Secondhand Violence and PTSD: An Interview with Mac McClelland 


In June 2011, Mac McClelland published an essay called “I’m Going to Need You to Fight Me On This” in GOOD Magazine. It was a first-person piece about her use of violent sex as a means of dealing with PTSD, which she said had gripped her after a series of traumatizing events on a reporting trip to Haiti. Her account included what you could call an abduction attempt, and centered on a day she witnessed another woman’s up-close flashbacks, triggered by the sight of one of the five men who had violently gang-raped her.

The backlash to this piece—its focus on McClelland, its dependence on another woman’s trauma, its Haitian backdrop—was immediate and severe. “What’s Happening In Haiti Is Not About You,” wrote Slate; Edwidge Danticat wrote at Essence about the violation the rape victim had felt both by the essay and the disrespect and danger she’d experienced as a result of McClelland tweeting about the events of that day. On this website, a group of female journalists wrote an open letter to McClelland, saying they respected the heart of her piece but found her positioning of Haiti to be “sensationalist and irresponsible.”

At the time, I was just a few months out of the Peace Corps. I’d left Central Asia after 11 months, half willingly, half deliberately, but unexpectedly—under circumstances mostly related to sexual harassment that were mostly out of my control. I had loved my post in Kyrgyzstan. I felt horrible and geographically heartbroken in sweltering Houston, bumming around at my boyfriend’s apartment. Mostly off the internet except for my job hunt, I read McClelland’s piece but none of the conversation around it. I felt glad and confused and disturbed by the recognition I felt, and I stayed up all night—as I tended to that summer—wondering when I’d start to feel okay.

A few weeks earlier I’d published the first thing I’d ever written professionally, an op-ed in the New York Times about the sexual safety (or lack thereof) of female volunteers. In this piece, I wrote about the long series of events that had led to me coming home. Early in my service, I’d reported a series of sexual harassment incidents to no response other than “We can move you.” (I loved my job; I didn’t want to be moved.) Then, after I broke two minor rules (drinking beer in a park, and not sending my check-in text message), I’d gotten grounded in my mile-long village—so isolated that you couldn’t buy fruit or bottled water—for three months total, despite my protests that I felt unsafe and was going sort of crazy being stuck at home.

At some point during the winter, I started thinking about using my escape hatch, and I felt shitty about it. The ability to extricate yourself from a situation whenever you need to is such a remarkable privilege, particularly when you live in a place where most people never get near a plane. It took me a long time to admit I wanted to leave, maybe needed to. But I decided, and then it was decided for me. ABC aired a documentary about Peace Corps volunteers getting raped; I panicked, called in more of the incidents I’d been listing in a Word file, and then was unexpectedly given 48 hours to transfer to another village or go home. I went home.

Then, I wrote that op-ed. I got some nasty emails after, from volunteers who hadn’t known me well but knew I’d been planning exit strategies—who decided that I’d come to the Peace Corps to get material for a few essays and a grad school application and then left when I had enough. They told me that I didn’t know enough about the country to write about it like this; that I had, like McClelland, made it all about me. They didn’t know my life, but in a fundamental way, I agreed with them. I felt I had made it all about me, by leaving, or just by being able to. I felt weak and self-serving. There was no “good reason” for me to be shook the way I was in country, and as anxious and self-hating as I was for my first months home.

Like McClelland, I could reasonably have been considered “tough.” I had supported myself financially since I was a teenager, I’d spent summers traveling alone, accustomed to harassment, so broke I looked for change on the ground. I’d been through attempted sexual assaults, which prompted mostly denial or embarrassment. Peace Corps service was intense: I was grabbed and followed and casually threatened; I got in cabs where the drivers wouldn’t take me home, and one day my host dad got drunk and kissed me. I contracted fucking respiratory tuberculosis. But—this is what I couldn’t understand for so long, what there’s no real place or narrative or justification for—the stuff that happened to me wasn’t the problem.

What got me was the shit that happened to everyone else. The basis of the intensely angry, paranoid vigilance that made me tense whenever a strange man approached me, just hoping he would try something—the paralyzing doubt I felt that made me break down sobbing in the bushes behind the school for no reason—it wasn’t because of my life. It was because my friends got beat up randomly coming home in the city; because a bus I was in hit a man and kept going; because a drunk dad hurt an infant on the street in front of a crowd of people; because people on my block seemed to keep dying.

Everyone else, however, was managing. My closest friend in Kyrgyzstan was a woman in her late forties, a brilliant and compassionate autodidact who ran a magnificently progressive English education program. She’d weathered Sophoclean tragedy in her personal life; she radiated an extreme generosity and goodwill. When I had a “hard day,” she consoled me easily, sincerely. My 12-year-old host sister would breezily tell me not to wear skirts because men on the bus would go under them, all the while making dinner for six in a snap.

The things they’d established resilience against wrecked me. I felt so sad all the time about everything that everyone had to deal with. “Your suffering…. is so traumatizing… TO ME!” When I realized the mechanics of my thought process, I felt like a huge piece of shit; I felt like an even bigger piece of shit when I left and then when I wrote about it. Again, I’m feeling it, right now. I doubt I’ll ever write about this period in detail, because I understand the criticisms that were leveraged at McClelland—I feel their validity, if none of their force.

And at the same time, just imagining the summer of 2011 makes me remember how I cried, inexplicably, a few times every week; that I stayed up all night reading or pacing; that after a life of being secure, unflappable, competent, I felt briefly like I’d never do anything good again. It’s hard for me even to consider that it wasn’t my escape-hatch reasoning that made me selfish—that it was just a response I tried very hard to, but couldn’t, control.

It passed. I can’t say I’ve had it anything but easy. It’s a primary tenet of my belief system to minimize the importance of my own life; until 2011, I never understood that that impulse could be in itself self-inflammatory, and paralyzing besides. What McClelland wrote about in her original article—and what her new book Irritable Hearts shows at length—is real to me. Tragedy, fear, alarm, is contagious; it is just as dangerous to magnify your sadness and weakness in public as it is to attempt to deal with it alone. Her book is a unique read in its honesty and breadth of scope on this subject, and it goes down fast and difficult, like a shot of liquor. McClelland and I spoke on the phone last week.

Your book’s subtitled “A PTSD Love Story,” and it totally was a love story, with a happy if uneasy ending. And I loved that. You’re still married?

That’s often the very first thing people ask! Yes, we’re very happily married.

If you’d met under different circumstances, do you think you’d still have been attracted to the things about him that make him good for you now?

Even if we’d met in Pennsylvania, on a boring fluff piece, I think it would have been the same. He’s very easy to love, and the qualities that he has are universally amazing, not just amazing for a crazy person. But of course I’m biased because I’m his wife and I think he’s the best person in the world. And he wasn’t always so flexible; he’s not perfect, he was a real fucking asshole sometimes, and it was very hard for us to adjust. It wasn’t like I started having nervous breakdowns and he was like, “This is very cool, I’m totally cool with that.”

But there were the seeds of adaptability and groundedness in him that helped him adapt in ways that I’m sure not everyone would have been able to do.

Let me back up and ask you about the timing. You went to Haiti in 2010, after the earthquake. When did PTSD as a potential diagnosis come up?

Immediately. I emailed my therapist from Haiti on the last day, and the morning after I arrived home, I was in her office. Technically you’re supposed to have symptoms for 30 days to be officially diagnosed, but she saw I had the symptoms. So basically, I knew within hours of returning. On my own, I never would have arrived at that conclusion.

How long did it take for you to accept it?

Many, many months. I was like, “You’re crazy, that’s insane.” I respect my therapist and I knew she knew what she was talking about, but at the same time I was like, “I cannot believe what you’re saying.” There was so much cognitive dissonance. And then, it took me a long time to get from the PTSD diagnosis being true to it being okay.

What was blocking you?

Part of the problem was my cultural education. I thought PTSD was for soldiers—or, by extension, someone who had done something soldier-like. PTSD was for spectacular violence and murder, blood and guts, the most horrific things, like war. And I wasn’t in a war, I didn’t kill anybody or see anyone get killed. I was attacked in a different way, but I had never heard of sexual harassment and sexual violence in terms of PTSD before, and so in my opinion I had no valid reason for having PTSD—and in a lot of other people’s opinions, too.

Is that a reaction people have had to your book—or to you in general?

Yeah, that happens. Even when I explain it, or even when people have read the book, they can still be like, “Meh… is that valid…”

Right. One thing that stood out to me in your book is how you phrase this idea: that the hierarchy of atrocities is something that’s imposed on the traumatized solely by the non-traumatized. This struck me as very true to my experience—people I’ve known and lived with who have seen the most shit get a generosity out of it, not a stinginess.

Did you notice, even in the beginning of this interview, you were telling me that you were in a place and you were dealing with ethnic cleansing and there was sexual violence around you, and I think you said it three times, you could count it in the recording—you compared yourself to me, and said that your experience was very, very minor compared to mine, and to the people around you.

Haha. Yes. Well, it was!

Everybody does that, no matter what. We have to denigrate ourselves and invalidate our own experience. We can’t help it. I was as susceptible to that as you are and as everyone else is. And most people I meet will say the same thing, no matter how much therapy they’ve been through. There’s no acceptance for just taking someone’s experience of suffering as valid. You always hedge it when you’re telling it to other people.

And at the same time, I think that there has to be a way for the both/and nature of this to be expressed. There has to be a way for me to legitimately think that some trauma occurs in more dangerous, permanent, prolonged circumstances than others, and that that matters in a concrete way; and also at the same time know that what any person needs is the same—validation and support.

Right. Your nervous system is just reacting to something, it’s fearing for your life for you. It has no idea that something worse could have happened. Your nervous system is not like, “This isn’t bad compared to Rwanda.”

Irritable Hearts does a lot to make PTSD more tangible. As one of the blurbs says, it counters the narrative that PTSD is impossible to understand unless you’ve been there. You take a lot of time in the book to specifically walk the reader through the symptoms. I’m wondering how long it took you be able to explain it like this. It’s almost impossible to put dissociation into words, for example.

It’s easier now that I am trained to recognize what’s happening, so I have that vocabulary. And I was already in that space when I was writing this book. But you’re right, it is so hard to explain. I would write a section about dissociation and my editor would be like, “Can you maybe try to describe this better?”

And yeah, at first, everything was an extremely alarming clusterfuck. I would just not be able to feel sensations physically. That first night with my husband, I could feel that something wasn’t right. Like, this guy weighs nothing, that’s so weird. My hands and arms didn’t feel solid. But what was that? You’re never told about that. Certainly I had no coping skills or awareness, and it was extremely confusing, unsettling, and scary. It ended up great for me to be in somatic therapy—because PTSD symptoms are so physical—to be in a place where we were always talking about physical symptoms, and coping with that, not just with your mental breakdown. But it’s still not easy to get the idea across, because it’s so weird.

Yeah, that part where you’re lying down and your therapist is basically stopping an inch short of punching you in the face and you’re not even blinking—I was like, my god, this is serious shit.


So, was it after the GOOD article that you decided to write this book? That you realized you had a book’s worth of stuff to talk about?

My intention was never to write the book about myself. But, after the GOOD article, I knew that trauma was important to me, and I could see that people had the strongest and most polarized reaction to it. And I had already been starting to do pre-interviews with my sources for the secondary story about veteran spouses I was doing. I did think I was going to keep doing trauma stuff.

It was my dad who suggested the book. I was in Cleveland, and my parents were just watching me fall apart—separately, because they’re divorced—and I was a mess; the backlash of that article almost killed me. It’s hard for anyone to be very publicly internet-shamed, and I was already in such a pit of self-loathing, and it was just not good. My dad was like, “Seems like this will be your next book,” and I was sitting on his couch and thought, “He’s so right.” I knew there was so much to say about trauma, and at the time I didn’t know the half of it, just that there was so much that wasn’t discussed. We only cover trauma in depressing soldier stories, which are so important, but not the end of the story.

But still, I meant to write the book about other people and have myself in the background.

When did it shift? As you were writing?

My agent, actually. I wrote the proposal for the book and she was like, “This blows.” She pointed out that lots of people do write about other people’s trauma, and those books are really good and really vital, but I apparently was not doing a good job at that. There was no reason for me not to speak from my own experience, when it was the one I had the most experience with, obviously. And this version had more of a narrative: a beginning, middle and end.

Right. The clock starts ticking at the beginning, you see a gun that might go off, et cetera—it’s got all those traditional narrative frames in place. I read it like, “Are they going to stay together?? Is she going to be okay???”

Yes. And the people telling me to put myself at the center were right. I don’t mean to say I was forced to do it this way, either. I was just scared of it for a hundred obvious reasons. This was the better way, probably the more impactful way. But scarier, for me.

Yeah, I bet it was weird, as a journalist, to turn the lens around—especially after having only really done so once, with an article that provoked such a backlash.

There were so many times when I was writing when I was like, “Is this a horrible idea?” I knew why I was doing it, but that didn’t mean it was smart to be doing it.

And you address the backlash a lot in the book, quote your criticisms. At the time I wasn’t aware of it—but now, working at Jezebel, I can understand how out-of-control the “dialogue” must have felt for you; the sheer volume of discussions about very large ideas that can be centered on one first-person story. I’m wondering if you wrote this book being prepared for another backlash?

Yeah, totally. I had many conversations when I was talking to my husband, having a mental health pow-wow, assessing whether I was in a position to handle it. It’s hard to brace yourself for this kind of thing. You can’t anticipate exactly how it’s going to go, or if it’s going to happen. And I generally don’t live my life worrying about that, because I’m lucky enough not to have to. I’m not Lindy West, I don’t work at Jezebel, I don’t know how people deal with this every day.

But at the same time, I obviously knew it was a possibility, because I’d been through it once, and on the same topic. So we talked about it a lot. We have a contingency plan if it gets really ugly and if I can’t handle it. We’re just gonna run away for a little while, protect ourselves. And by that I mean protect me, because my husband doesn’t give a shit. He’s French. I’m like, “People are going to say things about you,” and he just doesn’t give a shit.

How long ago was the ending of the book?

August 2012.

Do you feel continuous with that person—that person driving up from the taco shack after your wedding?

That’s an interesting question. I feel better than that person. I do feel sort of disconnected from her—not because I’m a different person now, not because that person’s not me, but just because as a person then I was actually very disconnected. I was trying hard to feel connected, and feel cohesive, but now I’ve actually achieved a lot more of that.

And so my experience is completely different than the gal at the taco shack in the wedding dress. I have pictures of myself at the taco shack, and I love tacos, and I look really happy and I believe I was. But my depth and range and everything I was capable of was different at the time.

Yeah, I mean—you were still working at a pretty remarkable pace, but basically through the book you’re crying every day.

[Laughs] Yeah.

That’s fucking hard! One of the things I thought was really well expressed in your book was the granularity of what led up to your breakdown. Like, there was one night of endless propositioning that in other circumstances might have rolled right off you; in your case, at that moment, it was the last straw. You really get at the aspect of trauma that’s contingent and unpredictable and accumulative. Later in the book, you had to list past traumas for a therapist, and you were like, “Nothing. Except, these ten things.” There was some tough stuff going on with your family—divorce, your mom was hurting, your dad had embezzled money. I’m wondering if it felt like you were dealing with this all at once, or how you even made sense of it at the time.

I don’t think trauma can really be understood in a linear and logical way. If my parents were very happily married, and nothing bad had ever happened to me, it’s impossible to say that I wouldn’t have had that same reaction to what happened in Haiti. People who have totally fine lives their whole lives can still be traumatized at any point by something that’s traumatizing.

Yes, some of the things I go into were really intense, but everyone’s life is like that; everyone has their list. If I had lived in this amazing princess bubble my whole life—which I was pretty close to, I really almost did live in that bubble; my life was pretty great except for some things, and that’s true of a lot of people—I could have ended up in the same situation.

But, it’s a common experience to be traumatized, and things come up from your past that suddenly land in a different way. If you’re in intensive treatment, you have to deal with all of it, which is so discouraging and exhausting. It’s why treatment takes such a long time, and why a lot of people quit treatment. It’s also extremely expensive. If I hadn’t had insurance—I don’t have insurance now that would cover all that, for example, but I did then—I would have had to chosen between dealing with it or bankruptcy. I don’t know what I would’ve chosen.

It’s overwhelming to think about how many people have to make that choice. There’s a section where you talk about how common trauma is, and you can hear the exhaustion when you’re listing these statistics, like: 29 percent of snake bite victims have PTSD. My god, how can we live. Even if you’re just limiting it to women who have experienced sexual assault, that’s like, oh, so everybody? I’m wondering if really understanding the prevalence makes you feel overwhelmed, or like it’s more urgent, or what?

It makes me feel all of those things. And like you said, you can hear it; I was so overwhelmed. How can you even start to deal with trauma as a society, as an individual, as a whole social structure, because so many things feed into it?

But that does make it very urgent. Obviously it was urgent to me, because it was a matter of personal survival. But for other people—I mean, everyone knows people who are fucked-up. We even point to the trauma when we talk about the trauma—we’re like, “His dad was abusive,” and we don’t really even know what we’re talking about. That there’s treatment and support. It doesn’t have to be, “That guy is fucked up… forever.”

So it’s important to know not just how prevalent it is but also that there’s a way to deal with it. In a way, we do know how prevalent it is. And thinking about it like, “Well, life is really hard for some people, I guess,” isn’t enough. It’s acknowledging it without actually acknowledging it.

Right. You talk about how important it is for trauma to be validated—Sept. 11th vs. Katrina as two examples of what happens when trauma is accepted versus demonized. This seems like a pretty under-discussed aspect of PTSD, somehow—that looking at it as a lost cause, or something associated with wrongdoing on the part of the sufferer, actually changes the nature of that trauma, makes it worse.

Yeah, right.

So, last question, I’m curious about what it was like having all of this turn on an incident that’s off the page for many reasons, the last and most clinching of which was legal. You end up not describing the incident that traumatized you—and you say that the thing that made you feel the most shitty about yourself is the fact that you (in the past, for GOOD) telling the story of that moment was negating the woman’s ability to say no to her story being told.

There is a problem of two contradictory facts—the fact of shared experience, and the fact of differing amounts of capital on both sides. And I’m wondering what it was like to write a book that started and depended on an absence.

It was really hard. My way of working, my style when I’m writing about anything, is really delving into the smallest details of what’s happening. No matter what I’m writing about, that’s the way I do things, and so to not do that was tough. It ends up being a paragraph, but it was the hardest thing for me to write, and went through the most edits because it’s a hole in the narrative—to not address certain things that are really important to the entire narrative.

It wasn’t just a legal issue. I talk about this in the book—I say everything I am going to say about it in the book. There is a question around who owns stories. There’s often a lot of other people involved. You own your part, but that’s not everything. And I had a lot of really interesting conversations in the run-up to this, a lot of people who said, “You own this story, you can say what you want.” Some of these people were rape survivors, trauma survivors—I was surprised that they were saying this to me. I asked them, “Well, what if someone wrote about you?” and they said, well, that would be that. You have to own what you own.

There’s this fine line, as a survivor, as a person who’s been through a lot of treatment, who’s dealt with trauma. It’s important to own your own story, and you also have to respect other people’s right to own theirs. Sometimes those intersect, and it can be hard to suss out the right thing to do. It’s not a black and white issue, but you definitely don’t want to disempower anybody, and that’s incredibly important.

If you could have, would you have wanted to write that scene out in full detail?

If everyone involved was comfortable, that would have been my preference. I still know what it is, I still do own it personally, so it’s okay—but it’s just missing from the book. It wasn’t worth upsetting anybody. It isn’t worth upsetting people who didn’t deserve to be upset.

Until you got into the legal situation, I actually thought it was just a choice: you drawing on the way trauma can sometimes feel like a void or a blackout, this missing thing with huge aftereffects.

Right. I happen to remember every detail, but people don’t always. Trauma is nebulous and often blocked out. There are definitely a lot of cases where people would not be capable of recounting trauma, and they don’t have to. In some way the absence in my book can nod to that.

Mac McClelland is the author of Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story and For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question. She has written for Reuters, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, the New York Times Magazine, and the New York Times Book Review, among other publications. Her work has also been nominated for two National Magazine Awards for Feature Writing and has been anthologized in the Best American Magazine Writing 2011, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011, and Best Business Writing 2013.

Contact the author at [email protected].

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