Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is the mind-bending tale of Billy Pilgrim, a WWII prisoner of war who endures the bombing of Dresden only to be abducted by aliens and taken on a time travel adventure of his own past, present, and future. First published in 1969, the novel is hailed as a ground breaking achievement in nonlinear storytelling and a grittier, truer to life portrayal of soldiers’ experiences during the war. But could it be that hiding in plain sight in this American classic is the story of Vonnegut’s own struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
As you may remember from your college lit classes, Vonnegut served in the army during WWII and, just like his alter ego character Billy, was an American prisoner of war in Dresden during the Allied fire bombing of the city. If Vonnegut’s description of Billy taking shelter deep in the bowels of a slaughterhouse along with his fellow prisoners and Nazi captors in order to survive seems real, it is because it was. The author lets the reader in on the autobiographical nature of the novel’s POW scenes by inserting the revealing line, “I was there.”
In a new analysis of the Slaughterhouse-Five by literary scholar William Deresiewicz, special attention is paid to what Vonnegut’s writing reveals about how his POW experience affected his mental health. For example, the notion that Vonnegut melded non-linear time travel — the idea of being “unstuck in time” as Billy describes — with such a specific and traumatic incident as the Dresden fire-bombing, seems to reveal that Vonnegut/Billy is “unstuck in time in the sense that he is stuck in time. His life is not linear, but radiates instead from a single event like the spokes of a wheel. Everything feels like a dream: a very bad dream,” Deresiewicz writes.
In another section, Billy talks to a fellow prisoner and has difficulty answering basic questions. “He tried to remember how old he was, couldn’t.” And later in the same conversation, “he tried to remember what year it was. He couldn’t remember that, either.” For the traumatized soldier, the war is always present, and the present is always the war, Deresiewicz writes. Just like Billy not being able to remember basic information about life beyond the slaughterhouse prison, Vonnegut too seemed to struggle in his memories of this time and place.
Does this mesh with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as Deresiewicz claims? PTSD is diagnosed when someone exposed to a traumatic event (known as the stressor) meets certain benchmarks from a number of symptom clusters. These can include intrusive recollections, in which the stressor is persistently re-experienced through recurring images, thoughts, perceptions, or dreams (some dreams may be frightening but not clearly connected to the event); others may act or feel as if the stressor is still occurring and experience illusions, hallucinations, and dissociative flashback episodes. Avoidance is another key symptom cluster, including the tendency to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations about the traumatic event or avoid places or people that remind the person of the stressor. Having a difficult time remembering important parts of the traumatic event is also common. Adults diagnosed with PTSD also show signs of hyperarousal, which may translate into irritability, trouble sleeping, or difficultly concentrating.
Careful rereading of Slaughterhouse-Five certainly underscores actions and thoughts that align with PTSD. However, what may be most revealing is that Vonnegut, on more than occasion, described himself as schizophrenic. It is unclear what he took this term to mean, but people with schizophrenia have been found to be more likely to have histories of traumatic exposure than people without schizophrenia. It could be that Vonnegut fit into that category or simply used a common term to describe PTSD, a problem that — in 1969 — was still not very well understood.
‘I Was There’: On Kurt Vonnegut: https://www.thenation.com/signup/167921?destination=article/167921/i-was-there-kurt-vonnegut
DSM Criteria for PTSD: https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/pages/dsm-iv-tr-ptsd.asp