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 2: PTSD in Young Adult Literature Portrayed Well
In this second section I have chosen three young adult novels to examine: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky, Wrecked by E.R. Frank, and The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Anderson. Examples of how PTSD is presented effectively in young adult literature are found in these YA novels. In the story The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the narrator Charlie is a victim of child molestation. In Wrecked, the reader is witness to Anna’s story as she narrates her survival after a traumatic car accident. In The Impossible Knife of Memory, Laurie Anderson gives a voice to Haley and her father, a veteran, Captain Kincain, who are characters who are suffering from different symptoms of PTSD. These characters are the authorities the reader follows through the narratives. Constructed with care, each of these characters is not defined by the mental illness of PTSD, but rounded by its symptoms. The fictional portrayal of PTSD symptoms, in these novels, is found in the moments when the narrators are not in control due to their altered states of perception.
These authors use the first person point of view to show the internal conflicts of self, use the stream of consciousness to affect syntax and sentence structure, and break altered perceptions of reality into metaphors to create authentic depictions of PTSD in young adult literature. These authors intentionally include combinations of literary devices based on the characters in their stories. They bring the unique and individual struggle of PTSD to the page, acknowledging that PTSD is a result of trauma while also presenting different experiences of the same illness.
Point of View
These authors use the first-person point of view to present the inner conflict of the narrator and create unreliable and detached first-person narrators to portray aspects of PTSD. “The thing to recognize about a first-person narrator is that because she or he is a character, she or he has all the limitations of a human being and cannot be omniscient” (Burroway 205; 7th ed). The human perspective versus an omniscient one is used to create a genuine portrayal of PTSD in young adult literature. First person perspective is an important narrative tool Chobsky takes advantage of. Through this point of view, the inner conflict of the character can be better elaborated. This conflict is shown in Charlie’s dreams. His first dream involves a sexual encounter with Sam, a friend he met at a football game: “I saw her naked without her permission” (Chobsky 21). His reaction of guilt over this betrayal is important and foreshadowing because Charlie is a victim of sexual molestation. Because of the first-person point of view, the reader is presented with Charlie as a hesitant participant in the story, but like Charlie, the reader is blind to his self-inflicted isolation for a long part of the narrative and figures it out as he does.
The reader is present when Charlie has his epiphany of memory. Confronted with his repressed trauma he says, “I fell asleep, I had this dream. My brother and my sister and I were watching television with my Aunt Helen. Everything was in slow motion. The sound was thick. And she was doing what Sam was doing” (Chobsky 204). This sexual trauma that Charlie forgot explains his frequent obsessive stories about Aunt Helen. He idolized Aunt Helen, his sexual predator: “Aunt Helen was my favorite person in the whole world” (Chobsky 5). After his dream and his mental breakdown, Charlie reveals his aunt’s repetitive sexual molestation of him. The interesting and most subtle part of this epiphany is the way Charlie both acknowledges and denies the change of his perspective in one sentence, “if I blamed my aunt Helen, I would have to blame her dad for hitting her…” (Chobsky 210). The reader may not notice, but Charlie takes away the capitalization of ‘Aunt’ removing her idolized image and authority in his life. Though this is grammatically correct, the importance of this subtlety is how the narrator ignores this realization. Charlie hints at this shift rather than directly telling the reader.
Narrators like Charlie, rarely describe themselves, “in detail or may remain detached and scarcely identifiable” (Burroway 204 7th ed.). Charlie is detached from the characters, himself, and the reader. The reader does not know what Charlie looks like because it is intentional anonymity that he clings to. And even his epiphany becomes unidentified and hidden within his own words. This reflects his character as an observer of the story. “It is often that the act of observation itself that provides the epiphany” (Burroway 205 7th ed.). Charlie is the central narrator and observer, a Wallflower, who presents a form of repression found in PTSD. He does not identify himself as traumatized, which Chobsky takes into consideration throughout the novel. To repress trauma, the victims deny even the act of realization that there was a trauma in the first place.
This repressed and detached first-person narrator contrasts with Anderson’s peripheral narrator. In The Impossible Knife of Memory Anderson alternates between two first-person narrators, the Captain Kincain and his daughter Haley. The Captain is a detached, first-person narrator, but his role is peripheral to the main narrative of Haley. Defining peripheral perspective, Burroway states that it “may be in virtually any position that is not the center” of the narrative. The Captain’s perspective is a blend of his past trauma and present life. The Captain, like many survivors with PTSD, has a “soul still bleeding” (Anderson 107). He relives his trauma but is also aware that his trauma has passed. Anderson takes the memories and makes the past and the present blend so well that the reader is stuck, like the Captain, in both places. Detachment, in the Captain’s story, is an encompassing and uncontrollable struggle that his daughter elaborates on when she explains her father’s fears:
Snipers. First, it was overpasses, then toll booths. He’ll take huge detours around Dumpsters or trash cans ‘cause they could be hiding an IED. He knows that’s stupid, but knowing doesn’t stop the panic attacks. (Anderson 106)
Anderson brings PTSD and its symptoms to the forefront of the novel through the blend of fear, understanding, and irrational actions. PTSD creates these characters, the Captain and Haley, as both aware and irrational subjects for the reader to sympathize with.
Haley is the central narrator who avoids memories and their important role in defining her. She is unreliable in the basic sense that her character displays limitations of awareness through repression of her memories. This affects her ability to tell the story. This is how an unreliable narrator is created. The unreliable narrator often presents the reader “with an example of consistent inconsistency and always presents [the reader] with dramatic irony, because [the reader], knows more than [the] characters, [and] the events and the significance of both” (Burroway 245). This is an intentional method to allow the reader to “reject the narrator’s opinions and form their own” (Burroway 205). This allows the reader to understand that Haley’s perspective is unreliable rather than detached. As a narrator, Haley involves the reader in her unwillingness to remember. This creates an understanding that though her perspective is important, it is also skewed.
Haley first introduces the school she lives in: “A quick lesson. There are two kinds of people in this world: 1. Zombies 2. Freaks. Only two” (Anderson 3). Anderson uses this image, “zombies,” to foreshadow Haley’s lack of identity and repression through self-projection of her state of mind. It is revealed to the reader when Finn, her boyfriend, comments, “You were totally a zombie for a while; you wouldn’t let yourself remember the past, you had no future, and you were just getting by, minute by minute” (Anderson 390). Haley is an example of a patient with PTSD, as she uses her unreliable perspective to project her lack of identity on others.
Anna, in Wrecked, is redefined by the reality she experiences after she kills her brother’s girlfriend in a car accident. She portrays a different form of an unreliable first-person narrator. The reader relies on her perspective, which is essentially that of a self-loathing traumatized teen girl. “The narrator may certainly interpret actions, deliver dictums, and predict the future, these remain the fallible opinions of a human being” (Burroway 205). Interpretation of situations in the novel, including the inciting trauma of the car accident, is based on Anna’s perception.
She is unreliable for her self-image issues, which make her relatable to the reader, but not necessarily the most accurate narrator. This is seen in a character interaction when Ellen, Anna’s best friend, says “I’d probably do just about anything for ten (millions of dollars). Anything. Except kill, injure or molest somebody.” Anna quickly retorts, “I did that for free” (Frank 67). This interaction brings up the survivor’s guilt Anna is currently experiencing. This is common in PTSD patients, who have survived a trauma that others did not. Anna along with Haley, Charlie, and the Captain are all the detached or unreliable narrators because, though their perceptions are affected by the symptoms of PTSD, they build their credibility as people through these moments of introspection.
Style and Syntax
These authors also use the method of introspection to help the reader better understand the narrators. The difficulty is found in how to present this form of self-discovery throughout the plot of the novel. These authors intentionally control the sentence structure, interrupting the narrative with the stream of consciousness structure, taking away their narrators’ control over their state of minds. This presents the reader with the altered state that is a common characteristic of uncontrolled episodes in PTSD. These authors present altered states with this sentence structure because:
The stream of consciousness acknowledges the fact that the human mind does not operate with the order and clarity found in a structured narrative… it skips, elides, makes and breaks images, leaps faster and further than any mere sentence can suggest. (Burroway 209)
When the narrators of these three stories are not drugged or dreaming, they present the reader with perspectives of their daily lives. The normal syntax and structure of each narrator’s voice convey a sense of control in their reality. When the narrator is in an altered state of perception, the subconscious mind supplies the central understanding of reality, which is why the stream of consciousness works well in these sections. In a fictional story, the internal experience of this altered state can create an accurate and individualized portrayal of PTSD. Through dreams or drug-induced psychosis, the reader is enlightened about what is underneath the surface of the conscious and controlled mind.
Throughout The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie narrates his perspective in letters to the reader. When he is not on drugs, his voice guides the reader in a structured and logical narrative. “So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be” (Chobsky 2). This sentence summarizes Charlie’s state of mind and makes Charlie the authority of himself and thus the authority to the reader. This shows his self-awareness and understanding.
Chobsky shows the reader how Charlie’s mind perceives the world when he is on LSD through the use of stream of consciousness. His altered perception and his rushing words dissolve his conscious mind into his subconscious mind:
“My brother…football… Brad…Dave and his girlfriend in my room…the coats… the cold…the winter… Autumn Leaves…don’t tell anyone…you pervert…Sam and Craig…Sam… Christmas…typewriter…gift…Aunt Helen…and the trees keep moving…they just wouldn’t stop moving…” (Chobsky 98).
The lack of accurate punctuation and capitalization and the absence of conventional sentence structure affect the pacing of words within the space of time, suggesting a hyperventilating mind, panicky, uncontrolled, and overwhelmed. The syntax shows Charlie’s inability to track his own sense of time, leading to his eventual collapse from the situation he describes inside his head. When he is in these states, Charlie is isolated and overwhelmed by these thoughts. Charlie is protecting himself through these busy non-sensical ramblings. The reader is given this moment of realization when he says in the epilogue, “That’s what I figured out when things got quiet” (Chobsky 211). Charlie’s subconscious and altered states never allowed for this ‘quiet,’ preventing him from consciously revealing that his Aunt Helen, ‘his favorite person in the entire world,’ was actually a monster. This stream of consciousness format emphasizes the importance of what repression looks like in trauma survivors.
In Wrecked, Anna does not use the stream of consciousness, but her journalistic style syntax and use of white space guide the reader through the memories she finds important. When she explains each situation, she grasps the memory and describes it for the reader: “I tried to clear the messiness in my head. It works better if you stay calm. Even though my father never does” (Frank 10). Anna relates through this structured statement the high-stress relationship she has with her father. This example shows both self-control and personal interaction.
However, when the traumatic memories of her car accident are triggered by the most minuscule elements of her daily life, the reader and Anna experience her loss of control. As her subconscious locks on the images and sensory details from the trauma she describes, “The airbag. The smell of new plastic. ‘Hooow looong, hoow looong, hoow loong…’ Screaming, stopped” (Frank 37). Each element has a different sentence length, creating a different amount of time Anna’s subconscious latches to them. The airbag is quick and leaves only a smell. The song on the radio is elongated, signifying the slower sound and the slowness of time in her altered perspective. It is, unfortunately, the ‘screaming stopped’ that becomes the most repetitive memory in Anna’s traumatic recall. Repeated the most frequently and in the same sentence structure, “Screaming, stopped” creates a sound clip that ends with Anna on the floor.
The screams are echoed in her dreams. Adding sound, Anna’s mind pinpoints the moment she fears the most at the end of her dreams, “there’s screaming and screaming and screaming, and then the screaming stops” (Frank 109). The recurrence of screaming in her dreams lengthens the time she is asleep. This causes the silence she fears to be more deafening when she awakens. These dreams are presented to the reader in ‘blocks’ on the page, gaps far enough apart that the reader understands this moment is an altered state. Frank shows the reader Anna’s fear of this silence by emphasizing the gap at the end of the dream repeatedly.
In The Impossible Knife of Memory, Haley’s character does not use the stream of consciousness, but her father does. This structure is used to portray abstract memories of the Captain. His memories and dreams are interlocked. His observations become impactful descriptors, “A star goes supernova in the middle of the road. We fly. Wingless birds,” signifying a transition from a solid reality to something altered. He then breaks apart his observations when he says, “Shock waves ripple through metal, glass and flesh. Bones crumbles. Skin explodes. Nerves snap. Brains slosh and spill indented tin skulls. Arteries spray like high-pressure hoses, painting the world a bright, sad red” (Anderson 61). This syntax echoes the impact of shock into waves against the body and the psyche.
The Captain’s understanding of solid matter becomes muted by the force of each blow. Metal, glass, flesh, bone, skin, nerves, skulls are all solid objects that the Captain views as valuable tools of survival. Metal and glass protect the body. Skin and bone are the things that keep the body together. The nerves and skull tell him that he is alive. These elements become fluid, rupturing outward, which signifies death. Instead of death, the blood becomes red tears. This stream of consciousness is a twenty-twenty snapshot of the Captain’s memory. It is a brutal example of what PTSD patients deal with in an altered state of perception, where the world is no longer the safe one they live in, but the unsafe hell they left.
Metaphors and Imagery
In these novels, metaphors and imagery are important tools used to differentiate the conscious perception of the real trauma and the subconscious understanding of the trauma. Burroway defines a good metaphor as a tool used by the author to “illuminate the meaning” (Burroway 273 7th ed.), of a narrator’s understanding. In The Impossible Knife of Memory both narrators, Haley and her father the Captain, deal with their memories through metaphor and imagery. Haley is dealing with a war-torn father. Her dreams are the intrusive memories she tries to repress. The sound of memory is, “Ripping” (Anderson 32), to Haley, because remembering is an act of violence inflicted by her subconscious. The infiltrating memories contain metaphor and imagery that are terrifying, “running from the beast daddy who roared and threw bolts of lightning…” (Anderson 237). A beast for a father creates a thing to run from, while thrown objects become massive natural phenomena that are uncontrollable and big. These images show the reader her fear of her father as a child.
The Captain fears his memories, and they are all he sees when the reader is inside his head. The dream state for the Captain is memories shrouded in the metaphor of trauma from the war: “The winds of the desert have names. They feed on the bodies of broken children and rip out the beating hearts of men” (Anderson 182). The imagery of a violent wind storm is a metaphor for the reality of carnage the Captain witnessed overseas. The winds of sand are fears that become insurmountable and uncontrollable forces of nature that kill the innocent.
Burroway says that “the goal of literary comparison is to convey not a fact but a perception, and thereby to enlarge our scope of understanding” (Burroway 273 7th ed.). By understanding the role of the wind of sand as the Captain’s fears, the reader comprehends the threat it has when the Captain sees, “the sand sweep across the deep sea-blue of my daughter’s eyes” (Anderson 301). The metaphor of fear becomes a foreshadowing tool used to break down the Captain’s hold on hope. He believes himself to be that threat; this creates his own need to kill himself. Suicidal thoughts are an important symptom found in patients with PTSD. This is an important symptom Anderson highlights because the Captain does attempt suicide and Anderson does not brush over this issue.
Suicide is a form of victimization upon the self. With that in mind, looking at Anna’s perspective in Wrecked, her dreams are metaphors that link her trauma to her altered perspective. Anna becomes helpless in her nightmares. The imagery from her subconscious alters the way Anna perceives the accident while also victimizing her role. “A glass ponytail slicing into my eye and there’s an earth dangling above me” (Frank 109) are featured in Anna’s dream state as the metaphorical images of her trauma. Each brings different textures to her memories. Instead of just a ponytail in her eye, Anna gets a glass ponytail, creating a layer of both soft and hard edges that contradict the structure of each other. The keychain planet is no longer just on a keychain, as Anna perceives it as a planet she isn’t on anymore.
This represents her disassociation with the trauma she has experienced. Anna tells the reader “I have copper-colored corkscrew hair. No joke. Coils and coils of the stuff” (Frank 14). This is altered after she learns about the death she caused: “My hair is a mass of orange snakes” (Frank 25). Near the end of the novel, Anna’s injured eye, becomes a slit pupil, another mark of the trauma. She sees herself as a snake. Scars for PTSD victims can be both life-affirming and a haunting reminder of something a patient rarely forgets unless repressed. These metaphors in Anna’s dreams, as well as her physical injury, show the reader how Anna is a conflicted survivor of her car accident.
The lack of metaphor can also create a character’s perspective in an altered state. In Charlie’s narrative, the metaphor is for the reader, not himself. Charlie describes his surroundings in the distorted instance when he says, “I was looking at this tree but it was a dragon and then a tree, and I remembered one nice pretty weather day when I was a part of the air” (Chobsky 95). To Charlie, the tree is just a tree on LSD. To the reader, the tree and the dragon are the metaphorical representation of Charlie’s conscious and subconscious at odds with what he ‘should see’ when he looks at his reality. Charlie’s lack of control is evident as his mind alters a memory of a day he once had, making this moment an impactful distortion of Charlie’s perception.
Anderson, Frank, and Chobsky all use first-person perspective, syntax and sentence structure, and metaphors to aid in revealing the altered state of perception PTSD patients’ experience. This mental illness lacks a definite understanding of popular culture. These authors interweave the symptoms of PTSD, and in doing so accurately portray how the illness impacts both the victims and those that they work with and live with every day. This gives the reader a compassionate and true understanding of the struggle.