Alternate realities typically refer to alternate physical places and phenomena, as in science fiction movies or dreams, but I’m referring to alternative ways of construing the meanings of things. Yesterday I wrote about wartime reality, where fear and violence come to dominate the way people in the war zone experience the world. When the soldiers who fought in Vietnam returned from the remote Asian jungles to the States they perceived it as a hostile environment riven with imminent but hidden danger — the way they had experienced Vietnam. It was an uncanny experience for the vets: they had returned home, but home had changed. The place was the same, but what the place meant was different. They remembered how they used to feel at home, and people treated them as if they had never left. But now they felt out of place, as if Vietnam had changed them into someone else.
As individuals the vets were isolated. When everyone else acts as if nothing has changed you feel like there must be something wrong with you. In a group, they came to realize that they shared a common orientation to the world. I think we all experienced a sense of vindication. PTSD, we felt certain, was a legitimate syndrome, deserving of official recognition in the psychological profession. Vets who couldn’t hold down a job should receive disability. Professionals who offered treatment of PTSD should be compensated by the Veterans Administration. Society adapted itself to the vets, not by validating their reality but validating their illness.
I’m not so sure I want to see the world like the vets I knew did, but I’m aware that their paranoia wasn’t psychotic. They were acutely attuned to the subtle threats that surround us, the small gestures of aggression and fear, surveillance and counter-surveillance, covert acts of treachery and retaliation, the precariousness of existence and the gradual loss of life that all of us experience. No doubt most of their perceptions were accurate. Who was I to tell them that these experiences were unimportant and should be ignored, that all things considered America was a safe and friendly place, that adjustment depended on their unlearning of instincts that had kept them alive during the most dangerous and meaningful interval of their lives?
I believe that the vets did learn to doubt their perceptions as warriors, to mistrust their newfound instincts for survival and attack. I believe that I helped them adjust to civilian life, not by guiding them through catharsis of repressed traumatic experiences but by abetting their repression of awarenesses deemed unacceptable by mainstream American culture. Only gradually did it dawn on me that the vets’ reality was and is a latent truth about America, comprising an alternate reality that for most of us remains invisible. Only when something triggers our awareness, some kind of wartime experience comes out from the camouflage and moves into the foreground, are we able to glimpse this alternate reality.
Maybe if we had listened to the Vietnam veterans we’d all be better at distinguishing real threats from contrived ones, at recognizing acts of macho bravado as the kind of bullshit slung by guys who have never actually been in the line of fire, at never purposely putting people in harm’s way unless there’s a damned good reason for it. Instead, we allowed ourselves to be manipulated into a continual paranoiac state of war against unseen enemies, persuading ourselves that it had nothing to do with Vietnam.
I’m trying to get on with the project of formulating what a postmodern psychological practice might look like, but as I rethink these experiences I’m finding myself a little discouraged by the prospect.