April 26, 2012
As the VA psychiatrist considers the final events of the Hunger Games trilogy, I will address my thoughts in the order they arose within my reading of the narrative itself.
1. Ode to Finnick Odair
I’ll start out with what is clearly my problem–but what I believe also can illustrate a very important truth about combat.
First, a confession: I still have not forgiven J.K.Rowling for killing Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Go ahead, call me whatever: I can still remember reading that book to my older daughter and seeing the words, “Harry, take my body back to my parents,” and it was all over, man, done, finito. For the life of her, my daughter could not figure out why I suddenly started weeping as if there were no tomorrow, weeping for a fictional teenager who even in death thought of his fictional, self-absorbed, ridiculously-ambitious mother and father.
So . . . Suzanne? It’s been twelve years for Cedric. Don’t expect anything less for Finnick. We clear on that?
It was about in the middle of the second book that I thought: OK, she’s going to kill Finnick. Of course she is, I know it, I know it. She makes us think he’s an Adonis twit, then he CPR’s Peeta, then he weeps for Mags, then he screams for Annie. OK, fine: let’s just do our little Panem version of avada kadavra and get this over with, huh, sister?
But no . . .
So we get to find out that he’s so in love, he’s nearly driven crazy. We get to find out that he’s been prostituted up one side of the Capitol and down the other–and didn’t you get the impression that it was not necessarily just women whose secrets he gleaned? He finally finds the peace he’s been searching for, with a children’s choir to boot. He actually reaches the soul of the poisoned Peeta. He’s right there with Katniss, all the way. It’s the final assault. Snow’s just down the road.
And then his head’s bit off.
So sorry, though, there’s still a mission to complete. We’re off, we’re at the mansion, we’ve got the silver parachutes . . .
Nothing. No moment of silence. No “Finnick, we barely knew ye.” Nothing, nada, rien.
Until a baby picture.
But that’s the way it is in combat. You’re in it together. You’ve got each others’ backs. You’re outside the wire, and it’s just you guys, and you’re thinking, walking, checking out every filthy corner, and you’re of one mind, one heart.
And then his head’s blown off.
So sorry, though. There’s still a mission to complete, fire to return, your own silver parachutes that explode and send you to Germany, to Walter Reed, to . . .
And like my guy in Will the Real Me Please Stand Up?, you might just wake up to find out that he’s been buried so long, the ground’s settled on top of him. Or if you’re “lucky” enough to still be outside Tikrit or Kandahar, you might actually get a moment of silence for him. Or two. Maybe even three, heck, why not.
Then there’s a mission yet to complete, fire yet to return, silver parachutes . . .
You know what they say: don’t get sad. Get mad.
Until you get the e-mail. And the baby picture.
Some combat veterans don’t even get the chance to consider they might be grieving until long after they’ve landed at the local airport, until long after they see the guy at the grill at the Burger King, his smile, his hair, just like . . .
I guess it served me right that I didn’t even have time to think about Finnick until the photo arrived all those months later. Why should I have it better than the men and women out near some god-forsaken village at the edge of nowhere, right?
You were a good man, Finnick. Mags would have been proud. Your son always will be.
2. The Book of Memories
First, I do have to put in one thank you to Ms. Collins: I and my colleagues are quite used to media portrayals of psychiatrists and psychologists as either incompetent fools or sex-craved sociopaths. Therefore, what a joy it was to meet Dr. Aurelius, even if he did tend to sleep through sessions. I mean, come on, let’s give the fellow a break: Katniss as a patient would have either infuriated or exasperated even the best of us, so sleep isn’t that bad of an option for a response, all things considered.
But even more: thank you, Ms. Collins, for naming the good doctor after a Stoic emperor. In the grand scheme of things, not bad company for us to keep.
But what is it that finally awakens the Doc and puts him into more action than anything theretofore had? Katniss’ decision to make a book of memories.
She had, of course, been anything but insane when she killed Coin and gave Snow his one last laugh. She knew exactly who had been responsible for Prim’s death. She knew exactly who had abandoned Peeta to be tortured beyond recognition. She knew exactly who had planned on Peeta’s making her the martyr that District Thirteen so desperately needed in the strategy game. War is war, after all, and war is hell. When all’s said and done, who can blame Coin for trying to out-Snow Snow, I mean, seriously. The Nazis said it best, you know: Macht macht Recht. Might makes right. And think of all those civilians’ lives who were spared. You didn’t die for nothing, Prim!
Yup. Katniss knew. And so she shot an arrow in the air. And where it landed, she knew darn where.
But yet while Katniss was never insane, after the Hunger Games, the Quell, the rebellion, she, like many of her fellow combat veterans, was never again whole. She returned home, like many a vet, to confusion and isolation. And in a way, she even had an advantage compared to our men and women: she knew she was returning to dust, to bodies being gathered, to graves being dug, to nothing as it had been. The world our vets return to looks just like the world they left: all the Capitol, all the time. So why does it all feel like the bombed-out remains of District Twelve, they ask themselves?
Thanks, Doc, for sending the best paper the Capitol could provide.
Ultimately, three things will heal a combat veteran. The first is remembering–not being haunted by memory, as Katniss had and combat veterans daily are, but rather by putting memories in their proper places, acknowledging the worst by the very fact that the memories must be placed in such a scrapbook to begin with, while memorializing–and solidifying–the best through the words, the images that are kept, whether in a book of fine paper or in the most important parts of the soul.
One important treatment technique for PTSD, prolonged exposure therapy (PE), is based on the premise that remembering horror properly will ease horror of its grip on the psyche. PE is an excellent tool–but I would have you consider that many vets find it only to be a starting point. Again, not only the bad must be remembered, but also the good. It’s all well and good not to be waking up screaming or being able to go the local Target during the day time. It’s another matter altogether to be able to think about your fallen comrades when you need to–and smile.
You need a good book, lovingly assembled on the finest paper for that.
It is in the book that Katniss and Peeta re-find–or perhaps for the first time find–Haymitch. For he too must remember: a mother, a brother, a beloved who lost their lives solely because he was smart enough to save his, must remember years lost to alcohol and forgetting, must remember twenty-three years and forty-six–forty-six!–young men and women he was forced to help send to their gruesome deaths, right there on prime-time TV, in front of all the nation–in front of him
May all of them–Prim, Finnick, Rue, Darius, Cinna, forty-six innocent kids from coal country, the gunner from Montana, the driver from Rhode Island, the best, funniest, smartest guy you could ever meet, from Staten Island, of all places–may they rest in peace.
3. Real or Not Real?
The second part of healing is the re-finding–and the new creating–of a Self, one that fully takes in what has happened, as much as anyone can, one that finds as much inner peace as can be found, one that finally–or at least finally enough–determines for good what is real and what is not.
It is Peeta, of course, who kept asking this question, and one could say that his query arose solely because it was very deliberately forced upon him by Snow and the tracker jacker venom. Yet Katniss had been finding herself asking that very question from the very moment she was lifted up into that first arena–as does every combat vet from the very first moment of the very first engagement. It is, in many ways, the question.
Sometimes the answers one must find are quite painful.
I suspect that it has been many a reader who has been more than upset that in the end it turned out to be Peeta, not Gale who finally brought Katniss the real-enough peace that she was so desperately seeking. I agree wholeheartedly with Collins, though: Katniss had enough fire of her own. She didn’t need–and wasn’t going to find her peace–with Gale’s as well.
Yet, of course, one could say that it wasn’t just fire that doomed Gale. From the very beginning Gale’s fire had always been pushing to consume a much bigger swath of life than had Katniss’. He had always been the one to speak the forbidden words about the Capitol. He had been the one to see the imminent burnings of the deadliest of fires and blazed his own fire forward, enough so that at least a remnant of District Twelve could give testimony to the past as well as to the future.
And he had been the one, along with Beetee, who finally saw the “big picture” and ended the suffering of the many with the suffering of a few. Including Prim.
A fancy job in District Two, that’s what Gale finally found. And that’s where Gale belonged, for Gale’s fires were always big, always leading–always making the decisions that had to be made. For that is the way of leadership, you know. You don’t have to be a Snow or a Coin to lead. But lest we forget: no one put Peeta up for a fancy job of anything. And we all know that it wasn’t just the aftereffects of hallucinatory venom that kept him out of the running for President, fancy job, or even Mockingjay. His speciality was frosting, remember, not fire.
Katniss on the other hand? Well, true, her fire did ignite the nation. It was the Mockingjay, after all, and not the handsome coal miner, who led. In theory.
But also remember: Katniss only led when her passion consumed her. Her fire didn’t push her to the front of any battle, to make the decisions that somebody’s got to make. Effie Trinket’s random choice of a piece of paper, Snow, Coin, the oprressed of Panem: they pushed her to the place where her fire would burn most brightly. But it was Gale who led. It was Peeta who spoke. Katniss just wanted to go home and be left alone.
True, at one point Katniss did burn hot enough to vote to send the Capitol’s young to the same horrors she had endured. But all it took was a smile from Snow, a reminder that they would never to lie to each other–and that fire went out. Along with Coin’s.
Real or not real?
Does it matter? It burned again as she burned the rose at her house, for example. Yet that was only after Peeta had arrived with the primrose. Perhaps the romantic in each of us wishes that she’d had the requisite epiphany, a “their eyes then met” moment. But it doesn’t work that way. Ask any combat veteran.
After that much death, that much horror, for many “reality” only comes piece by piece, moment of faithfulness by moment of faithfulness. It more grows on one than dawns on one. It is remembering an embrace, remembering that it might have once meant something.
Finally deciding that it does.
After combat, much of life is a decision. Such as the very decision to live life, for example.
Real or not real?
I agree, Katniss: real.
4. Graveyard and Playground
I have no clue how many times I’ve read the epilogue. All I can say, Ms. Collins, is: brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
For the final part of healing for the combat veteran, the trauma victim, is the hardest of all: to leave the memories in their place, to gather the Self one has (re)created–and then to connect back to life. To life and death. To the future.
Every day. Connect.
For after you’ve lost a father to the incompetence of the authorities, a sister to a numbers game, a sweet little twelve-year-old to the self-preservation/ killer instincts of a sixteen-year-old, a “foreigner” who loved you enough and finally earned enough of your trust to clothe you in the most defiant, most hopeful of garments, a gentle soul who was dragged away to a death none of the privileged even dared imagine to be possible–after all that, after finding all bodies accounted for at the Mayor’s ash heap, after watching the Meadow become just another replica of similar fields in Poland, in Cambodia, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, can there ever be a connection that meanders sweetly from one day to another? After Fallujah? The mountains of Afghanistan?
Simply put: no.
But there can be connection. Every day. Even if that connection must be re-established through a familiar list of memories to be checked off the to-do list–or maybe better, the to-live list–today, tomorrow, the next.
It was Peeta, of course, who truly envisioned the future, who begged Katniss to let them create one, two such futures together. It had always been Peeta. If it hadn’t been for Peeta, confused, tortured, never-knowing-for-sure-whether-she . . . Peeta who had grabbed the nightlock, endured yet one more bite from the only woman, the only girl he’d ever loved, Peeta who in response to her rage-filled “Let me go!” could only answer “I can’t”–and so he did not: it was Peeta who finally convinced her to face the terror of her knowledge of how horrible the world can be and to risk finding–or rather, making–a world less horrible, less pain-filled, more–dare we say it?–hope-filled.
Katniss was not whole. Even Peeta occasionally had to grab chairs and wait for the storm to pass. No combat veteran is ever whole again. It just don’t work that way.
But how many veterans have told me that when, like Katniss, they have finally held their child, finally looked into her or his eyes and seen what once–really?–had been the hopes, the futures they had once had: how many have said, “OK. I’ll do it. I’ll live.”
I’ll decide to live today, love today, just as did Katniss, they say, while I watch my children tumble and giggle–just as Peeta’s and Katniss’ daughter and son tumbled and giggled over the very ground that enveloped the remains of their father’s family.
Every tenuous future tumbles and giggles over the tears of the past. It took Katniss years to live that, even if she had long known it to be true. It took the faithfulness of a Peeta who wouldn’t take no for an answer, for he couldn’t. It took a book to pull out on occasions and remember why.
It takes combat veterans the exact same: years, faithfulness, remembrance. There’s no easy ending. But songs of childhood can nevertheless find some fulfillment, even if briefly, even if for today.
Thank you, Ms. Collins, for myself and, if I may be so bold, for combat veterans and their families everywhere, that you made Katniss as whole as she could be. Thank you that you did not make her fully whole. And thank you that you allowed her, Peeta, and their children to toddle into whatever future they can create.
If I may borrow your own final words: there are much worse futures one can have.