Regeneration – Pat Barker

I had wanted to post something more cheerful after the pantoum posted this morning, but just finished an impossibly sad book, Regeneration, by Pat Barker, about Craiglockhart War Hospital, a World War I hospital for officers suffering from “shell-shock.”  The book, an intertwining of fact and fiction, focuses on the wonderful Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, a neurologist and anthropologist, and patients of Craiglockhart in 1917, among others, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, two great British war poets (and British poets of the Great War.)

What is perhaps initially most disturbing is the general contempt British society, and the soldier patients themselves, have for soldiers suffering from breakdown.  (Correction.  What is most disturbing is the horror endured by the soldiers that leads to the breakdowns.)   The only thing deemed more discreditable than a soldier unable to continue fighting due to mental breakdown is a soldier, unable to continue fighting, who is not suffering from mental breakdown.  This is the case of Siegfried Sassoon, a war hero, who at the beginning of the novel (as in fact) has written a declaration addressed to Parliament against the continuation of the war.  As a result of this public letter, Sassoon  is in danger, if not found to be suffering from combat fatigue, of being court martialed.

The job of the kind and insightful Dr. Rivers is basically to get Sassoon and his other patients in shape to return to the front:  “[n]ormally, a cure implies that the patient will no longer engage in behaviour that is clearly self-destructive.  But in the present circumstances, recovery meant the resumption of activities that were not merely self-destructive but positively suicidal.”

Rivers, adopting a Freudian approach, is basically a “talk therapist”.  His sessions with the patients are incredibly civil—clipped, restrained, quietly manly (even when talking about homosexuality.)  (These are Brits, right?  And officers.)

The most chilling parts of the book, even worse than the descriptions of combat conditions, detail the alternative methods of treatment adopted by a Dr. Lewis Yealland at a London war hospital.  Yealland (a true doctor who wrote about his “therapeutic” methods in a post-war book) believed in achieving speedy results through the electric shocking of injured (or what he views as recalcitrant) patients;  those struck dumb by combat trauma, for example, have electrodes attached to their throats and are repeatedly shocked.   (These are still the British I am writing about, doing it to their own.)

Not a cheerful book, but powerful and informative, and quite amazing to read in the modern context.   I  recommend.

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