You can’t really cure a broken arm, can you? If you took an X-ray of my left radius, you’d see a line that says, “No matter how good your Spanish, unless you ask the scooter guy in Mexico, ‘Hey, is there anything I should know about starting this thing on a sandy street?’ you might have a problem, and that problem will be said scooter landing on you.” My bone still bears the mark of my scooter stupidity, but it has healed. It is not cured. There’s a difference.
“The Railway Man,” out locally Friday, misses that difference. It’s based on the true story of Eric Lomax (Jeremy Irvine and Colin Firth, as young and old Lomax, respectively), a British soldier who was captured, held and tortured by the Japanese in Singapore during World War II. Lomax suffers from what we’d now call post-traumatic stress disorder; after discovering that one of his captors is alive and giving tours at the old prison, Lomax returns to confront and eventually forgive him. In doing so, the film implies, Lomax is healed and he is cured.
It’s impossible to watch “The Railway Man” and not feel its echoes today, as so many men and women return home from seemingly eternal wars only to have to fight one more against their own demons. I don’t know much about PTSD, as I only know what TV and movies have told me: People either “conquer” it, or they don’t. And losing the battle usually means death.
From 2009 to 2011, there was a 44 percent increase in suicides among male veterans younger than 30, making the number around two a day. Not all of them had PTSD, of course. But some did. Some “lost” their battle. We know they lost because stories about PTSD say that “winning” means cured. Not cured means still sick, and it’s easy to get so tired of being sick that being dead seems like a better option.
Pop culture PTSD says you’re cured when you have no more nightmares, just like you’re cured of cancer when the chemo kills the last of the bad cells. You’ve just got to find your chemo, soldier, and if you don’t … well, the statistics tell what happens then.
I find it impossible to believe that the real Eric Lomax slept soundly every night from the time he forgave until the time he died. But audiences can walk out of “The Railway Man” thinking, “Wow, what he went through was really sad. I’m glad he got better.” They can go on thinking that the only other possible ending was Lomax’s suicide, because “cured” or “dead” are the only endings we hear about.
It’s offensively simplistic, and until we change the stories about PTSD to something that allows a space for healed rather than cured, for living in a blend of continued weakness and newfound strength, it’ll be the story we keep telling ourselves as soldiers continue to fall.