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Hurt People Hurting People: PTSD and Violence in Fiction

It’s my belief that fiction, even mass market fiction, is a form of art; as such, it reflects an endeavor through which people try to make sense of the world around them.  One issue that weighs particularly heavily on the public consciousness right now is that of the potential intersection of mental illness and violence.  It should be noted that there is near-unanimous consent among experts that individuals with mental illness are not more prone to commit violence than individuals without mental illness.  With that in mind, we turn now to some recent explorations of PTSD and violence in popular novels.

In Jayne Ann Krentz’s 2015 novel Trust No One, the romantic hero and heroine both suffer from PTSD.  Sparks don’t immediately fly between Julius and Grace when their mutual friends set them up for a surprise blind date, but that doesn’t keep a relationship from blossoming soon after. We learn that Grace was forced to defend herself against a murderous assault in her adolescence.  Her self-defensive actions wound up killing the would-be perpetrator, and she began suffering anxiety around both the attack and her response to it.  Julius is a combat veteran.  Although neither of these characters is in therapy during the time period covered by the novel, both of them have active prescriptions for anxiolytics and reference their past counseling. Julius is completely accepting of Grace’s midnight panic attacks, and acknowledges to her that he has some of the same posttraumatic symptomatology.  During the narrative, however, readers are not shown his symptoms.  A convoluted revenge plot targets both of them and, in one scene, they must defend themselves against parking garage attackers.  Beyond the initial traumatic stressor and this self-defense, however, neither character is portrayed as violent.

Former Army helicopter pilot Maya Burkett, in Fool Me Once (2016) by Harlan Coben, is another story.  Quickly discharged from the service after a rescue maneuver resulted in unacceptable civilian casualties, Maya spends her time teaching flight lessons at the local airport and raising her toddler daughter Lily.  She is initially viewed with sympathy after her husband’s murder, but suspicions soon grow over her involvement in that crime.  Her motivation for her violence is revenge.  With regard to her posttraumatic symptoms, Coben writes:

“Maya knew that she suffered some textbook mental malady from being over there, but the truth is, no one comes back without scars.  To her, that malady felt more like enlightenment.  She got the world now.  Others didn’t. “

“You go over there and live in mortal fear, and then you’re supposed to come back home and be calm, placid, and mundane again.  Human beings don’t work that way.”

Readers see Maya struggling with intrusive memories and hyperarousal, as well as some derealization and depersonalization.  As implied by the above quotations, she has little interest in addressing those symptoms and instead embraces them defiantly.

In Only the Rain (2017) by Randall Silvis, war veteran Russell loses his job with a third baby on the way.  On the way home after being given notice, he sees a naked girl dancing in the rain and helps her inside to what is revealed as a meth lab.  On the spur of the moment, he steals a single box of cash, thereby bringing the attention of the drug dealers and their thirst for vengeance upon himself and his family.  Russell is shown coping with frequent flashbacks and intrusive memories of his time in combat.  In fact, the entire story is told through a series of emails to his former commanding officer Spence, through which Russell weaves accounts of events both past and present.  Despite these symptoms (and this narrative device), Russell’s decisions following the theft of the drug money are not portrayed as due to his symptomatology.  Instead, the violence in which he eventually engages is seen as defensive.

Fiction is a vehicle through which threatening and discomfiting topics can be examined with a layer of remove.  Depictions of possible relationships between mental illness and violence perpetration are likely to excite public imagination, regardless of how closely those portrayals reflect the actual body of knowledge.  Continued interaction with, and discussion of, fictional works dealing with mental illness is an important activity for addressing misconceptions.

Hurt People Hurting People: PTSD and Violence in Fiction

Kathryn Lawson

Kathryn Lawson, PhD is a clinical psychologist in Peachtree City, Georgia, specializing in the treatment of trauma/PTSD, grief, anxiety and depression among older adolescents and adults. Before transitioning to private practice, she worked for the Bureau of Prisons for 10 years. During that time, she also worked as an adjunct faculty member at a small college, teaching diverse groups of nontraditional students. Her private practice, teaching, and government service have all been guided by a commitment to reaching underserved populations. Dr. Lawson is passionate about issues of stigma and inclusion and how these impact individuals affected by mental illness.

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APA Reference
Lawson, K. (2018). Hurt People Hurting People: PTSD and Violence in Fiction. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 18, 2018, from


Last updated: 1 Mar 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 1 Mar 2018
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