The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

By Allan Young | Go to book overview

Seven
Talking about PTSD

IN ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S FILM,Spellbound (1944), Gregory Peck plays the victim of a traumatic neurosis similar to PTSD. He is tormented by a memory he cannot recall but is certain that it concerns an act of terrible violence. He also suffers from a mysterious phobic horror of objects decorated with parallel lines. By the film's end, it is discovered that the phobia mirrors a visual element of his traumatic experience, which involved attempted homicide and accidental death on a downhill ski slope. Like many of the patients who speak on the following pages, the Gregory Peck character is chronically angry and deeply disturbed by his own barely controlled aggressive impulses. With the help of a psychoanalyst, Ingrid Bergman, he reclaims his repressed memory and experiences a complete remission of symptoms. This is the film's climactic moment, and it takes the form of an epiphany, in which the audience is allowed to watch on the screen the same event that Gregory Peck's inner eye is watching inside the theater of his mind.

Hitchcock was not the first person to compare the act of recovering a traumatic memory with the act of watching a film. Abram Kardiner (1941) made a similar connection, comparing the structure of the recalled memory to a slapstick comedy. Judith Herman makes the same connection in Trauma and Recovery. In this book, the ordinary memory of the ordinary adult is pictured as information encoded into a verbal, linear narrative, and assimilated into an ongoing life story. The traumatic memory is different: it is dominated by imagery and bodily sensation, and, in these respects, is similar to the memories of young children (Herman 1992: 37–38). The therapist's job is to help the patient to reconstruct the traumatic memory from “the fragmented components of frozen imagery and sensation” and to “slowly assemble an organized, detailed, verbal account, oriented in time and historical context” (Herman 1992:177). Herman's account ends with a cinematic vision, narrated by a psychotherapist (Jessica Wolfe) whose specialty is treating combat veterans diagnosed with PTSD: “We have them reel it off in great detail, as though they were watching a movie, and with all the senses included. We ask them what they are seeing, what they are feeling, and what they are thinking” (Herman 1992: 177).

Herman traces this idea back to Breuer and Freud and their description

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