Prejudice, Lies and Memory Tapes: How to Stop Trusting Yourself and Learn to Be a Good Ally

August 25, 2013 / no comments

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This is an essay directed at allies–all allies, in all struggles for justice and equity.  My presumption is that you want to be good allies, and that you earnestly believe in the causes for which you struggle. You don’t want to be a racist, and you don’t want to be a sexist, or an able-ist, or a classist, or any other sort of enforcer of systematic oppressions. Instead, you want to liberate others and yourself from the chains of institutionalized oppression.  Today I want to talk about why our own brains make that a difficult thing to do, how we cannot trust our own memories and perceptions. I also want to discuss the importance of basic principles in guiding behavior, the need for us to struggle for coherence, and to fight our tendencies to ignore, rationalize and excuse oppressive behavior.

Last week’s diary by shanikka, With friends like these, can we really ever all hear each other? Feminism vs. Women of Color Voice, described Hugo Schwyzer’s plunge from the Mt. Olympus of mainstream (white) feminism. I’m not going to recapitulate the specifics of the story, because shanikka did that brilliantly, and if you missed it, you should read it.  Instead, I want to talk about the underlying perceptions and belief systems that encourage the more powerful to ignore the less powerful, even when the members of the more powerful group claim they’re dedicated to the liberation of the less powerful group.  I want to talk about why the more powerful often cover up their mistakes by attacking those who expose them, instead of thanking them for the exposure and rectifying their errors.  Power, in this essay, is described as relative, rather than absolute, and I’m talking about situations in which liberation struggles (for example, women’s rights movements) contain power divisions among members (for example, white feminists vs. feminist women of color (WoC); straight feminists vs. queer feminists; middle- and upper-class feminists vs. working class and poor feminists; etc.).

Shanikka powerfully described an instance in which a number of  WoC had seen and analyzed a situation well in advance of their white peers,. Despite offering warning after warning, these WoC were, at best, ignored and, at worst, derided and attacked by white feminists.  When the WoC who gave those warnings were proven incontrovertibly correct, and publicly said, “I told you so,” the  reaction of most vocal white feminists was less than pretty. The Twitter conversation that ensued between WoC provoked defensive anger among white feminists rather than contrition. White feminists tried to change the topic: they didn’t talk about the mistakes they’d made; instead, they attacked WoC for their comportment.  Though an egregious example, the same pattern is in evidence every day: I’m sure you can come up with your own examples, both personal and professional,  (and I’d love to hear about them in the comments). The most notable feature of these situations is the way that the folks who made the mistake often double down on their criticism of those who were indisputably right.

Why do we do that?  Well, it turns out that we’re built that way.  In Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me, psychologists Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson review dozens of studies that examine the connection between evidence, memory, rationalizations, and lies. What they found was that, “People become more certain they are right about something they just did if they can’t undo it.”  In other words, when you’ve committed yourself to a path of action, then you become instantly more sure that your action was correct.  We also give more credit to people we view as “us,” and less credit to people we view as “them,” even when performance statistics are equal. And when people are under stress (for example, when they’ve been proven wrong in an embarrassing fashion), they’re more likely to express their prejudices, and then to justify them.

For example, in one typical experiment, white students were told they would be inflicting electric shock on another student, the “learner,” whom they knew was white or African American, as part of an apparent study on biofeedback. The students initially gave a lower intensity of shock to black learners than to white ones–reflecting a desire, perhaps, to show they were not prejudiced. Then the students overheard the learner making derogatory comments about them, which, naturally, made them angry. Now, given another opportunity to inflict electric shock, the students who were working with a black learner administered higher levels of shock than did students who were working with a white learner. The same result appears in studies of how English-speaking Canadians behave toward French-speaking Canadians, straights toward homosexuals, non-Jewish students toward Jews, and men toward women.

As the authors note, “Prejudice justifies the ill treatment we want to inflict on others, and we want to inflict ill treatment on others because we don’t like them.” (Note: members of minority or oppressed groups don’t seem to share the same disciplinary inclination to punish members of the more privileged group.)  Finally, we revise our memories to suit our current beliefs about reality. We do this on an ongoing basis, so “memory becomes our personal, live-in, self-justifying historian…. If mistakes were made, memory helps us remember that they were made by someone else. If we were there, we were just innocent bystanders.” In fact, we remember our own small lies and fabricated details a lot better than we remember facts that controvert our point of view.

So we can expect that when we’re caught in a mistake and then publicly accused of prejudice, we’ll be more likely to express and justify those prejudices, more likely to attack those who accuse us of prejudice,  more likely to rationalize our accusations, and more likely to remember what suits us (including our own “white lies”) than what actually happened.  In The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves, Dan Ariely explains:

[O]nce something or someone irritates us, it becomes easier for us to justify our immoral behavior. Our dishonesty becomes retribution, a compensatory act against whatever got our goat in the first place. We tell ourselves that we’re not doing anything wrong, we are only getting even. We might even take this rationalization a step further and tell ourselves that we are simply restoring karma and balance to the world. Good for us, we’re crusading for justice!

Which is exactly what a number of white feminists did, when WoC called them out on Hugh Schwyzer, doubling down after their mistake was publicly exposed.

So what can we learn from this, if we want to be genuine allies and not people who reinforce prejudice?  The first thing is to allow yourself to doubt your own instinctive reactions, your own arguments, and your own memories.  Yeah, I know this is hard.  It feels like surrendering control (you are) and it’s always a risk to take another person’s word above your own conviction.  I can’t tell you how you should manage this difficult task, but I can tell you how I do it.

The first thing I do is to go back to first principles.  My own first principles include the following:

1. I believe that all people, regardless of identity group (race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability or country of origin, etc) have an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, individually, and in community, as long as those rights don’t infringe on the rights of others to do the same.

2. I believe that people have the right to speak for themselves and their own experiences, and that while aggregated experiences do not “prove” the correctness of a communally-held belief,  those beliefs deserve to be heard and considered along with other existing claims and evidence.

3. I believe in hard evidence, in which category I include statistical evidence derived from well-conducted studies. If the preponderance of evidence is that one group is consistently disadvantaged in relation to another, based on principle #1 above, I assume that the disparity is caused by something other than innate, essential differences between the groups, unless or until that belief is contradicted by clear evidence to the contrary (a situation I have not yet encountered).

4. I believe that people who suffer disadvantages have a much greater vested interest in revealing those disadvantages than do people who are privileged and, especially, those who benefit from disadvantaging others either purposely or inadvertently.

Because, in the heat of the moment, I’m as likely as anyone else to engage in the psychological responsibility-dodging  and prejudiced behavior I described above, I try to keep an eye out for situations that could cause that sort of defensiveness, and prepare myself in advance to not act like a dick.  In my opinion, an important part of being an effective ally is to understand our own tendency to act badly, especially under pressure.  What makes me an ally is not that I’m exempt from such behavior, but that I anticipate it, and try to head it off at the pass, before it does damage to the very people I’m claiming to want to liberate. And when I’m criticized by members of oppressed groups, I force myself (even when I don’t want to, or even when I feel humiliated) to listen to the people who are telling me I screwed up, and to take their criticisms seriously.  This doesn’t mean I think every individual member of an oppressed group who tells me I screwed up is always right.  What it does mean is that I take the very good odds that they are right into account before formulating my response.  I understand that in such situations I am highly likely to be in the wrong.

And it’s important to talk about the cost of being wrong.  When you become an ally (a real ally, who aligns with members of the oppressed group, against the structure that protects your own privilege), you’ve pretty much ensured that you’re going to take an enormous amount of crap from your own, since you’re trying to dismantle the system of privilege that protects them/you.  And if you’re a real ally, it’s awfully hard to maintain deep connections and friendships with people who you think are acting like oppressive jerks.  So you turn for support and friendship to your peers and  to the people to whose cause you’ve committed.  In most cases they very generously give it to you.  In this situation, there’s a high cost to fucking up, because if you piss your peers and allies off,  it’s quite likely that you’ll be left with no one — no community, no support — and that’s a terrifying prospect. In my experience, the only way to keep that terror in perspective is to remember that, however deep my fear of losing my community, it’s not the same thing as being oppressed. Someone who is wrong can, and usually is, forgiven if they mend their ways and don’t make the same mistake again.  In the larger scheme of things, saying you’re (I’m) sorry, and learning to be a better ally by addressing your (my) prejudices is not a punishment. It’s a growth opportunity, and growth is often painful.

When we’re criticized we remember what we don’t like about our critics, rather than what we do. This makes it easier for us to dismiss what they have to say, even when we’ve praised them previously for critiquing exactly the behavior in others that they are now criticizing in us. In the case of white feminists, this often takes the form of cherry picking the words of WoC, using the words we like to support our arguments, and dismissing the critiques that make us uncomfortable. And critiques of their own racism make white feminists uncomfortable. As shanikka noted, what WoC had pointed out about Schwyzer was his racism, and they used examples of his racism as well as his sexism, to question his redemption narrative and his bona fides long before his recent mainstream exposure as a fraud.  The majority of white feminists had not, apparently, noticed that they were blanket-dismissing the concerns of women of color, or that they had sidelined critiques about Schwyzer’s racism as emanating from a “special interest group” within feminism, just as white feminists, throughout the history of white feminism, have always had difficulty seeing and hearing women of color when they speak and write. But you can bet that most of the white feminists who dismissed these WoC would claim to be allies of WoC and to be antiracist. How can white feminists contain this contradiction? And, more important, how can we avoid replicating it?

First, as I mentioned above, we have to be ready to be wrong, and to understand that being wrong is not the end of the world, but an opportunity to become a more effective ally, activist, teacher, learner and organizer.

Second, we need to learn to see those who aren’t there.   As a white feminist, I have access to all kinds of documentation of the voices, opinions, ideas, intellectual history, feminist history, etc., of women of color, of women with different abilities, of women from different classes, of transwomen, of queer women, etc. The responsibility is on me to open up feminism, not on the women who are being excluded. Being a feminist means elevating all women to the same level of importance, and that means doing the freaking footwork to make sure that feminism is inclusive rather than exclusive. It means not assuming that women “like me” (white women, professional class women, etc.) are “women” and that women who don’t belong to those categories represent “special interests” who can be invited on board after the important decisions are made.  And it means being willing to admit I am wrong again, and again, and again, each time I’m called for acting on my prejudices, until inclusiveness becomes so integrated into my world view that I can’t look around the room without seeing the faces that aren’t there at the table.

Third, we need to consult the full range of our allies and potential allies, and understand that any table that is not built by all the members of a movement does not represent the movement.  I’ve written before about the difficulties of integrating existing white feminist organizations, and the importance of creating representational organizations from the ground up.  This isn’t just true for feminism.  If you believe that There’s No War But the Class War, and you notice the absence of black and brown faces in your ranks of organizers,  you might want to stop dismissing the concerns of non-white workers as “special interests” and “identity politics”, and start understanding that the movement you’ve created is and will continue to be a White Worker’s Movement, unless you admit your mistakes and make some changes.

Though I speak from the perspective of a feminist and antiracist activist, I think these principles apply across movements. Being an ally and creating inclusive movements isn’t easy or painless: if it was, everyone would do it.  On the other hand, it’s the only way to make lasting changes in the long term, and to avoid the divide-and-conquer tactics that the right successfully uses to inhibit our effectiveness.  The first step in being more inclusive is to face the prejudices that prevent us from seeing those with whom we should be making common cause.  I hope this was helpful, and I know for sure that I don’t have all the answers, so I’d very much like to hear your ideas on the topic.

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22 August 2013, PTSD & Trauma News Roundup

August 22, 2013 / no comments

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We know it’s bad… when it happens to a white woman

CNN featured the story of Michele Cross, a University of Chicago student who was diagnosed with PTSD after she returned from her studies in India.  CNN and other news outlets who discussed the story never failed to mention that Cross was a “fair-skinned, red haired” woman, as opposed, one assumed, to all thosee dark-skinned, dark-haired Indian women who inhabit the continent.   The story Cross originally told in a CNN iReport under the screen name of RoseChasm” rack[ed] up more than 800,000 page views” within 3 days of publication. Could it be because Cross herself emphasized her whiteness, her hair color, her blue eyes in a short piece of dramatic prose, full of florid passages like the following:

There was no way to prepare for the eyes, the eyes that every day stared with such entitlement at my body, with no change of expression whether I met their gaze or not. Walking to the fruit seller’s or the tailer’s I got stares so sharp that they sliced away bits of me piece by piece. I was prepared for my actions to be taken as sex signals; I was not prepared to understand that there were no sex signals, only women’s bodies to be taken, or hidden away.

I covered up, but I did not hide. And so I was taken, by eye after eye, picture after picture. Who knows how many photos there are of me in India, or on the internet: photos of me walking, cursing, flipping people off. Who knows how many strangers have used my image as pornography, and those of my friends. I deleted my fair share, but it was a drop in the ocean– I had no chance of taking back everything they took.

If everything Ms. Cross says is true, she endured a level of harassment that was awful. And of course no woman should have to put up with that.  But I find it incredible that in all her description, she did not find it in her heart, even once, to mention what daily life must be like for Indian women, who have been in the streets  protesting a campaign of murder and rape waged against them by their countrymen.  A “South Asian Studies” scholar, Cross did not for a moment contextualize her own suffering — nope, this was all about her.  And the public ate it up—this story of a white woman pawed by native men.  Though Cross claims she is not the only UC student who experienced this harassment, at least one  other woman on the trip attempted to counter the tone of Cross’s narrative.  Katherine Stewart, a black UC student, confirms that there were attacks on women in the program, but takes issue with—what she tactfully does not say outright—the racism evident in Cross’s response. Stewart wrote:

RoseChasm does not address the fact that there are warm and honest men in India. When we do not make the distinction that only some men of a population commit a crime, we develop a stereotype for an entire population. And when we develop a negative stereotype for a population, what arises? Racism….

I understand RoseChasm’s pain, and I too had a hard time readjusting to life in America after my experience in India. I truly hope for her to be well again, but I will not sit back and allow the image of India’s men to be tarnished by an article that does not articulate other sides to India. I experienced love, excitement, and awe in India. And while I did experience unacceptable harassment, I know that my ability to not generalize a population will allow people to see that we must find another way to deal with this issue.

You can bet Stewart didn’t get 800,000 hits in three days.

You’re all whiners… or maybe not

Psychologist Michael J. Hurd (Ph.D., LCSW) rants on delmarvaNow!com about the lack of definition of “trauma.”  This pretty much sums it up: “Our government and educated intellectuals (psychiatrists included) have frankly turned many of us into a bunch of babies.”  His “argument” seems to be that if psychiatrists didn’t go around inventing ridiculous diseases, we wouldn’t have them.  Just makes you want to jump up and run to his office for therapy, doesn’t it?

On the other side of the spectrum is Michael Pond, a therapist who works with First Nations patients in British Columbia. He thinks it’s a good thing that the diagnosis is now “pervasive”:

And before anyone rolls their eyes derisively, according to the updated criteria for the illness in the new DSM 5, the bible of psychiatry, it’s very likely the diagnosis is correct.

I treat a lot of First Nations people for addictions, depression, anxiety and aggression. But the more they reveal the extent of the horror they experienced in residential schools, the more obvious it is to me that my clients actually suffer from PTSD, and all the other problems are symptoms of it.

The pervasiveness of the condition, Pond argues, will help us take the victims of violence more seriously.

Making money off of war… (don’t let the “org” fool you — it’s a commercial endeavor) was founded by Chris Great, an advertising executive who speicalizes brand development, marketing and entrepreneurship.  His company markets commemorative bracelets to soldiers and their families for prices ranging from $14 to $134.50, says it donates $2/bracelet to “military support organizations.”  One of these organizations is the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund (where do they get these names?), to which they recently donated $150,000 in bracelet money (which means they sold at lest 75,000 bracelets, at, say, an average price of $25, which totals to something around $7.5 million earned from soldiers and veterans and families.  IFHF raised money to build a treatment center for Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) on the Navy Campus of Bethesday, as well as other centers for treatment and study of TBI.  We’re talking big, big bucks here — these centers can cost upwards of $50 million, so’s $150,000 is a drop in the bucket.  But Herobracelets has certainly used this as a PR opportunity, marketing its bracelets as a way to “support our military”: gives them an opportunity to spread awareness by wearing their bracelet, and it allows them to make a financial contribution to a charity of their choice.” said Christopher and Loree Greta, founders of “$2 per bracelet may not seem like much, but it has certainly added up – and $150,000 later, it’s allowed us and our customers to make a difference for the thousands of service members and their families who rely on Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund and the NICoE Centers for treatment of their invisible wounds.

$2/bracelet.  Doesn’t seem like much to do for our veterans, does it.  Especially when it’s them and their families forking over the money in the first place.


It’s rare that clinical studies include PTSD with comorbid disorders, so it was nice to see this August 7 randomized clinical trial on Naltrexone and Prolonged Exposure Therapy in patients with both PTSD and alcohol dependence. It’s tough to do a double-blind study for psychological interventions, since therapists need to be trained in the methods they use. Thus, this was a single-blind study, meaning the patients did not know whether whether they were receiving the medication or a sugar pill, and did not know if they were receiving Exposure Therapy (ET) or supportive counseling (SC). As usual, symptom severity was the measure of success, along with the Alcohol Craving scale: were symptoms and drinking days reduced more by the naltroxene or the Exposure Therapy or by both in combination? The group they studied was mostly between 36-43 years old, about 66% male, and the majority of subjects were black.  (An odd note here — blacks made up 70-75% of those given ET+Naltrexone and ET+Placebo, but only 50-60% of those given SC+Naltrexone and SC+Placebo.)  Also unusual is the fact that combat vets made up only about 15% of the study group. The predominant traumas were sexual assault and physical assault.  Like many other surveys, this one found that there was no significant difference between the effectiveness of Exposure Therapy and supportive counseling, and PTSD symptoms did not decrease significantly in any of the combinations. The study found that the patients prescribed naltrexone drank less often.   The best they could say about Exposure Therapy is that it “was not associated with an exacerbation of alcohol use disorder.”  That’s a good thing to know about one of the most frequently prescribed talk therapies for PTSD: at least it doesn’t make it worse.

Fund Raising

Veteran Doug Setter, and his colleagues Linh Lai and Dave Iten are doing a “four-mile open water relay swim across Bellingham Bay [WA] in honour of American and Canadian servicemen that lost their lives to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Along with other military stressors, Setter blames “the public’s [negative] perception of soldiers” for some of the stress veterans feel when they return home. It’s not clear what the swim is designed to do except “honour soldiers who killed themselves because of PTSD” and “shine a light on the challenges soldiers face with their duty is done.”  The swim is named after a local veteran who committed suicide after a tour in Iraq.

War on Film

Steven Grayhm of Astoria Film Co.(Los Angeles) is trying to raise $750,000 on Kickstarter to fund Thunder Road, a film based on a story told to him by Iraq war veteran Nick Carbonell, who witnessed the death of his best friend on a nighttime operation in Iraq. From the Kickstarter site:

Thunder Road is the story of returning U.S. soldier SGT. CALVIN COLE (played by Steven) whom we meet in present day Detroit as a troubled veteran who suffers from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and tbi (Traumatic Brain Injury) from multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Initially resistant to the VA system COLE must find a way to assimilate back into civilian life before he ends up dead or in prison.

Through his rekindled friendship with his estranged childhood friend PFC. DARRYL SPARKS (played by Matt) who he served on the “buddy system” with and his newly formed relationship with a doctor at the VA Medical Center, COLE finds redemption and salvation through sharing his captivating experience as a combat infantryman. The film also explores the psychological repercussions of war and seeks answers to the growing epidemic of PTSD and tbi in returning soldiers.

A pretty predictable plot trajectory, and certain one right out of the mainstream pop culture representations of PTSD: damaged warrior helped back to health by a wise VA therapist, finds redemption in sharing his story of trauma.  A report on its quality will have to wait until the film is made, but I don’t hold much hope it’ll be groundbreaking. I’m sick of films that imply that the only two choices choices facing a vet with active PTSD are either winding up dead or in prison.  The vast majority of people with PTSD continue on with their lives, dealing as best they can, and commit neither crimes nor suicide.

This notion that sharing a trauma is an end in itself is very popular, despite the fact that thousands of such stories have been shared by traumatized soldiers, and that there’s no evidence that simply sharing these stories actually contributes to improved reintegration or happiness. Trauma survivors who make a practice of telling and retelling their stories, particularly for public consumption, over many years, rarely seem to move beyond the trauma of war.  It cheers the public up to see stories in which an earnest vet, traumatized in war, regains his ability to connect with his emotions and with his significant others, and it’s even better if he then shoulders the burden of dealing with other  vets like himself.  But that’s a rarity — the vast majority of vets who are treated for PTSD by the VA are still under treatment four years later.  If there is “healing,” it’s a slow process and conclusion is far from assured.  And one reason that it’s such a slow path to recovery might be that the public taste for trauma narratives does not seem connected to the public’s interest in ending the circumstances that cause trauma.

And the inevitable PTSD Diagnosis by Media section…

The L.A. Times says that journalist Michael Hastings “may have suffered PTSD from work as a war journalist.” Hastings died in a single-car accident, and in such cases there’s often speculation that the crash was a form of suicide. Despite the claim of journalists Richard Winton and Andrew Blankenstein, the coroner’s report seems to contain no evidence at all that PTSD had anything to do with Hasting’s death. Hastings may well have had PTSD, given his experiences in the war, and he may have said that he used medical marijuana to treat PTSD, but that’s a far cry from PTSD causing a suicide.  Perhaps the L.A. Times journalists confused the coroner’s comment that Hastings had died of “traumatic injuries,” with “post-traumatic stress disorder,” contemporary journalistic standards being what they are.

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18 August 2013, PTSD News Roundup

August 18, 2013 / no comments

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It wasn’t genocide! It was PTSD!

The story that wins the prize for the Most Loathsome Example of Exploiting Sympathy for PTSD to Excuse Egregious Behavior is…  “Excessive drinking, PTSD plagued Thomas Weir.”

Not all of the fatalities of the Battle of the Little Big Horn took place on the battlefield.

After the defeat of George Armstrong Custer at the Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876, Lt. Thomas Weir went into a deep depression (now defined as post-traumatic stress disorder) and died Sept. 28, three months after the battle.

I’m not sure where to file this except under “frickin’ unbelievable.” This is a sob story that’s supposed to leave us feeling deeply sympathetic towards Lt. Weir, who survived the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  Weir was an instrument in the U.S. government’s genocidal campaign against Native Americans and participated in the Washita Massacre, where Custer’s troops murdered women and children. (The article describes the event as “the Battle of Washita, or as many call it, a massacre” — “many” apparently not including the author of the article, Curtis Eriksmoen.)  Though the article lauds Weir, it’s impossible to tell his story without admitting that he was a drunk, well before the Battle of the Little Big Horn. This is the first of a two-part story, so we’re left hanging without evidence for the premise of the story, which is that poor Weir developed PTSD as the result of his failed attempt to save Custer at the Little Big Horn, which contributed to his demise.  What the authors don’t consider is that Weir’s PTSD might instead have been a result of his participation in the slaughter of innocents. A fine example of misusing PTSD in the cause of right-wing revisionism.

Veteran homelessness is a racial issue

The Augusta Chronicle gives us the story of Anthony Garrett, a homeless, unemployed 51-year-old black veteran who spends his jobless hours as a street preacher in Augusta’s Under the Bridge Ministry. For staff writer Wesley Brown, Garret illustrates the way “homelessness has become a way of life” for the estimated 300 homeless veterans in and around Augusta.  We learn little about Garret from the article, only that he was at some time married and lived in his own home (rented or bought, it’s not clear), and that he was laid off as a forklift operator, got a job digging graves at a funeral home, and was unable to continue doing hard physical labor because he received a back injury during Operation Desert Storm that left him with fused discs in his back. He currently does carpentry work for his ex-wife’s uncle, in exchange for a place to sleep, so, unlike many other vets, he’s not quite homeless, “just” destitute.  The story wanders, as if it’s not really sure of its subject, bouncing around from the claim that Augusta vets are not receiving the help for which they are eligible (statement from the Augusta Warrior Project, a non-profit dedicated to connecting veterans to the benefits for which they are eligible), to the problems of having a “documented” disability (“Once an employer learns you are a veteran with a certain illness, they will not hire you,” Garrett says, towards the end of the article.)  The third sentence from the last reveals his disability: PTSD.  It ends with Garrett’s comment that “Augusta is not a good environment for recovering veterans.”

What I find most interesting in the article is that it doesn’t mention Garrett’s race at all. (I could see from the  photo that he’s African American.) In May of this year, the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans (NCHV) published a report that documented the unequal effect of military service on African American veterans, from the Vietnam war era to the current day.  Income disparity is the most important determiner of whether a veteran will wind up homeless or not, and the NCHV report emphasizes that.  It’s worth looking at this telling statistic from 2002:  “… Blacks were 47% of the homeless population, and were over 4x as likely to be homeless as other veterans.” The percentage of the homeless population that is African American has not changed much since 2002. It’s also notable that in 2007 the VA found that 71% of the homeless women vets in their program were African American. The NHCV report notes that veteran status is only one of the risk factors for homelessness among African American vets. For example, black vets are unemployed far out of proportion to their numbers: 48% of black veterans between the ages of 18-24 are unemployed.  This was pretty easy for me to find out, with a quick google of “African American veterans homelessness,” and should have been an obvious search question for any responsible reporter.   Ignoring race, and emphasizing PTSD as an equal opportunity cause of homelessness is deeply dishonest. I can’t say I’m surprised that this is the practice in Augusta, but it shouldn’t be.

Therapy Dogs

I’ve been avoiding this issue, but stories about vets and their dogs are in the news pretty much every day, so I guess I have to face it. So I’ll start with the article about Jeremy Walton, a Rensselaer County veteran who was happy to receive his PTSD therapy dog, Alanna, a brown labrador retriever.  “‘I haven’t smiled like this in years… Another one of the best days of my life,” said Walton.  I like dogs, and I think they’re good for a lot of people, and especially for people who don’t get as much human companionship and love as they need. I’ve always had dogs myself, and I think my life is better for it.  But the scientific evidence that psychiatric service dogs can alleviate PTSD symptoms is sparse to non-existent.  PubMed lists only a dozen studies of psychiatric service dogs, and I found only four results that linked service dogs to treating PTSD. Of those, only two were actual studies. A 2008 study in Issues Ment Health Nurs is of a single case in “a patient who received animal-assisted therapy as a psychiatric rehabilitation tool to ameliorate his atypical depression following an assault and subsequent head injury.” This study claims only that service dogs have “therapeutic potential.” And one study, from U.S. Army Med Dept J (2012) claims only that there is “anecdotal evidence that training service dogs reduces the PTSD symptoms of Warrior-trainers and that the presence of the dogs enhances the sense of wellness in the NICoE staff and the families of our Wounded Warriors.” A more general search on “pets mental health” brought further results, and the most recent studies made claims like this:

Although scientific evidence on the effects is far from being consistent, companion animals are used with a large number of human subjects, ranging from children to elderly people, who benefit most from emotional support. Based on a comprehensive review of the literature, this paper examines the potential for domesticated animals, such as dogs, for providing emotional and physical opportunities to enrich the lives of many frail subjects. In particular, we focus on innovative interventions, including the potential use of dogs to improve the life of emotionally-impaired children, such as those affected by autism spectrum disorders. Overall an ever increasing research effort is needed to search for the mechanism that lie behind the human-animal bond as well as to provide standardized methodologies for a cautious and effective use of animal-assisted interventions.

If you’re used to reading scientific papers, you can boil this down to the following:  There are a lot of untested programs that provide service animals to people with various illnesses. But we don’t know if they work.  We should probably figure out if they work, and then why they work before we go around handing over animals to people they may or may not benefit, under circumstances that may or may not be good for the animal or the veteran. If a vet wants a dog, and has the means to care for the animal properly, he or she should have the same right to have one as any other person.  But I’m opposed to programs that spend money on providing unvalidated treatments for PTSD, the effects of which (on veteran or dog) we do not know in the medium- or long-term.  Well-controlled research studies are necessary.  If you give a vet a dog with the expectation that she or he will form a deep emotional bond with the animal, and you’re pretty sure the vet will outlive the dog, can you say for certain that the ultimate effect that living with the dog will have on a vet is undoubtedly positive? Folks without PTSD are devastated with their dogs die.  How are folks with PTSD going to handle that devastation?

Today’s news also gives us a glimpse of that pain. Devastated by the loss of her service dog, veteran Karen Sagahon “says life has been incredibly difficult without her service dog and friend.”  Sagahon, whose dog disappeared at a local mall explained, “”It’s another day of putting one step in front of another until we can find him and bring him home. I won’t quit until I can bring him home and make our family whole again.” Better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all? The truth is, we don’t know. It’s possible that vets with service dogs will have a higher rate of suicide after the death of the dog.  We probably ought to find out before we start singing the praises of these programs, but it’s so easy to play this as a “feel good” story that news media never take a critical view.

PTSD Feature Articles

The Napa Valley Register profiled Juan Mora, a Calistoga High School footballer who served in the Marines and the Navy. The high school sports star (“starting center of a Wildcats team that reached the summit of the CIF North Coast Section Class B playoffs, capped by a 22-18 come-from-behind win over St. Bernard [Eureka] in 1999”) was a natural leader.  After high school he joined the Marines and then the Navy, served two tours in Iraq, is married, with two children, and has a BA in criminal justice. He worked as a corrections officer in Arizona, and is now in school again, getting an Associate of Arts in sports sciences. The article reads like an average Sunday section “local hero makes good” piece, and Mora sounds like a perfectly nice, normal guy who has gained some wisdom along the way:

I don’t take things for granted like I used to when I was younger,” Mora said. “I’ve been in a Third World country. I’ve seen that a bathroom is a privilege. Over here in the United States, you can pull over to a gas station wherever you want. Also, I learned that not everyone in Iraq is a mean person. They live and try to survive just like we do over here in the United States.

But then the article changes gears:

With exposure to most any combat situation comes the greater risk of being afflicted by PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Though seeing numerous forms of “Support the Troops” communications from civilians have an uplifting tone, Mora, by his own admission, still experiences PTSD.

I’m not even going to tackle the incoherence of the paragraph. I’m just going to use it as a marker of the beginning of the “wounded vet” part of the feature, where it move from “local hero makes good” into revelations of Mora’s problems with alcohol, the failure of stoicism (macho) in his efforts to cope with PTSD, his need and gratefulness for professional help, the obligatory mention of “nightmares, cold sweats, and flashbacks,” and his reintegration into a stable family life in which “his wife, mother and children” are “his security blanket.”

This may indeed be Mora’s story, and it could be that he, not the reporter or editor, chose its trajectory.  But I’ve read a thousand of these features, and they are starting, more and more, to sound like morality plays to me.  Here’s the trope:  1) Normal guy goes off to war; 2) Unspeakable things happen offscreen; 3) Vet comes home to the civilian world where can’t readjust; 4) Vet develops serious problems with alcohol/violence/relationships/other placeholder, and hits bottom; 5) Vet admits he needs help and brings his problems to a therapist or program; 6) Vet is healed with help from the therapist/program/wife/other placeholder; 7) Vet is reintegrated into “normal” life, signified by family bonds, and can serve as an “example” to other vets.  This is a pretty safe story for a Sunday paper, and I can see why they might look for subjects who seem to fit the bill.  There’s nothing threatening in this story at all; it has a happy ending and it reassures the reader that veteran stories, generally, can have happy endings if only vet is willing to go “find help.”  What’s not part of the story is that help is pretty hard to find for a lot of vets, and that PTSD treatments don’t work for the majority of them, even when they are available, and that most vets with PTSD have other hard-to-treat problems (substance abuse, depression, etc), and that PTSD isn’t the worst problem for many vets, particularly vets of color who face terrible unemployment problems… well… we don’t really want to talk about that in a feel-good Sunday feature article.

Indigenous veterans in Australia

And speaking about racial discrimination and its effect on veterans, there’s an excellent (and rare) article on Australia’s indigenous Vietnam War veterans in The Age today. It’s clumsily titled, “War does not discriminate,” but the point of the article is actually that discrimination plays a strong role in war and its aftermath.  An excerpt:

Though there are many points where the indigenous and non-indigenous Vietnam experiences were similar, there are also significant points of difference. Before signing up for the armed forces, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Vietnam veterans grew up in an Australia under assimilation policies. This meant restrictive legislation in every state and territory that regulated indigenous people’s movements, marriages, education and job prospects, and, as indicated already, they also faced the threat of child removal.

Like Dave Cook, many Aboriginal soldiers were members of the stolen generations. Even those Aboriginal veterans who were not separated from their families have memories of hiding from welfare as children. They remember confronting prejudice in their everyday pre-service lives, whether in the form of taunts, job discrimination or police harassment.

Unfortunately for Aboriginal veterans, the return to civilian society after Vietnam also often entailed a return to racial discrimination. Many RSLs denied entry to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans because of their race. In some states, publicans would not even serve alcohol to them. In some instances, racial discrimination merely compounded the problems of PTSD, leading to downward spirals in their personal lives.

PTSD Features in Web Series

Atlantic City is premiering at 8:00pm tonight at

The series follows Frank Porter (played by Richard John Patrick), who returns home to Atlantic City after a tour in Afghanistan. In addition to his war-related trauma, Frank also faces terminal illness within his family, his girlfriend’s marriage to another man, joblessness and the temptation of street life. His experience with PTSD will rear its head and lead him into crime.

Dave Polgar, 29, a resident of Ambler, plays Julian Foster, a Marine assigned the task of tracking Frank down. While the cast and crew are keeping details about the series secret, Polgar admits that Frank’s PTSD leads him to do “some very, very bad things.” Although Frank is the lead character, he isn’t the only one embracing the bad.

Sigh.  Yes, of course.  In pop culture, PTSD makes people do very, very bad things.  I thought we’d gotten over the crazy vet bullshit, but here it comes again, full force.  I’ll watch and let you know whether it’s going to be as awful as it sounds.

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