By Harriet Earle
In my last review for Comics Forum, I asked my father to give his opinion on two medical education comics. As a non-scholar and an infrequent reader, I thought he would be able to offer a different perspective and he may be a better representative of the target audience than me, someone who practically eats comics for breakfast. For this review, I asked for his help again, partly because of his ‘lay status’ but also because he is a retired RAF officer and the topic of Samuel C. Williams’ At War with Yourself is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in a retired soldier, his friend Matt. PTSD is a relatively recent and hotly contested condition; it entered the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1980 and since then has been a staple in pop culture representations of returning veterans, plagued with nightmares and hair-trigger alertness. However, this representation is not only largely incorrect, it is also very unhelpful to those with the condition.
Williams’ artwork is gentle and unadorned; at first glance it reminds me of Raymond Briggs’ beautiful 1998 comic Ethel and Ernest. The black line drawings are rendered in grey watercolour that overflows the lines, creating images that are easy to view and allow the story that Matt tells to speak for itself. The occasional red highlight for a door or a party balloon piques our visual interest but does not overwhelm. Trauma is often considered to be a highly visual condition—for many sufferers, symptoms are centred on visual experiences such as flashbacks and nightmares—and so the use of comics to discuss trauma can allow some modicum of ‘affect’, the mimicking of symptoms by evoking in the reader similar sensations. At War with Yourself does not do this. Williams and Matt talk through Matt’s story while walking a dog. With the exception of two brief flashbacks, the drawn narrative remains simple. It is in the conversation between the two men that the narrative of trauma comes through. When juxtaposed with the dog-walking and tea-drinking ordinariness of the artwork, we see a disconnection that highlights the ordinariness of those with PTSD and the violent intrusion of this condition into the everyday functioning of sufferers. My father suggested that it made the narrative seem strangely ordinary and, to him, this emphasised how trauma and the symptoms of PTSD become part of one’s daily life and ‘normal’ functioning.
One of the central objections voiced by contemporary scholars of trauma when it comes to research in PTSD is that so much of it, especially in the post-Vietnam surge of academic interest, concentrates on the experiences of white, male soldiers who were on active combat duty. This is an incredibly narrow set of experiences and one that does not translate to other traumatic experiences (such as sexual assault, violent crime, horrific accidents or terrorism) or even to other types of soldiers (black or Hispanic, for example, face different pressures and issues to white soldiers, as do female soldiers and those in differing combat roles). Williams’ book could be criticised for being yet another white, male narrative of PTSD to add to the many that are already available. However, I do not see it like that. This is a personal story that both accepts and seeks to represent the nuances of the individual experience of PTSD. Williams is keen to make it clear that the PTSD he is writing about is Matt’s PTSD and, although other individuals may have similar experiences, many will not.
PTSD is just a new name for a phenomenon that has been around for centuries. Shakespeare writes about it in Henry IV (Part I). Following the First World War, sufferers of so-called ‘shell shock’ were deemed cowards and faced horrible humiliations with little support and effective treatment. It was only with the return of many thousands of mentally unwell soldiers from the war in Vietnam that the medical community sat up and listened. At War with Yourself is a step beyond the previous research. It foregrounds personal narrative and allows for the nuance of experience to avoid any ‘blanket definitions’ and generalisations. If anything, Williams’ book is an admission of illness and a bold call for others to speak out too. PTSD does not affect all soldiers or all those who experience a traumatic event; the UK Ministry of Defence figures suggest that 3.5% of veterans will suffer from PTSD. When I asked my father about these figures, he declined to comment beyond telling me that learning to speak about trauma is half the battle—it is a condition without cure but with openness and communication comes relief—and that such comics as Williams’ have a definite place in the treatment and recovery of traumatised individuals in both the military and civilian spheres.
At War with Yourself: A Comic about Post-Traumatic Stress and the Military by Samuel C. Williams is now available from Singing Dragon Publishers.