Mother Jones Writer Mac McClelland Says Violent Sex Cured her PTSDPosted: July 5, 2011
This will just be a quick post without a lot of psychological analysis, because I haven’t had time to read all the articles about this carefully. I have to admit I’m somewhat flummoxed at the moment. From ABC News:
Mac McClelland, a civil rights reporter who has seen the impact of sexual violence around the globe, couldn’t shake the image of Sybille, a woman who said she had been raped at gunpoint and mutilated in the aftermath of Haiti’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake.
While on assignment for Mother Jones last September, McClelland said she accompanied Sybille to the hospital when the woman saw her attackers and went into “a full paroxysm — wailing, flailing” in terror.
Something snapped in McClelland, too. She became progressively enveloped in the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress — avoidance of feelings, flashbacks and recurrent thoughts that triggered crying spells. There were smells that made her gag.
McClelland, 31, sought professional help but said she ultimately cured herself by staging her own rape, which she writes about in a haunting piece for the online magazine Good. The title: “How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD.”
Here’s the article: I’m Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD
She writes that a guy in her hotel in Haiti kept trying to get her to have sex with him, and finally he said “We can do this at gunpoint if that sells it for you.” And McClelland says it did appeal to her.
On that reporting trip, I’d been fantasizing about precisely what the local guy proposed, my back against a wall or a mattress with a friendly gun to my throat. But the plan was vetoed about as soon as it was hatched, when I asked him if his firearm had a safety and he said no. Like I say: I am not completely nuts.
I don’t want to judge, because clearly McClelland witnessed horrendous violence. Her reaction sounds more like survivor’s guilt than PTSD, but I have no way of knowing. Maybe it was both. McClelland’s description of her stress reaction to all the violence she had experienced and witnessed is harrowing, and I can understand why she broke down. She felt completely numb and unable to feel her emotions. From her description, it sounds like she was dissociating and experiencing depersonalization and derealization. Finally she told her therapist the only thing she wanted was to experience violent sex.
“All I want is to have incredibly violent sex,” I told Meredith. Since I’d left Port-au-Prince, I could not process the thought of sex without violence. And it was easier to picture violence I controlled than the abominable nonconsensual things that had happened to Sybille.
Meredith was wholly unmoved by this.
“One tried but true impact of trauma is people just really shutting themselves down,” she says when I interview her about it later for this piece. “Also, stuff comes up for people like the way it came up for you: Folks can have a counterphobic approach, moving toward fear instead of away from it. And sometimes people have fantasies like that after trauma, putting themselves in dangerous situations, almost to try to confirm with themselves that they were not impacted. ‘Look, I did it again. It’s fine. I’m fine.'”
Finally she asked a former lover to rape and beat her. Of course this was a role-playing situation and she was in control to some extent. I’m not going to post the description here, because it’s extremely graphic. I’ll leave it to you to decide if you want to read the article. But McClelland claimed she made a major breakthrough. Her PTSD was cured and she was able to return to work.
According to Conor Friedersdorf, writing in The Atlantic, a group of women who have worked in Haiti were so offended by McClelland’s descriptions of life in Haiti, that they wrote her a letter in protest, essentially accusing her of racism.
Marjorie Valbun reacted to McClelland’s piece with a critical article in Slate titled What’s happening in Haiti is not about you, in which she calls McClelland’s confessional article “Offensive.” “Shockingly-narcissistic.” “Intellectually dishonest.”
At Feministe, Jill counters with “But sometimes it is about you.”
McClelland didn’t have a “need to feel victimized.” She spent years reporting from war-torn and devastated countries, and she become psychologically overwhelmed. It’s not narcissistic or intellectually dishonest to discuss the very real impacts that can result from seeing suffering day in and day out.
Criticism that McClelland focused too much on herself at the expense of actually covering the situation in Haiti would be more warranted if the piece about PTSD was one of McClelland’s only journalistic contributions. But she has covered human rights issues tirelessly. She wrote a book about Burma. She has written dozens of articles about Haiti, including articles about sexual assault. She is not the central character in the vast majority of the pieces she’s written. The GOOD piece has gotten more attention that most of the other articles McClelland has penned, and that’s a worthy criticism, but it’s not McClelland’s responsibility or fault. To suggest that she used her time in Haiti just to write a narcissistic sex piece is wildly inaccurate. To further suggest that there’s something selfish about leaving after recognizing that you’re traumatized? That’s cruel and irresponsible. The argument that “Haiti is not about you!” is one that I’d usually be sympathetic to; but here, the article wasn’t about Haiti, it was about Mac and her experiences and her mental state and the strange position she found herself in. Haiti was a backdrop for that, but I don’t see how she was under any obligation to fully represent the complexities of the situation there in a personal piece about her own mental health.
What do you think?