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Sound(e)scaping Complex PTSD: The Self-Saboteur’s Memory

"Life on Mars" by Mel Alvarez
“Life on Mars” by Melissa Maldonado-Salcedo, Mixed-Media, 2023



I temporarily lost my hearing a few months ago. Despite the world coming through in whispers, I learned I only see the world clearly through sound. I would not call this ability synesthesia, but it would make sense, like many other clinical terms, when applied to my life. I have tended to get lost in music since I was a child. It became a coping mechanism developed from shutting the world out with my headphones. No matter the violence at home or outside of it, I would take my walkmen and a blanket and fall asleep hiding under my bed with the voice of David Bowie comforting me in ways that still bring me to my knees when I hear the song, “Rock and Roll Suicide.” I often pray to the MS devils to let me hold on to the parts of my life that matter most. My husband’s voice now makes me feel that same type of safety as an adult whenever I get night terrors from those memories of sleeping under my bed to hide from the monsters that lived at home. He holds me and reminds me, “It was just a dream.” I believe him, too, “I am not alone.” This is what Complex PTSD can look like at night, unpredictable and dramatic.

Yet, they are certain sounds that will remain in sync with my heart no matter how my condition progresses. Most are songs; others can feel like music. For example, my son’s voice codes every memory of joy I actively retain and recall. Just hearing him call my name instinctually makes me smile and feel whole. But, when I hear an accordion play in a vallenato, I am transported back to Colombia, to that other part of my childhood. And soon after that, I drown in the melancholy of exile. That feeling then reminds me that Colombia is a place that only exists in my past, but I cannot let it go. Though it does not fade into the background, I now know how to manage its volume by muting out my family. Although these ethnographic emotions are just words, they may sound overly poetic, romanticized, and entirely subjective. But, they are my method when finding meaning in my perceived impairments. Sonic emotions coat my stories, giving them textures that define my brand of anthropology, no matter how punk rock it may feel. I remember in song and seek to harmonize these thoughts with the anthropology of sound.

Steve Feld and Donald Brenneis wrote in American Ethnologist that “until the sound recorder is presented and taught as a technology of creative and analytic mediation…little will happen of an interesting sort in the Anthropology of sound” (Feld and Brenneis 2004:471). I am deeply interested in soundscapes created and maintained through ethnographic writing because they account for memory’s elasticity. While writing my dissertation, I included playlists about the themes I explored because I wanted to remember what I felt then, trying to bring cohesion to a narrative that never seems to have a conclusion. Then the songs were meant to resurrect shared feelings within my stories of Argentine passion, pain, and pleasure. I did not imagine my “ear” had acquired and created new sonic references linked to much more painful memories that now get in the way of revisiting them. My writer’s block is underscored by vivid recollections of that time and place.

Sounding it Out: The Voice of Bowie and Other Soundscapes

In the same way, generation X recalls where they were when Princess Diana died (I was watching MTV at home when I saw the headline flash across the screen) or when they heard a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center (I was at New York University taking a class on Argentina I would eventually drop because it was “not my thing”), I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing when I learned that David Bowie passed. I want to highlight that these historical events are not false equivalencies for me. Bowie’s death was life-changing for reasons beyond his music or my interpretation. In my world, music is a dynamic sonic ethnography that continues to impact my formation more than Malinowski, Franz Boaz, and even Ruth Benedict. I believe that comes through loud and clear.

On January 10, 2016, I was sitting at a sad country club on the outskirts of Buenos Aires when I got the notification on my phone that Ziggy Stardust had succumbed to “liver cancer.” Kor Grow reported for Rolling Stone that he had battled it for eighteen months. They exalted how he was an “extraordinary man, full of love and life…” It was, given the news, “appropriate to cry,” but I did not truly understand why I felt so depleted. The realization that even your gods can die was deafening.

All of a sudden, Bowie was everywhere and nowhere all at once. He effectively changed, as expressed in the same article, “the way people felt about themselves and the world.” He was instrumental in opening up a world I slowly began to no longer fear. Lucy Jones, reflecting three years after his death, notes that Bowie explored complicated themes that underscore much of my existence, “existentialism, and the self, both within and outside of Earth’s cultural binaries…” In this way, like a good anthropologist, Bowie “explored, confronted, and challenged ideas and tropes about identity, transformation, the central concerns of many adolescents.” I cried for Bowie in Argentina. At the time, I had this intense desire to go home, to mourn in New York City. It was winter and cold there, while it was a warm and sunny summer day in Buenos Aires. The world, indeed, was upside down. Even though it was in many ways and for many years my “other” home, I had suddenly felt like an “outsider” or, more strangely, “like a tourist.”

The ethnographer’s reflexive examinations of self-consciousness are vast but limited in accounting for the mixed emotions that come from feeling displaced from your research. I wanted to lay flowers and listen to Bowie’s songs… in New York City, which for the first time in a long time, felt like my “real” home. I addressed his passing in my dissertation because it was the first time I felt overwhelmed by the loss of someone I did not know. Then came Dolores O’ Riordan, Prince, Whitney Houston, Tom Petty, and Sinead O’Connor. We all shared a past and poor coping skills. At the same time, I felt Bowie knew me better than anyone else growing up, and he connected me to others in ways that my attachment style did not permit. I know I am not the only one who feels like this. I saw the movie Bandslam (2009).

Decoupage on Loop: Fragmented but Empathic 

Watching BBC’s Luther, the tortured DCI detective explains “decoupage,” David Bowie’s methods for songwriting. Bowie called it the “cut-up technique” (BBC News 2016). Luther explains that you “take a bit of text, cut it up, randomize it, make new text, and see new patterns.” In many ways, I applied this method to writing up my stories because my memories already feel like they need to be reorganized since they are incomplete and can be activated without me trying. This makes them, at times, indiscernible. Bowie describes how he would tear his notes of paper apart and piece them back together in different ways so he could get a different interpretation and find new meaning. It was through the process of breaking up and putting back together that he gained “clarity.” It is how I do too.

Zachery Wallmark notes, “Music may be the crucial ingredient that evolved over many years to help us navigate our social environment, increase social bonding, and coordinate with others.”  The same neural architecture used for “empathy and other social tasks” is used to process music (Suttie 2018). In a home that was empathy deficient, music would evoke emotions in me that were complicated and, at that same time, unfamiliar. Hope. Love. Desire. Music allowed me to get “in my feelings,” which brings me to consider the role of mirror neurons in offering a “biological perspective on social relations” since they help us to relate to people as “complex living systems.” Mirror neurons are “thought to fire when an individual makes a motor action and when sees another performing the same action.” Some researchers now assert that humans—enable people to automatically grasp others’ perspectives. That is, they allow “mind reading,” understanding another’s intentions or empathy, or feeling what they feel” (Victoria Pitts-Taylor 67). This discovery was said to shift the understanding of all we know about how we live and make meaning and identity (Blakeslee 2006).

Mirror neurons are used as “evidence” for the importance of “feeling” and “embodiment” in social theories of the body and affect (Victoria Pitts-Taylor 2012:28). Research suggests that if the biological basis for empathy is deficient, mirror neurons can account for when someone is incapable of understanding intent. This raises the question of whether the psychopathic brain can be healed since a biological disruption prevents processing empathy. If this is true, then perhaps that means those who abused me “just did not know better,” hence, they could not do better. This does not change the fact that I do not forgive them.

Empathy is a critical factor in understanding the emotional impact of music as well. According to a recent study, the hormone prolactin might elicit different emotional reactions while listening to happy or sad music. The study showed that empathy involves perceiving and feeling emotions while listening to music (Cooper Montag 2019). The brain’s neuroplasticity can be shaped by music and is essential in breaking the cycle of self-sabotage. Victoria-Pitt Taylor builds her argument on the brain’s neuroplasticity, referencing Emily Martin’s description of a “manic plasticity” required by the demands of the global marketplace. She puts into focus that given our global society, you must always be “adapting, scanning the environment, continuously changing in creative and innovative ways” (Martin 2000 578-79). The resilience/malleability of the brain benefits survivors of trauma and reverses the impact of degenerative diseases like Multiple Sclerosis.

I am unsure if my penchant for self-sabotage is clinical or just a personality trait. Meanwhile, I need more than this to solve the impulse to ruin things when they are going well for me. I am healthy. I got my hearing back. I am loved. I love. Life feels good. I refuse to believe that this is forever. McBride argues, “The self-saboteur’s patterns and emotional problems are usually a survival response to her unhealthy upbringing” (McBride 2013:101). This realization made me reflect on my familial relationships that created the pathology of “repetition compulsion.” This cycle of relationships results in “disappointment again and again” (110). While I write about the human response to trauma, I can only speak from my own. While I still hear the sounds of these memories reverberate at night. I wake up, the sun still shines, and love shelters me. This is not a dream.

Selected Bibliography

David Greenberg, Simon Baron-Cohen, Nora Rosenberg, Peter Fonagy, Peter J. Rentfrow. 2018. “Elevated empathy in adults following childhood trauma.” PLOS ONE 13 (10). David W. Samuels,

Louise Meintjes, Ana Maria Ochoa, and Thomas Porcello. 2010.

“Soundscapes: Toward a Sounded Anthropology.” Annual Review of Anthropology, June 21: 329-345.

ed. Reed-Danahay, D. 1997. The Emergency of Self-Consciousness in Ethnography. Oxford & New York: Berg.

Grow, Kory. 2016. “David Bowie Dead at 69.” Rolling Stone, January 10.

Hart, Bessel A. Van de Kolk and Onno Van Der. 1996. “The Intrusive Past: The Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma.” In Trauma: Explorations in Memory, by ed. Cathy Caruth, 158-182. Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press.

Hollan D. W, and Throop C.J. 2008. “Whatever happened to empathy?: Introduction.” Ethos 385-401.

Iyer, Vijaya. 2018. “Inability to Express or Process Emotions also Prevalent in MS patients, Study Reports.” The Multiple Sclerosis News Today, July 13.

Jones, Lucy. 2019. “Why David Bowie will never die.” The Independent, January 10.
Jo. 2010. “Doing Things: Emotion, Affect, and Materiality.” Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies 11 (3-4) 223-233.

Law, John. 2004. After Method: Mess in Social Science Research. New York: Routledge.

Lepowsky, Maria. 2011. “The Boundaries of Personhood, the Problem of Empathy, and the “the native’s Point of view” in the Outer Islands.” In The Anthropology of Empathy: Experiencing the Lives of Others in Pacific Societies, by Douglas W. Hollan and C. Jason Throop, 43-66. Berghahn Books.

M.C Sittler, C. Cooper, A.J, Montag, C. 2019. “Is empathy involved in our emotional response to music? The role of the PRL gene, empathy, and arousal in response to happy and sad music.” Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 29(1) 10-21.

Maggio, Rodolfo. 2014. “The anthropology of storytelling and the storytelling of anthropology.” Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology, Volume 5, Number 2 89-106.

Martin, Emily. 2000. “Mind/Body Problems.” American Ethnologist 27 569-90.

McBride, Karl. 2013. Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers. New York: Atria.

McLean, S. 2009. “Stories and Cosmogonies: Imagining Creativity beyond ‘Nature’ and Culture.” Cultural Anthropology, Vol.24, Issue 2 213-245.

Pitts-Taylor, Victoria. 2012. “Neurocultures Manifesto.” Social Text Online. April 6.
—. 2016. The Brain’s Body: Neuroscience and Corporeal Politics. Durham: Duke University Press. Press,

Associated. 2018. “Prince died from an ‘exceedingly high’ amount of fentanyl, experts say.” USA Today, March 27.

Reynolds, Gretchen. 2016. “Running as the Thinking Person’s Sport.” The New York Times, December 14.

Zhansheng Chen, Kipling D. Williams, Julie Fitness, and Nicola C. Newton. 2008. “When Hurt Will Not Heal: Exploring the Capacity to Relive Social and Physical Pain.” Psychological Science, Vol. 19, No.8 789-795.

Zhansheng Chen, Kipling D. Williams, Julie Fitness, and Nicola C. Newton. 2008. “When Hurt Will Not Heal: Exploring the Capacity to Relive Social and Physical Pain.” Psychological Science 789-795.

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