The Portrayal of PTSD in Young Adult Literature
A critical thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of requirements for the degree of Masters of Fine Arts for Children & Adolescent Literature
Saint Paul, Minnesota
Professor Mary Logue
Part 1: The Negative Portrayal of PTSD in Young Adult Literature
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a severe mental illness that is becoming a larger topic of conversation due to the reintegration of veterans and the surfacing symptoms being found in traumatic event survivors. This mental illness is portrayed in many ways, but for authors in young adult literature, it is a cultural theme that they should be aware of.
In this section of the paper I chose three young adult novels: Mockingjay by Susan Collins The Kill Order by James Dashner and Insurgent by Veronica Roth, present how a poorly written version of mental illness can impact the narrator’s sense of self-identity, can lead to the overuse of dream sequences, and can stereotype the traumatized narrator with no resolution to their inner conflict.
In the Hunger Games Trilogy, the last book Mockingjay, presents the narrator, Katniss, as a girl who has survived one traumatic experience after another. The writer, Suzanne Collins, uses a form of repression and dissociation to aide Katniss’s ability to survive, but this limits her character’s ability to recover her self-identity. In The Kill Order, the Maze Runner Series Prequel, the writer James Dashner, breaks apart the narrative by using dream sequences to present the backstory of the world he has created. The overuse and chronological order of these sequences inundate the reader with two completely unrelated narratives, while his narrator is going insane. In Insurgent, the sequel to Veronica Roth’s Divergent Trilogy, Tris presents a stereotypical understanding of what PTSD does to the subconscious and conscious minds of a character. This is exacerbated by the side-characters’ stereotypical actions towards her stereotyped symptoms.
These three books are parts of a series and therefore have more strength as a set, as the authors do rely on reader’s familiarity with the created worlds. With this in mind, I will look at the three series novels first, as examples of poorly portrayed examples of PTSD.
Identifying the subconscious in a text is difficult when the character’s thoughts are hard to separate from the narrative. In the first-person point of view, the author can use the subconscious as a tool of opportunity to reveal the narrator’s drive towards actions. When the author puts the narrator in traumatic situations, it is easier to glaze over thoughts and focus on action. Attempting to add the internal conflict between the narrator’s thoughts and actions can become a balancing act. Too many contradicting thoughts makes the narrator indecisive; too little, makes the narrator disconnected with the environment. It is a dangerous choice to discredit the conflict of self in young adult literature because so many readers in this age group are dealing with that particular issue.
Disassociation of the Subconscious
In Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins disassociates Katniss from her environment and her subconscious. The environment creates her character’s identity crisis. She is a tool for others to use, having no control over her life, body, actions, or even her image which is corrupted for the purpose of others. Katniss reacts to these controls by disassociating her subconscious. This is shown through Katniss’s restricted imagination presented in the structured form of her sentences: “Stocks, whipping posts, and this, the remains of the gallows. Bad. This is bad. It brings on the flood of images that torments me awake or asleep.” This presents Katniss’s ability to panic. Immediately after this ‘panic,’ the very next sentence presents her constraint of that panic: “Peeta being tortured-drowned, burned, lacerated, shocked, maimed, beaten- as the Capitol tries to get information about the rebellion that he doesn’t know” (9). The separation of the name with the torture shows Katniss listing a mantra of possibilities rather than the emotions that each word has the potential to inflict. The separation of each by a syntax becomes Katniss’s breathing pattern. She is calm and disconnected from her own thoughts, which doesn’t give an accurate portrayal of uncontrollable flashbacks and trauma.
In contrast, Peeta’s character is able to bring emotion to the world he is being torn apart by. His world is painted with colors and terrors that Katniss herself ignores. He says in an interview, “You have to imagine how it felt in the arena. It was like being an insect trapped under a bowl filled with steaming air. And all around you, jungle… green and alive and ticking. That giant clock ticking away your life” (22). This identifies his core character as an artist, which sets the foundation for his altered character later in the novel. When his changed self is presented, Peeta’s subconscious associates the world around Katniss as colorless and starkly different from what he would have said before. “You. In the rain. Digging in our trash bins. Burning the bread. My mother hitting me. Taking bread out to the pig but then giving it to you instead” (231). His broken observations show his artistic mind has become debilitated by his torture. Katniss does not have this depth of emotion, to begin with.
Peeta presents love and conflict for her character as he says, “I must have loved you a lot” (231). Prim, her younger sister, represents hope when Katniss says, “I look at my little sister and think that she has inherited the best qualities our family has to offer: my mother’s healing hands, my father’s level head, and my fight…and an ability to look into the confusing mess of life and see things for what they are” (184). Her mother represents her past when Katniss had to fend for both her sister and herself. Gale is the stoic, merciless man she sees inside herself. Because Katniss identifies herself through other’s survival, she loses her self-identity repeatedly within the novel. Katniss’s identity is reliant on the characters that surround her. This affects the interpretation of PTSD in her character. Though it can be considered an attempt at dissociation, the author does not explore the symptoms further because Katniss’s character does not identify herself as an individual from the characters’ that surround and define her.
Dreams and Simulations
Dream sequences are used to give the reader a fuller understanding of a character’s subconscious while adding depth to the intentions behind the character’s conscious actions in the novel. When portraying the subconscious, there is less order to the world the narrator exists in. James Dashner uses the dreamscape, to tell the origin story of his protagonist. Using the dreamscape Dashner describes Mark’s survival, solidifying the backstory of the world. It is a story separate from the original narrative. While this use gives the author the ability to present the origin story, it interrupts the plot and interferes with the story.
Dashner creates tension in the plot through Mark as he goes insane. His devices are brilliant and subtle. Mark is the protagonist, who is faced with survival in an apocalyptic world after a solar flare disturbs the civilizations on earth. Dashner introduces the apocalyptic world through Mark’s experiences. The reader and Mark are both learning about the newer rules within the world he is trying to survive, from environmental degradation to personal hardship to a greater human conflict where men decide to become executioners. In the first few chapters, all of this conflict and survival is introduced to the reader well through character interactions. The characters he interacts with help solidify the world that Dashner is building around Mark and the reader.
This effective exposition is then interrupted by Dashner’s use of dreamscape. Dreams are used to mentally prepare or mentally reassess trauma within a situation. In this case, Dashner uses the dreams to tell the reader the origin story of Mark and his relationships with the characters with whom he interacts. Trina, Alec, and Lana all play roles in Mark’s survival. All three of them are introduced both in the dreamscape and reality. This gives the reader two impressions of the same characters. This confusing form of introduction is compounded upon by Dashner’s use of dreamscape.
The issue with this use of dreamscape is mainly due to Dashner’s inaccurate portrayal of a common PTSD identifier. Mark’s dreams lack the repetition of trauma. His dreams are more a chronological origin story to the reality he lives in. The dreams have a separated survival plot. As if they are a story written separately from the rest of the narrative. This separation is shown in two ways, first because the dreams are not affected by Mark’s decline into insanity. The second is through Mark’s repetitive signature actions and reactions he expresses.
This is shown as Mark falls asleep, “The memories come rushing in once again. Never letting him forget” (73). The division is emphasized again as he wakes up, “He woke up with a deep ache in his side” (77) and repeated later when he wakes up in darkness, “His body was stiff” (179). This ordered separation is not common in patients with PTSD. These victims of this internal struggle are incapable of moving chronologically through memories of traumas. Instead, their mind constantly repeats one rather than many memories. If his character just dreamt about the discovery of how the world ended when he sees, “People are limping about arms outstretched their clothes on fire and their faces half melted like wax (45-46). Mark’s PTSD would be more realistic to the portrayal of what he has witnessed and how he has survived.
The sections of dreams also portray a sense of conscious awareness and control as they are written in the present tense. This technique would work as a portrayal of PTSD because his mind is living the past as if it were his present. It is also relevant to the diagnosis that Mark’s reality is written in the past tense because it shows the reader his dissociation with time. However, suffering from PTSD is less organized. Time is un-sectioned and fluid. What has happened and what is happening is a mess blending together, interrupting and repeating itself constantly.
In Insurgent, Beatrice Prior deals with something similar to dreams called simulations. These simulations create a fear landscape for her mind to overcome. When these simulations fail to dissolve her free will she is branded as divergent. The problem with these simulations is that they are supposed to show the fears Beatrice Prior has, but instead, they are designed to show her what she desires most. The desires are designed by others, rather than influenced by her subconscious, Jeannie Mathews, the antagonist, informs Beatrice how she has influenced her character’s simulation state, “(we) used your mother in the last simulation to make it more effective” (357).
This revelation shows the reader that Beatrice has no control over her conscious actions in the simulations. Which is her character’s first true power of free will in. Therefore, the simulations only show that Beatrice does not have the ability to discern between reality and the shadow of reality each simulation represents. This confusion leads to an inadequate portrayal of PTSD symptoms because her character no longer affects either the physical or mental realities she encounters. If her character had control over one or the other, her character would have an impact on others and therefore a physical presence battle against.
Beatrice sees her desires and rejects them as impossible. Her mother is alive in one simulation, but she allows for that desire to die with the image of her mother in shards of glass. Beatrice’s actions within the two simulations are self-inflicted forms of violence. “I point at a window to my left and it explodes” (347). In a simulation of escape, she chooses to inflict pain upon herself, “I take a knife from my pocket—a knife that wasn’t there a moment ago—and I will my leg to be as hard as diamond. I thrust the knife toward my thigh and the blade bends” (373). Each one is violent, and therefore a danger to her psyche.
There is only one simulation where Beatrice shows herself as divergent, portraying a flexible personality and superior skills in understanding her own self. She says, “I do the one thing my double is unable to do because she is not desperate enough: I fire” (494). Violence, in this simulation, is swift for her character because it is the first time she uses a gun and instead of killing a stranger, she kills the mirror image of herself.
Many times in young adult literature PTSD is stereotyped. The emotional reactions, the character’s method of coping and even the supporting characters all present the stereotypical form of what the PTSD experience is. In many ways, these stereotypes harm the reader’s understanding of PTSD.
Tobias Eaton, Beatrice’s love interest insists on her compromised sense of self-preservation. “It’s not brave, choosing the position you were in yesterday. It’s beyond stupid-it’s suicidal” (211). This labels Beatrice as unfit and reckless when she acts on instinct, at the moment. Tobias does not credit her actions as bravery, because he sees her symptoms as weak. Her inability to carry a gun, her lack of desire to tell Tobias everything, discredits her in his mind. His expectations and her failure to meet them in their relationship lessen her character.
Tobias’s character creates his own personal injury as another weight on Beatrice, who is avoiding her trauma. This reaction is a perfect example of how other people can create more problems with those suffering from PTSD. Tobias is not the only character to second guess Beatrice’s worth. A speaker for another house confronts Beatrice when she contradicts him in public, “…you have done a great service to your faction and to Abnegation. But I think your traumatic experience may have compromised your ability to be completely objective” (222). The perception of her character’s weakness creates a contradiction to the reader. It is only at certain times that Beatrice shows some spine when she fights back against those who doubt her, “I don’t know where you get this delusion that I’m useless” (244). Another issue with Beatrice’s portrayal of PTSD is that her focus is on the death of one boy who she knew for a few months and not a sincere acceptance or at least sadness in regards to her parents’ deaths.
What happens when the narrator stands still and thinks, “What am I going to do?” All three of the narrators mentioned above ask this question. It is a relatable question, and therefore an important one for the characters to ask. Lost, overwhelmed, and holding onto muddled realities, these characters tell their reactions to the reader. “Telling actions” does not make the psyche of the narrator relatable but more distant. Instead, their reactions tell the reader more about their worlds.
Broken worlds founded by broken people, hoping to sustain a hegemony is a dystopian theme in young adult literature. The community loses their humanity, and adults “do as was done,” unquestioning the way things are. The young adult narrators are cast as revolutionaries, noticing what is expected and what is wrong with their future along with what needs to change. In order to portray the narrator’s rebellion, the author can use the subconscious to show their differences from the community surrounding them. The narrator can have an unstinted imagination, a way to be different from the community’s expectations, a way to dream.
The reader does not see this when the narrator is complacent or reactionary. The reader also does not find a resolution to the conflict of self when the narrator is ‘healed’ by the existence of another ‘stronger’ character. The world outside the book that the young adult reader encounters create an expectation of complacency. The reader is not meant to act but react to orders from authorities. The reader is meant to be codependent on their teachers, parents, and peers. The social structure predetermines the reader’s standing and regulates her independence. This is not something the reader should have to experience in a story. When the narrator plays the role of the rebel, the narrator gives the reader a journey against a predetermined fate.
Through the altered perceptions of dreams and observations that contrast with reality, this world can become a fuller, more dynamic maze for the reader and narrator to journey through. The subconscious can be used as a tool to strengthen and deepen the dynamic foundations of narrators in young adult literature. Doing this right is a challenge the author has to rise to meet.