Fictional PTSD: the Post-Traumatic Stress of Reading

fictional characters

I love to read.  I love to read fiction.  My choices of fiction are for entertainment.  In the late 1970s, I came across a comic in a probably defunct magazine where a woman goes to a clerk in a book store and says, “I just want a book that starts happy, stays happy, and end happy.”  After many years in graduate school reading majestic tragedies, deep philosophies, and complex literary texts, I am now committed to things that frothy and delicious.  This started after a year, fifteen years ago, when three people close to me died.  One death was very sudden, another was my father after a short illness, and another was a friend after a long and valiant struggle with cancer.  All died too soon.  That year changed my attitude towards life, work, love, and friendship.  I learned to trust and learned to distrust.  It was a profound change.

It did change my choice of reading materials.  I didn’t want to read about the deep, tragic struggles of others because I had enough of my own.  I did, as I joked, want things that start happy, stay happy, and end happy.  It is fiction, after all, not reality.  I forgot that reality is also a fictional construct.  Life is just life and you have to live it.

The draw of fiction, for me, is the characters.  I get involved in their thoughts, dreams, and realities.  I like murder mysteries because that is what my mother read but also because of character driven plots.  I like fantasy because there is no limit to the imagining and reimaging of the world, soul, and people. Whole worlds are built, lived, destroyed, and rebuilt.

Recently I’ve gotten into reading audio books.  Because I’m a fast reader, I often miss details and audio books compel me to pay attention to all the detail.  The voice of the narrator is very important.  The first audiobook (on cassette tape!) I listened to many years ago had a male narrator in an action/adventure book.  Unfortunately, the love interest of the male main character was read in a husky, low voice.  I became convinced that the woman was transgendered, contrary to the fictional construct of the novel.  It caused a dissonance in my understanding of the novel which would have been better had the character been transgendered.  See what I mean?  It’s about how the voice conjured the character and the words.  The voice put the character and the words in opposition, they did not match.  Either would have worked if they both character and the voice had matched.

I think audiobooks and narrators have gotten more sophisticated because now I’m really enjoying them.  I usually listen to a sample since I know sometimes I just can’t get beyond the voice.  I also listen to different genres that what I might read in print.  After watching the Game of Thrones for three seasons on HBO, I decided to read the books.  It is much talked about in our library and I wanted to find out what happened beyond the television program.  I had already learned to not become attached to the characters created by George R.R. Martin because they will surely die.  As each book progressed, they got longer.  The detail more intense.  The world in which the story took place more brutal.

Book 5, Dance with Dragons is very long whether you read it or listen to it.  The chapters end in cliffhangers, the characters are brutalized to a distressing degree, and life is full of degradation no matter what the station of life.  Neither nobility of common-folk are spared death, dismemberment, maiming, torture, or the cold of winter.  I found myself deeply resenting the author.  I felt that the machinations of the author overtly and with growing hostility.  The world of the book is stark, cold, and relentlessly unforgiving.  So is the author.  I finally finished it to my relief.  It ended on a heart rending cliffhanger.  With no projected publication date for the next book.

A week later and two books later, I’m still distrustful of my reading materials.  I have retreated into some familiar series.  The audio-book I’m listening too is a trusted series with a delightfully humorous voice.  I realized that I was suffering from a fictional post-traumatic stress disorder. That listening/reading about characters in extreme distress has been mirrored in my reading reactions.  I will heal, it will take time and the appropriate application of fictional characters and plots but I will survive!

It should be noted I mean no disrespect to those who suffer from PTSD.  This book was probably a poor choice because of what is going on elsewhere in my life and my reaction is rather extreme.  It does indicate both the power of the author and the power of reading in any format.  As we give ourselves over to relationships with characters, we become elated, wounded, empowered, grieved, and aggrieved.  It is the wonder of it all.