Haunted! ‘Trauma’ and McGrath’s ghosts.

Charlie is a psychiatrist, an expert on trauma. His marriage to Agnes broke up after her brother, Danny, committed suicide.  Danny was a Vietnamese veteran whose buddy was killed by a booby trap device right next to him.  He was also Charlie’s patient.  He blew his brains out after Charlie had decided to probe the circumstances of his buddy’s death.   His mother always said that Charlie intruded too much.

Charlie met Agnes again after his mother’s funeral.  She was kind to him.  They made love, but by that time Agnes was married and he was getting involved with Nora,  a disturbed younger woman who suffered from traumatic nightmares.  Nora was also having an affair with his artist brother, Walt, though Charlie didn’t realize it at the time.  As Charlie’s mind begins to unravel under the stress of his situation, he moves to work in an isolated mental home in the Catskills.  But the town where he got an apartment, was also the scene of his own trauma, which was rekindled when Walt and their father, Fred, come to visit him.  Years ago when he and Walt were very young, Charlie witnessed a fight between his parents in their hotel bedroom just down the street. In his recurrent nightmare, it was Fred who was holding the gun to his head, but Walt explains it was it his mother; she had squeezed the trigger but it didn’t fire. ‘This is what you get when you come into a room without knocking.’ It’s then that he goes mad.  

Trauma is Patrick McGrath’s latest novel.  It lacks the power of Asylum, Spider and Dr Haggard’s Illness, but like them explores the meaning and method of madness, making it frighteningly accessible and storing  up the tension until the final denouement.  Only then can you see the patterns of his trauma, the ghosts of what has happened in the events that befall him and the choices he makes; his everyday life. 

The sight of Dannys exploded head, the blood and brains that splattered the wall, that reminded him of what nearly happened to him led to him leaving Agnes. It was his intrusiveness that led him to enter his parents bedroom and become a psychiatrist. It was his need to put things right that made him care for his mother in the confusion of her old age. But she hated him for it. Shame is so often a cause of hatred, as McGrath explains.  Charlie’s shame over Danny’s suicide made him leave Agnes. He looks after Nora; indeed he is attracted to her because she is so disturbed like his mother. But there are echoes of his early relationship with Walt in this. Walt always let Charlie take responsibility for dealing with their parents. And so although he was having an affair with Nora, Walt couldn’t handle her neuroticism and so encouraged the relationship with his brother. 

Trauma generates ghosts, thoughts that we cannot get rid of, memories that that continue to haunt our lives, influencing our actions and behaviour, determining the choices we make.  For the most part, what happens to us is not a matter of luck or fate, it is conditioned by the events and situations that have made us who we are. And so a traumatic situation that occurred many years ago can continue to reverberate in every choice we make, especially those intuitive choices that do not require analysis. In that way we re-experience the things that matter most to us over and over again, in the hope of resolution or at least the achievement of an understanding that will help remove the stain of shame.   

Charlie had protected himself from his trauma by dedicating his life to care and understanding, to trying to make it better. But the dreadful realization that his efforts might have actually made things worse led him to escape into madness. So what hope is there for recovery?  Medications can only dull an intolerable reality.  Psychotherapy may provide a safe space where his stuff can be experienced through the agency of the therapist, but the therapist and the therapeutic situation has to provide a suitable object or space for projection and transference.  No, perhaps his salvation is only possible through the redemptive power of love. Agnes husband has died.  Charlie is devoted to his daughter, Cassie.  Perhaps their love can restore the stability to exorcise the ghosts and heal his troubled mind.