Monday, November 4, 2019

The Viscount Who Loved Me | Dealing with Undiagnosed PTSD

Kat's back with part 2 of the Let's Talk About the Bridgertons series, and today she's talking about trauma, mental health, and death, all things that come up in Anthony and Kate's story. Enjoy!

Need to catch up?

The Viscount Who Loved Me: Dealing with Undiagnosed PTSD

Content note: Discussions of death, traumatic symptoms, DSM PTSD diagnostic criteria

What happened last time: Daphne (Bridgerton Sibling 4) and Simon (the Duke of Hastings) overcame disability (his stuttering) and assault (her cowgirling his sperm into her vagina) to have a HEA.

We all come into relationships with baggage. Previous relationships leave their mark, even if they aren’t romantic or sexual. Anthony Bridgerton, the eldest Bridgerton sibling and the Viscount Bridgerton, has a fair amount of baggage, and the way he carries it exemplifies both the way men are expected to hold things inside and the way they do. Anthony was 18 when his father, Edmund, died, and the psychic scars he carries from the demise of The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived (from Anthony’s perspective) are deep and also irrational (as some scars can be).

Anthony’s father died from a bee sting. Much is made of this odd circumstance; every Bridgerton discusses it with an air of incredulity. How could such a strong and healthy man be felled by something so tiny? Well, via an allergy, of course (though Regency-era medicine was probably not hip to this fact). Anthony sits a vigil with his father’s body through the night after his death and through that event, comes to know in his bones that he won’t live to be older than his father was when he died: 38. Thus, Anthony carries the grief of his father’s death, a mortal fear of bees, and the implacable conviction that his time on earth is limited - this is where he’s at in the beginning of our story.

Kate Sheffield is in a different position, but there are interesting similarities in how she and Anthony handle the traumas of their past. Kate’s mother died when she was very young, and her father married Mary afterward and provided Kate with a half-sister, Edwina. Unlike traditional stepmothers, Mary is pretty awesome. Based on reminiscences of the past, Mary understood that it would take some time for Kate to come around to her presence. Through the years, she’s proven herself to be a kind and understanding mother figure and it’s obvious that all three women love each other very much.  

That shared love is why Edwina is effectively a sacrificial lamb on the marriage market in the story: she’s fucking gorgeous, apparently, and the women’s only real hope of marrying into money. Their plans for survival into old age rest on Edwina’s ability to marry up, which is why it’s a good thing when Anthony decides that he needs to marry to continue to Bridgerton line, and he chooses Edwina because she is the current season’s Incomparable. No problems detected there.

Initially, Kate’s and Anthony’s relationship is antagonistic. Anthony sees Kate as a dragon to get past so that he can ask for Edwina’s hand (who ever heard of asking an older sister for permission anyway?) and Kate, a frequent reader of our favorite gossip, Lady Whistledown, is convinced that Anthony is a dog because of his (deserved, I think) player reputation. Kate tries to do what she can to keep Anthony and Edwina separated, even as she acknowledges that such a union would be the end of her and Mary’s concerns about the future.

Through some good to not-good scenes and dialogue (I admit to loving Pall Mall scenes), Kate and Anthony verbally spar, showing each other that they are equally matched in wits. Though, like The Duke and I, there’s a lot of threats in their sparring, lots of Anthony threatening bodily injury to Kate, even kicking her in the stomach at one point (it’s not much better in-context). I’m not sure why this is a “cute” thing? Why are we supposed to root for a dude who thinks it’s totally fine to say he wants to strangle women every 10 minutes?  But I digress.

Eventually, we come to a soft scene in a library late at night during a thunderstorm. Anthony and Kate are at a house party, so it’s a prime setting for alone time. Kate has always been afraid of thunderstorms, for as long as she can remember. She’s had nightmares that she can’t recall and feels extreme terror. Basically, she has some trauma around thunder and lightning, and she’s hidden that from Mary and Edwina for many years, not wanting to worry them. Anthony talks her through a panic attack and they start to develop some respect for each other.

The moment that seals the deal for Kate and Anthony is his trauma response, though. They’re out walking in a garden when a bee starts buzzing around. Anthony, who’s never told anyone about his abject fear of bees, essentially has a panic attack, and when the bee alights on Kate and stings her (on her chest, of course), Anthony and Kate are “discovered” as Anthony is trying to suck bee poison (which is not a thing) out of Kate’s chest. A marriage is hastily arranged, and now these two characters, who admit a respect for each other, if not a liking, are thrown together forever.

Along with his conviction that he’ll die by the time he’s 38, Anthony believes that he can’t fall in love with anyone, because wouldn’t that suck to love one’s spouse only to die (that never happens IRL). So the conflict of the plot beyond the marriage is that Anthony can’t admit that he’s in love with Kate and Kate doesn’t understand why Anthony is still so distant when she’s laid all her cards on the table. Together, they discover the reason for Kate’s trauma around thunderstorms, but still, Anthony won’t talk about his fears around bees and his own mortality. Eventually, of course, he does, and we get a HFN.

Trauma-Informed Character Analysis

Because this is early 19th century England, there’s no language for post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, it wasn’t until 1980 that PTSD was added to the DSM (the psychiatric bible). Prior to that, we recognized that some people felt things deeper than others or came back from the war/a near-death experience/an abusive relationship differently. The psychiatric and psychological communities also helped change the thinking about traumatic response, from believing there was something inherently different about a person experiencing a stress response (“they were just born weaker”) to understanding that stressors are external events (“a traumatic thing happened to them”). Our best theories and models today suggest that many disorders, like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, as well as PTSD, are a one-two punch: there’s some type of biological predisposition (whether genetic mutation or inherited from parents) that can “switch on” a disordered response based on exposure to an external stressor. (Ok, so now I’ve used my M.A. coursework for something important, haha.) The point of laying this groundwork is that when people write about mental disorders, it’s important for them to understand that our knowledge of what they are and how they’re caused has shifted significantly over time, and hopefully, convey those differences to the readers.

That doesn’t so much happen here. In an author’s note, Quinn talks about her concern that her (mostly women) readers might not be able to understand Anthony’s irrational fear at dying young. Apparently this is a common thing among men whose fathers die young. It’s a “guy thing.” So, she acknowledges that this fear is irrational and that it’s hard to understand why Anthony and others in his position don’t just “snap out of it.” Here would be a great opportunity to talk about PTSD and how it wouldn’t have been recognized that way, but that Anthony (and Kate, for that matter) show symptoms of it, but Quinn doesn’t take advantage of it.

But we can! So just for funsies, let’s do some armchair diagnosing of Anthony and Kate to see how in line their thoughts and behaviors line up with the diagnostic criteria. (Note: I’m working from the DSM-5, but you can find a succinct breakdown of the criteria from the VA.) 

Anthony’s symptoms by criteria:

  • A: This criterion is the trauma. While he didn’t witness the death, his father, to whom he was very close, died suddenly, and Anthony sat with his body overnight. I think this fits into the #3 sub-criterion (Learning that the traumatic event(s) occurred to a close family member or close friend).
  • B: This one is a little murkier, because it focuses on intrusive reactions, and we don’t really see Anthony ruminating or in a consistent state of psychological stress. However, when Kate gets stung by a bee in the garden, Anthony experiences what might be considered a flashback to his father’s death, so potentially, that could fit into #3 sub-criterion (Dissociative reactions (e.g., flashbacks) in which the individual feels or acts as if the traumatic event(s) were recurring).
  • C: This criterion is about avoiding thoughts or memories of the event or external reminders of it, and I don’t know that Anthony’s behavior or thoughts fit in either of these. He certainly wants to avoid bees, but that seems like a separate issue.
  • D: This one is all about negative thoughts and feelings post-trauma, and Anthony’s got many of these features: believing he’ll be dead by 38 (#2 - Persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs or expectations about oneself, others, or the world); survivor’s guilt and shame (#4 - Persistent negative emotional state); not wanting to get too close to others (#6 - Feelings of detachment or estrangement from others); and not wanting to fall in love with his future partner (#7 - Persistent inability to experience positive emotions).
  • E: This criterion focuses on reactivity post-trauma. Basically, is Anthony an irritable asshole? The answer is yes, definitely; he grabs Kate and threatens bodily injury to her and forces her to dance and yells at her. In other books, Anthony actually strangles people (though they’re all men) and there’s also that whole duel thing in The Duke and I. How much of that is a result of the trauma, though? (That is, would he always have been an asshole?) Anyway, Anthony does exhibit some of these: his yelling and physical altercations (#1 - Irritable behavior and angry outbursts (with little or no provocation) typically expressed as verbal or physical aggression toward people or objects); and I’m not sure if this fits here or is separate for bee phobia, but he’s always aware when bees are around (#3 - Hypervigilance).
  • F: These symptoms must be experienced for longer than 1 month. Oh yeah, Anthony fits the bill there.
  • G: The symptoms affect functioning in a significant area of life. I’m pretty sure every part of Anthony’s character and behavior are affected, so, yes.
  • H: The symptoms can’t be attributed to another cause, like drugs or a medical condition. Nope, definitely the trauma of his father’s death.

So, does Anthony potentially have PTSD? Maybe? He doesn’t quite fit all the criteria, but it’s pretty close. And in fact, going through that exercise makes it pretty clear that Kate does have PTSD:

[Spoilers for Kate’s mother’s death]

  • A: She witnessed her mother’s (pretty horrible) death, which unfortunately coincided with a bad thunderstorm.
  • B: She has recurring nightmares and has traumatic flashbacks and responses during thunderstorms when she’s awake.
  • C: She tries to avoid thunderstorms (to the extent she can).
  • D: She has amnesia around the traumatic event (though that can also partially be explained by how young she was when it happened); she has feelings of terror during thunderstorms.
  • E: She has nightmares and doesn’t sleep well during thunderstorms; she is hypervigilant to signs of developing storms.
  • F: She’s had these symptoms for years.
  • G: The symptoms affect her functioning whenever thunderstorms happen.
  • H: The symptoms are due to her trauma.

So if anything, Kate’s case of PTSD is “worse” (though it’s not a contest!) than Anthony’s, but the way Quinn treats the two characters feels very different. It may be tied to the underlying currents of misogyny exhibited by the men (mostly, though women do it, too) in this universe, but though it’s more irrational, Anthony’s fears and trauma seem “bigger,” and more understandable. Maybe that’s due to Quinn wanting to make sure that her readers could identify and still sympathize with Anthony. I don’t know. I do know, based on my observations and conversations around Romancelandia, that many people have traumatic events in their past or know people who have, and so these symptoms and reactions would not be in any way strange or unrecognizable.

It’s just too bad that Anthony’s such a tool. With the #Alphahole trends in the last decade+, Anthony is not very remarkable. mean, at least he’s not literally strangling Kate. But the issue I see, when we continue reading through the series, is that Anthony doesn’t actually change much. Sure we get little snippets of how much he loves his wife. Great, awesome. But he still acts and reacts in ways that seem to be stemming from his trauma response. Granted, it’s not like he would be having regular cognitive-behavioral therapy sessions paired with anti-anxiety meds. But it would have been nice to see some recognition of Kate and Anthony working through their traumas together and helping keep each other accountable for taking care of their mental health. And we never really see any development from Kate’s trauma either; once the mystery of Kate’s mother’s death is solved, her responses just disappear from the page.

Meme with a group of grandma's talking: That's not how this works. That's not how any of this works.

So as a conclusion to all this waffling, I guess I have an action item for folks who are interested in writing characters dealing with mental illness, whether in the past, present, or steampunk future: Please consider how neurodivergent folks would act and react to things they experience and how those re/actions might change through their character arcs. If you can, hire a sensitivity reader to ensure authenticity. Just going through the DSM criteria, it really seems like both our MCs in this book are dealing with PTSD, but it’s never really addressed head-on. It’s just used as dressing or a motivation for why a man will Never Love a Woman Ever (not gay, tho).

I’ll really dive into the treatment of women in the 4th book, but I also want to reiterate that yikes women are not treated well in this universe. Lots of #NotLikeOtherGirls and #DebutatesAreEmptyHeaded (but also #BluestockingsAren’tCool).This messaging is troubling. And this series isn’t alone in these tropes/these portrayals! But it’s important to be aware of what we’re reading and how we’re internalizing it.

Next time, we’ll talk about Regency Cinderella and why Benedict doesn’t quite deserve the Prince Charming moniker.

~ Kat

The Viscount Who Loved Me by Julia Quinn
Publisher: Avon (April 28, 2015) Latest ebook publication; originally published 2000
Series: Bridgertons, 2
Genre: Historical Romance (M/F)

1814 promises to be another eventful season, but not, This Author believes, for Anthony Bridgerton, London's most elusive bachelor, who has shown no indication that he plans to marry. And in all truth, why should he? When it comes to playing the consummate rake, nobody does it better...

--Lady Whistledown's Society Papers, April 1814

But this time the gossip columnists have it wrong. Anthony Bridgerton hasn't just decided to marry--he's even chosen a wife! The only obstacle is his intended's older sister, Kate Sheffield--the most meddlesome woman ever to grace a London ballroom. The spirited schemer is driving Anthony mad with her determination to stop the betrothal, but when he closes his eyes at night, Kate's the woman haunting his increasingly erotic dreams...

Contrary to popular belief, Kate is quite sure that reformed rakes to not make the best husbands--and Anthony Bridgerton is the most wicked rogue of them all. Kate's determined to protect her sister--but she fears her own heart is vulnerable. And when Anthony's lips touch hers, she's suddenly afraid she might not be able to resist the reprehensible rake herself...

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Thanks for the discussion, Kat!

If you missed part 1, you can find it HERE.

Stay tuned for part 3!


Until Next Time,

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