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What 'Slaughterhouse-Five' Taught Me About Coping With Trauma

Life is full of trauma. That is not to say it is not full of other things, too, but for this one we’ll focus on the trauma, as minds often do, because in our world it can sometimes seem impossible not be stuck in one moment at a time.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” the narrator Billy Pilgrim has developed his own way to cope with the traumas of his life, by the manifestation of an imaginary world that exists only for himself. In this world, called Tralfamadore, all moments exist at once; happening simultaneously. Caught in his flashbacks of one of the biggest massacres in history, Pilgrim uses Tralfamadore as a way to escape.

The narrator of the novel was also present at this event, but seems to cope with his own trauma through writing about it, in contrast to his character of Billy Pilgrim who has become delusional in order to cope with his painful reality. What is truly unfortunate is that many people in the world have experienced traumatic events that haunt them daily, much like that of the character of Billy Pilgrim, but find themselves completely unable to cope. While Pilgrim did continue to suffer, he found a way to “escape” while still being alive. He found help through psychiatric programs, through familial support and through his ultimately positive delusions. While his story was tragic, it is partly fictional, and I wonder if Vonnegut’s purpose in writing  “Slaughterhouse-Five” was to show people there are ways to keep living after trauma. Many people don’t, instead becoming trapped in their thoughts and their memories; completely unable to escape. Turning to drugs or alcohol, engaging in reckless behavior and ultimately taking their own lives due to the fact that they couldn’t get the help they needed to cope with what had happened to them.

“Slaughterhouse-Five” is a work about post-traumatic stress disorder, and the various mental illnesses that can coincide with it or manifest because of it, and it is important because it shows a way out of illness without death, and it shows it without stigma or judgment for something that almost all of us will at some point struggle with, but still at some point perpetuate the struggle with as well. It is for this reason I have come to value “Slaughterhouse-Five” over other novels, because it shows that whatever way you find to cope with your struggles, it’s OK.

Often times we as humans shame each other for the ways we choose to cope, and this creates more harm than good. For example, my cousin who had a lot of traumatic experiences growing up ended up turning to drugs as a way to cope. My entire family shamed her and distanced ourselves from her, but recently she attempted to take her own life. For us this was tragic, but I in particular found myself questioning why we had ever pushed her away in the first place. She was obviously struggling, so who were we to judge her on the manners in which she was able to cope? There is a similar sentiment in “Slaughterhouse-Five,” where Billy Pilgrim’s daughter cannot understand or justify Pilgrim’s delusions. To her, Pilgrim’s delusions are annoying and frustrating; something she cannot possibly comprehend. To Pilgrim, his delusions are the only thing keeping him alive; the only place he can escape to.

Why should we as a society shame people for doing the only thing they can to keep themselves alive? Life is a beautiful struggle, yet we do everything we can to shadow the struggle and cover it in beauty. I believe what Vonnegut was trying to show in his novel was that it’s OK to struggle, and it doesn’t have to be beautiful; you just have to keep going. When asked about his experiences in the war, Vonnegut’s character of Billy Pilgrim does not glorify or romanticize the events as others do, but remarks instead, “It was all right … Everything was alright, and everybody has to do exactly what he does. I learned that on Tralfamadore.” Through his own coping methods he learned acceptance, and learned how to keep living through the pains he encounters.

If you really think about it, perhaps this is all any of us need; simply a way to come to peace with our past and accept the things the future may bring us. Vonnegut repeats this sentiment himself, alluding to a well-known prayer written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference.” It should be noted that this prayer exists for Pilgrim in his delusional world of Tralfamadore, further symbolizing the peace this world brings to Pilgrim’s mind.

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Lead photo via Lawn Gnome Publishing

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