We are so excited to be able to share this guest post, written by Louise M. Freeman, Professor of Psychology and blogger at https://fartingsofafaculty.blogspot.com/ about the lasting impacts of trauma and the possibilities of healing from it. Regular listeners of the podcast will know that this is one of our favourite themes to talk about in the Strike & Ellacott novels, so we hope you enjoy Professor Freeman’s brilliant insights into trauma and memory in The Ink Black Heart!
By: Louise M. Freeman, Professor of Psychology, Mary Baldwin University
One of the handful of hints we have gotten about the contents of The Running Grave is that someone–and many suspect Strike’s half-sister and fellow Rokeby-bastard, Prudence–will suggest therapy to Strike. If it is Prudence, it would be logical that the goal of therapy be resolving Strike’s daddy-issues and making peace with Rokeby. But I am going to speculate that, if Strike does get therapy in TRG, it will eventually lead to a darker and more serious subject: Strike’s own trauma history.
We know Strike has long-term effects from the IED blast beyond the loss of his leg. He initially had panic attacks when he had to be driven by others and still has a lingering nervousness about that, something only super-driver Robin has been able to supersede. We saw him have a brief but vivid flashback to the Afghanistan explosion in The Cuckoo’s Calling:
But the photographers ran alongside the vehicle, flashes erupting on either side; and Strike’s whole body was bathed in sweat: he was suddenly back on a yellow dirt road in the juddering Viking, with a sound like firecrackers popping in the Afghanistan air; he had glimpsed a youth running away from the road ahead, dragging a small boy. Without conscious thought he had bellowed “Brake!” lunged forwards and seized Anstis, a new father of two days’ standing, who was sitting right behind the driver; the last thing he remembered was Anstis’s shouted protest, and the low metallic boom of him hitting the back doors, before the Viking disintegrated with an ear-splitting bang, and the world became a hazy blur of pain and terror.
After the office bombing in The Ink Black Heart, I fully expected some sort of trauma reaction in Strike. After all, he and Pat were caught in the actual explosion, and I can only imagine that the sound and smell of the bomb were closer to the IED experience than a couple of photographers’ flashbulbs. Maybe it was the fact that he wasn’t in a car, or maybe he was so focused on Pat’s safety that he wasn’t thinking of himself, much as he managed to let Lucy help drive to Cornwall to reach the dying Joan. But I still would have expected Strike to eventually make some connection between the two times in his life that he’s been bombed, and to at least have a nightmare or two. After all, Robin’s “sleepless nights” and “bad dreams” re-emerged after her encounter with Gus in which he threatened rape.
There are two signs that Strike could be experiencing residual effects of the office bombing. First, the jumping stump. There are two major causes of this condition: The first is damage to the peripheral nerves in the amputated limb and, as Strike’s doctor told him, it would be unusual for that to happen so long after the amputation, though, not impossible, given the abuse Strike heaps upon his stump. In the ultrasound , the doctor was almost certainly looking for a neuroma: a thickening of the nerve ending that can cause both pain and involuntary movements . The medical exam did not detect a neuroma, leaving psychogenic causes as the most likely explanation for the spasms. In other words, jumping stump is a physical symptom, like panic attacks, that can be triggered by stress or anxiety. The fact that Strike was also having muscle spasms in his face is an additional pointer to an emotional cause, rather than physical injury within the stump, though the pain from the injury surely added to Strike’s distress.
True, the jumping stump started on the morning of June 5th, before the bombing. But Strike had been under stress for some time, with the agency overloaded with cases, the looming threat of being named in the Campbell-Ross divorce and, most recently, having to listen to a tape recording of Robin making out with Pez Pierce, something that was likely more emotionally distressing than he wanted to admit. And, the jumping stump definitely intensifies after the bombing, getting worse at the Whitstable hotel and on the drive to Leeds, and continuing off and on until Strike goes to the hospital on June 11th.
A second sign of Strike’s deteriorating mental and physical health is a symptom that has not yet been formally noticed by Strike or any of his colleagues, but one that jumped out at me on my first reading of TIBH. Strike has always had a near super-human memory, recalling, for instance, seemingly insignificant details, like Mucky Ricci’s lion ring, from a long-ago errand with Shanker. Except for personal details like Robin’s birthday and his nephews’ ages, we have almost never seen his memory fail him, with one exception from the Silkworm that has never been mentioned again:
“Elizabeth Tassel told me there’s a Jacobean revenge play featuring a poisoned skeleton disguised as a woman. Presumably someone shags it and dies. Not a million miles away from Phallus Impudicus getting ready to—”
“Don’t,” said Robin, with a half laugh and a shudder.
But Strike had not broken off because of her protest, or because of any sense of repugnance. Something had flickered deep in his subconscious as he spoke. Somebody had told him…someone had said…but the memory was gone in a flash of tantalizing silver, like a minnow vanishing in pondweed.
“A poisoned skeleton,” Strike muttered, trying to capture the elusive memory, but it was gone.
But, in TIBH, there are at least 11 occasions where he either forgets something or relies on Robin to remember a detail before him.
- He can’t remember the breed of evil-looking sheep that Charlotte’s dad kept. (The Ritz)
- “I’ve got an idea I’ve seen or heard something about a brotherhood recently but can’t remember where…” (Chapter 24)
- Robin, not Strike, connects the name Preston Pierce to the person mentioned in Strike’s notes from the Red Lion and Sun. (Chapter 34)
- Robin, not Strike, remembers that Tim Ashcroft taught Flavia to draw animals. (Chapter 38)
- Strike forgets Robin is moving to her new flat. (Chapter 56)
- “Can’t remember whether I told you this, but when he talked about Anomie hiding behind a keyboard, he made a gesture suggesting a mask.” (Chapter 75)
- Strike can’t remember where he’s heard the name Evola before. (Chapter 78)
- Strike can’t remember the name of the “famous public school” where the Latin teacher he knew as a teenager taught. (Chapter 84)
- Strike forgets he hadn’t told Robin what happened when he visited Jago Ross. (Chapter 88)
- Strike can’t remember when they ruled Gus Upcott out as a suspect. (Chapter 96)
- Strike can’t remember how long ago his amputation was. He says “Six – no, seven years ago” when it was closer to eight. (Chapter 96)
Now, Strike’s past forty; it would be natural to show some memory decline. He should probably also be screened for sleep apnea, giving his smoking, loud snoring and being overweight; sleep apnea is a known cause of memory loss. But, as with the jumping stump, the memory lapses accelerate after the bombing in Chapter 70, again, suggesting a psychogenic cause. The first five on the list above (pre-bomb) occur between October 2013 and May 2014: seven months. The last six happen between the bombing on June 5th and June 11th: less than one week. For a guy who has been known for extraordinary memory for five books, this seems a precipitous decline. During my first read of TIBH, I thought Strike was heading for a stroke. Now, I am speculating that this heralds a return of trauma symptoms that Strike may be forced to medically address in the next book, just as Robin had to address hers in Lethal White.
Even more interesting would be if the exploration of trauma history stretches back further than the IED explosion. Norfolk is a near-certain setting for at least some of TRG, as seen in Rowling’s twitter headers, and we have been told in multiple books that a commune in Norfolk was “the worst place” Leda ever took Strike and Lucy when they were children. TIBH told us that Strike, “never went voluntarily into Norfolk and in fact had a slight prejudice against the whole county.” Whatever happened there, it seems to have left Strike with a mild phobia of the entire region, comparable to his fear of being driven by others. That suggests something pretty horrible.
Could Strike have either experienced physical or sexual abuse there, or seen it happen to others, perhaps even to Lucy or Leda? Or worse, witnessed an apparent murder, like young Billy Knight? I keep going back to the line in The Silkworm that triggered the elusive “silver minnow” memory: “Somebody shags it and dies,” and how similar that is to “He strangled it, up by the horse.” It may be that the therapy suggested to him will need to address issues stretching back to those formative years.
With any luck, Strike’s hospitalization for the punctured lung will also lead to some much-needed rest and physical therapy for the leg and to an order for a sleep study when his snoring keeps all the other patients in the ward awake. As for whether he addresses the trauma connected to either the explosion or the commune, that’s an issue we could see unfold in the next book. Ethically, Prudence cannot treat Strike herself, but hopefully she could refer him to someone good.
Fortunately, we’ll find out in less than five months!
You can find more of Louise’s thoughts on Cormoran Strike at www.fartingsofafaculty.blogspot.com