How Writer Used Violent Sex to Help Ease Post-Traumatic Stress
Mac McClelland: "I needed it to be violent and forceful."
July 5, 2011— -- Mac McClelland, a civil rights reporter who has seen the impact of sexual violence around the globe, couldn't shake the image of Sybille, a woman who said she had been raped at gunpoint and mutilated in the aftermath of Haiti's catastrophic 2010 earthquake.
While on assignment for Mother Jones last September, McClelland said she accompanied Sybille to the hospital when the woman saw her attackers and went into "a full paroxysm -- wailing, flailing" in terror.
Something snapped in McClelland, too. She became progressively enveloped in the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress -- avoidance of feelings, flashbacks and recurrent thoughts that triggered crying spells. There were smells that made her gag.
McClelland, 31, sought professional help but said she ultimately cured herself by staging her own rape, which she writes about in a haunting piece for the online magazine Good. The title: "How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD."
Her sexual partner mercilessly pinned her, beat her about the head and brutally violated McClelland -- at her request.
"I was not crazy," she told ABCNews.com. "It was a way for me to deal in sort of a simulated, but controlled situation. I could say 'stop' at any time. But it was still awful, and the body doesn't understand when it's in a fight."
McClelland writes, "It was easier to picture violence I controlled than the abominable nonconsensual things that had happened to Sybille."
The article brought out disgust in some readers, who called her "a racist and a f**ked up whore." But many more were supportive.
"I got an email every 10 minutes from a total stranger, thanking me for saying they felt a lot less isolated and they appreciated someone starting the conversation," she said. "Some of them were incredibly intense and emotional."
Experts don't recommend self-treatment as a way to alleviate post-traumatic stress, but they say the concept of "mastery" of the situation -- or literally reliving the experience that triggered the mental breakdown -- can be effective.
"People want to feel better and have the tendency when they are feeling terrible to attempt some way at mastery," said Elana Newman, research director for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and a professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa. "People try to make sense of the experience in any way they can with the resources they've got."
Newman said McClelland was "brave" as a journalist to address her struggle so openly, but she does not recommend that those with post-traumatic stress "put themselves at risk without controls."
"I don't know [McClelland] so I can't assess her," she said. "But mastery needs to be done in a safe, structured environment."
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a disabling mental illness that can occur after a person is exposed to a horrible or life-threatening event.
"Evidence is starting to bear that journalists experience PTSD as part of their occupation," said Newman. "War correspondents have higher rates. You even see it in every day reporters, including cop reporters. It's an occupational issue."
Only about eight percent of the general population goes on to develop PTSD after a traumatic event, although that number is higher for veterans, according to Newman.
"Everyone has a breaking point, but people are also resilient," she said. "They can withstand extraordinary pain and come out the other side. It has to do with the event, coping skills, some genetics and susceptibility and the environment."
Women are also more prone to develop PTSD than men, according to Newman. "Men are more exposed to greater rates of violence and combat and women to sexual assault."
McClelland saw plenty of violence -- "absorbing other people's trauma," she wrote -- while living among Burmese rebels for her 2006 book, "For Us, Surrender Is Out of the Question." She has written about genocide survivors in Uganda and the Congo.
She arrived in Haiti, "tired but fine," shortly after leaving Africa. Though she had no particular assignment, she spent time with older rape survivors who answered the calls and offered to take women, some barely out of childhood, to the hospital.
"Rape has been a big problem there for a long time," said McClelland. "It's not just a post-earthquake phenomenon."
Sitting in traffic en route, Sybille she saw her rapists and screamed in "abject terror," said McClelland, who shut down emotionally as Sybille fell apart, a phenomenon called dissociation that is typical of PTSD.
"I lost the ability to locate myself in space and time in the backseat," wrote McClelland. "[Sybille] eventually curled into a ball and grew quiet, tears still pouring down her face. But I could sense only a disembodied version of myself hovering somewhere behind me and to my left, outside my window. "Who are those people?" I could hear it asking. "What's that awful thing going on inside that car?"
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