Unfavorable Odds: The Impact of Childhood Trauma in The Hunger Games - by Belinda Lewis
Roberta “Belinda” Lewis
ENG 232 YD1
19 April 2020
“I’m going to be the Mockingjay” – with those words, teenager Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy of books, does what many other young adult novel protagonists like her are created to do: she accepts and embraces the role of the child hero (Collins, Mockingjay 31). A standard feature – and, some might argue, a trope – of childrens and young adult media, the child hero presents an appealing protagonist for young people, a role model who demonstrates that even someone who isn’t yet old enough to be independent still has the ability to save the day – or even save the world.
As empowering as this message may be, entrusting such a high-stakes fate to a child can prove to be a more harrowing experience that most would realize. According to Rebecca Sugar, creator of the children’s TV show Steven Universe, “with a kid protagonist, it’s easy to take for granted that a child hero is being tasked with saving the world, being antagonized by adults and having multiple near-death experiences” (qtd in Baron, “It’s Over, Isn’t It?”). In a more realistic scenario, this sort of life-or-death, fate-of-the-world situation would be highly detrimental to a child’s mental wellbeing – a reality that few creators of children’s media are willing to explore. In her Hunger Games trilogy, Collins both fulfills and challenges the “child hero” trope by portraying how the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) of Katniss Everdeen’s past and the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) of her current situation intersect.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, which conducted their landmark CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study in the mid 1990’s, “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are categorized into three groups: abuse, neglect, and household challenges. Each category is further divided into multiple subcategories” (“About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study”). Both abuse and neglect have physical and emotional subcategories, while abuse also includes sexual abuse as a subcategory; household challenges include spousal abuse, parental separation or divorce, or a history of mental illness, substance abuse, or incarceration of a family member (“CDC-Kaiser ACE Study”). While it’s not uncommon for children to experience at least one of these adverse events in their lifetime – approximately two-thirds of the people surveyed in the initial study reported at least one ACE – the study concluded that “as the number of ACEs increases so does the risk for negative outcomes” impacting every aspect of life, ranging from physical and mental health issues to educational and economic opportunities (“CDC-Kaiser ACE Study”). Regardless of what sort of ACEs a child experiences, the impacts are the same – the more they add up, the more the ripple effect will have lasting changes to that person’s life well into adulthood.
At sixteen years old, Katniss Everdeen has already experienced several of these ACEs before she even takes part in the battle to the death known as the Hunger Games. At age eleven, Katniss loses her father to an accident at the coal mine where he worked, an incident that still affects her deeply as she recounts how “he was blown to bits in a mine explosion. There was nothing even to bury…. Five years later, I still wake up screaming for him to run” (Collins, The Hunger Games 5). The death of Katniss’s father sends her mother into a deep depression, forcing Katniss to step into the role of caregiver for both her mother and her younger sister, Prim, taking on the responsibility of providing food for the family; however, without the income from the coal mines, they were only able to escape starvation through a chance encounter Katniss had with Peeta Mellark, son of the town baker (Collins, The Hunger Games 26-32). Katniss has shown four ACEs through this single anecdote alone: separation of parents by way of her father’s death, familial mental illness and the resulting emotional neglect due to her mother’s depression, and physical neglect as a result of poverty-induced starvation.
In addition, she tends to hold her feelings and opinions inside, a habit she cultivated to protect Prim from picking up potentially dangerous habits. “I learned to hold my tongue and to turn my features into an indifferent mask so that no one could ever read my thoughts…. Even at home… I avoid discussing tricky topics. Like the reaping, or food shortages, or the Hunger Games. Prim might begin to repeat my words…” (Collins, The Hunger Games 6). Despite dealing with hardship and the ever-present fear of being selected to take part in the deadly Hunger Games – “where the word tribute is pretty much synonymous with the word corpse” – Katniss almost never opens up or expresses herself freely (Collins, The Hunger Games 22). The combination of her past traumatic experiences, her present worry for the safety of herself and her family, and the lack of safe avenues for her to healthily address these concerns, Katniss is already severely disadvantaged and facing a high risk of developing severe mental health problems in the future – even before the Hunger Games themselves actually begin.
Katniss’s experiences in the arena, where she is forced to fight to the death with 23 other “tributes” from across Panem’s twelve districts, only serve to exacerbate her pre-existing ACEs. Even after surviving her ordeal and becoming the Victor of the Hunger Games – an event that would normally guarantee both her safety and her family’s survival for the rest of her life – Katniss isn’t safe, as she finds herself facing yet another ordeal in the arena as the following year’s Hunger Games is a Quarter Quell – a special version of the Hunger Games that “occur[s] every twenty-five years, marking the anniversary of the districts’ defeat with… some miserable twist for the tributes” (Collins, Catching Fire 36).
“And now we honor our third Quarter Quell,” says the president…. Without hesitation, he reads, “On the seventy-fifth anniversary, as a reminder to the rebels that even the strongest among them cannot overcome the power of the Capitol, the male and female tributes will be reaped from their existing pool of victors.”
My mother gives a faint shriek and Prim buries her face in her hands, but I feel… Slightly baffled. What does it mean? Existing pool of victors?
Then I get it, what it means. At least, for me. District 12 only has three existing victors to choose from. Two male. One female…
I am going back into the arena. (Collins, Catching Fire 172-173)
By this point, Katniss has already, as a direct result of her experiences in her first round of the Games, experienced flashbacks – “I squeeze my eyes shut and… I see Rue, the twelve-year-old girl from District 11 who was my ally in the arena…. I picture her lying on the ground with the spear still wedged in her stomach…” – and nightmares “which… now plague me whenever I sleep…. I relive version of what happened in the arena” (Collins, Catching Fire 40-41; 53-54). Having to endure a second round of the Games only means that Katniss will be adding to her trauma before she’s had the chance to fully heal from either the trauma of her first Games or the ACEs from earlier in her childhood.
Over the course of both Games, Katniss “experiences numerous life-threatening events, including being chased by a wall of fire, blistered by toxic gas and hunted by packs of mutated animals… she is forced to kill other children who are competing against her and suffers the loss of friends one, of whom dies in her arms. All this is amidst a constant battle to procure food and water…” (Ghoshal and Wilkinson 191). Throughout the remainder of the series, Katniss “is left suffering significant psychological distress and displays symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”; in addition to the flashbacks and nightmares which “seem to stem from feelings of survivor’s guilt,” she also experiences hypervigilance, “exaggerated reactions to innocuous stimuli,” “physical symptoms such as headaches and nausea,” and “displays avoidance behavior… as well as aversion to any form of discussion of the Games” (Ghosal and Wilkinson 191). Even after escaping from the second Games, Katniss gets very little reprieve, as she first takes on the role of the “Mockingjay” – an inspirational figure and soldier who helps lead the districts’ rebellion that she unwittingly sparked – and later watches her sister die as collateral damage in the final battle to take down the Capitol (Collins, Mockingjay 31; 347). By the final chapter and epilogue of the final book, Katniss has found ways to slowly heal from the trauma, including making a memory book of the people she and fellow survivor Peeta have lost, and helping the destroyed ruins of District 12 rebuilt; however, while her trauma is mostly healed, the symptoms never truly leave her. Katniss tells the reader that “[t]here are still moments… I wake screaming from nightmares of mutts and lost children” and acknowledges, even decades later after she has married Peeta and had two children, that “one day I’ll have to explain about my nightmares. Why they came. Why they won’t ever really go away” (Collins, Mockingjay 388; 390). Despite the fact that her world is now peaceful and she is free to live without fear, and even with therapy addressing both her ACEs and PTSD, the trauma that Katniss endured as a child continues to affect her into adulthood, and will likely be a lifelong struggle for her. And this is perhaps the two main lessons that Collins shows through Katniss: that childhood trauma needs to be dealt with early for the best results, and that even with therapy, often the symptoms can only be mitigated and not eliminated entirely.
While the Hunger Games trilogy is a work of dystopian fantasy fiction, Katniss’s story arc does have some clear real-life parallels in how it portrays violence and PTSD. Perhaps the most obvious of these is how PTSD often manifests in military service members. According to Rudenstine et al., in a 2015 government-funded study of U.S. National Guard members who had been deployed, “[s]oldiers have a substantial burden of psychopathology, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and substance use disorders. Deployment-related factors, particularly combat, are clearly linked to soldiers’ risk of mental illness” (972). The process of the Hunger Games mimic that of military service: the draft, basic training, and combat deployment are represented by the Reaping, training sessions, and the Games themselves. The study also points out the connection between ACEs and development of PTSD in combat-deployed veterans:
Adverse childhood experiences, such as physical, sexual, and emotional child maltreatment, predispose individuals to the development of adult psychopathology, in particular for mood and anxiety disorders…. Studies of veterans of the Vietnam and Gulf Wars suggest that… a soldier’s risk of PTSD is significantly increased by a history of childhood physical abuse. More recent studies with Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) troops have replicated these findings (Rudenstine et al. 972).
Katniss’s experiences in the two Hunger Games and the subsequent rebellion against the Capitol are strikingly similar to the experiences of combat-deployed soldiers, with similar results. While her experiences were undoubtedly traumatic enough to have likely triggered PTSD even without predispositions, her ACEs leave her even more vulnerable to the negative mental effects.
Ultimately, however, the Hunger Games trilogy was written for teenagers, not soldiers. The goal of Collins’ books is that “it gives young readers the opportunity to explore how significant trauma can leave psychological scars long after the physical ones have healed” (Ghoshal and Wilkinson 191). Katniss is not meant to represent the adult coming home from war, but rather the ubiquitous “child hero” trope found in most children’s and teens’ media. While these stories often glorify such protagonists by having them face and overcome trials to achieve the coveted happy ending, psychologist Margaret Skinner, in a conversation with literary and creative writing scholar Kailyn McCord, is quick to point out that “[s]uch heroics and constant struggle seem on the edge of unrealistic for a young psyche to bear. To her credit, Collins makes it clear that Katniss, and other characters, are traumatized and the damage to their souls is long lasting” (108). This sort of realistic representation is as necessary in children’s media as it is uncommon. As McCord states in her conversation with Skinner:
I went through my fair share of violence and heartache in my childhood, and it was wonderful to see a book that honored that. I got to read as young people processed, lived with, and administered violence and death; it was a part of their lives, just as it had been a part of mine. If children are faced with violence, The Hunger Games recognizes the great capacity they have to deal with it.” (108).
McCord’s statement emphasizes the sobering reality that many children face: their world is an imperfect one. As stated by the CDC, about two-thirds of children have experienced at least one ACE in their lives, while nearly a quarter of them have experienced three or more (“CDC-Kaiser ACE Study”). As the impacts of ACEs are being studied more, the importance of representing them through media to the demographic that they affect continues to grow as well.
Years after the publication of the Hunger Games trilogy, the groundwork that Collins laid in deconstructing the common portrayal of the dauntless child hero in favor of more accurate portrayals of the impact of ACEs and PTSD continues to influence children’s media. Most recently, the popular children’s cartoon series Steven Universe featured a story arc in its final season (Steven Universe Future) where the show’s titular protagonist confronts the lingering effects of the previous seasons of fighting monsters and defending the planet from hostile alien invaders. “You never really think about the fact that, in real life, standard superhero adventures would be traumatizing to a child…. [W]hat Steven Universe Future is now begging viewers to consider is that all of it, even the stories that seemed silly and cartoony, have left a heavy impact on Steven” (Baron, “Steven Universe Is in Need of Serious Therapy”). With this story arc, show creator Rebecca Sugar is doing for cartoon-aged children what Collins did for young adult readers almost ten years prior: demonstrating the often-unpleasant reality behind the child hero trope, and offering a much-needed age-appropriate representation of ACEs and the mental health issues that can result from them.
The kind of representation presented in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy remains relevant in today’s society and continues to impact the ways that mental health is presented to young people. Katniss Everdeen – as well as the influential protagonists that follow in her footsteps – teaches young adults that not only do they have the potential to face adversity and that they’re not alone with it, but also to understand that these experiences may have adverse effects that require early intervention rather than being hidden away under the false glorification of “saving the day.”
“About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13 Apr. 2020, www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/acestudy/about.html. Accessed 19 Apr. 2020.
Baron, Reuben. “It’s Over, Isn’t It?: Rebecca Sugar on the End of Steven Universe.” CBR, 27 Mar. 2020, www.cbr.com/rebecca-sugar-interview-on-the-end-of-steven-universe/. Accessed 19 Apr. 2020.
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Collins, Suzanne. Catching Fire. Scholastic Press, 2009.
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Rudenstine, Sasha, PhD., et al. “Adverse Childhood Events and the Risk for New-Onset Depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among U.S. National Guard Soldiers.” Military Medicine, vol. 180, no. 9, 2015, pp. 972-978. ProQuest, http://lrc-proxy.abtech. edu:2048/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1709992170?accountid=8387. Accessed 15 Mar 2020.
Skinner, Margaret, and Kailyn McCord. “The Hunger Games: A Conversation.” Jung Journal, vol. 6, no. 4, 2012, pp. 106-113. ProQuest, http://lrc-proxy.abtech.edu:2048/login?url= https://search.proquest.com/docview/1266183634?accountid=8387, doi:http://dx.doi. org/10.1525/jung.2012.6.4.106. Accessed 15 Mar 2020.