On Mac McClelland’s Tale of Reporting, Rough Sex, and PTSD

(Posts on Hamdan and DSK will hopefully be coming soon, but first I’m going to discuss what turned out to be the favored write-in candidate for my next post: many of you emailed me asking for my reaction to reporter Mac McClelland’s article about her own struggle with PTSD.)

McClelland, who writes about human rights and foreign affairs for Mother Jones, developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after a series of difficult reporting assignments in Haiti, during which she interviewed rape victims and was also herself the object of predatory sexual behavior. She has written a number of pieces about her healing process, including several that chronicled the self-defense classes she took at the behest of her editor. And then, a little over a week ago, she wrote an article for GOOD magazine in which she chronicled her PTSD in more detail, and described how having violent-but-consensual sex with someone she trusted helped her to overcome her trauma:

“And just like that, I’d lost. It’s what I was looking for, of course. But my body—my hard-fighting, adrenaline-drenched body—reacted by exploding into terrible panic. The comforting but debilitating blanket of tension that’d for weeks been wrapped around my chest solidified into a brick. Then the weight of his body, and of the inevitability of my defeat, descended on my ribcage. My worn-out muscles went so taut that they ached. I stopped breathing.

I did not enjoy it in the way a person getting screwed normally would. But as it became clear that I could endure it, I started to take deeper breaths. And my mind stayed there, stayed present even when it became painful, even when he suddenly smothered me with a pillow, not to asphyxiate me but so that he didn’t break my jaw when he drew his elbow back and slammed his fist into my face. Two, three, four times. My body felt devastated but relieved; I’d lost, but survived. After he climbed off me, he gathered me up in his arms. I broke into a thousand pieces on his chest, sobbing so hard that my ribs felt like they were coming loose.”

Her essay has been greeted with derision, vitriol, and worse – especially from her fellow journalists. Marjorie Valbrun, writing for Slate’s XX factor blog, called it “offensive,” “shockingly narcissistic,” and “intellectually dishonest.” Reporter Damian Cave tweeted that she was a “geisha to the NGO republic.” And 36 female reporters and Haiti researchers signed an open letter to GOOD, claiming that “the way she uses Haiti as a backdrop for this narrative is sensationalist and irresponsible,” and that

“[McClelland] paints Haiti as a heart-of-darkness dystopia, which serves only to highlight her own personal bravery for having gone there in the first place. She makes use of stereotypes about Haiti that would be better left in an earlier century: the savage men consumed by their own lust, the omnipresent violence and chaos, the danger encoded in a black republic’s DNA.”

The various critiques fall into three rough categories:

  1. PTSD isn’t real, it’s just San Francisco therapy-speak for “having a bad day,” so McClelland must have been a self-obsessed narcissist to write about it as if it’s something to be taken seriously;
  2. PTSD is real, but McClelland either had no right to develop it or was faking it, because reporting about other people’s trauma doesn’t seem like it should be that hard; or
  3. McClelland was allowed to get PTSD, but isn’t allowed to write about it being triggered by reporting from Haiti, because that might give people the impression that bad things can happen in Haiti, and that is clearly racist and colonialist.

I find these reactions confusing. The piece in question is a personal essay about her own struggle with PTSD. It wasn’t reportage on Haiti, or anything else for that matter. So why all the snarls and slashing claws?

In the interest of lighting candles instead of cursing darkness and all that, I figure I’ll address each of the arguments in turn.

PTSD = Not Really That Real?

In fairness, none of the responses I read came right out and specifically said that they think PTSD is fake. However, I have to believe that many of them think that. Because why else would they call McClelland “narcissistic” for developing it? I assume that when they hear that a person has caught malaria, their response isn’t “That self-obsessed bitch! Doesn’t she know that other people have been bitten by way more mosquitoes, and never had a problem?”

Flashbacks and vivid nightmares might be less obvious than 104-degree fevers, but that doesn’t mean they’re made up. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – it’s totes real, y’all! Not a fake thing that people like to claim they have, just because the stigma of mental illness is so super fun!

Perhaps the easiest way to conceptualize PTSD, if you’ve never experienced or encountered it yourself, is as an emotional allergic reaction. With physical allergies, your immune system becomes over sensitized to a physical substance, and will react so strongly when it encounters, say, a peanut, that the result can be serious injury or even death. PTSD can be thought of as the emotional version of that: the body’s emotional system won’t stop fighting, even when it’s no longer necessary. It’s a severe, involuntary over-reaction of of the brain’s normal responses to trauma, and the results can be devastating – the mental equivalent of anaphylactic shock.

The behavior that results from this “mental allergic reaction” can be bizarre and disturbing. One of the first clients I ever worked with was a middle-aged man who was seeking asylum, who also had a severe case of PTSD. As a result, he would do almost anything to avoid discussing his trauma. Because I needed to know what had happened to him in order to file the claim, this was a big problem for our working relationship. He lied to me repeatedly, and often became explosively angry at seemingly random moments. Working on the case made him crushingly fatigued, no matter how much coffee he drank. On one memorable occasion, he fell asleep while talking to me – literally dozed off in the middle of his own sentence.

Another time, I was interviewing a woman about sexual assaults she had suffered as an adult, and she began to impersonate her six-year-old self, who couldn’t be questioned about the assaults because they didn’t happen until she grew up. I’ve had other clients who were initially too traumatized to tell me what happened to them at all, forcing me to suspend work on their cases until after they received treatment from a therapist. It bears repeating that these were asylum cases – winning them was potentially life-saving, so these people had every incentive to cooperate, but their PTSD was so severe that they literally couldn’t.

The thing to draw from these stories, (other than “become an asylum lawyer! Meet vulnerable people, and make them re-live their past traumas for fun and profit!”) is that the symptoms of PTSD can, in many cases, be almost indistinguishable from the symptoms of being an asshole. But there’s a key difference: assholes act that way because they don’t think you deserve respect, while PTSD sufferers act that way because their brains mistakenly think that something is trying to kill them. I don’t know about you, but I think that a person engaged in the activity of “trying not to die” deserves to be cut a bit more slack than a person engaged in the activity of “trying to annoy you.”

Yeah, But McClelland Didn’t Go Through Anything That Bad, Did She? She Must Be Faking, Right?

Nor do I have much sympathy for all the be-internetted mutterings about how ridiculous it was for McClelland to claim PTSD after “only” interviewing a rape victim and not being actually raped herself, or after “only” one trip to Haiti, or “only” whatever else.

For one thing, that’s an unnecessarily restrictive reading of her story, which mentions a number of traumatic situations, including: two trips to Haiti, during which she reported on a brutal sexual assault and mutilation; being the object of sexually predatory behavior by her driver in Haiti, who “cornered her,” an “upstanding member of the Haitian elite,” who stalked her, and a group of convicted ex-felons in Oklahoma who “got handsy” and suggested that she’d be “pretty fun to pass around for lively intercourse;” and the difficulty of reporting on the Deepwater Horizon spill in New Orleans a few months earlier, which had brought back memories of living in that city during Katrina. That doesn’t sound like “only” anything to me.

But even if it were really true McClelland was traumatized by her reporting on the story of Haitian rape victim “Sybille,” that wouldn’t matter. Because not only is PTSD totes real (see above), it also isn’t something that people can control. It’s not like you get to say “sure, this seems bad, but far worse things are happening to other people elsewhere, so I think I will actually not develop PTSD today.”

Again, that’s a courtesy that we extend automatically to people who suffer physical injuries or diseases. If someone loses a leg in a car accident, we don’t dismiss their pain on the grounds that other people lose their legs fighting in wars.

Although I have never had PTSD myself, my personal experience is still enough for me to know that you never know which events are going to leave you traumatized. In my case, my closest actual brush with death – getting run over by a car at age 17 – left me physically bashed up, but emotionally fine. But sometimes exposure to other people’s trauma, through some of the cases I’ve worked on, has on occasion left me a jangly-nerved wreck. For me, those symptoms have tended to manifest in the form of hackneyed-metaphor nightmares (example: I’m in a school that’s bright and sunny, but then I go downstairs and the basement is full of mangled corpses – I get it, subconscious, I get it), and a complete inability to watch torture scenes in movies. Casino Royale left me shaking in my seat, holding my head between my knees and trying not to pass out or throw up.

Luckily, for me, such problems always went away quickly, on their own. I’ve never needed to go to a trauma therapist, or to have someone punch me in the face during sex. But that’s just good luck. It wasn’t strong moral fiber on my part, any more than it was weakness for me to be affected by my clients’ stories in the first place. Just as it wasn’t any more impressive for me not to develop PTSD after getting hit by a car while walking to class one sunny morning than it was for me not to develop an allergy to peanuts. Just as it wasn’t weakness for McClelland to develop PTSD, or to get over it the way that she did. (As treatment plans go, “have the violent sex you crave with a person you can trust” is quite niche, but I’m glad it worked for her.)

And I’m glad that she wrote about it, partly because her prose is vivid and engaging, but partly because I think there is value in embracing the weirdness that mental illness causes, and the weirdness that can be encountered when overcoming it.

There is also value in writing an article that tells other people that healing is possible, but that the road might be peculiar. I couldn’t put it better than commenter Goodspices, who left this comment on Mac’s article:

“Reading this article is an awakening that the feelings I’ve experienced as a victim of PTSD aren’t wrong, happen to others, and most importantly, can be worked through with help. What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for everyone but if it worked together for the good, why should we feel the need for judging her?”

If that’s not a good reason for her to have written and published this article, I don’t know what is.

McClelland Shouldn’t Have Written That Her Trip To Haiti Triggered Her PTSD, Because That Is Clearly Racist And Colonialist

I almost feel like I shouldn’t even address this argument, because I think it is so stupid. Those of you who read this blog know that I have basically zero tolerance for the “land of rape and lions” brand of reporting on developing countries, so I feel pretty comfortable with my ability to tell the difference between that, and a personal essay that includes relevant facts. McClelland’s piece is the latter: she was writing about her own experience of Haiti, and that experience included interviewing rape victims, being stalked and harassed by men who felt entitled to have sex with her, and observing an awful lot of guns. I struggle to see how having those experiences, or writing about them, constitutes racism.

When it comes to the Gang of 36’s arguments, I find myself in agreement with Conor Friedersdorf:

This is what a hit piece reads like when it’s cloaked in liberal arts school vernacular. If you scoffed when Pres. Obama was smeared as having a Kenyan anti-colonial mindset, witness the other side’s answer to Dinesh D’Souza: in their telling, we’re to understand the writer by presuming that she has a colonial mindset. How dare someone travel to refugee camps plagued by an epidemic of gang rape, get cornered by her driver, develop PTSD, and focus an essay about her ailment on “ugly chaos”?

Their tactics are especially galling because McClelland never mentions race in her piece, but that doesn’t stop the signatories from using loaded terms to imply that she is racially unenlightened (a “heart of darkness” dystopia with “savage” men). It’s easy to make a writer look bad when you impute to her ugly sentiments she never actually expresses.

And Una Moore:

That 36 well-respected women working as journalists, aid workers and researchers deemed it necessary to endorse a letter that shames a reporter grappling with PTSD for things she did not even write is evidence of just how widespread support for self-censorship is among a network that, were it to live up to its ideals, would encourage bold self-expression, but instead mobilizes to stamp it out and sow fear of independent thought.

To sum up:

  • I liked the article;
  • PTSD = totally a thing; and
  • People should stop being such jerks about it.

Amanda Taub


  1. Your article totally evades the issues that she was rather insensitive to the victim. One of the larger issues with the article is that many people including myself feel the victim was exploited for the authors personal/ professional gain. She fails to ever humanize the actual victim of the rape. Furthermore it doesn't look favorable for Mclelland as further ethical questions are being asked of her. While I agree she has every right to write her personal essay as she chooses some of her actions have been questionable.

    Response from the rape victim:


  2. Hi Anonymous,

    I'm not sure I understand your objection.

    Is your feeling that the responses to Mac's PTSD article – which made no mention of the ethical issues mentioned in your links – are somehow rendered reasonable by this development?

    Or do you think that if someone fails to meet the standards of journalistic ethics, the correct response is a personal attack on a different topic?

  3. i would like to +1 this, in the parlance of our times. well said. bravo.

  4. I find it interesting in all the response blogs on this piece no one seems to think the lady McClelland is very disturbed and needs help. The writer of this article appears to think her mental illness has been healed, but I'm sure its deeper than that.

    If this is the new "normal" I must flee America.

    Whatever issues this woman had, she brought them to Haiti, and it definitely caused her to intetpret things in an incredibly different way, affecting the tone of her reporting, including the inclusion of rape stats that fit her perspective but didn't reflect reality. Which is simply to acknowledge that her response to everything was already twisted, even before the onset of PTSD.

    That her writing is called brave is quite stunning. Reading her account of getting punched in the face was a revolting experience but I had to read what all the fuss was about. Curiosity killed my love for GOOD and Mother Jones.

    The tacit approval of her essay extends to the disregard of the Sybille she references, but who cares, it makes for good prose.

    That the Jezebel letter is so far out that many cannot grasp the perspective is interesting. I suppose we all live in different worlds, just surprised the views are so disparate, still.

  5. Hi Amanda,

    Thank you for providing some much needed perspective on this every-growing story. And, for acknowledging PTSD, which, like many mental health issues, suffers from perplexing stigma.

    I still find it very difficult to understand the range of negative, self-righteous, and insensitive responses to McClelland's original piece.

    Is it misogyny? Stigma? Objections to violent, consensual sex?

  6. Thank you Amanda.

    When I first gave my manuscript (which documents my own mental health challenges while documenting human rights violations in Afghanistan) to some friends to read one of them said to me: "I don't understand what the big deal was, you were just interviewing them, why were you so affected?"

    Her feedback almost shut me up forever. But knowing how lonely it can be, I was committed to telling my story in the hope that it might keep someone else in the same situation company.

    Thank you for making the time to provide such a thoughtful, intelligent response.

  7. There is an industry place to talk about this: The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and its companion Dart Society. We are a network of journalists, writers, photographers, filmmakers, producers and others who've been there — in Haiti, in Congo, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Bosnia… and in those ugly, eternal-seeming PTSD places. We understand what it's like, and how hard it is to face, and how stigmatized it still is within our industry — and we find ways to support each other.

    So for anyone like Marianne, or Mac, or anyone else who might come across your blog and need more resources than a cathartic read, please visit http://www.dartcenter.org.

  8. Thanks Jina, I really appreciate you stopping by to post that link. The Dart Center is awesome – I wish there was something as good out there for lawyers!

  9. Anonymous is saying that the PTSD article IS the ethical violation. The writer of the PTSD essay used the story of a victim who had specifically written to her, last year, and told her not to use that story. She did anyway. How can you pretend that is not relevant?

  10. I apologize if my point wasn't clear. I wasn't trying to undercut at all her experiences. I had posted the links because I feel that Mclelland perhaps should have had the same sensitivity for the trauma of the victim as she is receiving for her PTSD. Her unethical behavior, was insensitive to the victim.

  11. Anonymous at 12:43, dial back the self-righteous indignation.

    Amanda's not "pretending" it's not relevant, she's expressing her opinion that McClelland's possible ethical breach in writing about the rape victim again despite a request not to is irrelevant to the appropriateness of the initial responses to the essay.

    And, unless everything we currently understand about the linear flow of time turns out to be incorrect, I agree with her. Amanda is addressing herself to criticisms of McClelland's essay that were published well before any consent issues were raised.

    The critiques essentially accused McClelland of being a whiny, narcissistic, colonialist for daring to (1) develop PTSD and (2) write about it. These were accompanied by a healthy portion of slut-shaming for (3) describing her recourse to violent sex as part of her recovery process.

    Amanda's point consequently still stands: PTSD is real, and people should stop being such jerks about it.

    It is not clear to me what went on between McClelland, the rape victim she reported on in Mother Jones and later mentioned in this essay, and the victim's lawyer. However, if she is guilty of a serious violation of journalistic ethics, it serves to illustrate an addendum to Amanda's post: Suffering from PTSD is not limited to the pure at heart. It is entirely possible that someone could have both behaved inappropriately as a journalist, and developed PTSD from her experiences. Learn to hold two ideas in your brain at once, internet.

  12. Amanda, I would like to express my gratitude as well. This is an issue close to my heart and I was incensed by the reaction to the McClelland piece, but I could not quite articulate the source of my frustration. Thank you for shedding light on such a complex, deeply personal issue, and for clarifying the myths surrounding PTSD.

    Jina, thank you for letting us all know of the Dart Center. It seems like a wonderful, and necessary, resource.

  13. Amanda, this post touched me so much– so thank you very much for writing it. I'm not overly familiar with the details of the author's situation or story, but when I read this post, I cried a little.

    I spent a couple years working at a centre for survivors of torture several years back, and I would often come home and feel so completely overwhelmed myself at hearing their stories and feeling the pain they expressed at having to retell them for immigration purposes, etc. People underestimate the effect this can have. I too, have difficulty watching certain scenes and movies (the Saw series disturbs me on a whole new level– I have to leave the room even at commercials for it).

    I later lived through different war situations in both Lebanon and Cote d'Ivoire that had a traumatizing effect on me that I'm only beginning to fully acknowledge. After the most recent outbreak of violence here in Abidjan, I kept telling myself, people lived through much worse than what you did– you've heard many of their stories– why can't you just get over this?

    When I read this line: "It's not like you get to say "sure, this seems bad, but far worse things are happening to other people elsewhere, so I think I will actually not develop PTSD today", it made me feel validated in my feelings of trauma.

    I haven't yet written about my experiences, or been able to return to my research in country, because it hurts too much to even begin– and this is the first time I have acknowledged the effect the war has had on me in a public place.

    So thank you for writing this, and I would really love your permission to repost a portion of this on my blog (linked with credit, of course) if you don't mind.

    Peace to you!

  14. Thanks Rebecca, that's really nice to hear. Feel free to re-post as much of it as you'd like.
    (And I hope you feel better soon.)

  15. I don't have much substantive to add to the debate and am enjoying the lively discussion. I am surprised however that no one has mentioned the words "vicarious trauma". I work for a UN agency which regularly sends staff all over the world, and part of the field staff training focuses on precisely this issue – that constantly dealing with others' trauma can give you what is essentially PTSD, and that you (you field staff) need to know what the symptoms look like so that you can get help, and also so that you can not just try to self-medicate with alcohol, sex and/or drugs. There is a lot of (peer-reviewed, scholarly) literature out there on the subject, and I am surprised the term hasn't come up. Moreover, I am surprised that there is actually support for the the "PTSD is bullshit and furthermore how could she possibly have acquired it merely though interviewing a survivor" argument…

    For reference, Vicarious Trauma: The Effects on Female Counselors of Working with Sexual Violence Survivors in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, Secondary Traumatic Stress and Vicarious Trauma: A Validational Study, in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, and Preventing Vicarious Trauma: What Counselors Should Know When Working With Trauma Survivors in the Journal of Counseling and Development. These being the first three results which come up when I put "vicarious trauma" into google scholar.

  16. Growing up in a relatively violence-free America and then becoming an aid worker or journalist and traveling to these places of devastation, routine rape, etc — the PTSD can just be triggered by a complete rending of your idea that the world is generally a safe place. Understanding that these things go on "somewhere in the world" and seeing them up close and hearing the stories from people who have lived through this trauma themselves can lead to an emotional transference. The power of this should not be underestimated.

    I applaud Mac for her bravery in writing this piece and find it wholly separate from the issue of the live tweeting with the rape victim.

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