I’ve had lots to think about since I sniffled and coughed through Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, my energy levels ravaged by a particularly violent viral infection this month. It’s years since I first picked it up, but varied life-events and a budding interest in medicine since then have added richness to my understanding of it.
(NB I’m not writing this from the point of view of any well-versed book critic, psychologist or expert in trauma – these are just my underdeveloped musings on a book I have read whilst I’ve been ill.)
The plot unfolds at the point of a middle-aged man called Joe, an academic, and his partner becoming entangled (in his case, literally) in the events of a hot air balloon accident, prompting one of his fellow helpers to misconstrue a cursory glance as a deliberate look of love. This elicits a strange and damaging infatuation which destabilises Joe’s relationships and daily life. The man, Jed Parry, has De Clérambault’s Syndrome, as is both deduced by the protagonist and, later, revealed in a fictitious psychiatric report which forms part of the novel’s makeup.
With an interest in medicine and/in the arts, I was not struck most by the focus on Parry’s erotomaniac tendencies but another potential pathology running prior to this; the language of trauma and distress imbued in Joe’s early narrative. Post traumatic stress disorder is, as the name suggests, triggered by distressing events such as aggression, serious accidents, or warfare. Having experienced PTSD myself, it seems perfectly natural that witnessing a hot air balloon accident resulting in the death of one man and the near-loss of a small child could do the same.
Following a traumatic loss (and surrounding events) I experienced at university, my approach to my final degree examination over a year later was an exploration of trauma and bereavement theories, and I read countless clinical papers concerning the diagnosis and treatment of post traumatic stress disorder in preparation. Particularly useful as I examined my set texts on the Vietnam war, America’s southern states at the early twentieth-century and the psychogeography of New York, these papers also helped me to make sense of what was happening to me as, in that year I experienced one loss after another and was left with a visual torrent of nightmares, hallucinations and exhausting hypervigilance, alleviated through months of EMDR therapy, meditations and the support of countless friends.
The same language of PTSD seems to pervade the novel’s opening chapters, as I read in my final year examination texts and could trace back to my own responses to my own loss. A similar hypervigilance is constructed through recounting highly accurate details of the accident and an untimely knowledge of other characters predating Joe’s possible knowledge, betraying the constant rehearsal of facts pointing both to the indelible mark of the event on his brain and simultaneously the story well-practiced for the inquest following Dr Logan’s death. Later, the chapters demonstrate the well-known coping mechanism of delayed horror, otherwise the ‘denial’ phase of bereavement which allows the human brain to break down a bitter blow and experience its savagery over time, notably in Joe’s dissociation from his viewing of the corpse of Dr Logan, only to realise its full horror later. This, and many other PTSD-invoking choices, seem more than coincidental especially given Joe’s peripheral interest in scientific narrative.
This distressed language dissipates quickly, and by their own admission Joe and Clarissa seek solace in the balm of the quotidian: lecturing, researching, dining with friends etc, and our insight into their upset psychologies is from then on less intensely focussed on the accident. Perhaps the invocations of PTSD come to an end because of Joe’s preoccupation with Parry and his erotic fixation, or perhaps because Joe and Clarissa (unlike Parry) have been privileged with the stability of upbringing which allows them to bounce back psychologically and seek meaning in the mundane after such an event. As a non-psychologist and no expert in literature, I’m not sure which of these is true.
Either way, I found this a great read with psychological plausibility from the outset, or rather, it was meaningful to me. I’d have to think more before asserting with any confidence that this is a tale about trauma and the mind (indeed, I think this only surfaces in the first few chapters) but it’s certainly interesting what my personal experience of loss and my short foray into psychiatric papers did for my reading experience this time.