“Irritable Hearts,” human rights reporter Mac McClelland’s new book, is about reporting from war zones and disaster areas, rather than about the environment on college campuses or debates about the speech climate on the left. But reading it, I was struck by how, in addressing the concepts of trauma and triggers in the former context rather than the latter, “Irritable Hearts” lends much-needed clarity to a conversation that’s often dominated by hypotheticals.
It helps, of course, that McClelland is a reporter: The subject of “Irritable Hearts” is not just the trip to Haiti that both left her with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and introduced her to Nico, a French soldier who would become her husband, but trauma itself. Discussions about cancelled plays, disinvited speakers or content warnings that label syllabi or blog posts that discuss sexual assault or bigotry often rely on the possibility that someone will be upset by coming into contact with disturbing content. McClelland’s experiences suggest that it’s not nearly so easy for people who have experienced trauma to avoid the rather more ephemeral things that set them off.
“The crying was at least better than the gagging, which was similarly unpredictable and sent me running into bathrooms and heaving over the garbage can underneath my desk at work,” she writes bluntly. “I had flashbacks of things I’d seen in Haiti, so that suddenly I was seeing them again, and they made me want to curl up into a ball and gouge out my eyes. Anything could trigger it. A smell vaguely reminiscent of the raw sewage at the displacement camp where I’d thrown up and swallowed it, or a smell — or a sound or a sight — I hadn’t even registered. Or nothing. Triggers, I was learning, are often senseless, impossible to pin down.”
These are serious subjects, but McClelland can be mordantly funny about them. As her relationship with Nico becomes more serious, she recounts one morning when they woke up together. “He said ‘I was dreaming we were shopping for engagement rings,'” McClelland writes. “‘Oh yeah?’ I said. ‘I was dreaming I stepped in a decomposing face.'”
As much as “Irritable Hearts” provides a useful distinction between an actual trauma diagnosis and the experience of feeling bad, McClelland also provides vivid testimony to what trauma feels like, for those who might doubt that it actually exists or that it’s significant enough to merit accommodation.
“My arms become numb below the elbows. A therapist would probably not recommend Nico’s forcibly, if very lovingly, undoing a trauma patient’s contraction,” she explains of some of her physical symptoms, discussing how her somatic therapist treated them. “When I contracted like this on the table, Denise often had me contract more, contract all the way, hold every muscle in my body tight with teeth gritted and braced until I felt like I was ready to let it go. That way, I was in control. I was empowered to pick the moment that I would release and she would start pushing on me from the side, shaking it out. But Nico wasn’t a therapist. He was a guy who woke up next to a girl he loved whose nervous system didn’t work normally and did the best he could.”
McClelland’s trauma is, of course, connected to that of another person, a Haitian woman who was one of her reporting subjects during the 2010 reporting trip that begins “Irritable Hearts.” McClelland both tweeted and wrote about the woman’s experiences in an article for Mother Jones, and her work became the subject of a controversy over what sorts of events reporters need permission to cover (the woman asked Mother Jones not to tell her story). I would have been curious to read McClelland addressing some of these issues, given ongoing debates between activists and journalists about what material and events are private. But she seems to have made the decision to abide by the suggestion that she can only write about the incident in a very limited way.
At least she’s mined a useful insight out of the criticism of her work, one that all of us might do well to consider when we comment on the trauma that others have experienced — or when our deeply upsetting experiences are bound up in the worst moment of someone else’s life.
“In any case, when I said No, I wanted people to respect that without qualification and no questions asked,” McClelland explains. “And I had failed to do that for her. I hadn’t been able to figure out a way to disconnect us, a way to both own my trauma and do that for her. It would remain my strongest and most convincing point of self-disgust for a very long time.”
That may not be enough for McClelland’s critics. McClelland can’t unmake old decisions, and she can’t resolve her own trauma in ways that would be cleaner and neater for her and her husband, as well as for people who were angry at her. What makes “Irritable Hearts” powerful and useful, though, is the idea of living in brokenness and imperfection, rather than dashing yourself against them.