Irritable Hearts

Peacekeeping - MINUSTAH

Port au Prince 2010. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

Irritable Hearts

-Book Reviewed by Diana Mumford

The talented Mac McClelland has done it again—the critically acclaimed reporter whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, and other publications, has written yet another heartbreaking and exhilarating book. Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story, is an in-depth look at McClelland’s time spent reporting in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Arriving in the wake of the disastrous 2010 earthquake and tsunami that crippled the impoverished country’s already fragile infrastructure and prompted a humanitarian crisis, the reporter is not immune to the tragedy. Her novel captures the emotional fallout she experienced in the subsequent months.

The glimpse into the past begins with the author’s arrival in Port-au-Prince, nine months after the earthquake. As a reporter, she intends to capture the developing nation’s complex pain and suffering and to relate the hardship and devastation she witnesses to her fellow privileged Americans. A self-described feminist, McClelland focuses on the violence, sexual and otherwise, that women in Haiti face on a daily basis. In Irritable Hearts, she recounts many chilling instances of terror. The atrocities committed against these women are difficult to read, but McClelland describes their stories as bluntly as she experienced them herself. She interviews rape victims, as well as brutally maimed women. One woman has had her legs smashed. Another woman is a victim of gun violence. These tragedies, however, are not limited to native Haitian women. McClelland also delves into her experiences with sexual harassment and assault while in Haiti, and she details her feelings of helplessness when the men she encounters abuse their positions of power. These dire circumstances lead McClelland to her emotional instability.

Amid the chaos, the author finds solace in the arms of a handsome French stranger, Nico, her other half in this love story. McClelland is instantly attracted to Nico, but this isn’t a schmaltzy, Nicolas Sparks-esque love story; it’s real life. McClelland’s doesn’t romanticize her emotional instability–eventually diagnosed as PTSD, and she is honest about how her shell shock affects her love life. This honesty is what makes McClelland’s story relatable and what makes McClelland so easy to root for as the narrator. McClelland’s mental state affects her physically, leaving her feeling as if she has no limbs, completely disconnected from her body.  “As scary as the idea of experiencing all the feelings in my body was, scarier was the prospect of being so disconnected from it that I didn’t have reflexes anymore,” McClelland writes. The author’s constant and invasive memories twist into persistent nightmares. In a conversation with Nico, she says, “I was dreaming I stepped in a decomposing face.” These are only a few of the rich descriptions that characterize the inner workings of her PTSD-rattled mind.

When McClelland and Nico part ways, they keep in touch via Skype. All the while, the author is attempting various therapies in order to feel human again. McClelland claims, “I want to feel myself in the world.” Language and continental barriers aside, Nico is a near-constant companion during this process. McClelland doesn’t romanticize her relationship with Nico. He is understanding and loving, but he is also cruel and selfish. He is human, and so is she. Ruminating on a shared trip to France, she says, “…in that country, on his soil, Nico behaved more as he’d been raised. Harder. Harsher. He’d already been growing tired of our melodramatic, episodic interactions before I’d arrived, and in France, he was less forgiving.” Nico’s patience eventually returns and their lives resume as before.

Besides making their unlikely love story function, the most compelling part of the book is McClelland’s clinical discussion of what makes an episode so traumatic that the brain can’t fully recover. Likewise, her analysis of how much trauma is enough to qualify for PTSD is informative. She explores the human psyche’s breaking point and postulates that PTSD is a chronic condition for which not many Americans have sympathy or are even aware. After all, even McClelland was in denial about her initial PTSD diagnosis. The author’s journey through various types of therapies leads her to publish articles that receive public ridicule and even call her journalistic integrity into question. Eventually, McClelland manages to explain her PTSD as a response to articles such as Slate’s Mac McClelland, What’s Happening in Haiti is Not About You. A silver lining lies in claims that this white woman from a developed Western country is too privileged for PTSD. Her book includes several letters from readers who claim her articles helped them recognize their struggles with PTSD and begin to seek treatment.

Part reporting, part self-help, and part love story, at its core, Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story, is a personal work of self-reflection and self-rediscovery. Ultimately, this memoir is a must-read.

Available February 2015 from Flatiron Books.


Post Photo Courtesy of