In Sickness and In Health: Representations of PTSD in Post-9/11 Romance Novels

Stacy E. Holden & Charity Tabol

Fiona MacPherson asks combat veteran John Fallon “‘about Iraq…Was it awful?” (Johnson, Snowbound 71)  She was inexplicably drawn to the brooding, yet handsome, innkeeper tucked away in the Oregon mountains. Fiona and John are the principal characters in the romance novel Snowbound (2007) by Janice Kay Johnson. “I know,” Fiona continued, thereby reflecting the perfunctory knowledge of readers, “a lot of the returning veterans are suffering from posttraumatic stress, just like after Vietnam” (71). John dismisses her question, although he admits to himself that he suffers from debilitating grief and anger (79). “PTSD–Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” he reflects, “was a fancy way of saying that you’d seen things you shouldn’t have…It was ridiculous to talk about it as a disease, as if the right pills would cure it” (71-72). In this way, the author anchors her plot’s romantic dilemma to the post-9/11 era, when the United States military engaged in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF, 2001-2014) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF, 2003-2011). Ultimately, Fiona and John must resolve more than the standard lovers’ quarrel to be together. Before confessing their eternal and undying love for each other, John must admit to a psychological disability and then begin the slow process of his reintegration into civilian life.

Contemporary romance novels traditionally steer clear of actual events in order to facilitate the reader’s sense of a timeless fantasy. And yet, since 9/11, romance writers–who represent a commercial venture earning well over $1 billion annually–have violated this unspoken rule and made veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq the new darlings of the romance industry. [i] By rendering readers privy to the emotional states of wounded warriors  suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after serving in OEF or OIF, these romances reflect public concern with the human cost of twenty-first-century American wars. Based on textual analysis and interviews with authors, this article analyzes three romance novels in which the protagonist is a veteran suffering symptoms of combat-related PTSD: Susan Mallery’s Shelter in a Soldier’s Arms (Silhouette Special Edition, 2001; re-released 2014), Karen Templeton’s A Gift for All Seasons (Harlequin Special Editions, 2012), and Janice Kay Johnson’s Snowbound (Harlequin SuperRomance, 2007). Excavating these novels as a social and political archive, this article gauges the accuracy of fictional representations of the sequelae of combat trauma and then examines the gaps between PTSD as it exists in the real world and its fictional portrayal in romances. Ultimately, stories about disabled veterans who find healing in love reveal a widely held fantasy about PTSD. In advancing some misinformation about combat-related PTSD, contemporary romances expose a general reluctance to accept warriors with chronic difficulties, and hold forth instead a false hope that those suffering from combat trauma can be rehabilitated quickly by means of both public concern and monogamous love.

The Sequelae of Combat Trauma

PTSD is a psychiatric condition resulting from exposure to life-threatening or potentially life-threatening situations, and it is presently the focus of intense national interest among concerned Americans of both the political Left and the Right. Indeed, a quick perusal of the websites of the hyper-conservative FoxNews and ultra-liberal MSNBC reveals nearly equal coverage of the ordeal experienced by soldiers and the subsequent efforts to ensure that veterans with PTSD are provided with proper care. FoxNews, for example, recently promoted a 175-mile kayak trip across South Carolina by 22 combat veterans suffering from this condition in order to raise public awareness of PTSD (Fox News). That same month, MSNBC produced a short film familiarizing viewers with one veteran raising his son while also coping with his psychological difficulties (MSNBC). The American public, as represented on both sides of the aisle, clearly wants to understand combat-related PTSD and help those who suffer from it, but–and as emphasized in the examples culled from the websites of these two television behemoths–the media often caters to a viewing public that craves optimistic stories about veterans who manage to overcome troubling circumstances.

Combat-related PTSD is not akin to the common cold, and its sufferers do not ever fully recover their prewar mental state. Those who have been traumatized by combat must establish a “new normal.” The diagnosis of PTSD signifies the presence of a constellation of symptoms spanning various categories and causing significant distress and/or functional impairment for the individual. One category is that of reexperiencing symptoms. For example, a returning soldier might have nightmares or intrusive images of traumatic experiences, as well as react strongly to reminders of combat. Another category is that of avoidance symptoms, meaning one pushes away thoughts and feelings related to traumatic experiences, and/or avoids situations or activities that are trauma reminders. Another category is that of hyperarousal symptoms, which includes a chronically heightened state of alertness or hypervigilance to one’s surroundings, and an exaggerated startle response. In the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association), an additional symptom category is delineated—that of negative alterations in thought and mood. Thus, veterans suffering from PTSD may experience feelings of detachment or numbing, and/or have persistent feelings of fear, anger, or guilt.

It is important to note that these symptoms are the product of physiological changes that take place in the nervous system when a person is exposed to terrifying and horrific situations. They are also the product of psychological conflicts that are to be expected after encountering extraordinary danger, brutality, and loss. Individuals with PTSD have had their basic sense of safety in the world violated in some way, and so they are more chronically “on guard” than the average person; that is, they are more alert to potential threats in the environment. They are also more reactive to perceived threats than the average person, having intense physical, emotional, and behavioral reactions. These reactions are stronger, and typically last longer, than those of the average person. Combat-related PTSD also frequently involves persistent self-blame for actions taken or not taken in war, shame and distress related to moral dilemmas, and/or guilt for surviving, or for escaping “worse” injuries, when comrades did not.

Estimates for prevalence rates of PTSD among those who have deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq have ranged from 14% (Schell and Marshall) to 15.8% (Dursa et al.) to 18% (Hoge et al.). As of 2011, this amounted to approximately 120,000 men and women, a number likely to be much greater by now (Finley 2). These are likely to be underestimates of the actual number of OEF and OIF veterans who are or who will be affected by PTSD, in part because many cases of PTSD involve a delayed onset of symptoms. Furthermore, at the times symptoms are being queried, service members and veterans are often motivated by career concerns, stigma or shame, or eagerness to return to home and family, to minimize or deny mental health difficulties.

While highly effective treatments for PTSD exist (Foa et al.), as do helpful interventions for post-deployment reintegration issues and associated losses and transitions experienced by military service members, we must remember that combat trauma leaves lasting emotional, moral, spiritual, and existential wounds that can, and often do, last many years. Those wounded warriors who suffer from PTSD are not cured per se, but they do learn to manage their symptoms, and symptoms can decrease in frequency, intensity, and disruptiveness over time. Perhaps because such a small percentage of Americans—fewer than 1% of the population—are currently serving in the military, and fewer still have actually deployed in the recent conflicts, it is easy to overlook this troubling information. Indeed, an unprecedented few Americans now have familial or social ties to the military, and so most are thus largely unaware of the military or veteran experience—particularly the combat veteran experience. This is what prompted former Defense Secretary Robert Gates to declare in 2010 that, “Whatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for most Americans the wars remain an abstraction, a distant and unpleasant series of news items that do not affect them personally”—sentiments since echoed by others, including former Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen (CNN).

Aside from lack of awareness, there are also cultural reasons that lead Americans—public and policymakers alike—to deny the lasting effects of combat trauma. This has certainly happened with prior wars, including World War II (Thomas). Acknowledgment of the full extent of the wounds might compromise the public’s willingness to support future wars, or impact shared meanings and legacies—e.g., about the virtue of our own “side,” and the rightness of the mission—that are considered important for national morale.  It might also, unless done thoughtfully, lead to overpathologizing and ostracization—rather than healing—of veterans.

For benevolent reasons, family members and friends may also minimize the wounds of war, and what is needed to heal, due to wanting returning veterans to get “back to normal” and be well again, rather than suffer prolonged distress. Mental health professionals are also guilty of minimizing the sequelae of combat trauma, or may feel helpless when confronted with their complexity. Professional interventions are beneficial, but inadequate. They should meet veterans where they are, be thoughtfully paced, and be delivered in conjunction with community and moral/spiritual support. This kind of support was more routinely extended to returning warriors in earlier civilizations (see, for example, Shay; and Tick).

Fictionalized Representations of Combat Trauma and PTSD

The public interest in the management of the effects of combat trauma has contributed to the shaping of the romance industry since 9/11, because PTSD is, bluntly put, a hot topic. The number of romance novels focused on troubled military heroes in the past fourteen years is simply too high to count. However, the statements by three editors–those from St. Martin’s Press, Harlequin Suspense, and Cleis Press–suggest that 15% of all contemporary romance novels now published bring to life a military-themed story (Naughton 32 and 34). “Romance readers,” states Kerry Donovan, a senior editor for Penguin’s New American Library, “can always expect a big emotional payoff when a tortured hero finds an everlasting romance with the right woman” (Naughton 31).

Many of the heroes of these military-themed books–and some of the heroines–suffer from the effects of combat trauma. When authors of military-themed romances create a character suffering from PTSD, they do so, at least in part, as author Anne Elizabeth states, “to create more awareness” (Naughton 37). Author Jessica Scott is a combat veteran who notes that, “not everyone is damaged by war, but everyone, everyone, is changed by it” (Kantra). Author and Navy spouse Marilyn Pappano believes that, “it’s really important for civilians to understand what goes on behind closed doors when the glory of homecoming has been dimmed by the recognition that the man who came back to you isn’t the man you kissed goodbye” (Kantra). Three romances in which the hero suffers from PTSD reveal the unintended consequences of the well-meaning intentions of the romance community.

“Jeff Ritter” – Shelter in a Soldier’s Arms

Susan Mallery is the author of Shelter in a Soldier’s Arms, a book published before 9/11 and then re-issued in 2014. Mallery notes that when the book was first published by the category line Silhouette Special Edition in June 2001, “it hadn’t sold as well as some others” (Mallery, email, 8/18/14). Six months after its republication in December 2014, Mallery deems it one of the top five in terms of sales over the past four years (Mallery, email, 6/2/15). This upswing in popularity confirms that post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq influenced the interests of romance readers, making them more ready to purchase a tale with a military hero.

In a pre-9/11 world, Mallery based her hero and his experiences on soldiers in Vietnam, and the questions that she began to ask of those who experienced military conflict resonate. In particular, her hero offers an amalgamation of the killing machine Todd in the film Soldier (1998) and Dodger in the TV series China Beach (1988-1991). With these vehicles of popular culture in the back of her mind, Mallery notes that, “I literally began to make a list of questions. What pain do soldiers feel? What do they keep to themselves? What do we non-military people have no idea about? It was from those questions Jeff was born” (Mallery, email, 8/18/14).

In Shelter in a Soldier’s Arms, Mallery introduces readers to Jeff Ritter, an Army veteran who has served in special operations in several overseas locations, including Afghanistan. Ashley Churchill is a young mother who cleans his office at night in order to go to college during the day. From their very first meeting, Ashley has special insight into Jeff’s troubled spirit:  “There was too much wariness in his stance, too much danger” (15). Ashley describes her hero as having “empty eyes” (28). In this way, Susan Mallery, manages to capture and convey the feeling of disconnection experienced by many combat veterans.

This sense of disconnection is critical in Mallery’s advancement of the storyline. When Jeff helps Ashley and her four-year-old daughter Maggie during a crisis, Mallery makes the reader privy to the heroine’s thoughts. Ashley emphasizes the detachment in Jeff’s demeanor, noting that he, “studied her for a long time. As usual, not a flicker of thought or emotion showed in his steel-gray eyes. He could have been planning sixty-seven ways to kill her with household appliances or deciding on a second cup of coffee” (67). This detachment threatens to keep them apart. Ashley falls in love with the wounded warrior, but she recognizes “ghosts in his past,” concluding that, “Jeff wasn’t in a place to love anyone. Not until he’d dealt with his past” (124).

Mallery attempts to bring to life the “ghosts” haunting Jeff. Everyday activities often lead the romantic hero to think of battle. When Maggie asks Jeff if he has pets, for example, Jeff reflects on how “dogs made noise, alerting people to the presence of intruders. More than one mission had nearly been compromised by the unexpected presence of a dog” (41). When he buys a yogurt, he remembers “the last time he’d had the stuff had been during a covert operation in Afghanistan” (43). When a little boy on a field trip to a zoo gets a scratch that needs attending, Jeff “figured it couldn’t be any worse than taking out a bullet or setting a bone in the field” (120).

Mallery’s hero no longer thinks of himself as human. Jeff suffers a recurring dream in which he runs through a village being destroyed by fire. The villagers run from him. He is a machine. Jeff notes that, “he knew what it meant–that he didn’t see himself as human. That he considered himself little more than a machine of destruction” (53). Given this realization, he believes that his ex-wife was right to leave him, for she “saw the truth…She told me that the reason I couldn’t have a baby wasn’t because of my low sperm count but because I wasn’t human anymore.  I’d become a soldier and in the process, I’d forgotten how to be just a man” (135).

In short, Mallery constructs a character whose military experiences have left him socially withdrawn–feeling different from, and uncomfortable around people. “He knew intellectually”:

that there had been a time when he belonged to a family.  He’d been born to parents who lived in suburbs, just like regular people.  Jeff knew he’d been a part of that world once–playing sports in high school, hanging out with his friends.  But those memories weren’t real to him.  It was as if he’d seen a movie about someone’s past.  A past that happened to be his own.  He couldn’t relate to those images and he didn’t know how to act now that he was no longer alone. (105)

Given his emotional detachment, as well as disruptive hyperarousal symptoms, Jeff has difficulty with ordinary social practices, such as attending—and enjoying—an Easter Brunch. He is sensitive to security risks and alert to mistakes that could “mean the difference between living and dying” (155). Ashley and he walk through their host’s door, and “while Ashley admired the decorator touches, Jeff counted exits and planned escape routes” (173). (Hypervigilance is a common manifestation of PTSD, but Mallery’s assertion that Jeff understands “there was no point” to such behaviors is inconsistent with the experience of many combat veterans, who do perceive ongoing threats to their safety.) This brunch causes Jeff to conclude that, “he wasn’t prepared to be a part of society’s mainstream…The cries of the dead were never quiet and he would do well to remember that” (177).

Although Mallery does successfully capture some sequelae of combat trauma, her insistence on the healing power of love ultimately contorts this representation of combat trauma. The first crack in Jeff’s armor comes when Jeff invites Ashley and Maggie to stay with him while a gas leak in their apartment is being fixed. When he hears the young mother bathing her four-year-old, the domestic harmony underpinning their nightly routine “made him ache inside. He wanted with a power that nearly drove him to his knees” (77). In this way, Ashley and Maggie manage to “breach” Jeff’s wall of avoidance and disconnection. In a like manner, the everyday compassion mustered to mentor Maggie and other children on a field trip to the zoo “made him feel strange. As if something was cracking. But what he didn’t know was if the ice around his hart was letting go or if his wall of protection was being breached” (120).

As Jeff and Ashley draw physically closer, their emotional connection grows stronger. Ashley breaches Jeff’s emotional walls, for “much like the ghosts of his past, she was a constant presence in his mind. Yet unlike the memories of the dead, she made him feel better for occupying his thoughts…She made him need, which reminded him he was alive” (105). The first night that Jeff sleeps in the same bed as Ashley, he is “surprised to find that he doesn’t dream” (164). And when he does experience another nightmare—described as “a visitation from the souls of the dead” (210)—Ashley comforts him.

Ashley is supportive and reassuring, and Jeff readily accepts comfort from her. She notes that he is “just as human as the rest of us” (136) and that he did “what [you] were told…it doesn’t make you a monster” (199). Romantic partners who have not experienced combat firsthand are not typically seen by veterans as the most credible authorities on war experiences, their meaning, or their effects. Thus, if they react with unconditional support or confidence—particularly early in the relationship or the process of disclosure—this may not be met by the veteran with relief, but instead with ambivalence or skepticism. Jeff, however, after telling Ashley of his dream, is relieved that she still loves him. He accepts Ashley’s reaction (although he does wonder if she hasn’t fully realized “the truth” about him).

Ultimately, Jeff does not find Ashley’s love and concomitant reassurance invalidating, naïve, trite, or irritating—although this might have been a more realistic portrayal. Indeed, by the novel’s end, Jeff wholeheartedly embraces his relationship with Ashley—and this emotional connection does not feel unsafe. He trusts her with “his heart and soul,” as much as he would trust his comrades on a mission, with his life (210). He realizes that she can save him from being the robot of his nightmares. Faced with the threat of losing her, he gives up his work assignment (rather than insist that she accept that part of his life and identity), and is able to feel love: “I finally…know what’s in my heart” (247). In the novel’s epilogue, which takes place twenty-seven months after the novel’s close, the reader encounters a happy and content Jeff. “With Ashley’s help,” Jeff notes, “he was slowly learning to connect with people” (249). He has reconciled with his parents and is actively parenting his eighteen-month-old son and six-year-old stepdaughter. Ashley’s embrace soothes him, when the now-infrequent nightmares return. Readers are clearly meant to understand that Ashley’s love has saved him.

“Patrick Shaughnessy” – A Gift for All Seasons

Patrick Shaughnessy is an OIF veteran and the hero of Karen Templeton’s RITA award winning A Gift for All Seasons (2012). [ii] Templeton admits she does not “generally write military-themed stories.” But her son is a veteran, a Marine in the Reserves whose unit deployed to Iraq, and so she has “a personal interest in the subject.” Providing insight into US consumer interests, Templeton notes that, “Military heroes are very popular in romance–because they’re (usually) unselfed [sic.], willing to sacrifice their own safety for the good of the whole” (Templeton, email, 8/18/14).

Patrick represents a complex merger of popular military heroes and more on-the-ground understandings of war. Templeton based Patrick’s character in part on Iraq war veteran and burn victim J.R. Martinez, and the fictional Patrick, like his real-life doppelganger, bears the emotional and physical scars of his service in Iraq (2). The author dedicated the novel to Jessica Scott, an OIF Army veteran who now writes romance novels. [iii]  Scott, Templeton explains, vetted parts of the book, particularly descriptions of Patrick’s wartime trauma and its aftermath (Templeton, email, 8/18/14). Templeton did research and then put together “a composite of soldiers I’ve heard or read about, particularly those suffering from PTSD.” In crafting a veteran with PTSD, Templeton aspires to do more than entertain the people who pick up this book. She would “like readers to feel compassion towards Patrick, as well as other vets dealing with similar aftereffects of combat” (Templeton, email 9/25/14).

Certainly, readers learn a bit more about Patrick’s combat trauma than in Jeff Ritter’s case. Patrick was involved in an explosion in a house he and his team had entered (91-92). He saved two comrades from the resulting fire, but other men in his squad died. In the process of rescuing his men, Patrick was seriously injured. His treatment necessitated a medically induced coma and recovery time at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, a facility known for its treatment of service members with severe burn injuries. Much of his body is riddled with scar tissue, including half his face and his right hand (12, 14). (The author left half of Patrick’s face unaffected so that the cover art might include a picture of him in profile. [iv]) His injuries required over three years of surgeries, physical therapy and mental health treatment. And so, unlike the more mysterious Jeff Ritter, Patrick had a distinct traumatic event occur during a war, and he is acknowledging and dealing with the resulting grief and distress.

Templeton’s presentation of PTSD resonates in some ways with that made by Mallery. Both characters, for example, are haunted by a failed marriage, a failure that they similarly believe was caused by their deployment and the emotional and behavioral changes wrought by it.And both authors fashion a four-year-old little step-daughter or daughter, a foil perhaps to the hardened vet, whose innocence and exuberance contributes to the main character’s healing process. Like Jeff, Patrick also suffers nightmares, though Templeton does not provide a clear image of them (19). Nevertheless, Patrick is portrayed with slightly more vulnerability than Jeff. Readers are shown more of his mood lability, his survivor guilt, and his distress in response to his own symptoms. For example, he has experienced suicidal thoughts, but, insists the author, his daughter Lilli has been his reason for not “checking out” (14). And he suffers a severe startle reaction and near panic attack in one of the novel’s most memorable scenes (105).

In this scene, Patrick’s reaction of embarrassment and frustration is a convincing representation of a wounded warrior dealing with the condition of PTSD. Patrick and his love interest April are at a fancy restaurant on a first date, when plates clatter in the kitchen. Patrick panics: “The crash made him yell, duck, bolt to his feet in the space of a second, his heart about to tear through his chest. Dizzy, disoriented, he gripped the top of the booth, his fragmented brain desperately trying to kick in, make a decision” (105).With April trying to soothe him, he lashes out. He feels angry and embarrassed at what he considers a distinct show of mental weakness. He then recognizes that, “trying to move forward might actually set him back” (122). In the end, he decides that the incident “hadn’t been about relapse, but about growing” (123).

In other scenes, the trauma sequelae Patrick experiences are problematically described as matters of choice, able to be overcome if one’s will is strong enough. Patrick’s mother–if viewed through the filter of the real world–plainly cannot comprehend the changes the war produced in her son, and yet the author allows this voice to be that of a reasoned expert in describing his internal experiences and needs. After all, and in support of the small-town values grounding the tale, who can know a man more than a mom? Mrs. Shaughnessy explains:

Obviously he doesn’t look the same. And I gather he still has nightmares, although not as often as before. He may be in therapy all his life, for both the physical and mental issues. But inside, past all the junk, he’s no different than he ever was….Patrick needs someone in his life–besides us, I mean–with the strength and courage to know what’s true about him even when things are tough. To comfort him even when he says he doesn’t want it. I don’t know, coax who he used to be out of hiding. (italics ours, 91-92)

The author—via the mother—presents an unattainable happy ending in which the wounded warrior can choose—with a loving partner—to recover his old self. In reality, this approach would likely be ineffective and also be perceived as invalidating (or worse) by veterans struggling with PTSD, grief and readjustment. Veterans know that they are different; they have been changed by their war experiences. They are not wearing shells under which their old selves are hiding.

Certainly, the sense of recapturing Patrick’s pre-deployment personality lurks constantly among family members and so in the minds of the readers. Patrick’s father will counsel his son to date the lovely and warm April, because, “all we want is to see you happy again. Like you used to be…uh…” At that point, Patrick completes his father’s sentence with the weighted preposition “before” (97). Again, there is a sense that those suffering from combat-related PTSD might one day resume their former lives. In truth, they must manage their symptoms and deal with a new reality in terms of their responses and reactions to the world.

Besides supporting a sense that the pre-war self can be recovered, the author also supports a fantasy that love can actually heal the wounded warrior. Upon their second kiss—the first only made him long for the cathartic second—Patrick introspects that “the box flew open, setting free everything he’d kept locked up for far too long, everything he refused to let himself think about, things like passion and closeness and connection, the simple pleasure of being with someone who wanted to be with him” (121). Thus, Templeton asserts that Patrick’s love for April facilitates the closing of an emotional distance generated since his return from Iraq.

A message throughout this book is that not only can certain PTSD symptoms remit or improve because of love, but also that the disconnection, detachment and numbing combat veterans experience are somehow volitional and so broken through or set aside under the right circumstances. Initially frightened of his feeling for April, Patrick reflects on choosing not to “shut himself off” and to retain “empathy for his…fellow beings” via his love for his child (51). When his brother chastises him for his hesitation in asking April for a date, Patrick is moved to reconsider his behaviors. He finds others’ kindnesses to be “a force strong enough to slash open [his] shroud of bitterness and self-pity” (75). In this way, he will try to accept April’s presence in his life, because he wants “to push through [the] last barrier keeping him from normal, to accept the good right in front of him, even if he…hadn’t yet entirely shaken off the past” (184). By the novel’s conclusion, Patrick tells her that she has filled “this big, honking hole inside me” (217).

April is convinced, thereby leaving the reader convinced, too, that her love can influence the trajectory of Patrick’s rehabilitation. As April falls for the elusive Patrick, she finds that “She wanted to wipe the doubt from his eyes, every last trace of it, to be the one person he’d know he could always count on. Always trust” (133). And after making love for the first time, Patrick opens up about his military experiences, even his traumas, a highly unlikely scenario in real life. April is led to wonder if “perhaps her mission wasn’t only about bringing him joy, but about giving him permission to feel” (150). In the critical last scene, April tells Patrick that, “You have nightmares, I’ll be there to hold you until they pass. Or panic attack–I’ll be there to talk you down” (212). Indeed, the final line has April musing on how she’d be “putting the family back together,” a task she embraces by stating: “Mission accepted” (218).

“John Fallon” – Snowbound

In Janice Kay Johnson’s Snowbound (2007), readers encounter the most realistically portrayed case of PTSD in this three-book sample. John Fallon is a reclusive OIF veteran who, at the book’s opening, is trying—and failing—to find healing through an ascetic, hardworking lifestyle in a remote environment. Like many veterans, John is sometimes self-conscious of the physical scars left by the war, but doesn’t want to be “pitied” (Johnson 138). And he is often irritated by others’ “lack of preparedness” (15) and typically feels “disdain and even contempt” for naïve civilians (104). Snowbound includes vivid flashback descriptions as well as well-crafted explanations of the trauma reminders John usually avoids because they elicit distress. The reader is privy to his thoughts as he experiences nightmares, jumpiness, episodes of anger, “bursts of fear” (79), emotional numbing, and efforts to avoid traumatic memories by “will[ing]” the mind to “go blank” (68). In short, Johnson provides details about PTSD that allow the reader to develop a real understanding of this character and perhaps wounded warriors in general. [v]

“What I look for as a reader and strive for as a writer (within the parameters of the genre),” the author explains, “is authenticity” (Johnson, email, 12/31/14). Published in 2007, the intensity of military elements in this tale implicitly links the romance to The Surge, when President George W. Bush increased troops in order to stabilize Iraq and stem the killing of US military personnel. Johnson’s representations of the sequelae of combat trauma are part of her non-literary intent to allow “readers to understand what it’s really like.” The author notes that PTSD “has becoming [sic.] an enormous problem in a country that has fought too many wars too close together.” Enunciating an activist agenda, she “wanted readers to understand…what horrors PTSD sufferers lived through, and how inevitable the psychological aftermath is. Someone coming home from war is not the same person he or she was upon departure, and may never be again. I hoped to convey that there are no quick fixes, how important understanding and patience are–and also how essential to acknowledge what’s wrong rather than going the denial route” (Johnson, email, 12/31/14).

Templeton has a highly personal interest in veterans with PTSD. She grew up the daughter of a World War II veteran whom she believes suffered an undiagnosed case of PTSD. Her father was in the 10th Mountain Division, skiers and mountain climbers that formed a tight knit unit. [vi] Her father earned a bronze star for pulling one friend from danger while behind enemy lines. His friend nevertheless died. After the war, her father drank “to self-medicate,” in Johnson’s words, and he would then tell “horrific stories from the war.” “I feel sure,” states Johnson, “my focus as a writer on post-[war] traumas has to do with my own childhood” (Johnson, email, 12/31/14).

The principal cause of John’s post-war struggle is a suicide bombing in Baghdad during a pickup soccer game that killed six Iraqi boys whom he had befriended. The boys were a mix of Sunni and Shiites, and John was helping to improve their soccer skills in order to “prove that Americans were decent” (346). In doing so, he made them a target for insurgents determined to demoralize the enemy and impose their own draconian social laws on Iraqi people. A woman—or perhaps a man wearing the robes of a conservative woman—walked across the pitch and detonated a bomb that killed an unidentified number of the young children. In this way, Johnson solidly roots the book’s narrative to John’s worst military trauma in Iraq.

The author does so by forcing her wounded warrior to confront the symptoms of his disorder when high school teacher Fiona MacPherson takes shelter from a severe winter storm at his inn. She is accompanied by a van full of rambunctious teenagers, including a group of boys who remind John of the Iraqi soccer players targeted in Baghdad. One boy from this private school is clearly not white, and he “caused a shift in John’s chest. He looked too much like the teenage boys hanging around on dusty streets in Baghdad. He might be Hawaiian or Polynesian. Something just a little exotic, skin brown and eyes dark and tilted” (27). Flashbacks are numerous in this tale, such as when this boy starts wrestling with his friends. John then “goes back in time” and sees in front of him, “Dark heads, laughter.  A group of boys much like this, clowning around. A mud brick wall. Rusty dust puffing under their feet, a couple of dirty soccer balls lying forgotten. With a physical wrench, John pulled himself from the past” (27-28).

This is not the only time that the roughhousing of the boys acts as a catalyst for John’s flashbacks. When John accompanies the group outside in order to clear snow from the driveway and front path, a tree limb snaps, triggering a flashback. In the space of a nanosecond, John hears not a tree branch, but “the whine of an incoming artillery shell” (156). In assessing his environment at that highly charged moment, he is convinced that he sees blood. He then tackles Fiona in order to protect her from the “fire of a Russian AK-47” (157), though he wonders why snow had fallen in Iraq. The presence of snow contributes to his emergence from the flashback. Afterward, he thinks to himself that though he “didn’t do well with loud noises…he didn’t usually lose it completely. Not like that.  But the boys, the way they pushed and shoved and laughed…” (159). These, and other flashbacks, contribute to the advancement of the story’s narrative (161).

Although a specific incident accounts for many of John’s symptoms, the author also hints at a cause of PTSD that is often glossed over: this disorder can develop not only from selfless acts, but also from the moral quandaries of war. It is this aspect of PTSD that is often neglected by the public and policymakers–and certainly both by the authors and readers of romances. John’s love interest Fiona asks what his parents made of his decision to give up a lucrative tech job and to live a secluded life at a mountain inn. Remembering his mother’s consternation at the changes wrought by the war, John had then reflected to himself that, “I killed too many people.  Some I didn’t mean to kill” (120). In suggesting that John’s legal authority to kill may have led to errors or missteps, Johnson makes a courageous creative decision to forego the singular presentation of the selfless hero in favor of the more nuanced characterization of a soldier bewildered by the war he has just experienced and actions he considers to be morally transgressive.

As John and Fiona fall in love, however, the author’s need to fulfill the fantasies of her readers trumps her desire to accurately represent the experiences of wounded warriors with PTSD. Six weeks after the storm that brought them together, Fiona is distinctly uncomfortable that John had yet to share “beyond the superficial” (282). So, when John asks her to marry him, she refuses, stating that “Love means trust. It means sharing. Making yourself vulnerable to the other person.” Recognizing that John has never told him anything about his distressing experiences in Iraq, Fiona queries, “Have you ever voluntarily told me one single really personal thing about yourself” (286)? John refuses to talk about Iraq, and so “Fiona was ready to give up” (292). The litmus test of the relationship becomes his ability to discuss his trauma, which, in real life, would be neither welcome nor helpful for the veteran. And yet, fictional Fiona finds that “If he couldn’t even admit that he had a serious problem or that he was shutting her out, she didn’t know what else she could do” (292). She breaks up with John.

Fiona’s leave-taking will lead John to seek professional help three months later. Like many veterans, John is initially skeptical of mental health treatment. He believes that an isolated existence avoiding his triggers and staying busy will be most therapeutic: “It’s healing naturally,” he says of his PTSD, “with hard physical work, limited noise and stress. The old fashioned way” (291). However, after Fiona leaves, and upon the visit from his concerned sister Liz, he begins to recognize that “the future lay before him, stark and hopeless if he refused [treatment]” (317).

John begins to see a therapist specializing in PTSD, a Vietnam veteran who suffered physical and mental trauma during his deployment. The therapist brusquely begins his session by querying John about his time in Iraq, including the number of friends he had seen die. Ten minutes into the session, he does what would likely lead most traumatized patients to leave therapy and not return: He pressures the veteran to relive the most traumatic incident of the war and the suppressed emotions associated with it. John proves ready to do this in order to heal and so become a partner worthy of Fiona (323-329). Following these counseling sessions (a matter of weeks), John opens up to his sister, his parents, and eventually, to Fiona. In reality, this is something that can take veterans much longer—months, years, or even decades—even with the help of mental health treatment.

And so, the novel’s denouement ultimately sends mixed signals. In one sense, Snowbound succeeds more than others in its genre in communicating that the desire to “fix” the wounded veteran through love is “arrogant” (142). Johnson conveys that loved ones need to be patient, and that recovery is not immediate and is not a linear process. After all, when John does finally get back together with Fiona, they both understand that he is “going to backslide” (353).

However, Fiona’s contribution to John’s healing—by generating a set of yearnings and fostering a course of recovery—undermines Johnson’s otherwise realistic portrayal of PTSD. Like Jeff and Patrick, John finds that his love interest is “slic[ing] open his detachment” (79), which he does not find unwelcome. He feels “carefree” in Fiona’s presence (120) and finds that he wants her near, “pushing him to talk even when he didn’t want to” (261). In the end, when faced with the possibility of regression, Fiona insists, “I’ll always be there to catch you” (353).

Conclusion

A non-negligible number of reviews on amazon.com reveal concern for veterans suffering from PTSD. One reader even insisted that Mallery’s Shelter in a Soldier’s Arms “rang true to the tumult my late husband expressed to me about his war service time” (Braswell). And a reader of A Gift for All Seasons wrote that “Patrick was shocking looking, to say the least. But April saw through the outer appearance of him and loved the beauty that was within. It showed the struggle of how these brave vets have to go on with their lives after battle and wounds” (Becky).

These reviews of highly marketable romance novels reflect and refract understandings of the place of wounded warriors in American society. Snowbound inspired ninety-three reviews, many premised on a belief that monogamous love can help those suffering from PTSD.One reader noted “How hard it must be to live with ptsd but to have someone there to work with you to help you and push you to heal that’s the touching part….she never gave up its easy to throw in the towel its hard to make it work” (Ross). And another insisted that “My favorite heroes are always the tragic ones and John is a perfect example; he has been beaten down by life and his only hope is to find love that will be his salvation. In this moving and uplifting story, John is ultimately healed by the power of love and is able to move forward and truly live once again” (Measmer). One reader, however, cautions: “Since I have experience dealing with someone who came back from Iraq, I know how hard it really can be. I know for a fact that they would rather have someone who did not know them before to talk to. I really liked how Janice made John’s PTSD seem real” (Gillmore). If readers use such novels as a roadmap for understanding partners, family members, and friends who are veterans, these have the potential to engender disappointment, resentment, and anger.

It is critical that the stories of combat veterans be told, but it is also essential that the narratives Americans advance—in any popular medium—do justice to their reality. Narratives in which wounded warriors are quick to recover from their traumas, have their symptoms remit in a matter of months, or reclaim their pre-service range of emotional experience simply because the right romantic partner is involved can only contribute to further cultural misunderstandings about combat trauma and PTSD. The novelists writing these tales do not craft a character with whom a veteran would identify, and this is in part because of what Johnson notes are the “parameters of the genre,” which demand a Happily Ever After. But, as we argue in this article, it is also because the American public is unwilling to accept disabled veterans whose lives—and basic dispositions—have been ineluctably changed by the US decision to go to war. Ultimately, romance novels that focus on disabled veterans who find healing in love reveal a widely held fantasy about PTSD. Although offering a simulacrum of the sequelae of combat trauma, a closer examination of the text reveals some misinformation about combat-related PTSD. And so, contemporary romances expose a general reluctance in the US to accept wounded warriors with chronic difficulties. Instead, these fictional tales hold forth a false hope that those suffering from combat trauma can be rehabilitated quickly by means of public concern and monogamous love.

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2013.  Print.

Becky, amazon.com review. Web.16 August 2015.

Braswell, April.  amazon.com review. Web. 14 August 2015

CNN.  “Joint Chiefs Chair Warns of Disconnect between Military and Civilians.” Web. 27 May 2015.

Dursa, Erin K., Matthew J. Reinhard, Shannon K. Barth, and Aaron I. Schneiderman. “Prevalence of a positive screen for PTSD among OEF/OIF and OEF/OIF-Era veterans in a large population-based cohort.” Journal of Traumatic Stress 27.5 (2014): 542-549.  Print.

Finley, Erin P.  Fields of Combat: Understanding PTSD among Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011.  Print.

Foa, Edna B., Terence M. Keane, Matthew J. Friedman, and Judith A. Cohen, Eds.  Effective Treatments for PTSD. 2nd ed. New York: Guilford Press, 2009.  Print.

Fox News.  “Vets kayak across South Carolina to Bring Attention to PTSD.”  24 April 2015. Web. 18 May 2015.

Gillmore, Janelle.  amazon.com review.  Web. 16 August 2015.

Hoge, Charles W., Carl A. Castro, Stephen C. Messer, Dennis McGurk, Dave I. Cotting, and Robert L. Koffman. “Combat Duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mental Health Problems, and Barriers to Care.” New England Journal of Medicine 351.1 (2004): 13-22.  Print.

Johnson, Janice Kay.  “RE: Scholarly Introduction.” Message to Stacy E. Holden.  31 December 2014.  E-mail.

—.  Snowbound.  New York: Harlequin Super Romance, 2007.  Print.

Kantra, Virginia.  “Coming Home: Military Heroes in Romance Novels.” USA Today.  4 March 2014.   Web. 29 May 2015.

Mallery, Susan.  “Re: Query from Stacy.”  Message to Stacy E. Holden.  18 August 2014. E-mail.

—.  “Re: Query from Stacy–Last One (maybe).”  Message to Stacy E. Holden.  1 June 2015. E-mail.

—.  “Re: Query from Stacy–Last One (maybe).”  Message to Stacy E. Holden.  2 June 2015.  E-mail.

—.  Shelter in a Soldier’s Arms.  New York: Silhouette, 2001; reprint 2014. Print.

Measmer, C.  amazon.com review.  Web. 16 August 2015.

MSNBC.”Wounded: The Battle Back Home.”  Web. 18 May 2015..

Naughton, Julie.  “In Love and War: Military Characters Spice Up Romance Novels.” Publisher’s Weekly, 11 November 2013.  Web. 15 August 2015.

Ross, A.N. amazon.com review. Web. 16 August 2015.

Schell, Terry L., and Grant N. Marshall. “Survey of individuals previously deployed for OEF/OIF.” Invisible Wounds of War: Psychological and Cognitive Injuries, Their Consequences, and Services to Assist Recovery. Ed. Terri Tanielian and Lisa H. Jaycox.  Santa Monica, CA: RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research, 2008. 87-115. Print.

Shay, Jonathan.  Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character.  New York: Scribner, 1994.  Print.

Templeton, Karen.  “Re: Follow Up—A Gift for All Seasons.”  Message to Stacy E. Holden. 22 September 2014. E-mail.

—.   A Gift for All Seasons.  New York: Harlequin Special Editions, 2012.  Print.

—.  “Re: From Susan Mallery.”  Message to Stacy E. Holden.  18 August 2014. E-mail.

—.  “Re: Thank You!”  Message to Stacy E. Holden.  19 August 2014. E-mail.

Thomas, Claude Anshin.  At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace.  Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2006.  Print.

Tick, Edward.  War and the Soul.  Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2005.  Print.

[i] For industry sales statistics assembled by the Romance Writers of America, see https://www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=580, accessed 5 July 2015.

[ii] The RITA Award is the most prestigious award in the romance industry.  It is awarded annually by the Romance Writers of America, and A Gift for All Seasons won in the category of Best Contemporary Romance in 2012.

[iii] http://www.jessicascott.net/, accessed 13 August 2015.

[iv] Karen Templeton, email to Stacy E. Holden, “Re: Follow Up–A Gift for All Seasons,” 22 September 2014.

[v] Somewhat atypically, however (even among very traumatized veterans), John is relieved not to be serving another tour (121).   In reality, many veterans feel pulled back to the combat environment, because they found it exhilarating, felt more skilled there, or because the demands were clearer and less ambiguous—unlike civilian life.  Many also want to return out of a sense of duty to friends (living or dead), or to “finish the job” they left behind.

[vi] For information on this unit, see http://www.drum.army.mil/AboutFortDrum/Pages/hist_10thMountainHistory_lv3.aspx, accessed 15 August 2015