a trauma therapist who writes novels, I have a professional
as well as personal stake in my fictional characters. I am
a family clinician who has treated over a thousand individuals
and families who have suffered from post-traumatic stress
disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a condition that may be caused by
a number of life threatening and life altering events: natural
disasters, experience of wars or combat in war, acts of political
terror or torture, physical assaults, family violence and
sexual abuse. I chose to write about this condition in the
form of a novel because I wanted to reach a wider audience
than academic and professional colleagues. I wanted to speak
to readers who would respond with a gut level "yes"
Veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder --
or think they may have some symptoms -- can contact Veterans
for Peace, a national veterans' organization dedicated
to veterans' issues and very aware of the prevalence of this
condition among American servicemen and women. Contact
Veterans for Peace at www.veteransforpeace.org
A person who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder
has lived through an event that is outside the realm of everyday
life, the experience of which, would traumatize any individual.
A person's response is characteristic and universal. Specifically,
memories of the trauma force their way into consciousness
and cause high anxiety. Repetitive dreams and/or obsessive
thoughts disturb the individual, causing a loss of interest
in usual activities, loss of sexual interest, isolation and
the absence of emotional expression, called "psychic
I have treated a number of patients who have participated
in either overt or covert operations in theatres of war or
espionage. Many had killed and tortured both combatants and
non-combatants. These individuals showed all the signs of
post-traumatic stress that we see in victims of violent behavior.
In most cases, my patients were asymptomatic prior to their
war or espionage involvement. In some cases, however, my patients
had suffered abuse and violence in their families of origin
before they went on to commit acts of violence and mayhem.
In other cases, they had been exposed to the symptomatic behavior
of parents (usually the father) who suffered from PTSD. In
these latter cases, which I call second generation post-traumatic
stress disorder, the children absorb wretched stories and
memories from their fathers, dream their nightmares, and sometimes
act out their hostile fantasies.
Trauma in the Novel
The actions of Billy and Frank and others in The Dead
Are Dancing are in many ways classic symptoms of PTSD.
Typical signs include hypervigilance, scanning, anxiety, suspicion,
paranoia (with or without good reason), and a profound loss
of time and space boundaries so that their experience of the
here and now is distorted by memories of trauma. The trauma
can also be brought on by stories of violence and abuse, as
Bodie's tales of torture troubled Billy with horrendous images
of violence. In this way, memories of the trauma can be passed
to second and third generations in a family. The people who
suffer this condition struggle very hard to defend against
remembering the awful events that have occurred and
the actions they may have participated in.
The citizens of Cannon suffer from PTSD as a community that
has endured years of war and preparation for war. The entire
social fabric is woven with the memorials to past wars and
plans for future wars. Each activity, from sports to religion,
is filled with both real and symbolic acts of violence. In
their deep devotion to town and country, the people of Cannon
choose loyalty as a substitute for memory, a trade that keeps
them from confronting their fears and facing up to reality.
It is as if the "springs of selective forgetfulness"
are forever washing their brains of any thoughts that might
cause them to question the order of things and the assumptions
they make as citizens of America. When Billy begins to question
the order of things, he becomes a threat to the people of
Cannon. He is faced with a choice: either return to the fold
of public opinion or be eliminated. Black and white thinking
is another characteristic of PTSD.
Senator Bob Kerrey, who revealed that he led a platoon that
killed women and children in Viet Nam, has recently admitted
that the act of killing and not the fact of being killed
is one of the greatest sacrifices of war. The experience
of being a killer or torturer, in whatever context, predisposes
an individual to possible traumatic symptoms either in immediate
or delayed forms. Their children may be the only ones to notice
the symptoms, hear the confessions, and become symptomatic
themselves, perpetuating the cycle into a new generation.
The scars of having killed for one's country go deep and affect
succeeding generations . After a person has killed for the
state, as Bodie Richcreek did during the Second World War,
it becomes difficult for that person to criticize the state.
This is because the state offers forgiveness to the individual
for the killings he committed. An unspoken pact of silence
is agreed upon between the state and the individual when it
comes to speaking of certain acts of violence and horrors.
The individual remains quiet and the government expresses
its gratitude. The pact is rigidly maintained but may be broken
under severe psychological stress and madness. Bodie breaks
this pact of silence when he confesses to his son, Billy.
When Billy replaces his father in his mother's bed and, years
later, experiences secondary impotence with Belle, he is living
out symptoms that are not uncommon for males whose fathers
suffer from PTSD.
Youth Violence in America
Unfortunately, children can suffer from PTSD brought on by
abuse in the family or exposure to parents or caretakers who
suffer from PTSD. These children can be subject to fits of
rage and may be prone to violence, if not given special attention
by the community and its professionals. Many outbreaks of
gun violence by children can be traced back to traumas and
violence that have scarred the child or the child's family.
Many traumas in children go largely untreated for a number
of reasons including the public's unawareness of its connection
to mayhem and murder. Putting guns in the hands of these children
is not a prudent decision.
I believe that youth violence in America is an outgrowth
of the widespread prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder
among Americans. Virginia Satir, the internationally known
family therapist and expert on family trauma, believed that
Americans suffered deeply from PTSD as a result of the many
wars our people have fought starting with the Civil
War, our most bloody and traumatizing ordeal as a nation.
A culture of gun violence has grown up among our people. It
draws on a history of trauma and is perpetuated as the next
generation falls under the thrall of guns and the glorification
An Interview with the Author
To continue exploring this topic, read
an interview with the author.