Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story
(Flatiron Books, 2015)
Misery loves company, they say. And it’s true: unhappiness is easier to bear when shared. We spend our lives acting as witnesses to our pain, trying to convince those around us of its heft and actuality. But the burden of proof on the writer is double: she must convince her reader of her pain, yes, but must also make it interesting. She must make misery good company.
Such are the stakes for Mac McClelland, a former human rights reporter for Mother Jones, who has just released Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story. The memoir explores her struggle with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, brought on by a reporting trip to Haiti following the devastating earthquake in 2010. In Haiti, McClelland witnessed something terrible—she does not tell us what—and was never the same again. “On a street in Port-Au-Prince on September 17, 2010, just before 11 in the morning on a Friday, downtown was hot and bustling, and I lost myself in place and time and in my body.” Returning home to San Francisco some days later, she finds herself undone—sobbing, drinking, lashing out at friends and lovers, fantasizing about sex at gunpoint. Her therapist quickly diagnoses her with PTSD and she begins the long process of recovery.
McClelland leads us through the maze of her PTSD emotions, describing every step and misstep of the process, every twist and turn and relapse and triumph, in excruciating, relentless detail. (“When I went to a steam room to try to unwind, I ended up panting out loud to myself, naked in a San Francisco spa where people get $150 facials, ‘It’s OK. It’s OK. Shhhh, you’re OK.’”) It’s strange that the one detail she omits is the hook on which she hangs her tale—the source and incident of her trauma. A cursory Google search will provide any curious reader with the missing information, however, and a reason for the omission: in 2011, McClelland published an essay in GOOD (the bulk of which made its way into Irritable Hearts) called “I’m Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD.” In the essay, she writes:
I spent my first day out accompanying a rape victim we’ll call Sybille to the hospital. […] And the way Sybille went into a full paroxysm when we were on the way back to the post-quake tarp city she lived in was the worst thing I ever saw in my life. We were sitting in traffic and saw one of her rapists, and she started just SCREEEAMING a few inches away from my face, her eyes wide and rolling in abject terror.
Following the essay’s publication, a number of writers seized on it, took issue with McClelland’s portrayal of Haiti as a rape zone, and accused her of being racist, colonialist, and irresponsible. Most troubling of all, Edwidge Danticat accused McClelland in Essence of using Sybille’s story against her will—hence the subsequent omission. Marjorie Valbrun wrote in Slate, “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?” “Shockingly narcissistic,” she called her.
I was surprised and a bit dismayed to see the way McClelland was taken to task, something I took as another instance of an increasingly catty call-out culture. I don’t agree with the criticisms of McClelland’s essay, which, like the book, was not about Haiti but about her personal experience with trauma. But after finishing Irritable Hearts,I could better understand the disconnect—McClelland’s voice could be fairly described as vain.
While in Haiti, McClelland meets a young French soldier named Nico and falls in love. In the opening pages of the book, she describes Nico’s interest:
Empirically speaking, he could be forgiven for thinking that I was good wife material. I had a job, a savings account. Straight A’s all through school, master’s degree, summa cum laude. Culinarily and sexually outgoing. Tall. Healthy hair. Relentlessly on time. I’d kept my shit relatively together during a year and a half of brief reunions with him in Dutch hotel rooms, Belgian B&Bs, a borrowed Parisian apartment, rented Riviera or French Caribbean abodes.
The love grows uneasily alongside her PTSD, and she is torn between the two: on the one hand, a desire to shut down; on the other, a desire to open up. Such a simple equation has the potential to unfold beautifully on the page. But McClelland never lets the story simply tell itself. She herds and corrals her readers, repeatedly underlining what makes her unique and superlative. Through thick and thin, she seems less interested in what’s happening around her than in marveling at how strange it is that such things should happen to her. Not a great way to win a reader, narratively speaking. Later, she describes the qualities that may have predisposed her to PTSD: “big-picture brightness” she notes, meaning profound astuteness, and an “overdeveloped” sense of empathy. “I had a stellar track record at life,” she says. Who says that? And again, with regards to her therapy, “As a ceaselessly high-performing perfectionist, I wasn’t inclined to forgive [my] low achievement.” With every humblebrag we feel more distant from her.
Understandably, McClelland wants above all to be heard and validated. She is terrified that her suffering will be dismissed or trivialized or denied. She writes, “One of the worst things about having PTSD—worse even than the symptoms oftentimes—was the feeling that no one understood.” She describes the “weird but common misperception […] that trauma exists only in the realm of those who already have it worse than anyone else in the world. […] I was in the bottom of the right-to-suffer caste system.” Irritable Hearts is not just a memoir, but also a piece of advocacy for civilians with PTSD. This is not just her fight, she argues, but the fight of maybe millions, waiting to be acknowledged, taken seriously, and treated.
It’s a noble cause, but her narrative is hobbled in two ways. First, by her inability to bring other PTSD victims front and center emotionally. Not until page 209 does a fellow sufferer really come alive, in a moving section about a veteran’s wife who is struggling to stay afloat while caring for both a husband who screams at her each morning and attacks her at night and a six-year-old daughter who spits on her classmates and recites her father’s acts of war. More often, McClelland sticks to her own story: her fights with Nico, their glamorous travels, her drinking, her many therapies. When one therapist suggests she must choose not to be a victim, McClelland fumes, “Why should I have to put everything back together? And how could I possibly, when I felt too awful to carry on with even normal life? And if I couldn’t, as that privileged white American person who went to college, who could?” Who, indeed? We’d like to hear more from them.
The second impediment is McClelland’s refusal to let go and trust the reader to judge for themselves. She recounts every bad thing that has ever befallen her in an apocalyptic, breathless tone. Some feels relevant (her parents’ divorce), some does not (her sadness watching the Sword and the Stone). Irritable Hearts reads like a litany of disasters, with little differentiation of type and perpetrator. For instance, though she behaves cruelly in her first marriage, she does not offer much remorse or sympathetic insight, and links the divorce to Hurricane Katrina in one long list of bad things that happened toher. When it comes to strangers, her tone is often glib and knowing, full of the sort of dismissive cultural nods that dot Jennifer Egan’s and Elizabeth Gilbert’s books: “some hipster with a moustache and tattoos” or “a tough compact dyke.” She uses expletives instead of adjectives. This kind of writing makes the reader do most of the heavy lifting, substituting lived experience for the stock phrases that McClelland supplies.
The entire story, in fact, operates like a cliché in the sense that McClelland does not offer us anything beyond what we glean from the opening pages. Her reactions feel prepackaged, stale, and designed to elicit sympathy from the reader just so. A “ceaselessly high-performing perfectionist,” she cannot loosen her grip on the reins of her narrative and the identity she wants to project. If McClelland were to allow for some critical distance, her reader might feel freer to sympathize at will, rather than pushed, as by a border collie, into the right reaction.
I’ll admit it feels strange and difficult to criticize another woman in pain, as though I’m breaking some deep social contract. Perhaps, compared to McClelland, I lack an overdeveloped sense of empathy. But there seems to be something about criticizing a woman’s expression of suffering—in particular, a woman—that is its own kind of cliché, and also a revolt against cliché. Can we ever really criticize the way another person hurts? I’m reminded of a dichotomy Leslie Jamison draws in her essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” between wounded women and post-wounded women:
What I’ll call “post wounded” isn’t a deep shift in feeling […] but a shift away from wounded affect—these women are aware that “woundedness” is overdone and overrated. They are wary of melodrama so they stay numb or clever instead. The post-wounded woman conducts herself as if preempting certain accusations: don’t cry too loud, don’t play victim.
Am I the post-wounded woman or is McClelland? Perhaps we both are. She’s impatient with her own pain, and I’m impatient with her impatience, and yes, with her pain. But I can imagine a different Irritable Hearts, one that depicted a protean, unscrupulous sickness in all its many forms. I wanted to read that book. Solipsism comes from the Latin words for self (ipse) and alone (solus): a self, alone. Though McClelland is surrounded by souls in trauma, of one sort or another—combat, homelessness, a lost child, a terrible heartbreak—she fails to connect her suffering to the lives of those around her. In this, she does herself and her reader a great disservice.
MADELINE GRESSEL is a writer and journalist currently based at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. Formerly the music critic for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, she now focuses on environmental issues and the criminal justice system.