MacMcClelland, Rape, and PTSD

In the past few weeks there has been a lot of traffic in the online world about a piece by Mother Jones journalist Mac McClelland for Good.

That’s not surprising in itself. If you’ve never heard of Mac McClelland, she’s one of those rare people in the world who is out to do some good…and cut a swathe.  She’s a human rights reporter, and from Ohio Warehouses to the depths of Africa she’s gone around the world shining a flashlight into the face of people who are the problem.  The coercers, the abusers, the people that make life suck.

She’s lived with Burmese Karen, members of a US-designated terrorist organization, and written a book about it For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question: A Story from Burma’s Never-Ending War (it’s available in hardcopy, but I’m only buying electronic editions these days).

She’s got a sharp wit and a sense of humor.  Sometimes she’s a little earnest for me, but I’m a Washington cynic.  The worst thing her detractors have come up to say about her is that she may have been a little unrestrained about things like reporting ongoing rapes.  Because you know, not overreacting while people are being raped or murdered around you is the most important thing.

Anyway, in a world where a lot of people are part of the problem she’s one of the few that’s struggling to be part of the solution.

Back in the days when Edward R. Murrow was reporting from a rooftop as London was bombed, and Hemingway was fucking Martha Gellhorn while trying to get himself killed by stray fire, a large part of being a foreign correspondent was to be above the fray.  An indomitable machine, reporting to a sober and healthy America on the antics of foreigners.

I’m being a little unfair to Papa, given  To Have and Have Not but you get my point.  America was the land of Walter Winchell, of healthy smiles and rippling middle class muscles, of June Cleaver and martini lunches.  The essence of journalism suggested that we were fine and learning about fucked up things that happened over there…and even the attempt to make us feel involved came with the understanding that the Journalist was merely a camera, an unemotional onlooker.

McClelland broke the fourth wall and dared to talk about the emotional content of reporting from some of the worst places in the world, and in doing so implicitly touched on the PTSD and trauma that lies buried in our own population, hidden behind the facade of a happy, prosperous, middle class America that is rapidly falling apart at the scenes.

She’s reported from the original Heart of Darkness, the Congo where Joseph Conrad’s well intentioned imperialist Kurtz scribbled, “Exterminate all the brutes!” and died whispering “The Horror!”  You may recognize the story if not the setting from Francis Ford Coppola’s modern adaptation, Apocalypse Now. 
Possibly one of the braver things McClelland has done is talk about not only her own PTSD, but talk about how experimentation with consensual violent sex helped her get over it.

By the time he pinned me by my neck with one forearm so I was forced to use both hands to free up space between his elbow and my windpipe, I’d largely exhausted myself.

The idea that voluntarily experiencing an emotionally provocative event can give us a feeling of greater control over our own lives isn’t exactly new.  Aristotle was pushing at that territory when he referenced catharsis in Poetics.  But McClelland puts it in a sharp new focus.

I can’t begin to recap the article “Im Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD.”  If you don’t read anything else this year, read it.

There’s nothing inherently profound about it.  In the kink scene, we all know a dozen people who have dealt with tensions as prosaic as job stress and as exotic as rape trauma through violent interaction either as a top or bottom.  Who have experienced a relief of tension and a greater feeling of control as a result of consensual SM.

But nobody else in the large world is coming out and saying it.  Even in the BDSM community it can be a brave stand to take.

Mac McClelland said what most of us have thought.

The response has been mixed.  Fortunately the largest part of it has been acceptance and support.  A lot of people intrinsically get this message and realize she’s fucking courageous for coming out with it.
Ms. Magazine conducted a good interview and gave McClelland a chance to speak for herself.
Some of her responses were very interesting, and almost as valuable as her initial article, in giving people permission to seek the things they need.

That conversation [with my therapist] happened exactly the way I described it. I was like, “All I want to do is have incredibly violent sex,” and she didn’t even blink. It’s like I had said, “You know, I would really like a piece of toast.” [This desire] is incredibly common. Trauma affects all aspects of your life, [including] your sex life. The two are super linked. Everybody’s different, but in my case, [I moved] toward the thing that was traumatizing [me]. You sort of have to embrace the thing of your nightmares to process and move past it.

[And] is it even weird anymore to have rough sex? It was a little bit of an extreme version, and the need for it was kind of extreme. But the fact that people are like, “This is nuts!” is actually a little surprising to me. They’re acting like there were … circus animals involved.

Some of the responses were bizarre.  Responding to a piece on Slate one correspondent asked:

“Does anyone else think the article might be, let’s say, embellished….I may be naive, but I find it hard to imagine, for example, an ex-boyfriend who would be willing, for therapy’s sake, to slam his elbow into his ex-girlfriend’s face several times, but only after thoughtfully (and “suddenly”) placing a pillow over her head. It’s kind of difficult to picture, not only psychologically but physically.”

The reader may be surprised to know that the scene, down to the chokehold…wasn’t precisely difficult for me to picture.

Other response has been darker.  While it has focused on political issues, there is an undercurrent of agenda to it.  A group of female journalists used an open letter to Jezebel as a platform to shame McClelland for making Haiti part of the backdrop for her personal story.

Marjorie Valbrun was particularly aggressive, taking the matter up in the XX Column – Mac McClelland: What’s Happening in Haiti Is Not About You in Slate.

Valbrun claims her issue is journalistic integrity, but her real emotional agenda jars through when she says:
Really? You need to get punched in the face by a man during sex in order to get over Haiti? So I guess mimicking a violent sexual assault is acceptable as long as it is wrapped in compelling prose and sold as self-healing.

Atlantic Monthly has chimed in on the criticism, making an issue of the fine details of precisely what permission McClelland had to write about a Haitian rape victim.  Nobody disputes what McClelland saw and heard, just what hoops she jumped through to bring it to report on it.

So let me get this straight…

The American mainstream media is dominated by a conservative mogul who is under investigation by the FBI, and whose shuttered British subsidiary News of the World committed egregious crimes that have topped a Minister and may yet bring down the Government.  In that environment the microscopic scrutiny of McClelland feels a bit contrived. Like dressing down the Ensign for badly polished dress shoes while the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor.  The offense may be real, but it’s a trivial one, often repeated, doubtless by many of the people who are deploring it.

Why?  Why does an arguably specious procedural error in an admittedly true story warrant coverage in Atlantic Monthly at a time when the FBI is investigating the owner of the Wall Street Journal?

Let’s get one thing clear.  While I actually consider myself a “feminist,” I wouldn’t be welcomed at most of the club meetings.  I’m a white male who has spoken and written about gender differences in ways that go well beyond political correctness.  I’ve dared to question definitions of rape that seem inconsistent with common human sexual behavior.  I’m not the bleeding heart kind of guy and I eat red meat.

That said…if this isn’t because Mac McClelland is a woman and her writing about this shit rocks people’s comfortable world, I’ve got a bonobo for a nephew.

Seriously Atlantic?    Seriously….

Mac McClelland hit a big honking nerve.

The Jezebel signatories can’t really argue that Haiti is not a dismal hellhole where the population lives in fear, but they say it’s not as bad as she thinks out of one side of their mouth, while pointing out that the locals can’t escape and so have it worse than she does out of the other.  In the end they say they are upset that she made it about her…because talking about her suffering in some way reduces the dignity of the suffering off the people who have to live there and can’t leave.  The sufferings of Haiti have nothing to do with middle class American women, and McClelland was wrong to connect the dots between the two.

But it is hard for me to feel that’s the primary unconscious  motivator for the expression of outrage.  It shines through in Valbrun’s need to slash viciously at McClelland’s sexual experience in a column that purports to be about journalistic integrity.

One wonders if the fear isn’t really a degree of projection.  It isn’t that McClelland inserting herself into the situation lessens our appreciation for suffering in Haiti.

It’s that her bringing it home to us uncovers the specter of suffering and PTSD in our own culture…and while we can deplore the sufferings of those foreigners, our own sufferings are to be swept under the carpet, hidden behind a brave face.  If McClelland can have PTSD…or fantasize rape…how about the smiling middle class girl down the block.  She turns our notions of the world on their head, and our notions of sexual comfort and normalcy on their ass.

And it’s a good turn.

I’m sure that Mac McClelland is well tired of hearing about this article, but…I thought it was worth putting one more vote of thanks out there…

Thank you Mac McClelland for a very brave act which has benefitted a lot of people who never knew there was anyone like them.

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