A Conversation with David Morris

© 2015 David J. Morris • All Rights Reserved • Photo Credits: Rey Leal • Site Design and Hosting by Verge Creative

Because the mind is often overwhelmed when its existence is threatened, a person who has had a near-death experience often finds they are unable to incorporate the memories of their trauma into their daily existence, resulting in a fragmented experience of time. The brain records trauma in a different way. It returns, it recurs, it haunts. Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five described how Billy Pilgrim, a World War II veteran became “unstuck in time,” as a result of witnessing the bombing of Dresden. The idea that trauma changes one’s relationship to the space-time continuum is something that a number of artists and thinkers have wrestled with.

One of the book’s surprising assertions is that PTSD is not a static entity and that the human response to trauma has evolved over time. What led you to this conclusion?

The current meaning of the word “trauma,” that of a psychologically damaging event didn’t enter the English language until after the invention of the railroad in the 1800s, so the basic idea that humans can be psychologically injured in some way by overwhelming events is a fairly new idea within the scope of history. Further, the “flashback,” which is considered a defining symptom of PTSD is actually a term borrowed from the world of film. Civil War veterans, who fought before the age of motion pictures, for example, tended to describe the intrusive symptoms that they suffered as being the work of demons, ghosts and phantoms. In other words, culture plays a huge role in how trauma is interpreted by society.

In The Evil Hours, you argue that PTSD is a “liminal” state. What do you mean by that?

Liminality is a concept drawn from anthropology and it describes a state of transition or “in-between-ness,” such as adolescence. The idea behind liminality is that the individual is stuck between two realms. With PTSD this can be seen in the sense that veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan often behave as if they are still in a war zone, reacting to stimuli like loud noises as they would to explosions on the battlefield. Part of the veteran’s body is still stuck in Iraq or Afghanistan. Liminality can be applied in a larger social sense as well. Survivors of rape and returning veterans are often treated like outsiders from the normal social order, as if they have been tainted by violence. Traditionally, such states of liminality have been managed through the use of rituals like bar mitzvahs or quinceñeras, which mark the end of one phase and the beginning of another. Oddly, modern Western culture has no rituals to welcome back returning warriors.

What does modern neuroscience have to say about PTSD?

Recent work by pioneering neuroscientists like James McGaugh at UC Irvine have shown that emotion plays a huge role in how events are remembered by people. Interestingly, McGaugh and others have demonstrated that certain kinds of traumatic memories can be normalized or “detoxed” somewhat through the use of a common “beta-blocker” drug known as propranolol. Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that PTSD is a complex condition that affects the entirety of a person’s life and social support system. PTSD is less of a strictly neurological “brain event” than say, schizophrenia and while drugs like propranolol offer some hope, there is no magic bullet therapy for PTSD.

David J. Morris



How did you first get interested in the question of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder?

My first inkling that there was something to the idea of problematic homecomings was when I returned from my first overseas deployment as a Marine in 1996. It was a peacetime deployment, my unit went to Okinawa for six months. No one shot at us, no one died, but when I got back to the US I didn’t just feel different, I felt out of time with other Americans. Life had moved on in my absence and it showed me in dramatic form how truly small I was in the grand scheme of things. It was a preview into one of the core concepts of PTSD: that of wrestling with one’s mortality. PTSD has come to mean so many things to so many people but on a certain level it boils down to one basic question: How do you live after you’ve almost died?

At one point in the book you describe how “trauma destroys time.” What does that actually mean for someone who has been through a traumatic experience?