Week 391: “For Esme” by Padang Food Tigers

As World War II came to a close, a young American soldier named Jerome was hospitalized for ‘battle fatigue,’ which we now know by the much more official-sounding post-traumatic stress disorder. Or, if you’re looking to save syllables, PTSD.

No matter what you call it, treatment was minimal in the 1940s. Soldiers whose nervous systems had been pushed beyond all imaginable boundaries were basically told to get a bit of bed rest before being sent back into normal life — with virtually no tools to deal with the lingering anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, or crippling emotional numbness.

Despite this, Jerome found ways to cope. In fact, some of his self-prescribed therapy was decades ahead. He took up meditation. He became fascinated, almost obsessed, with Zen Buddhism. But above all, he wrote.

He wrote stories that channeled his personal horror into art. The most notable was his short story “For Esme, With Love and Squalor.” Published in The New Yorker in 1950, it was hugely popular, prompting more reader letters to the author than anything he had yet written. By writing his account of the true gruesome nature of war at a time when patriotism meant glorifying combat, Jerome had, perhaps unknowingly, helped countless others at least begin to grapple with their own PTSD.

The success of the piece would be overshadowed just a year later by the phenomenon that was Jerome Salinger’s first, and only, novel: The Catcher in the Rye.

As most of us learned in High School, Salinger became a ‘hermit’ who couldn’t deal with the fame that his great novel had earned him. But the truth may be that he continued to struggle with the effects of PTSD throughout his life; a struggle that plays a prominent role in the new biopic “Rebel in the Rye. The film prompted one reviewer to reflect on the importance of proper PTSD treatment for veterans:

I came away from the screening of “Rebel in the Rye” wondering what might have been, had Salinger received the proper treatment for his disability. To think of the loss to him personally and to the world, denied his full talents and abilities, is such a shame[…] Our lawmakers must make sure that our injured veterans are getting all the care and assistance they so justly deserve.

I’ve written about Remembrance Day before; about how the day has become, for some people at least, less about the glorious victory of one flag over another, and more about helping the victims of war, whether soldier or civilian. Organizations like The Foundation For Art & Healing are exploring the various ways that creativity can help soldiers and other PTSD sufferers overcome the condition. Donating to them, or any other organization that helps undo the damage of war, might be worth your time this week.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The running water in the background. I can imagine Salinger meditating by a pond.

2. The fade-in makes it feel like a memory that’s slowly coming back to you.

3. The non-stop arpeggios played on the banjo make it feel like a memory that won’t go away.

Recommended listening activity:

Using a candle to light another candle.

Buy it here.