Kennedy Fraser had an illuminating profile of the novelist Pat Barker in a recent New Yorker (not online):
Barker grew up with silent, wounded men. “And with talkative women, spinning stories,” she said. “Stories with bits missing.” She is a true war baby. “My mother was in the Wrems” – the Women’s Royal Navy Service – “and her stories about World War Two were always quite interesting. She used to run home through an air rad, because she knew her mother would be worried. It was a very dangerous thing to do, but I’m afraid that wouldn’t occur to my mother. She really adored the war. She was one of those women whose lives were expanded by the experience of it. She was on this huge mixed-service base, and there were lots and lots of young men. One of whom was my father! But her stories stopped short of revealing which one.”
The only Barker novel that I’ve read is Regeneration, which is really wonderful. It’s a fictionalized version of a true story and recounts the treatment of shell-shocked poets Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and the officer Billy Prior. (Sassoon and Owen are real; Prior is Barker’s creation.) The protagonist of the novel is Dr. William Rivers, the great British psychiatrist who helped pioneer some startlingly modern therapies for “shell-shock” during World War I.
At the time, shell-shock was largely dismissed as a failure of nerve, a disease of cowardice. As Elaine Showalter has pointed out, doctors treated this new scourge using the same blunt tools they had been using on “hysterical” women for decades. These “treatments” included everything from drugging the patient with bromides, to confining them in bed and force feeding them milk, to pulling their teeth, which was believed to lower the temperature of the body. Other unfortunate patients got “the fever cure,” in which psychosis was treated with an injection of malaria, tuberculosis or typhoid. The Nobel Prize was awarded for this sadistic treatment in 1927. For more on the cruelties of wartime psychiatry, see what happens to Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway.
In Regeneration, Barker demonstrates how River differed from the medical mainstream. He encouraged his patients to express their emotions, to confront their mental traumas. He believed that, unless patients dealt with what they’d been forced to repress – Prior, for instance, is haunted by the image of a loose eyeball – they would never recover from shell-shock. In this sense, Rivers helped pioneer the modern treatment of PTSD, which is similarly focused on helping patients get past their nightmarish memories.