Wednesday, June 22, 2005


I was reading something recently about post-traumatic stress disorder in tsunami survivors. Evidently a lot of work is being done to deal with it, a very wise thing, I think.

I found myself thinking of a woman who probably suffered from this, and no one knew it. Nobody had heard of this disorder in 1970, as best I remember, although there was a growing consciousness that there was something bothering a lot of Vietnam veterans.

Moment Armistead was a smart, pretty and vivacious young woman, a student at the University of Texas who believed, as most of us did in those days, in Peace Corps style work abroad to help heal the ills of the world. I remember her as very idealistic, even for that idealistic time.

One day she came over to my girlfriend's house and was very excited.

"I've been accepted," she said "I'm going to Peru."

The program she had been accepted into, as best I can recall now, was a student exchange that had been going on for several years, whereby a batch of University of Texas students would spend a semester or two in Peru, and Peruvian students--mostly men in their late 20's, customarily obsessive womanizers and career leftists--would come to Austin. She was very happy.

"Hey, that's great," everybody said, "That's wonderful!"

She flew off to South America, with the others.

A year or so later, in 1971, I heard that she had become mentally ill during her stay, and had been sent back to the United States, and that she was now a resident of the state mental hospital in Austin.

Several months later I saw her, at a party. I think she still lived at the hospital had a pass to be out for the evening. She was looking wild and confused. Somebody asked her what had happened. She said she felt overwhelmed by the events she had seen. "Peru" she said, "is just such a terrible, terrible place..." She trailed off and didn't continue her sentence.

She had been there during the great earthquake in May of 1970. Sixty six thousand people died, many of them when a dam in a remote mountain valley failed, causing a huge flood that smashed down the valley through two towns, killing most of the people in its path. These towns were almost entirely wiped out. I can't remember all of her story now but I have the impression she joined in some kind of relief effort and saw the devastation at first hand. A couple of months later she almost took the same plane as a group of American high school students who were going to Cuzco. For some reason she decided not to go on that trip. The plane crashed and everyone but the co-pilot was killed. She was very disturbed by this. Somebody told me she felt guilty.

Sometime in her stay in South America, probably after these events, she experimented with ayahuasca, a violently hallucinogenic plant used by the Amazonian Indians. It is a very powerful drug used in religious ceremonies, and produces extraordinary visions. I have read that it is also used by healers called ayahuasqueros in the raw tin-roof shantytowns which had sprung up overnight like toadstools out of the heat and the mud as the jungle was cut down to extend cash-crop farming on the Amazon side of the Andes. I don't know how she got hold of the drug, or why she tried it, but it didn't heal her, and instead triggered psychosis, delirium and horror. There was no one to help her. And she did not return to normal. She continued having thoughts that made no sense to her, and visions and images came to her that terrified her.

When she was recounting this at the party she seemed very matter-of-fact, but extremely frightened, as if the story she was telling, and the audience, and the Austin back yard she was in, were all less real to her than the fright that suffused her body, and made her tremble, that you could see in her eyes. She spoke to us from a great distance, across this great interval of fear.

In much of Latin America there is a folk illness, whose symptoms of course are entirely real, called susto, which means fright. It is caused by the soul somehow getting detached from the body.

A few months later she jumped off the tower building at the University of Texas in Austin. It was the same building where a few years before, a former eagle scout named Charlie Whitman had succumbed to the desire to perform the electric scenario that probably came to him from a small tumor deep in his brain, to kill people by shooting down from a high place.

She took off her shoes and lined them up carefully on the balustrade before she stepped out into the empty morning air just as thousands of students disappeared into their classrooms, at 10 o'clock. Three seconds later she arrived, in a sudden impact of shocked flesh, on a concrete patio.

Only one person saw her fall.

I have this memory of her face, when she was excited about her trip. And I have this memory of a newspaper photograph of those shoes, neatly lined up.

And I wonder, if people had known what was the matter with her, could they have helped her? Of course, knowing what post-traumatic stress disorder is, doesn’t necessarily enable you to fix it, get the soul re-attached to the body.

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