Onyx reviews: Trauma by
Through his protagonist, psychiatrist (don't call him a shrink) Charlie Weir,
Patrick McGrath defines "trauma" as a horrible event that "is
always happening now, in the present, for the first time."
Charlie is familiar with trauma—he has dealt with it all his life. He's the
younger (and less favored) of two sons, the one who always had to look after his
mother during her worst episodes of depression and alcoholism and placate his
father during his rages. His brother Walt was gregarious, and his friends were
always welcome in their home. Walt was allowed to make himself scarce anytime
his mother was "ill" so he would be spared the sight of her "when
she looks like death."
"How can any man see his mother in pain and not do everything in
his power to relieve that pain?" From an early age Charlie thought he was the cause of his mother's illnesses,
and no one ever disabused him of that notion. "It is the mothers who propel
most of us into psychiatry, usually because we have failed them."
Being a mediator prepared him for his chosen profession. "It is the
narcissism of the psychiatrist...to play the indispensable figure of succor and
healing." Walt, on the other hand, becomes a successful artist. He's quick
to remind Charlie that anyone can be a psychiatrist, whereas art requires
talent. "The bond between brothers is often intense, but it isn't
necessarily affection that unites them." Charlie resents Walt because
his brother inherits the family apartment in Manhattan's ritzy upper west side
(a departure for McGrath—most of his books are set in England) and relegates the
furnishings he doesn't want to a musty basement.
Fred, Charlie and Walt's father, left after one of their mother's outbursts,
seeking the solace and sanity of a much younger woman. Charlie delights in
Fred's subsequent decline, though he's dismayed to observe that he resembles his
father. All his life, he's had a recurring dream where his father threatens to
shoot him. The only times his mother ever comforted him were when he awakened
from those nightmares.
After getting his education in Baltimore, Charlie returned to a city that has
decayed—at least in his eyes. His specialty became the newly identified syndrome
of post-traumatic stress disorder in Vietnam War veterans. ("The
irony," he muses, "was that fighting for your country rendered you
unfit to be its citizen.") The plight of the
war veterans and occasional glimpses of the World Trade Center under
construction remind readers that things aren't much different today than they
were forty years ago.
His patients refer to him as Captain Nightmare,
because he listens to theirs. They don't know about his. "The most potent
charge of emotion weakens over time, unless it's repressed. Then it can wreak
havoc in the psyche for years to come....The buried material was throwing up
nightmares and other symptoms and would continue to do so until the trauma could
be translated into a narrative and assimilated into the self." Charlie is
referring to his patients, but the words also apply to him.
Charlie's toughest patient is a recalcitrant man named Denny, through whom he
meets his future wife, Agnes. She, too, survived an abusive childhood,
interceding on behalf of her siblings when her father embarked on drunken rages,
though she seems far better adjusted than Charlie. Still, he offers his shoulder
and his ear to support her as she expresses concern about Denny's treatment.
They marry and have a daughter, but Denny's ongoing problems loom large in
their otherwise happy lives. Readers learn early on that Denny died and that
Charlie feels responsible, but McGrath is stingy in doling out the details.
Charlie extrapolates Agnes's blame to its logical conclusion, so he leaves the
marriage preemptively, though their daughter keeps them bound together over the years. Rather
than risk another relationship, he visits prostitutes to satisfy his urges.
In later years, Charlie's mother becomes a moderately successful writer of
popular novels, but she still has bouts of depression and needs him during her
worst periods (when he hears the typewriter, he knows she isn't crying).
Ultimately she has a stroke and dies. Understanding how badly Charlie will take
this loss, Agnes renews their sexual relationship, though she refuses to discuss
her new husband or her marriage with him.
In effect, Charlie's only bequest from his mother is her mental infirmity. He
continues to treat his clients, but this physician can't heal himself. He
understands that he has a problem but can't fathom what it is, and knows that no
one is working on it. He develops a relationship with Nora, a woman he meets at
his brother's house, but he continues his fling with Agnes even after Nora moves
into his apartment.
Nora is damaged goods, volatile and fragile, with the tendency to
self-medicate with copious amounts of wine. She's also beautiful and
irresistible to Charlie, but he learned his lesson with Denny about the hazards
of trying to treat someone he is involved with. Also, he suspects she's having
an affair with his brother and wonders if their chance meeting was actually
orchestrated by Walt for reasons he can't fathom.
Nora's nightmares increase in frequency, and their relationship
disintegrates. Seeking relief from New York, he takes a routine job in a small
town where a significant photograph from his past was taken. It's all very
McGrath does a masterful job of distributing clues to Charlie's personal
mystery throughout the book. "We...mistake for reality the fictions we
construct from blueprints drawn up in early childhood." Upon review, all
the evidence was there, both for the reader and for Charlie himself—he's just
incapable of seeing the forgotten trauma that is the source of his distress.
However, when it comes time to rip the bandage off and expose the wound,
the book becomes a sprint, wrapping up in a matter of a few pages that seem
hurried and breathless. Perhaps self-discovery is like that, but it's too hasty
and facile to satisfy after all the reader has been through up to that point.
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