Review: Post-Traumatic by Chantal V. Johnson

My Quick Take: This novel kept turning into something different than I expected, in a good way. It’s a thoughtful look at the effect of trauma that made me take a step back to appreciate the narrative.


*Please note that there are spoilers in this review. Also, this book could be triggering for victims of trauma. My comments regarding trauma here are specific to my interpretation of this fictional character in the context of this specific novel, and are not meant to be applied to any others who have experienced trauma. All experiences are different and unique to each individual.*


Post-Traumatic is a book that I liked, then got bored with, then became quite invested in once again. I’m not sure how purposeful Johnson’s choices were in the writing of it. Did she mean to make me think about this book in a psychodynamic way, as I ended up doing? Regardless, that’s how it landed for me. It made me check my own reactions to the main character in the book, evoking the feeling that I was the therapist, analyzing my own countertransference to her.

Vivian is a thirty-something Black lawyer working to advocate for patients on an inpatient mental health unit, while negotiating friendships, dating and her family. Oh, and also contending with her history of trauma: this is the lens through which she sees everything. Johnson made an interesting choice in only hinting at the details of Vivian’s trauma; it is the effect of trauma and not the events themselves that are the focus here.

The book grabbed me with the first chapter. Vivian’s subway ride home could be a short story in itself. The hypervigilance on display here is astonishing; with each social cue, glance from a stranger or stray body movement, a frightening ordeal plays out in her head. The sharp, sudden, violent imagery her brain conjures is jarring. Throughout, we also see her acting to protect others, but rarely succeeding, reinforcing her perilous world view. She performs “liberation politics'' at her job, attempting to free certified psychiatric patients through the court system. In her zealous advocacy, she can be her own worst enemy, seen as rigid and controlling. I felt sorry for Vivian, and suitably sympathetic.

Then, the middle section of the novel struck me as somewhat vacuous and boring. As she continued to live her life by hypervigilantly cataloguing every detail of her experience, scanning every innocuous event for danger, and obsessively describing the appearance and intents of herself, friends and strangers, Vivian seemed to be an empty shell with no deep or meaningful inner life. I had echoes of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho–not in a violent or sociopathing way, but in how the character simply and repetitively assessed everything around her without cease. My reading brain started to glaze over, and I got a bit frustrated with Vivian.

However, when I stepped back from the words on the page, and looked at this as a device to tell us something about Vivian, I realized I was seeing this “shell” of a person as a consequence of trauma. For Vivian, trauma prevents attention to inner life, because if there is no safe space in your outer world, and you have to spend all of your time scanning for threat, there is no space for a rich, introspective inner life. And appearing self-absorbed, perfectionistic, and superficial will distance others, including the reader. At this point, I was reminded about a kinder approach to those showing signs of distress that is more trauma-informed. Instead of asking, “What’s wrong with you?” the more correct question is, “What has happened to you?” What appears to be maladaptive, or angry, or empty has a reason. By stepping back and analyzing my feelings to the prose and the character at that point, I learned about her.

The next pivot that moved me was a chapter involving a day in the hospital courtroom where Vivian defends the rights of her patients. Her view is again skewed by her past experience. She’s always trying to free the patients, and I think her overzealousness is the result of her need to be free of her own past trauma, and her own family of origin. The medical system is the symbol of oppression. Vivian is sitting in the courtroom, while the Psychiatrist (Creslin) and the presiding judge assess a stream of patients. There was a fascinating and chilling meta-commentary about the psychiatric patients, where suddenly I felt as if we the readers were colluding with the judge and doctor in assessing the condition of Vivian, not the patients. It hammers at the reader:

“‘So, Your Honor,’ Creslin concluded. ‘The goal here isn’t recovery, it can’t be. All we can do is try to resolve the acute crisis.’”


“‘We’ve had our presidents and our gods and the earlier gentleman who thinks he’s a king,’ Creslin continued. ‘But we’re starting to assemble a cluster of patients with quite fascinating mechanisms of ego protection that you don’t see in the literature.’”


“'She’s unable to provide for her own welfare…’ ‘Yes, that’s right…and as a woman out there, spouting delusional beliefs, she runs into the wrong person, she could be assaulted.’”


“‘Does she have any insight into her illness?’ John asked. ‘Not currently. This type really resists having their delusions challenged,’ Creslin marvelled. ‘You can point out any logical inconsistency and they’ll inevitably incorporate it into their little world view.'”
Indeed, part of the genius here is that the reader begins to see Vivian as delusional and unwell. I started to become frustrated with her as a possible unreliable narrator. Inherently, she is, but not for the usual reasons. Her lens of trauma is unreliable, and I longed to understand how other characters in the book were viewing her, because I started to view her as unmanageable, vacuous, and consumed by her misinterpretations, the other characters probably did too.

Again, we have to root ourselves in this: Not: What is wrong with you? But: What happened to you? Her way of being makes entire adaptive sense in the context of her life.

Finally, the novel pivots once again, and takes us to a place of healing. Change happens, slowly, and near the end of the book. Vivian starts by making some of her own change, then gets assistance from a therapist, who understands and sees her not as we, the reader, originally saw her, but as a person who has made adaptive choices in her life to deal with trauma, and is now having to address those coping mechanisms that no longer serve her. And along with Vivian, we see the beginnings of change, and a deeper inner life for Vivian too.

The book is quite wonderful in that it takes the reader along with Vivian, sometimes beside her, sometimes playing the role of the frustrated friend, sometimes being pulled into judging her way of life. Ultimately, we settle alongside her in understanding, empathy and change.