DL Fowler's Blog

The Hunger Games & PTSD

I just finished reading Mockingjay the final book in The Hunger Games trilogy. I could say something about how Suzanne Collins kept the story moving at breakneck speed, or how immediate a story can be when told in first person (even better in present tense). I could even complain about the graphic violence, but that complaint is only valid when it’s gratuitous. Here it wasn’t. It was just the unvarnished truth about human beings. But, I digress…

What I want to dwell on is how Mockingjay is a textbook on Post Traumatic Stress, how it comes about, who’s most at risk, and how to survive it.

How does PTSD happen? First, take a look at Peeta. A sensitive, sacrificing guy who gets thrown into a traumatic, life-or-death arena with only one purpose—keep someone else alive. He wasn’t sacrificing for someone because they deserved it. He was just a servant kind of guy. In fact, through most of the series, I was rooting for Gale to get the girl, because Katniss was just too strong a person to get stuck with a doormat.

Oh, I forgot. Peeta was also tortured. The tracker jacker venom! Brilliant, Suzanne. That’s how PTSD happens. It’s her word for brain chemicals. Chemicals that are designed to protect us—they invoke our natural flight-or-fight defenses. But in unregulated doses they send people over the edge. Sometimes, into inexplicable violence. Our chemicals rely on outside stimuli to know when to kick in, and just like the tracker jacker venom, they respond to triggers that are planted in our cells as constant reminders of traumas we once experienced. Just like Peeta’s response to the tracker jacker venom, our brains can’t distinguish between “Real or unreal” without outside help. All they know is to defend—send us into flight or fight. So post-trauma, our brain chemicals are often tricked into believing a prior event is actually happening, when it’s only a memory of that trauma.

You might be inclined to say, Katniss and Gale both suffered traumas, but they didn’t suffer PTSD?

Well, Katniss did. But, instead of her brain getting stuck in fight mode, she spends most of her energy fleeing. That could be because she spent most of her seventeen years wallowing in the pain of losing her father, evading oppressors, seeking a refuge in the forest, etc.  It could also be that her brain’s chemical factory overproduced flight and required stronger triggers to release a flow of fight venom. Read closely, even when she was in the Capitol on a mission to kill President Snow, most of her forward progress was made while she was fleeing from something. Either her status quo was too uncomfortable, or her retreat was too dangerous. Her final battlefield-thrust forward was prompted by fear that something bad was going to happen to Prim.

After her final trauma, she literally tried to retreat into a cocoon.

As for Gale—the guy I wanted to see get the girl—he was either too invested in the “cause” to feel the trauma around him, or his brain just didn’t produce its own tracker jacker venom in sufficient doses to put him in danger. Maybe, his “cellular memory” capacity wasn’t as easily imprinted as other two—that has to do with the body recording memories of a trauma in your cells, making it difficult later for you to distinguish between real or unreal. He just wasn’t a great candidate for Post Traumatic Stress.

So if you want to understand Post Traumatic Stress, and see how Peeta, Katniss and Gale dealt with the aftermath of traumas, I encourage you to read The Hunger Games series, or at least revisit Mockingjay with this post in mind.

I’d also like you to keep in mind my upcoming release of Lincoln Raw—the human side of history. In this biographical novel, you get inside Abraham Lincoln’s head as he experiences an overabundance of early life traumas, suffers from overdoses of real-life “tracker jacker venom” and provides another model for PTSD survival.

And, I’d like to hear from you. Do you have struggles with trakcker jacker venom and triggers that make your brain go haywire? Do you care about someone who does? Do you identify with any of the characters in The Hunger Games? Then go ahead and post a comment.

4 Responses

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  1. m_sage said, on May 5, 2014 at 8:27 PM

    Thank you for this post. I remember reading the books a few years ago and not understanding the depth of the characters emotions. Now after undergoing a traumatic event myself, I find myself returning to the characters again and again. Yes, they are fictional, as is their trauma. But somehow reading through Katniss’ internal dialogue makes me feel human again. I appreciate authors who can capture a human experience so fully.


    • DLFowler said, on May 5, 2014 at 9:31 PM

      Thank you for sharing your experience. I’ve also found the characters’ lessons and experiences helpful. Now I often stop and ask the question they put to Peeta – “Real or unreal?”


  2. Reema Smith said, on October 20, 2018 at 5:52 AM

    What about Johanna? I feel like she has it worst but everyone ignores her


    • DLFowler said, on October 20, 2018 at 7:36 AM

      Thanks for your thoughts on this. I agree that Mockingjay could have benefited from more attention to Johana’s PTSD challenges after returning to District 7. For instance, if Katniss and Peeta had visited her, we could have viewed post trauma life from a perspective that contrasts with Peeta’s. One possibility I’m envisioning is seeing her in her District 7 home as an independent woman, finding her own path to recovery without reliance on a male partner/caretaker.


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