The Journalist and the Suicide
A diagnosis of PTSD allows us to imagine that the problem is in the prescription
Recently on CNN, a man in late middle age sat beside his wife and read aloud his son’s suicide note. He was calm, considering the circumstances. A few years’ retirement in San Diego had given him a good tan, and he seemed the sort of dependable person who knows when it’s appropriate to cry. But the anchor was having some difficulties. “Forgive me,” she said, “this is tough.” She covered her mouth with her fist. “Daniel . . . he was ultimately diagnosed with PTSD, and a brain injury, and Gulf War Syndrome, and other medical issues.”
“Right,” said the father.
“Tell me about the process of asking for an appointment,” said the anchor, whose job was to steer the spot to a wait-time scandal at the VA in Phoenix. The mother, obliging, condemned the bureaucracy, and the father noted a lack of continuity of care, something they were now “trying to address.” Thus was the spot slotted into that narrative of American tragedy in which loss becomes admonishment to labor by the end of act five, and everyone can stop talking directly about the painful topic of Daniel.
One year earlier, Daniel’s suicide note had been released on Gawker. “The fact is that any kind of ordinary life is an insult to those who died at my hand,” he’d written. “How can I possibly go around like everyone else while the widows and orphans I created continue to struggle?” I remember waking up that Saturday and finding my wife reading it at the kitchen table, crying. By the time the weekend was over I’d made like CNN and forgotten it.
Speaking statistically, on the day that Daniel killed himself, 21 other veterans did too, and we know this because it’s been reported lately as though it’s novel. Most big media outlets have covered the number itself as the full story, usually tying it—as Daniel’s parents did—to the failures of the VA. “US military struggling to stop suicide epidemic,” was how the Guardian put it, while the Times noted, “Baffling rise in US suicides plague military.” Twenty-two a day is high, but neither baffling nor anomalous. The average number of daily veteran suicides in 1999 was 20. Since then, it has never come up shy of 17. If anything, the new numbers show improvement over 1999, when veteran suicides were a higher percentage of total American suicides than they currently are: 25 versus about 21 percent. (So part of the story is just that more Americans are killing themselves.)
Twenty-two a day is 8,030 a year, a large-sounding number that does not include the people who are almost suicides—or show “significant suicidality,” as the VA puts it. Of the two and a half million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan alive in the US, at least 44,594, or 31 a day, have survived a suicide attempt since 2009. About three hundred thousand show symptoms that, since PTSD first appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, in 1980, have been diagnosed thereas. The strength of the correlation between PTSD and suicide is debated, because it’s hard to isolate war from other trauma, but it’s estimated that a veteran with PTSD is three times more likely to display “hopelessness” or suicidal ideation than a veteran without.
The suicidal veteran, who volunteered to inflict damage abroad and wound up fatally damaging himself, doesn’t usually write his own story. He leaves a note, which leaves the storytelling to others. The narratives start almost instantly. After a suicide, the military completes a Suicide Event Report, known casually as a 37-Liner. The 37-liner includes data on prior attempts, pain, access to firearms, patterns of drinking or substance abuse, “death of companion,” “spouse abuse,” “mood anxiety,” and so on. From there, it becomes the job of the head of the VA to issue statements commending the recently dead and promising to do better by the living. Folded flags for the widows. That’s one sort of story you can tell.
Another is the kind written by a civilian journalist, the most famous (and overrated) of which is David Finkel’s Thank You For Your Service. Finkel tells stories in which people make art of survival or, where necessary, survive artlessly. Former wives consult Military Widow: A Survival Guide and hope they can make it from 9 to 5 and from Monday to Friday without losing it. A woman hears the white-gloved knock at the front door and asks the notifying officers not to tell her his news until she’s turned off the oven. Gradually the trauma communicates itself, passing from the men to the women. “[S]he goes into the office after hours, when no one is there, and drops her keys and ID tag on her boss’s desk,” Finkel writes of Saskia, whose husband fought with Bravo Company and now barely has the energy to say good morning. “Too much sadness. She can’t do it . . . . The one who needs help is her.” State-sanctioned violence subsides—or rises—into domestic violence (an old story) and soon the wives, who may have thought deployment was the worst of it, get sick.
The inanity and humiliations of civilian life are hard enough to handle when you’re sane, much more difficult if your mind begins slipping. How can you go from the terror and exhilaration of meting out death to sitting in a cubicle, checking your voicemail, remembering to pick up the kids and a gallon of milk? Adding to the problem, Finkel reminds us, is the fact that soldiers are conditioned to be fearless. If you cannot handle this, many American men are at this second telling themselves, it’s because you’re a pussy, a faggot. Given that its prospective clients are the very people most reluctant to use its services, the VA devotes much energy to convincing patients to try treatment. When Finkel visits the Topeka VA hospital with a subject, a sign for a suicide hotline shares wall space with a motivational poster: “It takes the courage and strength of a warrior to ask for help.” That the help often turns out to be ineffectual is a fact recounted continually by the newspapers.
The VA is an easy thing to blame. Here we have one of those organs of the state whose failures are especially heinous because they are failures to heal people the state has messed up in the first place. Over the course of his reporting, Finkel clearly became enraged by it—the impatient psychiatrists, a bullet-dodging director, a culture of therapy whose super-coddling, super-encouraging style verges on patronizing.
Accounts like Finkel’s convey a general sense of the problem. This many months on the VA waitlist, that much paid to a widow as a death allowance, twelve prescription medications, what he wrote to his son before jumping off the bridge, shooting, hanging, overdose. The problem is, we already know this. We see it on CNN, read it in the papers. The suicidal or traumatized veteran is one of the most talked-about figures of the current moment. Young, handsome, and self-destroying, he exists not as an individual but as an idea in the culture. His sacrifice is war, the VA his peacetime enemy. This, more or less, is the territory Finkel covers; he suggests a system at work, and indicts it. But the book—like so much war writing—is also beholden to a notion of heroism that feels anachronistic.
You see it on the level of the sentence, where Finkel reaches for Hemingway—the 20th century’s suicidal ur-veteran—in a manner that mistakes generic machismo for consciousness. “[H]e had been the great Sergeant Schumann,” goes one passage. “Then he was injured. Then he was dead. Then he was done.” Schumann has PTSD, Finkel tells us. But practically everyone has PTSD in Finkel, and perhaps the most concerning part of his project is the way he treats that term as a stable, neutral adjective, confidently relaying one diagnosis after another, as though saying someone has PTSD were as simple as saying he has green eyes. (Imagine a study of hysteria in which that term were taken for granted.) Yet for years this book was probably the best we had about the psychological fallout of these latest wars.
Then, in January, a young civilian with an MFA from Iowa came out with a book called Demon Camp, about a veteran whom she calls Caleb Daniels. Nearer in style to a 1960s nonfiction novel than to work by Finkel or any war correspondents, Jennifer Percy’s book gets so close to its subject’s consciousness that it stops being about any social issue, the way Executioner’s Song isn’t really “about” the psychology of killers. It’s the most unusual and beautiful portrait of trauma to come out of the last thirteen years.
Caleb enlists at age 17, for the same reason most people join the military, which is the same reason most people do anything in America—more money. He grew up one of 4,000 residents in Centralia, Missouri, with a single mother who didn’t make enough as a ticket agent at Eastern Airways and a father whose appearances were rare and violent. In 1997, when Caleb was 16, he dropped out of high school, took the GED, and was lucky to get a bad job in construction. After an accident precipitated by a forklift operator’s cocaine habit, he quit, met a recruiter at a diner, and was persuaded.
Eight years later, in July 2005, a Chinook tandem-rotor helicopter carrying members of his Special Ops crew was taken down by a rocket-propelled grenade over the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan. Caleb happened to stay at base that night; his best friend died. Three years later, having left the army, Caleb is living in Woodstock, Georgia, where he moved for his new wife, a schoolteacher named Eden whose father ministers in the Pentecostal Church. He has lost custody of the kids from his first marriage. It’s in this condition that he first meets Percy.
He wasn’t the first person she had approached as a possible subject, but as soon as she meets him their connection is obvious. He picks her up in his truck:
The worn leather scratched my thighs. Caleb looked a bit feverish. At the same time, on the edge of recovery.
We drove with open windows, feeling the air. He looked at me and sniffed. “You drove all the way down here to talk to me,” he said. “Why?” He had one hand on the steering wheel and one hand on his thigh. “There were other writers that came to talk to me,” he said. “People that wanted to know about me and my guys. But I didn’t like them.”
A long finger pointed to my head. “You’ll do.”
Caleb doesn’t say whether the “other writers” were men or women, but I bet they were men. If Demon Camp is a portrait of a mind that will never readjust to civilian life, it’s also a romance between a journalist and her subject. From this moment on, Caleb and Percy will pay each other intense attention.
As a subject, he rewards. What is interesting about Caleb is partly that his vocabulary for grief and trauma depends not on psychiatric acronyms but on a strain of Pentecostal demonology. He refers to the urge toward suicide and other forms of self-harm, for instance, as the Black Thing. The Black Thing is a demon that wakes Caleb up at night and follows him. This sort of Thing is common for veterans of the recent wars: Many see—in their bedrooms, on the street, in the supermarket—the figures of the Iraqis they shot. (“For awhile [sic] I used to find dead Iraqis floating in my bathtub,” reads a veterans’ diary excerpted by Finkel. “Why they were in the bathtub I will never know.”)
To exorcise the Black Thing, Caleb travels 230 miles from Woodstock to Portal, Georgia, a town of about 600 in which “the layer between heaven and earth is very thin.” In Portal, Eden’s father Tim Mather holds sway over a small group of the truly desperate, veterans and civilians alike. Mather introduces himself as having “written six books on demonic bondage,” and offers deliverance from the demons of poverty, whoredom, and PTSD. He lives in a doublewide trailer with his wife, children and a rotating group of grandchildren. Because he rarely charges for deliverance, Mather doesn’t come across as a charlatan. He seems less like Robert Mitchum’s priestly serial killer in Night of the Hunter than like an earnest, oblivious doctor treating hysterics at the Salpêtrière.
The pilgrims to Demon Camp are poor and unwell. Everyone seems to have tried everything and seen it all fail. Caleb’s plan is to learn the practice of demonology so that he can exorcise other veterans and save them from killing themselves. At Caleb’s urging Percy agrees to undergo deliverance as well, in a “drab one-story building with a sun-faded roof.” She is alert to the class dynamics created by a young, privileged, ambitious writer, clearly on her way up, joining a group of mostly very poor people, many of whom are on their way down. To kill time, participants try to surprise the minister with demons he’s never encountered. One person says she’s haunted by a shopping demon, another by a divorce demon, another by a debt demon. “The minister laughs, stomps his feet.” Then Percy says, “I have an ice-cream demon.” The laughter stops. She’s miscalculated: what made these jokes funny, what gave them their warmth, was that they weren’t jokes.
The deliverance isn’t a joke, either. People cry, have fits, repeat words until they’re nonsense. Someone’s back is killing her; she is delivered; her back feels fine. Someone eats eggs and they’re amazing, because that is the taste of “eggs without demons.” When it is Percy’s turn, the group intuits that her demon is her fear that she is unworthy of being loved. (The reason Caleb’s devotion to her is so satisfying?) A woman who calls herself the son of Jesus makes Percy repeat “I am lovable” again and again, until “I’m crying and bent over and they’re all screaming at me to scream and so I just keep screaming.”
The deliverance has been an effort to understand Caleb, but he remains distant and often menacing. “Losing your virginity is a good metaphor for killing,” he tells Percy one afternoon, over lunch at a Mexican restaurant. Then he posits a hypothetical scene in which Percy and another woman, who is a virgin, are in a room full of men. The men tell the women they will rape one of them, but that the women can chose whom. “Who gets raped?” he asks. “I get raped,” says Percy. It’s hard to tell whether Caleb’s riddle is an act of commiseration (you can understand killing because you’ve had sex) or a threat (I could rape you if I decided to).
The last time we see Caleb, he’s visiting Percy in her hotel room. He believes a demon has been following her. Percy closes the door after him—”the metal bolt catches quick as a bite”—and she’s suddenly vulnerable in a way she has not been before. Caleb could see a demon on her and decide to destroy it. When Caleb wraps his hand around Percy’s neck to “pray,” she thinks, “It’s time for the killing.” It’s plausible this isn’t exaggerated. In a room at a Best Western in the middle of nowhere, a body could go ignored at least until next morning’s housekeeping, and by that time a person could be three or four states over.
But Caleb says, “You’ve been dating someone, haven’t you?”
Percy tells him she has.
“I think he was a conduit for evil. The demon worked through him.” Then he stands behind and wraps his arms around her, the way you might hold someone to watch the sunset from a roof. The reporting’s over; the writer has to leave and write her book, make her name. “I’m not going to let go,” Caleb says.
What strikes here is how rational he seems. A writer’s attention is one of the most addictive drugs in the world, and Percy’s company lent Caleb’s life a shimmer of importance, just like a love affair does (at first). Why the hell wouldn’t he want to hold on to her forever? By ending the book with the end of the affair, Percy lifts Caleb from the narrative about a veteran with trauma and places him in the self-evidently sane narrative of a person freaking out because he’s losing someone.
Much is staked politically on viewing suicidal or violent veterans as a little bit crazy. PTSD is as useful as hysteria was, because it allows us to pretend that the problem’s in the prescription, or that going to war doesn’t make some people want to die. It’s the achievement of Demon Camp subtly to stand against all this, to see the Black Thing and PTSD, Xanax and exorcisms, the VA hospital and the Pentecostal Church as equally viable reactions to a particular kind of suffering. To say that Caleb in the Best Western is as lucid as Daniel Somers was when he walked out into the suburban Arizona evening and shot himself in the head. To see for neither any cure.