‘Irritable Hearts,’ by Mac McClelland

In Reviews

The American journalist Mac McClelland has reported from crisis zones like Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but in her memoir “Irritable Hearts” she chronicles a crisis she can’t leave behind.

McClelland learned she had post-­traumatic stress disorder only hours ­after her return to San Francisco from Haiti, where she covered the ­aftereffects of the devastating January 2010 earthquake. She ­quickly came to understand the true cost of working in a zone of catastrophic hardship — even those who are not directly ­affected are damaged. She was blindsided by nightmares and flashbacks and “changes in self-perception.”

Peering into the mirror, instead of seeing her reflection, she imagined that she saw a boy: “A flat, weak, castrated, insubstantial fragment of a boy.” This episode occurred during the day. The nights were worse, spewing such graphic dreams that just reading about them sparks horror. “I’d been going through a spate where I was the one torturing and murdering people,” she writes. “I’d tied two people down to the floor, or someone else had. They were alive, and I was whipping a grappling hook into their faces.”

At the time of her illness, McClelland was working as a reporter for the magazine Mother Jones, and she had access to what must be blindingly expensive treatment. But therapists, yoga sessions and even the attentions of a French peacekeeper she met in Haiti, with whom she started a love affair, offered only temporary respite. On assignment in Ohio she tried to numb herself by watching the television show “Toddlers and Tiaras.” She drank heavily. This widely traveled journalist, who otherwise had demonstrated diamond-hard nerves, was unraveling. She says she felt like a “disgusting person” who had “made bad decisions, and hurt people and was a failure.”

In search of answers, McClelland executed an inward dive into her own history, and she shares with readers a pattern of sexual entanglements and infidelities. She describes how violent sex became a form of therapy. In the process she draws a valuable portrait of what it is like to live with PTSD.

Still, even for a memoir, McClelland’s tone is so relentlessly candid that it recalls the show-all, tell-all confessional essay form endemic to the Internet. And too often her experiences appear like a window into the life of a privileged Western journalist, who, unlike her subjects, can enter and exit conflict at her own choosing.

In one discomfiting paragraph, McClelland goes from Uganda, where she had just met with members of the threatened underground gay community, to Paris in order to decompress. She rented an apartment owned by the son of Jonas Salk, the man who developed the polio vaccine. Her French boyfriend was waiting there for her, and seemingly without irony, McClelland writes, “In the curtain-filtered morning light of Jonas Salk’s apartment, my sweater draped over Claude Picasso’s childhood desk, there was Nico with his sweetness and his bowl of perfect ­strawberries.”

Yet there are moments of luster in this memoir, as when McClelland brings the subjects of her interviews into the frame of her book. It is then that “Irritable Hearts” reveals its own warm, beating heart.

In Haiti, for example, McClelland met Daniel, who was living in a nightmarish tented camp notorious for gang violence and sexual assaults. His shelter was leaky and fashioned out of a piece of tarp. The awfulness of his circumstances didn’t escape Daniel, but he chose to dig deep. “Fortunately,” he told McClelland, in a moment of heartbreak for this reader, “it’s not that hot in here right now.”

Voices like Daniel’s infuse McClelland’s memoir with poignancy. They urge reflection on the lives of those whose rescue from trauma is determined — or undermined — by the circumstances of their birth.

The themes in “Irritable Hearts” will be familiar to readers of a widely circulated essay that McClelland published in 2011 in which she first addressed her PTSD. That essay, in the magazine Good, was controversial, in part because she spoke of a rape victim she met in Haiti. She first mentioned the meeting in a series of tweets. After reading them, the victim’s lawyer got in touch with her, asking that she not write about the person again because the tweets had identified her and put her life in danger. McClelland included her in the essay anyway, and it appears here that she is still trying to apologize for that mistake.

And so in “Irritable Hearts” McClelland sometimes writes likes a flagellant: There is nothing they can say about me that I haven’t already said about myself, she seems to be telling us, as she puts herself down again and again. But she also quotes letters of support from “fellow sexual deviants,” as she wryly puts it, to show that her essay did help some people. At the same time, she crowds in names of wellness gurus and somatics pioneers and quotes trauma literature to explain her choices. Such dutifully collated information leaves a reader with the feeling that she is striving for acknowledgment that her mistakes should be forgiven.

McClelland can stop worrying. “Irritable Hearts” has hits and misses, but its striking candor will win McClelland the empathy she deserves.

First published in The New York Times.

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Sonia Faleiro
Sonia Faleiro is the award-winning author of Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars, named a Book of the Year by The Economist, The Guardian, the San Francisco Chronicle, Kirkus, The Observer, CNN, Time Out, and The Sunday Times. It has been published worldwide and translated into languages including Hindi, French, Polish, Swedish, and Dutch. Sonia’s writing and photos have appeared in The New York Times, Harper's, The California Sunday Magazine, Smithsonian, and Granta. She divides her time between London and India.