Trauma: Listening to the Story

I interviewed Tom Allen, author of “The Life of Pi and the Moral Wound” in a JAPA podcast. The article appeared in the December 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. Here’s the link:

Tom Allen focussed on one psychoanalytic dimension of the story of PI in Yann Martel’s remarkable 2001 novel: the need to address the “moral wound” suffered by those who have had to suspend their core values to survive a traumatic situation.

In reading the novel, I was struck by how many psychoanalytic themes jumped out at me. The use of story creation and narrative to organize experience was depicted so powerfully.

In the realm of trauma, I have been very interested in the role of the “audience” for the traumatized person’s story. For example, I think one of the sources of the despair too often experienced by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars may be the isolation of the civilian community from the wars. If there’s too big a gap between the civilian population and those who fight the wars that the body politic endorses, then the warriors suffer terribly and to some degree unnecessarily. Essentially, with war, the whole nation needs to share responsibility, guilt and understanding of what happens in war.

At the end of the book The LIfe of Pi, Pi, the traumatized young man, the sole survivor of a commercial ship wreck, tells his story to investigators from the resposible shipping line . Pi tells two versions of his story. One is a fable involving fantastic animals. Though terrible things happen, the listeners  are protected by the fantastical trappings of the story. Then Pi tells the “real” story, involving a much more direct and ghastly portrayal of human violence and suffering. He asks his interviewers, who allegedly are seeking the truth, which version of the story they prefer. The quick reply is “the one about the animals”.

So that our veterans are not the only ones burdened with the guilt and violence associated with war, we civilians need to tolerate the real story about real humans and war.

I like programs like Joining Forces, convened by Michele Obama and Jill Biden, which puts the emphasis on the need for a community response to the needs of veterans. A recent study in The Journal of Current Psychiatry  notes that social connectedness and community integration are protective factors regarding veterans’ and PTSD. ( J Clin Psychatry 75:12,December 2014)

Pi’s recovery from his ordeal begins with his being enveloped into a caring community. There are many ways to make this happen for those who have fought wars on our behalf. I say “on our behalf” purposefully, since whether or not as citizens we personally support a particular war, we must take responsibility for those conducted by our nation under our democratic system.

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