How Writer Used Violent Sex to Help Ease Post-Traumatic Stress

Mac McClelland: "I needed it to be violent and forceful."

July 4, 2011, 3:43 PM

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 "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?"

Mac McClelland Lived Among Refugees

McClelland began to experience subtle symptoms at first -- avoiding places and feelings that reminded her of Sybille -- but nightmares followed, as well as intrusive thoughts, as well as hyper-arousal.

"I couldn't sleep. I couldn't stay sober," she writes. "When the power went out, I just sweated in the stifling heat because I was too scared to open my windows even though they weren't the kind someone could fit through."

She spent an evening with an attractive French peacekeeper, but when he went to kiss her, she wrote she could only feel "something static and empty in the places usually occupied by my limbs."

Every time she thought about sex, McClelland associated it with violence.

She cried on her flight back to San Francisco. Within 24 hours she went into counseling and was diagnosed with PTSD. Her therapist told her to "inhale trauma and exhale compassion," but McClelland had other options in mind.

"All I want is to have incredibly violent sex," she told her therapist, who wasn't shocked.

"She said, 'Sure, do you have someone in mind who can do that for you?'" said McClelland. "She didn't blink."

And McClelland did -- Isaac, an old friend, someone she'd had rough sex with before. Someone she trusted.

"I needed to confront my extreme fears and nightmares," she said. "I needed it to be violent and forceful."

Isaac protected her from his punches by placing a pillow on McClelland's head. She discovered she was strong and could break away briefly, but the 60-pound difference in their body weights eventually overwhelmed her.

Panic and pain gave way to a new strength.

"My 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."

Trauma expert Newman said that when person is threatened, the body goes into a state of alert, and in PTSD, that alarm system becomes embedded psychologically.

The most effective treatments include re-experiencing the event in a safe environment -- "revisiting it your mind, going over it -- integrating the emotions and feelings," she said.

"You have to get the body to no longer be aroused at the level," she said. "It's a type of learning."

"But I wonder about the degree to which [McClelland's self-therapy] was a volitional choice to engage in this sadomasochistic experience or if it was trauma-driven," said Newman.

Journalists rarely talk about the emotional impact of their reporting. That changed to a degree in February after CBS News correspondent Lara Logan was molested in Cairo. McClelland took to task the Committee to Protect Journalists for not once mentioning sexual harassment in their manual. They subsequently added an "addendum on sexual aggression."

Since then, CPJ has interviewed almost 50 journalists who have experienced sexual violence -- from groping to rape -- while doing their jobs.

"If the handbook had a section detailing 'symptoms of a journalist who really needs counseling and should probably go home,' I would have fit the description," wrote McClelland.

She went back to Haiti for two weeks in January and discovered more triggers. "My therapist had warned me," said McClelland. "But I was still a lot better by then. I still occasionally have weird moments, but they are few and far between."

McClelland also returned to the Congo where interviews were about sexual violence and murder, but there were no flashbacks.

The French peacekeeper is now her boyfriend and their sexual relationship has been rekindled, this time with more normal passion. He is soon to visit the United States for the first time. "I am so excited, I could almost die," she said.

McClelland said she doesn't think of herself as a "fragile" person and said she feels compelled to continue her reporting.

"Whether people say I'm insane or not, it's tough enough to do this job," she said. "If I didn't have any feelings, that would be scary. It's a human response to duress."

As for staging her own rape to save her sanity, McClelland said she would not suggest others try it, but for her it worked. "There was a feeling in my body that I had survived," she said. "I was not going to die."

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