm und Drang of her recovery.
When McClelland learns that PTSD can be contagious, however, this persistence starts to worry her. She meets wives of traumatized vets who develop the disorder themselves. So she’s not being melodramatic when she tearfully tells Nico, “I could destroy you.” “You can,” he says. “I don’t care.”
Storybook—sort of. When Nico wakes up beside her and says, “I was dreaming we were shopping for engagement rings,” she replies, “Oh, yeah? I was dreaming I stepped in a decomposing face.” PTSD does not always make for a fine romance. Nor does Nico always handle her crying sprees and rageful outbursts gracefully. The couple is often on the rocks, hoping not to founder. “We took turns ruining things,” she says.
Nevertheless, she heals at least partly for him. “Recovery can take place only within the context of relationships,” says trauma expert Judith Lewis Herman. McClelland finds a relationship worth recovering for. “I wanted to feel myself in the world so I could feel the best thing the world had to offer,” she says, “and that was Nico’s love.” Perhaps the coincidence of the best and worst things in her life is not, after all, a case of the world’s worst timing. The universe simultaneously gives her trauma and the way out of it. Or, as McClelland says, “Without all our stinky, sticking, death-black compost, we wouldn’t have each other at all.” That’s more romantic than any rom-com.