PTSD Survivors Speak: Interview with author Elizabeth Brundage

There’s more than one way to learn about or express the experience of post-traumatic stress symptoms. Often in the past, we’ve featured PTSD poetry. I’ve also interviewed other authors about their PTSD characters. Today, my interview with author ELIZABETH BRUNDAGEElizabeth Brundage, PTSD, A Stranger Like You shares her perspective….

  • In your new novel, A STRANGER LIKE YOU, one of the characters has PTSD. What made you decide to include a character with this attribute?

In the novel I wanted to explore how violence affects us as human beings.  Witnessing violence is not necessarily uncommon in our times.  Violence is always there if we want to find it, on TV, in movies, on Xbox, in the newspaper – or at the bar on the corner.  Our lives are nuanced with conflict – in our communities, at work, in politics, and in our own homes.  What happens to us when we become the victims of violence?  What happens when we aggressively pursue violence, as in war?   I wanted to explore the myriad physical and psychological effects of violence through the eyes of a character named Denny Rios, who has just returned from his tour in Iraq.  I wanted to explore the idea that even though you have survived your ordeal – even though your wounds have healed – you may not necessarily recover. In many cases, the psychological trauma is more damaging than the physical.

  • As someone who hasn’t experienced PTSD yourself, you must have done a lot of research in order to render the character effectively. Share with us how and from where you gathered information.

In my work, I have an interest in exploring how violence presents itself in our culture and how people change as a result.  I wanted to consider violence in film – how we have become accustomed to witnessing violent acts in movies – which led me to think about the people who make movies, which led me to setting the novel in Hollywood, about a female producer who becomes the victim of a terribly violent act and the hero who ultimately saves her.  I was interested in looking at war in the context of theater – the difference between how we present war in films – how we create heroes on the screen – and what war really is on the ground, in the hearts and minds of its warriors.  I knew I wanted to explore PTSD in relation to veterans who had fought in Iraq (as well as other aspects of the war, including its devastating consequences for women).  My research led me to a place called Soldier’s Heart, in Troy, NY, that works with soldiers who have just come home from Iraq and Afghanistan and are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Soldier’s Heart introduced me to an amazing marine who offered to share his experiences with me.  I also interviewed a dedicated nurse who works at our local VA hospital who offered her perspective on the soldiers she has treated. The newspaper was also an invaluable resource.

  • Out of all that research, are there texts/resources that you would recommend to others wanting to educate themselves about PTSD?

The best book I found on the subject of PTSD was War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by Edward Tick, which proved to be an essential resource for the creation of my character, Denny Rios.

  • As you learned about PTSD, what struck you the most about how it affects survivors?

First, surviving war (or any kind of violence) is heavy.  There are a variety of feelings including relief – shame – and guilt.  Perhaps shame is the worst one.  I don’t know why shame even comes into it, but it does.  Guilt too – for surviving when others didn’t – for feeling like you may have let those people down – that maybe you could have done something, more. There is a part of you that becomes almost vague – perhaps that is the soul that Ed Tick writes about – the sense of this essential piece of yourself that you have relinquished in order to survive.  These are abstract emotions that you can’t always talk about because those feelings are difficult to put into words.  I think people who suffer from PTSD have a hard time getting back to what life was before – that person they used to be.  Many discover that it’s no longer possible to be that person; it becomes difficult to be back in the present-tense of your life.  I think the worst possible thing one can say to someone who is suffering with PTSD is: you’ll be back to your old self in no time. This is something a nurse says to Hedda Chase just after she’s been saved from her ordeal and Hedda realizes that it just isn’t possible.  It’s impossible because that person, her old self, is gone.

  • How did you choose what information to use as you built the character, and how difficult was the process of incorporating PTSD elements?

It wasn’t difficult at all because I think as a nation we are all suffering from some form of PTSD – since 9/11.  What is our soul as a nation?  I think we have become desensitized to violence, not only because it is so pervasive in our culture, but because we are afraid of feeling too much – that it will hurt too much if we feel too deeply.  As a result, we are the “whatever” nation.  Confused.  Reactionary.  Disenchanted.  Afraid.  Detached. I wanted to explore this almost viral sense of distress that has begun to inform our American identity – what we expect from our politicians – what we might be up against globally and how to deal with it – and how it will ultimately affect generations to come.  I tried to consider these ideas thematically in the novel.  The characters drive the story – I wanted the reader to experience what they do.  To understand what it’s like to have PTSD and to absorb the idea that, when one of our soldiers suffers the effects of war – we all suffer.

  • Finally, can you tell us some of the story for this character? Is there hope for him by the end of the book?

Although Denny Rios is in the throes of PTSD, he is the hero of the novel.  Toward the end of the book he is forced to reckon with his warrior-self in order to save Hedda’s life – and that becomes the very thing that lures him out of his darkness, back into the world.  As a result, some of his emotional wounds begin to heal.  I think the best thing I can do is to leave you with a quote from the book that considers how he saw himself in Iraq – how they were all heroes.

Sometimes in Baghdad he would see kids, he would talk to them.  A couple of times they’d played soccer with the boys in the neighborhood around their encampment.  They’d all had a good time and for that hour and a half it was like there wasn’t even a war going on at all.  Sometimes they gave the kids their MREs.  He’d never seen anyone eat so fast.  They were hungry, skinny kids, curious what the big American soldiers ate every day. Kids were the same everywhere.  They just wanted people to be nice to them.  They just wanted to feel safe.  It wasn’t all horror and killing.  They’d done a lot of good things over there.  But that wasn’t the kind of stuff people heard about or read in the papers.  They had made a lot of people feel safe.  There had been important moments, graceful exchanges.  And there had been times when he’d actually felt like a warrior, a true hero.  It was the best feeling in the world. One thing people back here didn’t get: Heroic acts happened on a minute-to-minute basis.  The military was full of heroes and that’s what he tried to focus on.  People like him and Ross, who’d done some good, who’d made a difference.
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Elizabeth Brundage holds an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she received a James Michener Award. Before attending Iowa, she was a screenwriting fellow at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Her short fiction has been published in the Greensboro Review, Witness, and New Letters. Her first two novels, Somebody Else’s Daughter and The Doctor’s Wife, were also published by Viking. She lives with her family in New York State.

The ideas contained in this post solely represent the perspective of the author. To contribute to ‘Survivors Speak’ contact Michele.


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