Billy Pilgrim's Coping Mechanism for PTSD in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five

Billy Pilgrim's Coping Mechanism for PTSD in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five

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In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim becomes “unstuck” in time. The question here is, why? The fact of the matter is that he does not actually begin to time-travel. Billy “becomes unstuck” as a coping mechanism to deal with his traumatic experiences during the war. Billy attempts to reorganize his life’s events and cope with a disorder known as post traumatic stress (PTSD).

“Post traumatic stress disorder is a debilitating condition that follows a terrifying event” (Marilyn 8). It occurs when one has witnessed or experienced a traumatic event, such as war, child abuse, or other types of violence. Victims may claim to relive or re-experience events that were traumatic to them. They may even “feel” or “hear” things from the event. Other symptoms may include: “forgetfulness…amnesia, excessive fantasizing…trancelike states…imaginary companion, sleepwalking, and blackouts” (Putman 2). A lot of times, coping mechanisms fail and the following inner dissonance can lead to a multiplicity of upsetting emotional and physical symptoms (Robert Saperstein 2). Some children suffering from PTSD may show traumatic play. This refers to the reenactment of a traumatic experience. Usually, children will change the ending to make it happier. This is an extreme example of using the imagination as a way to escape the terrible memories. Billy has all the symptoms associated with the disorder as he also used his imagination to escape his bad memories.

When Billy Pilgrim goes to war in Germany, he is soon captured by the Germans and taken to a prisoner camp. While there, he is mocked and ridiculed. He is a very passive character, and so is not bothered by this taunting, but when Billy realizes that the war doesn’t just affect soldiers and people, but all animals, such as the horses they find after the bombing of Dresden, his life is scarred forever. He sees that the horses are bleeding from their mouths and that they are in agony when walking. When Billy sees that his colleagues had mistreated the horses, he realizes that that is what war does to the entire world. Billy is forever changed and even weeps (197). This may have been the trigger for PTSD in Billy’s life to begin with.

One of case post traumatic stress disorder tells of a Vietnam veteran sleeping with a gun under his pillow and having nightmares so intense that he woke up strangling his wife. Another time, the same veteran saw a neighbor walking outside after dark and dodged under a bush and started crawling around with a gun (McGirk 1).

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Billy Pilgrim's Coping Mechanism for PTSD in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five

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He was later diagnosed with PTSD and was told that his condition would cause such symptoms but that his family would need to be supportive and caring. Another case tells of a child that has been sexually abused. She struggled to separate her imagination from reality and thinks she is actually hearing, feeling, and, when asleep, even seeing the traumatic experience again (Putman 1).
Billy’s disorder is not recognized, by even doctors, because this disorder was not named and studied until after the Vietnam War. Before PTSD was named and studied, everybody with this disorder was either told to “get over it” or declared senile, crazy, or insane and normally sent to asylums or to prison. They were considered outcasts and society tried to ignore them. Nearer to the world wars, people tried to ignore it more than condemn people who suffered from it.

Billy was seen as senile and crazy but his family still tried to ignore that. Billy’s case is not the only precedent to vivid flashbacks and extreme fear towards certain events. As Billy recalls his time in Europe, he feels as if he, too, is actually experiencing past events. In reality, something will trigger Billy’s flashback to the event. An example of this in the book is when Billy’s wife wants to talk about the war and he immediately “travels” to a time during the war (123). What really happens here is that as he tries to remember, he experiences all the sensations that he felt when he was actually there. Another example is when Billy Pilgrim goes white from listening and watching the barbershop quartet. He even admits that it reminded him of a time in the war (172, 177). Towards the end of the book, Billy has decided to portray his death, including the date. The book never says what happened but it could be inferred that Billy Pilgrim premeditated suicide. These are all symptoms that Billy Pilgrim suffers from an extreme case of PTSD.

What exactly is going through Billy’s mind as he “time-travels”? As Billy remembers a situation that he is in during the war, the emotions and sensations are so strong that he feels that he is actually there. The reason he does not tell his story to the reader in chronological order is because he is almost embarrassed about what happened in Germany. He tries to reorganize the events of his life in the order he would have liked for them to happen so they would have been justifiable. He also, in order to cope with the disconnectedness between him and his family, Billy Pilgrim invents an imaginary world.

Billy Pilgrim creates a world called Tralfamadore, and in this world, the aliens that live there, the Tralfamadorians, take care and look after Billy. They put him in a zoo on their planet and gave him a stripper, Montana Wildhack, to mate with. The Tralfamadorians can see in the fourth dimension, meaning time, and they try to teach Billy how time actually works. This is his ideal world.
In summary, Billy Pilgrim is merely a victim of post traumatic stress disorder. As he struggles to cope with the memories of the Dresden bombing, he comes up with a name for his vivid flashbacks and terrible reactions to little day to day things: time-travel. Another coping device is his imaginary world of aliens who can also time-travel. His family thinks he is senile and even his daughter, Barbara asks what she is going to do with him. He puts a great effort towards trying to convince others that he really is travelling back to Dresden and really does experience the firebombing over and over. While Billy tries to live as a normal person “Billy prefers fantasy to real life. It’s a lot safer” (Bly 9). Billy, therefore, does not become unstuck in time, he just suffers from post traumatic stress disorder.


Works Cited

1. Bly, William. Slaughterhouse-Five. n.p., Barron's, 2004. eLibrary. Web. 13 Dec 2009.
2. Marilyn Dickey. "Decade of the Brain: Anxiety Disorders." DECADE OF THE BRAIN: ANXIETY DISORDERS 1997: 1-24. SIRS Government Reporter. Web. 15 December 2009.
3. McGirk, Tim. "The Hell Of PTSD. " Time. 174.21 (Nov 30, 2009): 40. Student Resource Center - Gold. Gale. ALCONBURY HS. 15 Dec. 2009
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4. Paul Lerner. "The harmony of illusions: inventing post-traumatic stress disorder." Medical History 41.2 (Apr 1997): History Study Center. ProQuest LLC. 13 Dec. 2009 .
5. "Post-traumatic stress disorder". Complete Home Medical Guide. 01 Nov 2004. eLibrary. Web. 15 Dec 2009.
6. Putman, Stacie E. "The monsters in my head posttraumatic stress disorder and the child survivor of sexual abuse." Journal of Counseling and Development 87.1 (Wntr 2009): 80(10). Student Resource Center - Gold. Gale. ALCONBURY HS. 13 Dec. 2009
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7. Robert Saperstein and Dana Saperstein. "The Emotional Wounds of War." Military Review Jan. 1992: 54-61. SIRS Researcher. Web. 13 December 2009.
8. Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five A Novel. New York: Dell, Print.
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