Ask A Wench, PTSD

Jobigblue Jo here, putting together a group answer to one of the questions sent to the Wenches. Marsha Bolden wrote, "I would love to read a discussion of post traumatic stress syndrome from the Napoleonic wars.  I think there are many novels which give a tremendous description of post-traumatic stress syndrome as it affects soldiers who fought in Spain or at Waterloo." Marsha, because your suggestion was picked, you win a book from me. You can go to my booklist and pick. I have spare copies of most, but not all.

Post traumatic stress is anteresting subject, and it's brought out great responses. This post may be a little long, but it's worth it, and I'm looking forward to interesting comments.

I thought it would useful to have a definition, so I took this from Wikipedia. "Post traumatic stress disorder (also known as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD) is a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to any event that results in psychological trauma…. Diagnostic symptoms for PTSD include re-experiencing the original trauma(s) through flashbacks or nightmares, avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma, and increased arousal – such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, anger, and hypervigilance. Formal diagnostic criteria (both DSM-IV-TR and ICD-10) require that the symptoms last more than one month and cause significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning."

We can see why having a character suffer from this creates powerful books, and if we write Regency we have the Napoleonic Wars dominating the period on land and at sea. However, I have generally tried to resist using it. Why? It's partly my contrary streak, but I have a few other reasons. Cavalry

1. It's clear from diaries from the wars of the 18th and 19th centuries that many men did not suffer PTSD, and I think there should be balance in our fictional world. Whilst still aware of the horrors of war, these enjoyed the purpose, the action, and the victory. Particularly in the Napoleonic Wars they were fighting an "evil enemy" who did in fact directly threaten their homeland and all they loved. It was a noble war, and I suspect that helps.

2. They came from a harsh world. (This is a point some other Wenches pick up on.) From all classes, they would be familiar with death and violence, and given the state of medicine then, with gruesome suffering. Many occupations were dangerous — even today, agriculture is a very hazardous occupation — and even transportation had its risks. There were a great many coaching accidents and people killed by being thrown from carriages or off horses, and pedestrians were hurt by out-of-control vehicles. In addition, legal punishments were harsh and ofter public, from whipping through the streets to hanging.

London Amusements were often violent, as with cock fighting, dog fighting, and bear baiting. To assume all our heroes are too refined to ever have watched such things is definitely putting modern heads on fancy costumes, IMO. They almost certainly would have hunted, for stag and/or fox.Hunting was encouraged for cavalry officers as it demanded excellent horsemanship, almost foolhardy courage, and the risk of injury and death. The bloody end for the fox was incidental. They would also quite likely witness the slaughter and butchery of animals for food, either in farms or at markets in London and elsewhere.

3. I worry sometimes that historical romance sometimes puts modern heads on fancy dress for the men and grant nobility to men because they are made from more sensitive stuff, and create villains from those who aren't broken, and sometimes not even shaken by warfare. I think that's both unfair and anachronistic, and I'm probably even biased in the other direction. Many wars are and have been pointless and venal, but when an evil enemy truly does threaten the lives and communities we care for, I think we all hope for warriors with the ability to do what has to be done and keep doing it until evil is vanquished.

So I've written a range of men who've been in the war, but none who has been broken by it. Some of them find it a completely satisfactory career, as in Lord Cynric Malloren in My Lady Notorious. He talks about building a shelter out of corpses on a bitterly cold night after a battle, which is a story I took from a diary of the war. That's not a pleasant memory for him, but he doesn't have any hang-ups about it.

In my three Georges — The Demon's Mistress, The Dragon's Bride, and The Devil's Heiress — I portrayed three different ex-military men. The three friends had joined the army, egged on by one who was ripe for the adventure of it. 

George Vandeimen, the dashing cavalry officer, carries the hurt of many lost friends, but he's not damaged by that. He's shaken much more deeply by the loss of his family while he was away. Shock, you see. I suspect PTSD arises more commonly when the events shock than when they are terrible in an expected way.

Lord Amleigh, the steady one, chose the infantry, did his duty, but came to dislike warfare intensely. He returned to fight at Waterloo, which did almost break him because of his time away.Dragbrism

George Hawkinville wanted to be a fighting officer, but he's brilliant and was quickly switched over to battle planning and supplies. His main hurt comes from being mostly an observer, which is often the hardest place to be.

Now, on to the other Wenches.

  Pat Wench Pat is brief. "As far as I can remember I have no soldiers or PTSD victims for characters, heroes or otherwise."

Wench Nicola. "I've never written a character with combat-related PTSS in any of my books althouNicolagh in Unmasked I did write a heroine who suffered panic attacks and flashbacks as a response to a traumatic life experience – PTSS in a different context.

I find PTSS a fascinating subject and enjoy reading about it in a historical context just as I enjoy reading about other medical conditions that had not been diagnosed before the 20th century.  The reason I have seldom tackled any of these topics in a book myself is two-fold.

Firstly, through being married to a psychotherapist I have realised just how complex these conditions can be. I think this inhibits me from writing about them. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing in my case!

Secondly, I am also very aware of how differently a condition such as PTSS might have been viewed in the past both by the sufferer and those around him or her. I wouldn't want want to treat it anachronistically but I know it can be done with sensitivity and accuracy – I've read some wonderful depictions.

One of the things that has always fascinated me is whether attitudes towards death and suffering were different in a society where people were confronted daily by the reality of death in many different forms, from childbirth and infant mortality to accidents on the hunting field. Are we in danger of projecting our own sensibilities onto a society with a more immediate experience of violent death? I don't think one can generalise. One thing that is clear from letters and documents from past centuries is that the reality of combat was intense and terrifying and that PTSS would be one of a number of reactions to the experience. A fascinating area for a writer to explore. I think I have talked myself into tackling it now!

Mj Wench Mary Jo. "I have done far more than my share of wounded heroes, whether military or  otherwise.  My very first book had a  hero recovering from wounds received at Waterloo. But  there are wounds, and there is PTSS.  Several of my military heroes have  suffered injuries they must deal with.  All have been affected in one way or  another by the experience of war.   I loved when I came across the  phrase “thousand yard stare” to apply to my soldier hero in Shattered Rainbows.

But  by and large, these are men who accepted the conditions and necessity of  war.  They may have been wounded,  they are certainly affected—yet the truest case of PTSS that I’ve written was  actually a spy.  

Lord  Robert Andreville, hero of Angel Rogue, fell into spying while touring France during the Truce of  Amiens.  Robin came across some  useful information, sent it home to England, and spent the next dozen  year doing dangerous and difficult things inside Napoleon’s empire.  When the war is over, he returned home  physically whole but spiritually empty because of the moral dilemmas of spying.  He needs to find a reason to make  the effort to keep on living.  He  does, of course, but I can tell you that writing a hero is who is apathetic for  the first section of his story is not easy!

Ian  Cameron of Veils of Silk, my other  hero with PTSS, was a serving officer in the Indian army, but the emotional  damage was a result of horrendous imprisonment in Bokhara.  The  experience costs him an eye, a fiancée, and all his pleasure in life.  Feeling half a man and haunted by  nightmares, he keeps moving, one foot in front of the other, until gradually  life sweeps him up again.  

Now  that I think of it, Ian is a sharp contrast to the hero of the book I just  finished.  (No Longer a Gentleman, May 2012.)  The hero of NLAG hasn’t endured as  ghastly a prison, but he’s been locked up a whole lot longer.  He emerges half-feral, burning with  energy, and ravenous for life.  He  is a long way from normal, but PTSS?  I don’t think so. Those two men are very different, and they react to their  traumas very
different ways.  Just  like real people do."

Cara Wench Cara/Andrea. "I've written a number of heroes who are former military men, but have never dealt directly with the issue of extreme mental trauma from the experience. My characters are harder and more cynical, and abhor the senseless slaughter they have witnessed. But battlefields in the background.

The question of PTSS in the Napoleonic Wars is certainly a very relevant-and very complex-question, and while I've haven't made a conscious effort to avoid it, it's something I feel would be a very challenging thing to get “right.” I can't even begin to imagine what it would be like to march straight into a hail of withering musket fire, or see a friend cut to pieces in a hand-to-hand bayonet fight . . . I confess, I'm surprised that to a man, they weren't all traumatized after the first few minutes on a battlefield.  
I'm a huge fan of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series, and given the incredibly graphic scenes he writes about battle, and the research details that color his accounts, it's interesting how few times the topic is dealt with. Were Napoleonic soldiers less “sensitive” to the horrors of the battlefield because everyday life in that era was much more filled with blood, violence and death? Expectations were certainly very different than they are today. But I haven't delved into enough primary source documents to feel I can make an informed comment. So for now, I will probably leave the issue to those who are more knowledgeable on the subject. (But I do like writing conflicted heroes <G> so maybe that will change!) 

Jo here. I think Cornwell does a great job of writing the hardened soldier in all the periods he covers, and his warriors often revel in the fight — in the anticipation of it, the action of it, and especially (when it happens) the victory over the enemy.

Joanna Wench Joanna. So far, my characters are always in the heat of action in these stories.  I haven't looked so much at how they cope with the 'coming home' part.  But one of my characters did suffer from a form of PTSS.  It's my young spy,Annique, from *The Spymaster's Lady.*

She's in a hard place as the story begins.  She's been struck blind, her mother's just died, she's on the run from her own side, and she's captured by the enemy.  Most important, she's burdened with plans that will decide life and death for thousands.  She's faced with the dreadful responsibility of what to do with those plans.

Annique has slogged through months of unremitting danger and loss like the good young soldier-spy she is.  *After* she regains her sight, *after* she escapes from her most immediate enemies,* after* she nears her goal, *after*she feels almost safe — the reaction sets in.

She travels across England.  Beneath the cheerful, determined facade, the emotional trauma she's undergone leads to a sense of terrible isolation.  It makes her reach out, unwisely, to what seems a friendly hand.  She lets down her guard.  She's also prey to a paralysis of decision.  The life-and-death choice hangs fire while she delays and delays in a way that's not characteristic of her.

The subtle wounding of the mind is difficult to convey.  Do we explain too much?  Do we look at the PTSS in a way the Regency wouldn't and seem anachronistic?  Do we explain too little and leave the reader puzzled at our characters contradictory action? It's just plain hard to bring out the vulnerable side of our strong, capable heroes and heroines.

BridebyMistake68kb Wench Anne. When it came to the writing, none of my heroes show very obvious symptoms of PTSS. There have been indications, for those who wanted to look for them, but my characters weren't the kind of men who like to show their inner struggles or private torments. 

My models for that attitude were my father and uncles, all of whom had seen active service. My father was wounded badly enough to be shipped home, and my uncle and a number of my father's friends were put in prison camps under horrific conditions. They never talked about their war experiences — at least not in front of others.  

That said, there were indications of trauma in some aspects of their behavior — a sudden explosion of temper, an inability to sleep at times, and certain triggers that would set someone off in a particular way. But that was also never discussed, apart from a general understanding that it was because of the war. So, right or wrong, I've allowed that to influence my heroes' attitudes to their past as soldiers. Dad

(Jo here again. I think I'm influenced by my father and his friends, who served in WWI and were kind and gentle men. In my father's case, he went to war very reluctantly, served in one of the harshest campaign — in Mesopotamia, and was wounded. I'm sure he did return with some psychological damage, but it was never spoken of, and by the time I was born 30 years later there was no sign. He thoroughly enjoyed action-adventure fiction and films, including those about war. We write what we know. Back to Anne.)

My first hero, Jack Carstairs (in Gallant Waif) began the book as a grumpy recluse who drank too much. But the heroine in that book was equally scarred by wartime experiences, though not as obviously. And the story of their romance involves mutual healing.

My current  "devilriders" series has featured heroes returned from war, and each of them show the subtle ways in which their wartime experiences have scarred their psyche.  At the beginning of Stolen Princess, my hero, Gabriel Renfrew is restless, finding it hard to settle down to a peacetime routine and relieves the tedium with risky activities, like riding at full speed along the cliffs in the dark. His friends also take frequent risks and seem not to care about consequences. 

It's Luke, the hero of my next book (out in January 2012) who shows the strongest indication of PTSS. He has nightmares and unresolved painful memories and bottled-up guilt that makes him constantly test his right to live, and part of his journey in the book is to confront those feelings, though not in a modern-day psychiatric fashion. I've also paired him with a heroine who has her fair share of wartime trauma, so he's not alone with his problems, and she brings a perspective to his experiences that allows him to view them in a different light.

In fact I often pair my heroes with heroines who've experienced hardships and/or trauma of their own, though not necessarily wartime — I like both heroes and heroines to have been tempered by life, and even if scarred by the experience, to emerge, through love, the stronger for it. I suppose you could call it a recurring theme, though until now I hadn't been aware of it.


Wench Susan."I've explored more than once the theme of heroes stressed and changed by the rigors of war, though mostly in a medieval setting. One of my favorite heroes among my own fictional guys is Lachlan MacKerron, the hero of The Sword Maiden, a 15th century Scottish swordsmith and knight who rode with the Scottish guard accompanying Joan of Arc.

He returns to Scotland a different man — deeper, more reserved, wounded inside and out by what he has seen and what he has lost, and the secret guilt he carries. What he doesn't see — literally, as his vision is damaged by a head wound — is what he has at home in Eva MacArthur, the girl he left behind, whose healing influence is not so gentle.

She's a spitfire, full of revenge and pushing him to train her in swordplay. He wants peace, she wants war locally. Yet in tracking back over his own experiences, in examining his expertise as well as his mistakes as a warrior and a man, he puts his life back into perspective and is able to move

No matter what the context, medieval or Napoleonic, in historical romance it's the healing process that is most important when a hero has been through war and has returned. He's changed, he's burdened, he has a great deal to sort out. He's a more serious hero than some other types, and often he is just the sort of hero I love to write and love to read — the warrior poet, wise and weary and in need of true healing, the certain uplift of spirit that the right heroine can bring to him. Together these two, hero and heroine, can be a magical, beautiful couple, with healing and emotional substance adding depth to the romance."

Jo again. What a range of fascinating comments, and now it's your turn.

Feel free to address this topic in any way you wish. The following questions are just sand tossed into the oysters!

 How do you feel about career soldiers as heroes of romance? Do you prefer that the hero be ex-military rather than on active service, and if so, why?

If a hero has been involved in war, do you admire them more for it not being a great weight on them, or for showing harm from it? It could be either, depending, of course.

I'd really like to hear from any military people who read this blog, especially if you've been active in war.

Here's an angle that interests me. I see a contradiction in the romance genre. In contemporaries, don't we often have tough-guy heroes who flinch an nothing, and often have to be taught sensitivity by the heroine. I think we also have heroes like that in medievals, and Scottish historical at any period. Yet in the more modern settings, perhaps especially the Regency, we have more traumatized heroes.

Why is that? Do we carry a softer, sweeter vision of Regency Britain in our heads and want heroes to fit that?

Am I right? Examples pro and con? Discussion?

Another question, arising from the mention of Bernard Cornwell — do female writers often want military heroes to hate war and be traumatized by it, whereas male writers are more likely to go with the triumph of defeating evil, no matter what it takes, and admiration of the men who can get the job done.

Over to you! I'll send a copy of The Devil's Heiress, third of the Georges books, to a randomly picked interesting comment.