PTSD From Sexual Trauma — Learning That Life Is Not Always Fair


The old guys were right.

Cover of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1930)I mean the really old guys, the ones who wrote over one hundred years ago.  The guys like Freud and Janet who said that mostly everything that shapes people’s lives seems to be trauma — whether or not modern authors agree.

I have seen an anorectic whose trauma was a passer-by in a crowd who told her that she was too fat for anyone to have sex with, and then keep walking. I have seen a sufferer of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) who was told she was filthy when she was a kid.  She later became so excited about cleanliness she missed nights of sleep to tidy the living room.

But although very real causes of pathology, these seem too trivial to be real traumas for most people.

Others are too horrible to be denied.

I have first-hand stories from women about how they have been tortured, beaten, imprisoned, burned, abducted, tied down, and doubtless other atrocities of which I cannot think at this moment.

Psychiatry has classified a serious condition called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The criteria are simple.  There are really only three in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV).

  • The intrusive thought.  You constantly re-live the traumatic events, whether in dream or consciousness. You don’t have to want to think about them for the thoughts to find you.
  • The effort to avoid. For the women in long term relationships, as fruitless an exploit as can be imagined.  Little reminders abound.  His clothes on the floor, his car in the yard, his voice in the background, even photos of him after you have gotten rid of him.
  • Then there is the “hypervigilance,” the increased startle reaction.  The siren or an ambulance or the sudden slam of a door is enough to leave mouths hanging open, breasts clutched in pain.  Difficult but not impossible to treat pharmacologically.

People do become strangely accustomed to trauma, like that classic parable by Dashiell Hammet’s detective Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon:”

A man named Flitcraft had left his real-estate-office, in Tacoma, to go to a luncheon one day and had never returned. He did not keep and engagement to play golf after four that afternoon, though he had taken the initiative in making the engagement less than half and hour before he went out to the luncheon. His wife and children never saw him again. His wife and he were supposed to be on the best of terms. He had two children, boys, one five and the other three. He owned his house in a Tacoma suburb, a new Packard, and the rest of the appurtenances of successful American living.
Flitcraft had inherited seventy thousand dollars from his father, and, with his success in real estate, was worth something in the neighbourhood of two hundred thousand dollars at the time he vanished. His affairs were in order, though there were enough loose ends to indicate that he had not been setting them in order preparatory to vanishing. A deal that would have brought him an attractive profit, for instance, was to have been concluded the day after the one on which he diappeared. There was nothing to suggest that he had more than fifty or sixty dollars in his immediate possession at the time of his going. His habits for months past could be accounted for too thoughly to justify any suspicion of secret vices, or even of another woman in his life, though either was barely possible.
“He went like that,” Spade said, “like a fist when you open your hand,”
“… Well, that was in 1922. In 1927 I was with one of the big detective agencies in Seattle. Mrs. Flitcraft came in and told us somebody had seen a man in Spokane who looked a lot like her husband. I went over there. It was Flitcraft, all right. He had been living in Spokane for a couple of years as Charles – that was his first name – Pierce. He had a automobile-business that was netting him twenty or twenty-five thousand a year, a wife, a baby son, owned his home in a Spokane suburb, and usually got away to play golf after four in the afternoon during the season.”
Spade had not been told very definitely what to do when he found Flitcraft. They talked in Spade’s room at the Davenport. Flitcraft had no feeling of guilt. He had left his first family well provided for, and what he had done seemed to him perfectly reasonable. The only thing that bothered him was a doubt that he could make that reasonableness clear to Spade. He had never told anybody his story before, and thus had not had to attempt to make its reasonableness explicit. He tried now.
“Here’s what happened to him. Going to lunch he passed an office-building that was being put up — just the skeleton. A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn’t touch him, though a piece of the sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. It only took a piece of skin off, but he still had the scar when I saw him. He rubbed it with his finger – well, affectionately – when he told me about it. He was scared stiff of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”
Flitcraft had been a good citizen and a good husband and father, not by any outer compulsion, but simply because he was a man most comfortable in step with his surroundings. He had been raised that way. The people he knew were like that. The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.
It was not, primarily, the injustice of it that disturbed him: he accepted that after the first shock. What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not in step, with life. He said he knew before he had gone twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life. By the time he had eaten his luncheon he had found his means of adjustment. Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away. He loved his family, he said, as much as he supposed was usual, but he knew he was leaving them adequately provided for, and his love for them was not of the sort that would make absence painful.
He went to Seattle that afternoon,” Spade said, “and from there by boat to San Francisco. For a couple of years he wandered around and then drifted back to the Northwest, and settled in Spokane and got married. His second wife didn’t look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes. He wasn’t sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally in the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

Taken from Dashiell Hammett’s ‘The Maltese Falcon’, Chapter 7, entitled ‘G In The Air’, pages 61-64.

That’s as good an explanation as I’ve ever seen – even in the academic literature (and a heck of a lot more interesting).

People get hit by a falling beam and create a world where beams always fall. Then they get used to falling beams — the exaggerated startle, the hypervigilance seem to disappear.  Many women have told me that it takes years to wear down, but it does. It may be longer or more complicated to like men again, to even tolerate men again. “I needed a woman to talk to,” they tell me. And I marvel again at how so many of the jobs I have had, well, it took my genitals to qualify for them. But like falling beams, I’ve gotten used to being accepted simply because of the number of X-chromosomes I have, rather than because of my intelligence, experience or aptitude.

One disturbing concept that has been publicized in the mass media lately is “corrective rape.”

The basis for this belief is so obviously nonsense that we can only attribute it to some kind of insanity.

But before I would vilify South Africa, I would wonder how many people in America have had similar thoughts, but would not speak them.

How can anything positive come from something so horrific? Yet variations of this are played out in even the most civilized nations, among people who claim to be religious or civilized or even just peaceful and considerate. Violence manifested in sexual ways can never be justified – it won’t teach a lesson, it won’t correct behavior, it is not a reasonable punishment.

And the consequences on the victims, the survivors and their loved ones, can be permanent and devastating.

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