Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Spiritual Wickedness in High Places: Trauma, Violence, and Betrayal in Harlot's Ghost

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Spiritual Wickedness in High Places: Trauma, Violence, and Betrayal in Harlot's Ghost

Article excerpt

Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost offers a complex examination of masculinity and trauma within an institution that encourages violence and forbids weakness. Mailer tells the tale of Harry Hubbard's life in and out of the CIA, a story filled with a cast of highly traumatized characters, a narrative laced with child sexual abuse and betrayal. One notable instance of the lechery tingeing Harlot's Ghost takes place during Harry's adolescence when a school chaplain molests Harry, an event that transpires and is never mentioned again by Harry as a narrator. However, the molestation permanently alters Harry's sexual and romantic development. His abuse leaves him with deep shame that he cannot express. Yet Mailer' shows the reader a starkly different paradigm for coping with trauma in Dix Butler, a peer of Harry's in the CIA, illustrating that Harry's feelings of stigmatization and self-loathing are not the only response to harm. Dix readily admits that his older brother repeatedly raped him during his childhood. Yet this story is a source of pride for Dix rather than a source of shame; he boasts that he eventually grew physically strong enough to fight off his brother. In comparison to passive, self-conscious Harry, Dix is a dominant, ambitious, and successful CIA agent. Dix and Harry illustrate two documented responses to coping with trauma.

Psychological research reveals that posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can present as internalized or externalized (Miller, Greif, and Smith 2003). People who internalize their PTSD symptoms are likely to be depressed, introverted, paranoid, and fraught with negative emotions. Distress from the traumatic experience manifests in social avoidance, rumination, and obsession. On the other hand, people who externalize their PTSD symptoms are quick to anger, impulsive, reckless of safety, drawn to danger, and likely to abuse alcohol. These darker traits combine with more positive qualities; people with externalized PTSD are often gregarious, assertive, and confident. Yet they also are more likely to engage in illegal or immoral behavior. Current psychological research finds that the posttraumatic distress of these two subtypes of PTSD is equal; individuals with each form of PTSD endure severe stress expressed through very different thoughts, feelings, and actions.

The CIA agents in Harlots Ghost live lives that are full of trauma, betrayal, and deception. Indeed, most of Mailer's characters have experienced at least one haunting loss, one great treachery. In Mailer's vision of the CIA, an agent's capacity to cope with trauma can secure or shatter his career. Externalized posttraumatic symptoms are valuable qualities when they emerge as dominance and power, yet internalized posttraumatic symptoms are an embarrassment to be hidden at all costs. CIA membership encourages externalization, encourages behaviors that confront the world rather than reflect inward at the psyche. In Mailer's eyes, the CIA demands a squad of agents who are impervious to painful experiences and are even able to capitalize on their trauma. Doing so, they generate more effective aggression to fill the agency's need for spies who are willing to secure intelligence in any way necessary. Agents who externalize their response to trauma can rise to great power, whereas those who internalize that response are limited by the emotional turmoil within them. Given that externalized PTSD relates to aggression and delinquent behaviors, this paradigm generates a cadre of highly successful yet violent CIA agents. If an agent has been traumatized, which, given the nature of CIA work, is more likely than not, achievement within the agency demands that he convert any grief or weakness into dominance and aggression. They are tested on these skills; as part of Harry and Dix's training in the CIA, they undergo a brutal interrogation meant to simulate the type of experience they will later encounter in their careers. Locked in a room for eight hours and grilled by a superior agent, Harry observes, "we were in Camp Peary, not East Germany, but I did not feel safe" (Mailer 199), which is of course precisely the intention of the agency. …

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