On my nightstand was a half finished “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” I tried to read the entire book in one night, but around 0200 my eyes just would not stay open anymore. More importantly, my hand was getting tired from holding a flashlight.
My bedtime was 2100 during school night and my dad, an Air Force Colonel, usually did a bed check at 2200. I had just completed seventh grade during which one teacher made us, and I hated to be made to do anything, read Hemingway’s “The Old Man and The Sea.” Once I did start, I could not put it down. The simplicity of Mr. Hemingway’s style just caught my fancy. The 93 page novelette was a breeze and joy to read, even for a non-reader like me.
“For Whom the Bell Tolls” had to be reserved at the Hanscom Air Force Base library, which my mother did and my dad picked up a few days later. I asked to be excused from the dinner table early and skipped TV to get started. By lights out, I was well into the meet of the booked and hiding under my blanket with a flashlight gave me hope I could finish it that night. But I couldn’t. I was disappointed because the next day, July 2, 1961, was a day-long trip to Boston for the New England Regional Judo Tournament.
The Huntley-Brinkley Report headliner that night was the suicide of Ernest Hemingway, which left an ever nagging question in my mind. Why? Why would a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner kill himself. He was an accomplished wordsmith who garnered the two most coveted awards for a writer. People who have the world in their palm just don’t do that kind of thing...at least not in the mind of a 14 year old.
Forty-seven- years later, the Hemingway question still haunted me. The works of Master Hemingway kept coming up especially as I delved deeper into the research for my book, “The Ghost in the Orange Closet.” There was nothing strange about Hemingway popping up when you look at Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Farewell to Arms,” and “A Soldier’s Home” most certainly are excellent examples where characters suffered from PTSD. A Google search of “Hemingway and PTSD” found more than 16,000 hits all mentioning things related to wounds you cannot see.
By chance, I ran across his biography, which at first seemed to answer my protracted and nagging question. Several accidents late in his life left him, for the most part, incapacitated and unable to continue his writing. The suicide made sense when you think about this strong willed and hardy individual who loved big game hunting. This man was no scrawny wimp; he lived a life filled with machismo. His way out was reasonable.
Yet, researching PTSD leads to a different nagging question of what killed Hemingway. Hemingway’s view on war is well documented and his rather stark statement, “There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter,” makes you believe he knew something about war and its delayed effects. His experience as an ambulance driver in World War I was, to say the least, extremely traumatic for a young man of eighteen. As soon as he arrived at the Italian front, he experienced the horrors of war, having to pick up the remains of mostly female casualties. Just a few days later, he was wounded by an Austrian Trench Mortar and machinegun fire.
It appears reasonable his bout with alcohol, chronic depression, and four marriages can be attributed to those heroic and troublesome experiences. Many who suffer from the “unseen wounds of PTSD” have difficulty maintaining long-term relationships; a glaring statistic from the Vietnam War.
Additionally, there is a history of suicides in the Hemingway family. His father, brother, and other closely related family members (granddaughter Margaux Hemingway 1999) took their lives. This history adds an additional factor to support PTSD. As well as new research pointing to genetics being involved.
Over the last 80 years significant changes of our understanding of PTSD, brain scans, and MRIs have shown traumatic stress changes the chemistry of the brain. Additionally, Harvard Medical has research statistics showing genetics might be involved in who is more prone to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. What all this means is the perception which Hemingway live, that Shell Shock was considered a weakness in character or personality, is totally false. What our professional soldiers need to know is that PTSD has been around since war began and will always be there. However, now we know what it is and how to successfully overcome that affliction.
So, did PTSD kill Hemingway? I’ve lived most of my life with a nagging Hemingway question. And even though the question has changed from “Why” to “What,” it appears it will be with me for a while longer, still nagging me…to be sure!
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