Trauma Makes Us Go into Hiding. That’s Bad.

Patrick Modiano has profound observations about PTSD. But he’s looking for help in the wrong place.

I’m a psychiatrist who works with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). At a recent event, a veteran’s wife said to me, “I don’t know what’s going on inside him when he thrashes around in bed at night. I wish I did, but I’m not supposed to ask.” Another veteran tells me: “When I got back from Afghanistan, I thought I was just taking time to get reacclimated. But I’m still quiet and more anxious. I stay home a lot. I’m guess I’m just a different person.”

I’ve recently been reading an author who has a whole-culture take on PTSD. The 2014 Nobel laureate in literature, Patrick Modiano, born into post-WWII France, asks about his country, “And do not our lives dissolve into the evening?” His answer across 17 novels spanning the entire second half of the 20th century is unequivocally yes!

Trauma comes to us both individually and collectively. All of us—and all of our people groups—will at some point experience some form of terror that makes us hide. I’ve found that thinking about both of these truths together has helped me better understand trauma’s pervasive presence in the wide world as well as its influence in my own life. And it’s brought into stark relief the pressing personal and collective question: where do I (and we) go for help?

Let me tell you a bit about Modiano’s writings. Born in 1945 on the outskirts of Paris, his novels inhabit life in that city during Hitler’s World War II conquest and occupation of France. But these aren’t stories about battles or strategies. They rather describe living—or maybe merely existing, or slowly dying—under the shadow of a “looming presence,” in this case the Germans.

Don’t let Nobel laureate intimidate you: Modiano is readable. From the boulevards and hôtels of his city, he uses straightforward prose to tell stories of modest length that consider questions we all share:

What is the essence of our identity?

When we hide from people, what of our identity gets lost?

Can we regain this lost identity?

In one of his first novels, Missing Person (1978), we follow the detective Guy Rolland trying to solve his toughest case—finding his lost self. It’s Paris in 1965. Guy’s memory is blank before 1955: “I am nothing,” he says. “Nothing but a pale shape, silhouetted that evening against the café terrace, waiting for the rain to stop.” Even his name is a gift from his friend Hutte.

Guy doesn’t know, so neither do we, why he’s lost his memory. As he traces his past, stringing together fragments of possibilities from pictures and postcards and phone books, the trail of his identity dissolves somewhere in the murky shadows of the WWII occupation—when anxiety drove everyone into hiding. But his need to know his story, to create an identity, compels Guy to trust wisps of information that lead him on an increasingly quixotic quest from Paris to Switzerland to Bora Bora and beyond.

In a subsequent novel, Honeymoon (1990), we follow Jean, a documentary chronicler of explorers who got lost. After Jean learns of the suicide of Ingrid, he mysteriously leaves his wife and friends. He lives in hotels and hides in shadows as the story unfolds of his long-ago encounter with Ingrid in occupied Paris, where she was fleeing her identity so she could escape the Germans. Compelled by her death, Jean pieces together shards of her past to create a story that might be her life.

From these specific settings and individuals, Modiano’s stories generalize. His Germans hover in the background, vague and amorphous, while he tells us about the actions—but rarely the psychology—of Jean or Guy or Ingrid. So Modiano evokes the threats that trigger our hiding along with the desperate need each of us has for a coherent, purposeful story.

I think, for example, about my childhood experience of religion, which felt like metaphysical whack-a-mole. Like Modiano’s German occupiers, a looming presence—in this case God or the church—whacked every inappropriate thing in me that dared to poke its head above ground. Religion can define “inappropriate” quite broadly, so the life of faith for many people becomes about hiding broad swaths of our identities in order to survive.

Emotions are particularly dangerous. Beyond drawing attention when they’re expressed, simply feeling sadness or anger can threaten to spring free the trauma-associated desolation or rage that we’ve trapped inside ourselves like a jack-in-the-box. My wife, who’s Jewish, was born more than a decade post-WWII in the holocaust-survivor village of Skokie, Illinois. She can still call up the submerged current of terror—the fear of annihilation—that was woven into the communal Jewish identity but which was never expressed or grieved.

Hiding also often afflicts us with guilt, because we compromise our integrity.

Back to Honeymoon: Ingrid’s freedom and imprisonment, Jean comes to discover, both began when, as a 16-year-old girl on the way home from work one day, she walked past her Jewish home and her waiting father into the gentile neighbourhood just across the street. She fled into a new and safe, but false, identity. “The sense of emptiness and remorse submerges you,” Jean writes. “She couldn’t shake it off. Nor could I.”

And trauma always—insidiously and inexorably—expands its influence.

For a combat veteran, the friendly fire or exploding IED or puff of dust from nearby bullets commandeers their mind. The veteran, from that moment, obsessively scans for anything even remotely resembling the trauma. And then each newly-identified threat-trigger gets added to the ever-lengthening list of what must be avoided.

Hiding ourselves ultimately thwarts what my Blue Ocean Faith friends (I co-host the weekly Blue Ocean World podcast on Horatio) have come to view as the central pillar of the good life—connections. A real relationship between me and you requires that you have access to the core components of my actual self, along with the experiences that make up the story that is my life. If I’m afraid or ashamed of those things, I’ll never let you near them.

So we must find a way out. I, the vets I care for, the Village of Skokie, the country of France—we all need something that makes it safe to emerge from hiding. We need something that points our individual and corporate stories once again towards goodness and hope.

Which is exactly where so many contemporary thinkers founder.

Modiano, for example, resonantly and beautifully evokes the pathos of hiding, but it’s unrequited. Through 17 novels, his lost souls drift, coalesce, separate and vanish without ever finding their ways back to identity or connection.

In one of his late stories, Out of the Dark, set in 1995 Paris, an unnamed narrator looks back through the haze of memory to 30 years earlier—which is still 20 years after the occupation. On a nondescript street corner Gerard and Jacqueline (no last names, ever) ask the narrator for directions and then invite him to their hotel room, where he observes its pristine emptiness: “it seemed as though they were living here in secret, trying to leave no sign of their presence.”

The narrator and Jacqueline become lovers, steal money, escape to London, drift apart and then cross paths 15 years later, but none of it ever means anything: “We had no real qualities, except the one that youth gives to everyone for a very brief time, like a vague promise that will never be kept.” Their trauma produced fear of deep connections, so the relationships that might help them are instead ephemeral and insubstantial. They never extend beyond this moment.

By looking no further than human capabilities and relationships, Modiano’s quest to rescue his characters from trauma ends in despair. But other writers who’ve wrestled with this kind of oblivion from a threatening presence—Dostoevsky, Gunter Grass, William Faulkner, David Foster Wallace—have probed beyond human connections to divine ones. They’ve wondered whether religion—in their cases Christianity, or at least Christ—has anything to offer. Despite the religious “looming presence” in my upbringing, this is where I’ve come to find hope for my story.

For instance, I was praying recently with a friend, and in prayer I remembered a time when I was about ten years old and had built a model. Not the boring old Indy racer or F-15 fighter jet, but two pirates on an island. I had spent hours painting awesome colors—a black eye patch, a silver sword, gold doubloons, green grass—in fine detail with a toothpick. But best of all were the moving parts. A rubber band triggered one buccaneer to swing his sword and the other to spin away as the two swashbucklers fought—harrh, matey!—for the treasure spilling out of the chest at their feet.

I immediately felt anxious. Yes, it was a cool model, but even from the safe distance of prayerful recollection, I was embarrassed. Little Tommy got so caught up in weird things like models, puddles after the rain, counting the number of times each Top-40 hit was played on 97.9 WGRD, the cello. All of which reflected his/my complete lack of social anything. I skulked in the shadows at junior high dances, didn’t like beer, and communicated affection for my 7th grade sweetie by pulling out her chair as she sat down in science class so that she hurt her tailbone (which got us both sent crying to the principal’s office). Unlike the pirates on my island, I could not for the life of me figure out how to be cool.

Yes, being a socially awkward kid is not living under German occupation or experiencing military trauma, but my hiding was real. Every conversation, class, and social event was pregnant with the threat of my nerdy, awkward self being exposed and rejected. So I hid him/me expertly and completely.

But then, as we were praying, Jesus came into my memory. He entered my room, got real close to me and looked at my pirates. “I really like the colors,” he said. Then I watched as he tested out the spring-loaded sword. “Cool,” he said.

It was so meaningful. As I prayed, Jesus was not ashamed of either my autistic-like focus or my interests. Far from it, he thought those things were intriguing—he clearly liked those attributes of me. I felt relief and freedom and I cried. I stayed with Jesus in prayer for quite a while.

Now I get that Jesus did not really enter my bedroom 42 years ago to have a conversation with me—he cannot actually change the past. I also, as a psychiatrist, am aware of those who would say this was just my subconscious or wish-fulfilment or me projecting my fantasies onto a great big empty God couch in the sky.

But . . . I think it was Jesus. I’m putting my money down on a real encounter with a living Him. I trust my ability at this point to tell the difference between me and something other than me, and the effects on me from encounters like this with Jesus are orders of magnitude better than anything else I’ve ever experienced. I have a reimagined sense of the value of my identity that is increasingly free from the kind of anxiety that would cause me to hide.

And it also resonates with what Jesus says to people in the Bible. He’s good at naming and rebuilding identities:

“You are Simon son of John; you will be called Rock.”

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth”

Jesus experienced the threat-carried-out of the collective derision of humankind and did not hide. So he can call to us:

“Lazarus, come out!  . . . Take off his grave clothes, and let him go.”

He invites us from the other side of hiding into the safe place he has created, where he connects the true meaning of our stories to his Grand Story.

The great writers are right to explore threats, hiding and losing our identity as central preoccupations of being human. Their greatness comes in part from their unflinching assessment of the limited hope offered up by contemporary society. Modiano’s Guy Rolland will travel literally to the ends of the earth in search of his missing soul only to return home desolate. But, for me, God is real and—unlike the message I got in childhood—is not just one more Looming Presence from which to hide. He instead creates safe spaces, calls us out from hiding, and helps us discover who we really are. 

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