Writerly Sound Bites, Number 8: Character Progression – How Characters Broken by Trauma Recover and Rebuild, Part 2

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Part one of this mini-series within the Writerly Sound Bites series focused on characters who suffered abuse in childhood that affected them in a variety of ways. But that meant the topic was limited to the most vulnerable among us: children. Children are incapable of defending themselves and are thus dependent almost entirely on adults to take care of them, from feeding and cleaning to protecting and shepherding forward into adulthood.

To violate a child is and always will be an unspeakably despicable act. But it makes sense that evil people would prey on and exploit children, particularly from a young age and in an effort to forge the perfect weapon. As this article which I cited in a different piece points out, the human mind remains flexible until the age of 25. The human body begins to lose its flexibility in puberty. Up until that point, someone can manipulate a child’s, teenager’s, or adolescent’s mind and body to mold them into whatever they desire due to the plasticity of the youth’s constitution.

Only a very stubborn child put in the situations described in last week’s post could come out of them recognizing at least some of the places where he had been injured and begun acting at variance with the rest of humanity. As shown by 86 – Eighty-Six*, the vast majority would only have a general or a vague idea of what was wrong. Quite a few of these types of characters would also initially cling to their unhealthy coping mechanisms regardless of this recognition because it was the only thing which they could be certain was real based on their abusive experiences.

The same can be true of adults, albeit in a different manner, who may also be put in situations like those described in the previous article. It is not always easy to accomplish, but it can and does happen. We have records going back as far as the Korean War of POWs being captured and broken by torture, or being brainwashed to work for the enemy. Most do not lead to a Manchurian Candidate* style brainwashing, but brainwashing is an actual technique that can be used on adult men and women to make them weapons.

Such psychological manipulation is not the province of war alone. It has a domestic application as well, one that is no less dangerous or sad. The third season NCIS* episode “Light Sleeper” touched on this with one of the early suspects in the story: Marine Sergeant Malcolm Porter. Porter and two other Marines each married a Korean woman while they were stationed on the peninsula, and they brought their brides stateside when they returned.

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When two of the Korean wives are murdered, NCIS immediately tracks down Porter, the husband of one of the dead women. They find him sleeping off a severe hangover in his pickup truck and bring him in for questioning. When he cannot answer their questions satisfactorily, they accuse him of mistreating his wife. Porter panics and denies it, jumping up from his chair to lift his shirt to reveal severe bruising on his abdomen.

Porter tells NCIS that his now-deceased wife was violent and abusive, yet he never laid a hand on her or intended her harm because he loved her despite her abuse of him. That is why he became a drunk; he had no other way to deal with her cruelty. He did not abandon, inflict injuries on, or otherwise hurt the woman who was physically, verbally, and to a degree psychologically abusing him.

Porter was not the killer in the story. He was in fact a victim, and there are men like him in real life who are physically beaten by their wives. They generally do not receive the same type of media attention women do, but that does not mean they do not exist. Just like men can batter their wives to bend them to their will – to kill the mind and thus the person, making their significant other an extension of themselves – so too can wives do this to their husbands.

Abuse has nothing to do with the sex of the abuser, nor the age of the victim. It may be more difficult for women to physically mistreat men but that is no barrier to psychological manipulation, brainwashing, or inducing Stockholm Syndrome. Women are just as capable of battering men as men are of beating women. Methods may vary due to size, weight, and strength but it can and does happen.

It is somewhat less difficult for men to brainwash, beat, or otherwise force each other into an extension of an individual or a group’s will, making that person act contrary to their established character. The Manchurian Candidate is one example; in the story Sergeant Raymond Shaw is programmed by the Soviets as a sleeper agent, one that is not consciously aware of what he does on their orders. He carries out hits and other assignments for the Communists when the right trigger is put before him, turning him into an assassin who will never remember that he killed anyone.

Sound familiar? If you watched Captain America: Civil War* but never saw the The Manchurian Candidate nor read the book, this is why Tony Stark refers to Bucky Barnes as such. The reference doubtless flies over Barnes’ head, and since the world of Marvel Comics includes the fantastic, the method of brainwashing that was used on him is far different than that in Candidate or any known method used in real life. In all likelihood, the type of brainwashing Bucky undergoes in film and in comics would kill a real man.

That being said, the same principles work in Bucky’s case; in fact, with his fall from a train going at speed near the top of a mountain they work better. While his amnesia is not stated within the films it is part of the comics, where Bucky was actually twenty years of age when he was programmed by the Soviets. In the films, he would have been roughly 23 or 24 at the time he was captured by them, meaning he was in the age range where physical and psychological abuse could succeed in further confusing him and suppressing his personality after a hard blow to the head had already left him befuddled.

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I think it best to state at this point that brainwashing is not hypnosis. Hypnosis may aid in brainwashing but it will not accomplish it; psychiatrists have observed that people who are hypnotized are susceptible to suggestions, but they cannot be convinced through hypnosis to act contrary to their nature. You can hypnotize a man to fall asleep on command (something played for laughs in an episode of The A-Team*) but you cannot hypnotize a man who loves his wife into beating her. His true nature and personality will rebel against the order, making him useless if your intent is to turn him into a killer.

Shaw can be triggered into assassinating others in The Manchurian Candidate through the power of hypnotic suggestion, but hypnosis alone is not enough to make him kill on command. This is where brainwashing – accomplished through physical abuse and isolation, psychological manipulation, and/or hypnotic suggestion – comes in. For Shaw to be an effective sleeper agent, the Soviets had to torture him into it. They also had to torture his platoon into thinking Shaw had saved them, which proves to be their undoing later on in the story.

While Bucky’s amnesia made it easier to program him, amnesia itself is not guaranteed to last. Even in the comics, while he was under the influence of his Winter Soldier programming, he would occasionally recall his former life and run away from his handlers. He would, as hinted in the films, fight back against them as well. Bucky could be programmed – i.e. brainwashed – but even through that, his original personality remained and fought to resurface.

This is where the point in the sixth installment of this series returns to prominence: why are young children like Annika Hansen (Seven of Nine), Mumei, Natasha Romanoff, and Raven all taken in to be brainwashed by their abusers? Why do they have so little of their original personalities left after spending time in these horrible situations? They have so little of their original personalities left because at the age they were abused, it is very easy to erase what personality has been developing in a child and overwrite it with your own code, to borrow a computer programming phrase.

Since she was raised from relative infancy in the Red Room, Natasha Romanoff is a good sample character for this. The Red Room could never allow her to develop her own personality because if she did, she would be of no use to them. The character we see onscreen from Captain America: The Winter Soldier* to Avengers: Endgame is effectively the character Natasha develops through the TLC (tender and tough loving care) of her teammates in the course of the series. Before she met them, she didn’t have a personality of her own because the Red Room controlled and molded her from the time when she was a “blank slate” to the time she defected to join SHIELD. During those years they imprinted the personality or personalities they wanted on her so they could use her for their own ends.

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Tony Stark once asked her if there was

anything about her that was real.

Natasha never answered the question.

Bucky avoided that fate by the simple expedient of being captured as an adult. Suffering amnesia, in the waning years of his mental flexibility, and enduring psychological as well as physical abuse, some part of his original personality hung on through the torture like grim death. No matter what the Soviets and HYDRA did to him, no matter how many times they had him act contrary to his nature, he never let them have precisely what they wanted: his soul.

Until she joined the Avengers, Natasha did not recognize she had a soul. The Red Room stole it along with her family and her childhood. She had no recourse like Bucky did because she was a child when she was “broken and remade” time and again until she fit the mold the Soviets had designed for her. Flexible as Bucky’s mind was at the time of his capture, it wouldn’t bend that far. He could fight, if only in the realm of his mind, to keep his soul intact and in place.

Natasha Romanoff could not do that. Seven of Nine could not do that. Mumei and Raven could not do that. Shin has barely managed to do that, and he has come very close to losing that battle more than once in the narrative of 86 – Eighty-Six.

Healing for an adult who has been through abuse like Bucky’s is therefore different from healing for a child who has grown up with abuse. Seven of Nine has to live through teenage drama, angst, and rebellion after being freed from the Borg collective because she did not live through it when she physically matured under their watch. Her development as a person was violently stunted, and for her to become a functioning adult, she must go through the adolescent period that even the most levelheaded and responsible teenager has no choice but to endure.

For Bucky, who already experienced a normal childhood and adolescence, the path to healing is different: rather than develop a personality of his own, he has to put his original one back together. That’s why he goes off the grid and hides for two years following The Winter Soldier: with only fractured memories to go by and HYDRA able to turn him into a killing machine on command, his best bet of figuring out what the hell happened to him is to disappear. That means avoiding Steve Rogers, who might be his friend or he might be something else entirely.

Since his brain was “put in a blender” more times than he can count, Bucky knows better than to trust his splintered mind, which is torn between his programming and his original character. The latter disposition needs space, time, and practice to gain enough strength to reassert itself completely. He can’t get that staying with Steve, who may or may not be his friend: at the Potomac in the finale for Winter Soldier he only remembers that he knows Steve. He does not yet remember how or why. The safest and most mature thing he can do, therefore, is go underground and start searching for answers on his own.

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That isn’t to say he doesn’t need help with this task. Clearly, Bucky would benefit from some serious TLC from not only Steve but the other Avengers. At the beginning of his journey, however, he cannot accept that because there is too much risk to himself and others. In contrast to Seven of Nine he is not capable of living among individuals yet and he knows it. Where Seven needed human contact or a “replacement” collective to regain her humanity and to grow up, in the immediate aftermath of the HYDRA uprising, Bucky and normal people are a potentially volatile mix.

In the finale of this film, he has just realized he was being used as a human attack dog and abused by other people to make him compliant. Putting him in a normal environment with normal people he feels he should trust but does not understand or recall why he trusts, and who may accidentally trigger lethal reflexes he cannot control until after lashing out, will end with broken bones at best. At worst it will end with someone dead. If Steve and the Avengers really are his friends and truly are capable of helping him down the line, he needs to be in a position to reciprocate their overtures in a mature fashion.

The other option is messier, demonstrated by Stargate: Atlantis*’ Ronon Dex (played by Jason Momoa). Dex is a former Runner and soldier who joins the Terran expedition in Atlantis in their fight against the Wraith. Vampiric aliens that drain the life from their victims, the Wraith regularly cull human populations in Ronon’s native Pegasus Galaxy to serve as their food source. Any human world that develops technology on par with Earth’s or even akin to World War I or World War II level tech is wiped out by the Wraith to prevent their “herds” from fighting back effectively against them.

Ronon’s homeworld, Sateda, was annihilated when it reached this level of technological development. He has a grudge against the Wraith for this reason, one which is exacerbated when three of his old comrades are revealed to be Wraith worshipers – people who willingly serve the Wraith for the gift of long life. In reality, Wraith worshipers are people who are high on the enzyme the aliens use to stimulate the human body before draining it of its vitality completely and leaving it an empty husk. The Wraith can inject this enzyme into a human body without killing them, which results in increased speed, strength, and stamina for the human while eroding his or her will and personality like any other addictive substance.

Dex learns this firsthand when the particular Wraith who turned his friends later captures and begins torturing him. The three who became Wraith worshipers were the ones who survived the process; two others captured along with them died. At first Ronon and the others believe these two individuals’ deaths were due to the strength of their refusal, but the Wraith reveals that the two had weaker constitutions than his remaining friends. That was why they died – and why the Wraith is confident Dex will not only live, he will break.

If brainwashing is difficult to overcome on its own, then brainwashing backed up by heavy drug doses will drive men to act completely against their nature. Ronon becomes a Wraith worshiper after being repeatedly dosed with the enzyme as the alien continuously takes and then restores his life after bringing him to the brink of death before restoring his vitality over the course of several days. The Atlantis team has to fight Dex along with the Wraith when they come to rescue Ronon, only succeeding in getting him to safety by the expedient of stunning him and dragging him out against his will.

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Thereafter the Atlantis Expedition has to strap Ronon to a hospital bed alone in a containment room, where they watch him thrash, scream, and fight the restraints while promising to kill them. Like any other rehab program, they have to let his system purge enough of the enzyme before it’s safe for them to sit in the room with him. By the time it is safe for them keep him company, they still do not release the restraints. It is just possible he will surprise the visitor, overpower him, and kill him in his desperation to get high once again. That was one of the scenarios Bucky avoided by going underground rather than simply joining Steve and the Avengers from the start.

Finally, there is the example of Midshipman Archibald “Archie” Kennedy in the Horatio Hornblower* episode “The Duchess and the Devil.” Captured after the first episode by Spain, the country allied with France in the latter’s war with England, Archie repeatedly attempts to escape confinement to return to Britain and rejoin the war effort. His final attempt convinces the commander of the prison that he will have to resort to cruel means to keep Archie in prison. He puts the English midshipman in a little cell where he cannot stand up or move around for a month, after which both Archie’s spirit and health are broken.

When Hornblower and his men are captured by the Spanish and sent to the same prison, they discover Archie already there. Hornblower immediately works to help him but the other man has become resigned to dying in prison. In fact, Archie nearly does die when the lack of nutrition and his poor health combine to make him exceptionally ill. Only Hornblower’s stout refusal to let him pass saves his life and puts him back on the road to recovery, because Hornblower doesn’t see him as a worthless wreck. He sees his friend whom he will not abandon even to save his own life or fulfill his duty to return to England with all conceivable speed.

Being powerless, helpless, or useless in a general sense is very, very bad for the human psyche. Even the strongest of men, when they aren’t broken by torture or brainwashing, have scars when they must endure it to live and return home. Recovery for them takes a variety of forms, some of which must be dictated by the means through which the injury was accomplished.

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Hornblower requests medical help for “Archie” Kennedy

But it is important to recall, first and foremost, that healing is possible. It is also not necessarily as dramatic as fiction makes it out to be in the above stories. Putting one’s mind back together hurts, just as a bone knitting after a break doesn’t heal without pain. It takes time to mend, and there will be setbacks. The end result, however, is well worth the effort.

An adult man may be broken by torture but that will not require him to build a new character from the ground up, as seen in last week’s examples. More often than not, he has to work to put his old personality back together. Even though it will never be the same character that he had before, it will be his character. The one he spent years of his life consciously and unconsciously developing before someone decided to impose their will on his mind and body by forcibly evicting his own nature to implant their own.

Some of these abusers will succeed in their aims, completely breaking a man and making him an extension of their will. Others will find the men they are trying to subdue are not so easily broken, or they will never notice that the people under their “control” have managed to keep at least their soul, if not much of their conscious mind or will. It all depends on the character you are writing about and the results demanded by the story.

Once you discover the type of “broken” hero you are dealing with, future authors, figuring out how he heals will be a bit easier than it was before. And yes, you should at least imply that he will be healed at some point in the story. No one ever keeps a broken bone; even if it mends crookedly, it still mends. The same is true of the human psyche.

If you want audiences to take your “broken” heroes that heal or are on the path to it seriously and to appreciate your work, this is how to do it.

*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer.

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna, Uranus, and Sol. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she recently had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue and Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue. Order them today!

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One thought on “Writerly Sound Bites, Number 8: Character Progression – How Characters Broken by Trauma Recover and Rebuild, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Writerly Sound Bites, Number 8: Character Progression – How Characters Broken by Trauma Recover and Rebuild, Part 3 | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

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