Atwood’s novel MaddAddam again explores the recurring idea of Painball, a group of criminals who are offered the chance to be put into an arena to fight and kill other murderous criminals. The reward for victory is life; everyone else dies. The effects of being in the arena seem to be a systematic deconstruction of the human identity, resulting in, basically human monsters, once the victors are liberated from Painball. Most perpetrators, after surviving a session of Painball, return to the arena for the thrill of it. Outside of the arena, these men tend to be glassy-eyed, unstable individuals who require careful surveillance in order to ensure the peace. Given the fact that armies, institutionalized training programs revolving around teaching someone how to kill another person, it might be worth learning what exactly that kind of environment does to you mentally.
Against common conception, Mental health counselor Jim Dooley, in an interview, notes that it is not the loss of a friend that leads to the greatest mental trauma, but it is actually the act of taking a life. Dooley says, “I think it is a loss of yourself[…]. And I think that once they understand that, they can’t go back again They can’t say that it didn’t happen, or maybe somebody else did it” (Dooley psb.org). To take a life in an act of ownership of your actions that are beyond denial. There is understanding and there is a death of self.
The army’s response to that is to relegate the problem to PTSD and observe it very vaguely and impersonally, via questionnaires, asking the participant if they have PTSD. Military stigma against PTSD has declined in recent years, but it still exists and few people want to admit to having it. Despite that fact, PTSD seems to be what Painballers are suffering from. Sebastian Junger, a soldier who was deployed in Afghanistan, describes the experience of PTSD:
From an evolutionary perspective, it’s exactly the response you want to have when your life is in danger: you want to be vigilant, you want to react to strange noises, you want to sleep lightly and wake easily, you want to have flashbacks that remind you of the danger, and you want to be, by turns, anxious and depressed. Anxiety keeps you ready to fight, and depression keeps you from being too active and putting yourself at greater risk. This is a universal human adaptation to danger that is common to other mammals as well. It may be unpleasant, but it’s preferable to getting eaten (Junger vanityfair.com)
These circumstances are exactly what the Painballers are experiencing. Their fear, a result of living in a kill-or-be-killed world is completely rational in the realm of survival. Considering the fact that some Painballers are multi-seasonal, it makes sense for them to have adopted this fear into their daily lives. Atwood describes them:
Fueled by their greyworld celebrity position, the Painball vets were pumped full of I-won hormones and thought they could tackle anyone, and they welcomed the chance to take a poke at large, solid-looking bouncer such as Zeb the Smokey Bear. He was warned by Jeb never to turn his back on a Painballer: they’d whack you in the kidneys, blam you on the skull with anything handy, squeeze your neck till your eyes popped out of your ears.
How to recognize them? The facial scars. The blank expressions: some of their human mirror neurons had gone missing, along with big chunks of the empathy module: show a normal person a child in pain and they’d wince, whereas these guys would smirk (Atwood 297).
These Painballers display a complete lack of empathy and the ability to inflict physical violence ruthlessly and without concern. Whether this is the result of PSTD eroding their empathy, or a choice that they have made after deciding that killing is the life that they enjoy, it is hard to tell. But the idea that killing makes your crazy is solidly found in our society, and the idea that the army propagates teaching how to kill is a problem. Without proper treatment, is it possible for groups of soldiers to become like the Painballers, intent on destruction and pain? Institutionalized death is an idea that is frowned upon in Atwood’s works, but at the same time, our real world institutionalizes death as a form of political defense, even though, in recent years, our armies have been deployed into foreign countries pro-actively instead of being used as a defensive measure.
The lack of empathy found in the Painballers exists as a real problem Toby and company. MaddAddam is coming to a point where a conflict between our protagonists and the Painballers is inevitable, and considering their lack of empathy, and the effects of living with PTSD, as well as the vile nature of the Painballers, established throughout the series, it is possible that the MaddAddam group will lose many people, as well as the group of Pigoons. Could empathy solve this problem? Is it even possible for the Painballers to feel empathy again? Or will Toby again be praying to the Liobam for strength, believing that it will grant her what she needs to remove these killing machines as a threat to her friends and family?
Atwood, Margaret. Maddaddam. Vintage Canada. 2013.
Dooley, Jim. “The Impact of Killing and How to Prepare the Soldier”. PBS.org. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/heart/themes/prep.html
Junger, Sebastian. “How PTSD Became A Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield.” Vanityfair.com. June 2015. http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2015/05/ptsd-war-home-sebastian-junger.
Keevil, Rosemary. Addiction and Veterans. 2016. Wordle. http://www.rosemarykeevil.com/3969-2/
“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” Canadian Mental Health Association. http://www.cmha.ca/mental_health/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/#.WP1qidLyvIV
“Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – causes, symptoms, treatment & pathology.” Youtube, uploaded by Osmosis, 5 September 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzSx4rMyVjI.
Sengupta, Kim. The British Army. 2015. Photograph. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/the-british-army-isnt-large-enough-to-halt-refugees-let-alone-take-on-vladimir-putin-10428872.html
Shrivastava, Pratyush. US Army Camoflague. 2015. Photograph. http://www.eteknix.com/the-us-army-introduces-a-new-camouflage-design/
“Understanding PTSD’s Effects on Brain, Body, and Emotions | Janet Seahorn | TEDxCSU” Youtube, uploaded by Tedx Talks, 14 March, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEHDQeIRTgs.