In a world where movies and books often treat trauma casually and even glibly, Kendall Johnson’s Chaos and Ash from Pelekinesis Press gives us an inside view of what it truly is and what treatment actually looks like. Johnson is someone who understands trauma. He is a Vietnam combat veteran and a former firefighter who rushed into the chaos of wildland fires in California. He later became a trauma psychotherapist and consultant specializing in big events. He was a second responder to 9/11, the Rodney King uprising in Los Angeles, wildfires across the United States, and the Northridge earthquake. He is someone who has spent a lifetime dealing with his trauma and others’, and where other books I have read treat the concept as an aside, Johnson’s book gives it the weight it deserves.
That Chaos and Ash is a fictionalized memoir in flash and a few other forms is appropriate to the way he helps us to understand what trauma is. It is fictionalized to some degree to protect those he worked with. He does not describe the real events of his patients, but creates out of a lifetime of therapy. It is flash vignette because there is no clear throughline, nothing easy that we can find. There is not one simple thesis statement that can help us to understand the concept. Instead, what he deals with are fragments and moments that often do not make a logical kind of sense on top of which, he has not fully recovered all of the memories that he is trying to work through in this book. Much of what happened in Vietnam is coming back to him, and while a half-remembered event in most memoirs would not work for me, in this collection, that half-memory is the point. What we are getting is what it is to be inside the mind of someone suffering from this pain, and it is not easy, and it is certainly not clear.
Beyond the flash, Johnson uses a few other forms as well to open up what he is talking about through the way he says it. He is also an abstract expressionist painter, and a number of his pieces are scattered through the book, giving us another path into his experience. He has poetry here and there. Later, he includes open letters to the NRA and Congress, one to parents and teachers, and a third to incident commanders. These take his artistic expressions that might be interpreted in multiple ways and add a more direct argument as to what he sees as the problems with the way society is working, how it throws us off balance. These multiple approaches help us to understand what he is talking about in a number of ways.
This is not a pornography of violence and trauma. Johnson is not simply laying out his and other people’s pain so that we might gain a kind of vicarious experience. He is creating a fiction based on his life so that others might see what moving forward means. He is making the point that this is not something to be cured through a couple of sessions of therapy. In fact, he is showing us that the concept of being cured is absurd. There is no such thing as leaving it behind but rather he is looking for ways to move forward through this kind of pain.
The main character who like Johnson is a trauma psychotherapist who has been to Vietnam himself is in therapy himself, and his psychologist helps him to deal with both the pain he lived and the secondary trauma of those who work with trauma survivors. He speaks to his therapist about the role he is expected to play and how he gets through it:
“I’m expected to project an attitude of ‘I’ve seen it all and know just what to do.’ That’s half the magic.” I felt myself going on the defensive a little. “And when I’m not OK, when I’m scared of the situation and don’t know what to do, I fake it. I guess I manage to selectively dissociate, to take note of my feelings, and then put them in a closet somewhere and get on with it.”
“You certainly got good at that in Vietnam. And paid a price for it—you’ve been disconnected for years. Amnesia. Our work would have gone more quickly if you hadn’t been dragging around a pretty big sack of leftovers.”
I took a breath and let it out slowly. “It may not be perfect, but I guess I get by.”
Over the years, I have enjoyed popular nonfiction psychology books, but none of them have shown me what real pain looks like as this fictional account does. Those books are often neat and their discussions give observations that are meant to be definitive. This is a discussion of how messy psychological pain is, how his experiences in the past are rubbing up against the way he is trying to help people in the present in his practice. Psychologists have often presented themselves as godlike, able to clearly and easily point to this or that and solve or at least identify the problem immediately. Johnson lets us know that such an attempt does not make a lot of sense because problems are layered upon other problems and the psychologist is just a human being trying to see the patient through the foggy lens of his past.
For me, Chaos and Ash was refreshing. It is nice to have someone speak truth about something that should be taken seriously and so often is not.
John Brantingham 3rd January 2020