Kurt Vonnegut’s Way Of Dealing With The Trauma

by Jean Stimmell

I was psyched to see “Unstuck in Time,” a new film about Kurt Vonnegut by Robert Weide and Don Argott. I had devoured Kurt’s most famous book, Slaughterhouse-Five, when it came out in 1969, soon after I got back from serving in Vietnam. As someone who viewed my war as unnecessary, illegal, and immoral, I could identify with his anti-war stance and how he questioned authority. Later, I became intrigued with him for being a wounded warrior, as were my patients, after working in the VA treating veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

In  Slaughterhouse-Five, the narrator and Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut’s alter ego, both exhibit classic signs of PTSD: inability to sleep, lack of focus, nightmares, and flashbacks. In addition, Vonnegut suffers from moral guilt, a new diagnostic category validated by historical records, detailing such suffering in soldiers going back to the ancient Greeks. Moral Guilt happens when an individual’s values are betrayed, when their sense of right and wrong is violated.

Moral guilt, over time, can eat a soldier up, as it did for Vonnegut in real life. How could it be otherwise: as a Prisoner of War in Germany, he was an eyewitness to tens of thousands of civilians being incinerated as America and its allies fire-bombed Dresden, a city renowned for its culture and art.⁠*  Then, in a nightmarish sequel, Vonnegut and his fellow POWs were forced, on pain of death, to pull out the charred, reeking remains of countless bodies from the smoking wreckage.

Vonnegut’s bedrock assumptions about the world being a safe place where good things happen to good people were shattered. Also typical for trauma survivors, his memories of these distressing events were fragmentary.  He labored for more than 20 years, attempting to piece them together, trying to find a language to express what had happened to him but, still, the missing pieces remained too radioactive. His solution came from entering the world of science fiction where Billy Pilgram could be his surrogate, acting out the big picture Vonnegut couldn’t.

Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut’s alto ago, brings to mind another gangly, awkward kid, ill-suited for the military, who had been one of my patients. Like Vonnegut, who moves back and forth in time, I am going to digress and tell this story.

As too often happens, soldiers least suited for combat, like my patient, are the ones who are thrust into the front lines. One day, out of the blue, his base camp came under an intense mortar attack. Everyone dove for cover, except my patient, who attempted to avoid the rounds exploding all around him by frantically running in circles.

Finally exhausted, he collapsed to his knees, resigned to imminent death. Strangely, at that exact moment, the deafening barrage stopped. That’s when he became unstuck in time and morphed into God—at least, that’s what he thought happened. He was diagnosed with a psychotic disorder and discharged. After that, he was okay most of the time, except when triggered by a sound or scent reminiscent of the mortar attack. Each time that happened, he fell down on his knees and became God again; after which, his civilian doctors remanded him back to the psych ward. So it goes….

Sorry for the digression.  Now back to the documentary, which shows how Vonnegut learned to cope after enduring so much. Learning how to cope in extreme situations is no longer confined to wars. All of us must master this skill in the uncertain world we find ourselves in today, inundated by multiple scenarios of pending doom: terrorism, insurrection, and climate change—while, at the same time, confronting the negative aspects of our history we thought we had swept under the rug, like slavery, white supremacy, and the genocide of Native Americans.

The horrific trauma Vonnegut suffered during WW II stripped him of any semblance of his former ideals. Yet he didn’t surrender to bitter resentment, but transformed himself into a humanist—albeit one with a dark sense of humor—by following a philosophy similar in many respects to Zen Buddhism.

Here, in a nutshell, is his philosophy, spliced together from comments he made in the documentary, highlighting the importance of living in the present: “I mean, this day is as real as any we are going to live…. When are we going to be able to pause for a moment and say out loud, ‘if this isn’t nice, what is?’…. Yet we miss it, looking ahead, hoping for ‘even better days’…forgetting this is all there is.”

So it goes. Kurt Vonnegut, we miss you.


* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombing_of_Dresden_in_World_War_II


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