Regeneration by Pat Barker combines the stories of real and fictional people to create a compelling account of life in a psychiatric hospital for British soldiers during the first world war. Barker uses the true stories of poets Siegfried Sassoon and Owen Wilson, who met and worked together during their stay at Craiglockhart Hospital, Dr. William Rivers their psychiatrist and the fictional Billy Prior. The three soldiers, along with the other patients in the hospital, are officers who have all suffered nervous breakdowns to varying degrees. It is Dr. Rivers’s job to cure them and return the to service, either back to the front in France or to some other work.
The novel is a true ensemble of characters; each takes a significant turn at center stage and each is fascinating in his own way. While there is no single narrative thread to the novel, the psychological profiles of the four main characters that emerge and their struggles to regain a sense of normalcy, to recover from their experience enough to return to it, make for compelling reading. Whether Sassoon has suffered a breakdown is not clear. He is placed in the hospital to save the army from embarrassment. A true war hero, decorated for bravery after saving the lives of many wounded men, he joins with several prominent pacifists and publishes a declaration against the war. Friends of his convince the army that he has had a breakdown and should be treated instead of court martialed. (This will save the army a good deal of embarassement as well. ) Dr. Rivers treats him, as he does Owen and Prior, through basic Freudian techniques, the talking cure. Nightmares are problems for all of the soldiers in the hospital, so there is plenty of dream analysis in the book, all of it interesting reading.
Many of the officers in Craiglockhart want to be cured so they can go back to the battle, because they want to return to their men whom they feel guilty about leaving and because they have difficulty dealing with civilians who do not understand their experience. Billy Prior meets a local girl during the times he is allowed to leave the hospital and a romance develops. She knows that he is a patient, that he has had some sort of breakdown, but he does not tell her the details. He keeps her innocent of his experience so that her innocence can be his place of refuge. He loves her because she is not a part of the war; but this fact also separates them, prevents him from opening up to her in a way that would make a deeper bond possible.
Dr. Rivers becomes friends with many of his patients and often visits them after they leave the hospital. He is older than his many of his patients, actually old enough to be their fathers which makes it even easier for the doctor-patient relationship to become father-patient. His techniques and his manner with his patients work so well and are so admirable that I began to reconsider my own general skepticism about psychiatry. The men in Craiglockhart are so well looked after that it becomes tempting to read Regeneration as a commentary on how mental illness is viewed in the military today. Sassoon can have a ‘breakdown’ and return to battle as an officer in charge with no apparent loss of face while in the U.S. today we regularly hear stories about soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan who won’t seek counseling for fear of repercussions from their superior officers that might end their careers. (How does this attitude contribute to the high suicide rate among U.S. soldiers today seems like a questions we’re not really allowed to ask if we want to “support the troops.”) But towards the end of Regeneration Dr. Rivers goes to a psychiatric hospital in London where he witnesses a different sort of treatment. The Doctor there treats his patients through prolonged sessions of electric shock. A patient who is mute has shock treatments applied to his throat, neck and mouth, until he is forced to speak again. The patient is speaking by the end of the near day-long session, but Dr. Rivers is horrified by the force that has been used as is the reader. The best treatment, that of Dr. Rivers, is reserved for the officer class while the other soldiers are subjected to treatments that would be classified as torture today.
The story continues in The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road which I’ll be getting to shortly. I found Regeneration an enjoyable read the same way I found Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy enjoyable. In each series the reader is not rushed down a plot driven road towards a climax. Instead, we get to spend time with a set of characters who make up an enjoyable circle of friends.
I hope that things have improved in the American military since I first published this review in 2008, but judging from the reactions to Bowe Berghdal that I’ve seen on-line on on television, I have reason to doubt. In any case, the issues in Pat Barker’s books are clearly as current today as they were in World War I. To bad for us, I guess.