Moral Low Ground


Journalist Mac McClelland Says “Violent Sex Helped Ease PTSD” She Suffered in Haiti

An award-winning journalist stricken with post-traumatic stress disorder while covering sexual violence in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake says the only way she was able to ease her suffering was by staging her own rape.

McClelland: Self-treatment via 'counterphobic mastery.' (Photo: Mac McClelland)

Mac McClelland, a 31-year-old San Francisco-based human rights reporter familiar to readers of Mother Jones magazine, writes in Good how she accompanied a Haitian rape victim she calls ‘Sybille’ to a Port-au-Prince hospital. Sybille’s attackers had not only raped her, they had horrifically mutilated her in a manner McClelland calls “unspeakable.” Incredibly, the surgeon who would perform reconstructive surgery on Sybille yelled at her, saying she “got what was coming to her because she was a slut,” an attitude that is not uncommon in Haiti even, apparently, among the most highly-educated segments of society.

As if things couldn’t get any worse for poor Sybille, on the way back from the hospital she happened to see one of her rapists. She lost it. That’s when McClelland says she, too, fell apart, withdrawing into a dissociative disembodiment of her normal self. She began having rape nightmares– and “daymares”– and before too long she began hitting the bottle. “I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stay sober,” she writes.

Back in San Francisco, McClelland was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder “within 24 hours of landing.” There were constant tears. For months there were uncontrollable fits of sobbing or heaving. She couldn’t even masturbate without falling apart. “All I want is to have incredibly violent sex,” she told her therapist. McClelland says she could no longer “process the thought of sex without violence.” That’s normal; a ‘counterphobic’ approach in which victims confront their worst fear instead of running from it has helped many a strong PTSD victim vanquish the demons that once incessantly tormented them. “Under the circumstances, violent sex wasn’t a matter of recreation for me,” writes McClelland. “It was a way, one way, to help get better.”

And so it was that McClelland hooked up with Isaac, an old flame who she “loved and respected,” and broached the topic of him “raping” her. “I’m gonna need you to fight me on this,” she told him. And he did. Eventually she could fight him off no longer. Utterly exhausted, she “exploded into terrible panic.” “I did not enjoy it in the way a person getting screwed normally would,” she writes. And no wonder– Issac smothered her with a pillow so he wouldn’t break her jaw as he punched her in the face, hard, four times.

When it was all over, McClelland says her body “felt devastated but relieved.” “I’d lost, but survived,” she writes. “After he climbed off me, he gathered me up in his arms. I broke into a thousand pieces on his chest, sobbing so hard that my ribs felt like they were coming loose.”

McClelland’s self-treatment of her PTSD worked. Within months, she was back in Haiti. A few months after that, she was off to interview an unending stream of sexual violence victims in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, positively the rapiest nation on the face of the planet. McClelland was able to work “just fine.” Her PTSD, it seemed, was cured.

Moral Low Ground salutes McClelland’s bravery in candidly discussing her ordeal in such excruciatingly explicit detail. The problem of PTSD in journalism doesn’t get anywhere near the coverage it deserves. Some even say that because reporters willfully place themselves in harm’s way, in danger zones where they seek out the headline-grabbing stories that often leave them traumatized by what they’ve seen, that they somehow have only themselves to blame for any mental ailments they may suffer. But do not our men and women in uniform also willingly place themselves in PTSD-causing situations? And are we not, as a society, sympathetic to their suffering, doing whatever we can to help them alleviate their pain?

In many respects, the way journalists with PTSD act and are treated is reminiscent of the way soldiers suffering from it were a decade ago. They often internalize their pain, fearful that disclosing their agony will result in being labeled a ‘pussy’ or, worse, a professional liability. Mac McClelland was no different. “The shocking lack of sympathy I got from some industry people I talked to about my breakdown was only compounding my concerns that I didn’t deserve to be this distraught,” she writes. It shouldn’t be that way. The Mac McClellands of this world, the intrepid reporters who bring us the stories we ravenously consume from the safety of our living room couches while they risk their lives– and their sanity– on the front lines of the world’s most dangerous places, deserve better. Much better.


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