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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Previous Issues > Vol. 3 > How Do You Write a True War Story?
How Do You Write a True War Story?
Author: Tory Dawson
Tory Dawson reflects on the work of Pat Barker and Ian McEwan in her discussion of the moral and ethical obligations she considered when drawing on a relative’s memoir to construct a fiction of the events for her own novel set during World War Two.


How does the creative writer find the words to write war authentically without any experience of a war zone? Is there a moral obligation in authoring war to write war right and, if so, what is right, and does this obligation supersede an obligation to be creative or imaginative? My doctoral novel, The Other Way, spans three generations of the Edwards family and examines intergenerational trauma. The Other Way  narrates the traumatic events suffered by Alfie Edwards as a combatant and as a prisoner-of-war in World War Two. Being anxious to write war and war-related traumata accurately, I obtained the written memoir of a great-uncle who experienced combat and imprisonment during World War Two. Once I was in possession of this “true war story”, I then questioned the extent to which it was acceptable for me to use my great-uncle’s story as an aid to writing my own “true war story”, and furthermore whether, in the pursuit of authenticity, it was ethical for me to use any of his words. Critical scholarship on Holocaust literature has found much to say about the ethics of erasing and constructing fictions from real-life accounts.[1] This article reflects upon the work of authors such as Pat Barker and Ian McEwan in order to examine the ethics of using the written record, memoir, or eyewitness account of others and of using the person involved to build a fictional character. It also considers whether the writer of a war story can ever “claim validity” for their fictional rendering of war in the absence of autopsy or the possession of testimony (McLoughlin 2009: 16).


Keywords: war; plagiarism; trauma; memoir


My doctoral novel, The Other Way, is a multi-generational work of fiction that begins in 1941 with Alfie Edwards enlisting in the British army. It depicts the traumatic events suffered by Alfie as a combatant and prisoner-of-war in World War Two, followed by the intergenerational transmission of Alfie’s trauma to the second and third generations of his family, and the mechanisms by which that trauma is transmitted. As well as considering unmourned war trauma, the novel also considers trauma associated with repressed homosexuality, terminal disease and mental impairment; namely, dementia and postpartum psychosis. However, this article privileges how the creative writer finds the words to write war authentically. I have no first-hand experience of war but do have personal experience of the novel’s other themes, and, more significantly, I felt a moral obligation towards the veterans of the Second World War to write their war right. Therefore, the central question asked in this article is, How do you write a true war story?

Since The Other Way begins during the Second World War, I wanted the testimony of someone who had experienced this conflict first-hand to ensure that I wrote it accurately. Turning to the testimony of others when writing on a subject I have no personal experience of, or knowledge about, has thus far been my methodology. My effort to write fiction that is largely loyal to fact is, I recognize, symptomatic of an anxiety to avoid being accused of an inaccurate portrayal. One of my earliest short stories titled “A Death in Custody” depicted a woman in the final stages of labour being taken into police custody for assaulting a woman who had just given birth. This story was only ever intended to be read as a What If? narrative, but the verbal exchange between the nameless offender and the police custody officer, Sergeant Curtains, was intended to be read as realistic because I wanted to write about the absurdity of police bureaucracy. Yet, a reader of my story deemed the following verbal exchange between the custody sergeant and the offender both “inaccurate” and “unbelievable” because, they asserted, a police officer would never speak to a member of the public in the manner I had depicted:

‘What’s fucking happening to me?’ the offender wails.
‘You’ve been detained for the purpose of securing and preserving evidence,’ confirms Police Sergeant Curtains. 
‘It hurts,’ she screams.
‘So does a broken nose,’ says Police Sergeant Curtains. (He’s broken his twice.)
‘She called me a fucking whore.’
(Police Sergeant Curtains’ silence speaks volumes.)
‘I want a fucking doctor, you dick.’
‘You’ll see a doctor once I’ve booked you in and don’t call me a fucking dick. How would you like it if I came to your place of work and insulted you?’ (This he shouts.)
‘I don’t fucking work, nob jockey,’ she mutters. (Note she dropped ‘the dick’ though.)
‘Quelle surprise.’ (This is the only French Police Sergeant Curtains knows.)
I could go on, indeed they do go on, but I think you get the gist; Police Sergeant Curtains has not got the prisoner on side. The offender’s cuffs come off next. She is distressed by the damage they have caused. ‘Look what you bastards have done to me,’ she shouts.
‘You did that to yourself,’ snarls Police Sergeant Curtains. (They’re at it again.)
‘I’m having a fucking baby.’
‘That’s not my fault.’
‘Fucking right it’s not; I’d have to be desperate to fuck you.’
‘You mean lucky.’ (Anyone would think these two had met before.) 

Prior to becoming a writer, I was a police officer for several years; although I knew that a woman in labour would not be arrested and detained at a police station, I also knew that the verbal exchange I narrated was realistic. Consequently, the dialogue remained as it was because I was confident that what I had written was authentic. However, the reader’s remarks did propagate the notion in me that when my knowledge or experience of a subject is limited, I should turn to the testimony of those for whom this is not the case if I am to insure my writing against a charge of “inauthenticity”. Thus, when I decided that my doctoral novel would begin in the Second World War, I turned to the testimony of the soldiers who fought in this conflict in order to accurately and confidently portray their experience. Knowing that my late great-uncle, Ron Stone, had been a combatant and prisoner-of-war during the Second World War, I wrote to his daughter, Diane, asking for “one little story” of his. (Diane subsequently gave me Ron’s memoir, the balance of which is twenty-three hand-written pages of A4, written entirely in block capitals, and produced at his daughter’s insistence when he was elderly.[2])

I am not the only novelist who has drawn on war memoirs to help them write a true war story. Following the publication of his best-selling novel Atonement, Ian McEwan was accused of plagiarizing Lucilla Andrews’ memoir No Time for Romance. The following example has been consistently used as supporting evidence. Andrews writes, “Our ‘nursing’ seldom involved more than dabbing gentian violet on ringworm, aquaflavine emulsion on cuts and scratches, lead lotion on bruises and sprains” (2007: 87). McEwan writes, “In the way of medical treatments, she had already dabbed gentian violet on ringworm, aquaflavine emulsion on a cut, and painted lead lotion on a bruise…” (2005: 277). Other parallels identified between the novel and the memoir include the writerly aspirations of McEwan’s protagonist, Briony, the chronology of events narrated, the nurses’ friendships, experiences, feelings and perceptions, and hospital routines. McEwan admits that he consulted Andrews’ memoir because, like his character Briony, Andrews worked as a nurse during the Second World War (2006). In response to the charge of plagiarism, McEwan argues that his “wording [is] distinct from [Andrews]” and that he has “openly acknowledged” his debt to her on public platforms and in an author’s note. The fact that journalist Julia Langdon dismisses McEwan’s author’s note as “tiny” demonstrates that, for Langdon at least, acknowledging Andrews’ memoir, whatever the scale, does not make McEwan innocent of plagiarizing her text (2006). I would suggest that Langdon’s response effectively imbibes Andrews’ war testimony with a degree of reverence that prohibits its use as an author’s aid to crafting a true war story. In writing The Other Way, I turned to Ron’s war memoir in a bid to ensure that what I wrote about the Second World War was authentic, but in so doing, could I, like McEwan, find myself accused of plagiarism?

Plagiarism is not the only term used in discussions about the theft of words. Terms such as “allusion”, “homage”, “cryptomnesia”, “higher cribbing” (coined by Thomas Mann), “the cut-up method” (coined by William S. Burroughs) and “appropriationism” have also been used. However, their meaning is nuanced: they are not mere synonyms of “plagiarism”. Consequently, writers accused of deliberately stealing words said to belong to another might, in truth, be guilty of a much lesser literary crime: “allusion” implies a fleeting reference; “homage” suggests a noble endeavour; “cryptomnesia” evokes a neurological force majeure; “higher cribbing” calls to mind a sophisticated “art”; “the cut-up method” connotes a sort of aleatory literary collage; and “appropriationism” conjures up a method of poetic recycling. But however you define the “phenomenon” it is evident that the “history of literature is not without examples” (Lethem 2007: 59).[3] Consequently, discussions around plagiarism abound, accompanied, in general, by the words of Thomas Jefferson: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me” (Carpenter 2006). Jefferson was writing in 1813. James Boyle, Professor of Law, co-founder of the Centre for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University School of Law in Durham, North Carolina, and author of The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind, also makes it clear that ideas, as well as facts, are not covered by copyright: no author, he explains, owns the love story in which “Boy meets girl, falls in love, girl dies” (2008:123). Consequently, I am not prevented from writing a love story in which “Boy meets girl, falls in love, girl dies” simply because Shakespeare used it in Hamlet in 1599, Giuseppe Verdi in La Traviata in 1853, and Erich Segal in Love Story in 1970. These texts demonstrate that not only has the love story been common in human experience since time immemorial, but also that there is a tradition of “retelling” it. As no one author can own the love story, I would suggest, similarly, that no one author can own the war story. War, like love, is also frequent in the experience of humankind. Returning to McEwan’s case, Andrews does not have the monopoly on a narrative in which a nurse cares for soldiers wounded during the First World War, even if she, or Langdon, considers the story she has told in No Time for Romance, and the story McEwan has told in Atonement, to be the same. The facts are that approximately 25,000 trained nurses cared for approximately 348,000 wounded soldiers and civilians during the Second World War, and the medical treatment for ringworm, cuts and scratches, and bruises and sprains was gentian violet, aquaflavine emulsion, and lead lotion, respectively. In brief, Andrews’ story is one that thousands could claim as their own and could tell if they were so inclined: “reality cannot be copyrighted” says author David Shields before going on to exclaim:

Excuse me, but isn’t the entire publishing industry built on telling the exact same stories over and over again? Since when is that news? […] There are novels based on novels based on novels, in which every convention of character and plot has been trotted out a thousand times before […] Trial by Google. (2010: 38-39)

However, McEwan was accused of taking Andrews’ words, as well as her story. According to Boyle, the free-for-all telling of the love story in which “Boy meets girl, falls in love, girl dies” operates on the “assumption” that no two authors will tell this story using the same words (2008: 123). Bryony Lavery, a British playwright, was accused of plagiarizing a profile that Malcolm Gladwell, a journalist with The New Yorker, had written about a psychiatrist named Dorothy Lewis: the profile, entitled “Damage”, was quoted at length by Lavery in her play Frozen. Gladwell’s view is that “Words belong to the person who wrote them” but he also acknowledges that under copyright law it is what and how much is copied that matters (2004). When the military historian Ben Shephard decided that 136 of the 152 lines of Andrew Motion’s Remembrance Sunday poem, “An Equal Voice”, were taken “directly” from his history, A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists, 1914-1994, he concluded wryly that what Motion had written began with “p” but was not “poetry” (Flood 2009). Motion’s defence to Shephard’s accusation was as follows:

I have always felt that with the best will in the world, writers writing poetry about war with no experience of fighting themselves do run the almost inevitable risk of grandstanding. I thought this was one way to get around this – to give voice to the people who were there. (Flood 2009)[4]

When Pat Barker wrote Regeneration – a novel that depicts the real-life figures of both Dr William Rivers and Dr Lewis Yealland and each doctor’s approach to treating First World War soldiers suffering from war neurosis – she turned to Yealland’s Historical Disorders of Warfare for a first-hand account of his use of electrotherapy on patients. In this monograph, Yealland discusses the case of “A1”, a 24-year-old Private he treated for mutism. The case is depicted by Barker in Regeneration with “A1” named “Callan”. In terms of Gladwell’s what and how much argument, the extent to which Barker “appropriates” Yealland’s words to depict the treatment Callan receives for mutism is astonishing. The following textual examples are illustrative rather than exhaustive:


Yealland’s Historical Disorders of Warfare

Barker’s Regeneration

This man [A1] took part in the Mons Retreat, battle of the Marne, battle of the Aisne, and the first and second battle of Ypres. He also fought at Hill 60, Neuve Chapelle, Loos and Armentieres. In April, 1916, he was sent to Salonica, and three months later, while attending to his horses, fell down unconscious; he says ‘on account of the intense heat.’ For five hours he remained unconscious, and on waking ‘shook all over’ and could not speak  (Yealland 1918: 7).

‘Callan,’ Yealland said. ‘Mons, the Marne, Aisne, first and second Ypres, Hill 60, Neuve-Chapelle, Loos, Armentières, the Somme and Arras.’ […] Callan had broken down in April. […] While feeding the horses, he had suddenly fallen down, and had remained unconscious for a period of five hours. When he came around, he was shaking all over and was unable to speak. He hadn’t spoken at all since then. He attributed his loss of speech to heatstroke (Barker 1991: 226).

Many attempts had been made to cure [A1]. He had been strapped down in a chair for twenty minutes at a time, when strong electricity was applied to his neck and throat; lighted cigarettes ends had been applied to the tip of his tongue and ‘hot plates’ had been placed at the back of his mouth (Yealland 1918: 7−8).

The patient had been strapped to a chair for periods of twenty minutes at a time, and very strong electric current applied to his neck and throat. Hot plates had been applied repeatedly to the back of the throat, and lighted cigarettes to the tongue (Barker 1991: 227).

When I asked [A1] if he wished to be cured he smiled indifferently. I said to him: ‘You are a young man with a wife and child at home; you owe it to them if not yourself to make every effort to restore yourself. You appear to me to be very indifferent, but that will not do in such times as these. It has been my experience with these cases to find two types of patients: those who want to recover, and those who do not want to recover […] I understand your condition thoroughly and it makes no difference to me which group you belong to. You must recover your speech at once (Yealland 1918: 8).

‘You appear to me to be very indifferent to your condition, but indifference will not do in such times as these. I have seen many patients suffering from similar conditions, and not a few in whom the disorder has existed for a much longer time. It has been my experience with these cases to find two kinds of patients, those who want to recover and those who do not want to recover. I understand your condition thoroughly and it makes no difference to me which group you belong to. You must recover your speech at once’ (Barker 1991: 227).

‘Such an idea as leaving me now is most ridiculous; you cannot leave the room, the doors are locked and the keys are in my pocket. You will leave me when you are cured, remember, not before. I have no doubt you are tired and discouraged, but that is not my fault; the reason is you do not understand your condition as I do, and the time you have already spent with me is not long in comparison with the time I am prepared to stay with you. Do you understand me?’ (Yealland 1918: 10).

‘Such an idea as leaving me now is most ridiculous. You cannot leave the room. The door is locked and the key is in my pocket. You will leave me when you are cured, remember, not before. I have no doubt you are tired and discouraged, but that is not my fault; the reason is that you do not understand your condition as I do, and the time you have already spent with me is not long in comparison with the time I am prepared to stay with you. Do you understand me?’ (Barker 1991: 231)


When it comes to using the “same words”, the cases of Yealland vs Barker and, to a lesser extent, Shephard vs Motion, I think, leave the case of Andrews vs McEwan in the shade of the General Sherman Tree. “Gentian violet! Come on. Who among us could have resisted that one?” asks Pynchon (Letters of Note). Well, as it happens, not even me: “[Harry] thinks the stain on the bed sheet must be gentian violet: a doctor sprayed some in his mouth once” (Dawson: 149). Did I copy Andrews or McEwan? Neither; I had tonsillitis when years ago I lived in Moscow and this was the treatment I received from the university doctor. However, narratives that chime too loudly with my own, in terms of plot, but also of prose, cause me to worry that a reader of my words might assume that I have been influenced by that other prose, i.e. something that I am at that moment reading, or something that a reader will assume that I had at the moment of my writing been reading. In other words, when I read prose that chimes too loudly with my own, I have an attack of what I have come to regard as “influence anxiety”.[5] Ron’s memoir aside, this “influence anxiety” effectively kept me from reading the war stories of others until I had finished writing my own war story, The Other Way. The most notable war story I avoided reading before or during the writing of my novel was Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is, like my protagonist, Alfie, forced by the Nazis to assist in the clean-up operation following the firebombing of Dresden by the Allied forces. Had I read Vonnegut’s novel before or during the writing of my chapter “Picking up the Pieces”, and been confronted with the following similarities, I would have experienced at least five attacks of “influence anxiety” but, knowing that I had not been influenced by Vonnegut’s novel because I had not read it, I felt reasonably immune.



The Other Way

[The Englishmen] were adored by the Germans, who thought they were exactly what Englishmen ought to be. They made war look stylish and reasonable, and fun (Vonnegut 2000: 81).

The guard has been satisfied with the English PoW because the Englishman has lived up to what the he has been told, and has been taught to believe, about the English. The Englishman has demonstrated discipline, resolve and reserve (Dawson: 87).

Billy saw the boiled bodies in Dresden (Vonnegut 2000: 100).

[Alfie] pictures the PoWs he saw earlier that morning, fishing braised bodies out of the city’s static water tanks (Dawson: 91).

Prisoners of war from many lands came together that morning at such and such a place in Dresden. It had been decreed that here was where the digging for bodies was to begin. So the digging began. Billy found himself paired as a digger with a Maori (Vonnegut 2000: 184).

Though the two men were out of sight of their guard, they heard him then, shouting in German, his angry words pelting the cellar like bullets. The American crouched down. ‘I’m tired,’ he said. ‘I can’t lift another.’

    ‘Take the baby.’

    ‘No,’ said the American, with a face like a screwed-up hankie. ‘I got kids.’

Alfie shrugged. The American thrust his hands into the mound and grasped a body. As he pulled the body free from all the others, it made a sucking sound as if it were stuck in mud (Dawson: 89–90).

[The bodies] didn’t smell bad at first, were wax museums. But then the bodies rotted and liquefied, and the stink was like roses and mustard gas. So it goes. The Maori Billy had worked with died of the dry heaves, after having been ordered to go down in that stink and work. He tore himself to pieces, throwing up and throwing up (Vonnegut 2000: 185).

The floor of the cellar was slippery with a thick layer of human fat and as [Alfie] reached out to [the body of the baby] he lost his balance and fell over. Then the American appeared. He looked at Alfie’s hands and knees inches deep in the mess, and vomited up his stomach lining (Dawson: 88–89).

Somewhere in [Dresden] […] Edgar Derby, was caught with a teapot he had taken from the catacombs. He was arrested for plundering. He was tried and shot (Vonnegut 2000: 186).

While the Englishman stares at his feet, the guard watches the American homosexual Jew and wishes that the stinking mongrel would just get on with stealing from the dead so he can exterminate him on the spot (Dawson: 87–88).


But I am, it seems, not the first to suffer from “influence anxiety”, as Wallace Stevens’ letter to fellow poet, Richard Eberhart, proves:

I sympathize with your denial of any influence on my own part. This sort of thing always jars with me because, in my own case, I am not conscious of having been influenced by anybody and have purposely held off from reading highly mannered people like Eliot and Pound so that I should not absorb anything, even unconsciously. (Stevens 1954: 813)

Given that ideas and facts cannot be owned and that the corresponding words in Andrews’ No Time for Romance and McEwan’s Atonement are minimal in the context of the what and how much rule of copyright law discussed by Gladwell in his article for The New Yorker, might Atonement be regarded as an “allusive” text as opposed to a “plagiarized” one? McEwan argues that, for the author of the historical novel, there is “no escape” from the written record, memoir or eyewitness account: “Dunkirk or a wartime hospital can be novelistically realized, but […] not re-invented” (2006). “Unless we were actually there,” wrote novelist Thomas Pynchon in defence of McEwan, “we must turn to people who were […] until, with luck, we can begin to make a few things of our own up” (2006). (McEwan was born in 1948, three years after the end of the Second World War. Therefore, he did not possess “first-hand” experience of his chosen war zone.) Pynchon’s comment particularly resonates with me since I can remember thinking of Ron’s memoir as a sort of safety-line that demarcated the regions of fact and fiction. Armed with Ron’s memoir, I could do the following: confidently stray into fiction without losing sight of fact; laugh in the face of the reader who doubted the authenticity of what I had written; say “Actually, I’m really not far off the mark with my portrayal of the Second World War in The Other Way. Look, I can prove it to you. It is (largely) all here in my great-uncle’s war memoir”; claim to have written a true war story, as Kurt Vonnegut did at the beginning of Slaughterhouse-Five by writing “All this happened, more or less” (2000:1). McEwan contends that maintaining “strict accuracy” when “writing about wartime, especially […] seems like a form of respect for the suffering of a generation wrenched from their ordinary lives to be conscripted into a nightmare” (2006). With this assertion, and his insistence that the imagined characters of Atonement had to be placed in scenes that “actually happened”, McEwan, like myself, manifests both his anxiety about writing his chosen war zone right and his desire for validation.  

McEwan’s anxiety is shared by Barker. In her interview with John Williams of The New York Times in which her novel, Toby’s Room – a novel about a group of First World War artists – was discussed, she stated: “When writing about historical characters, I try to be as accurate as possible, and in particular not to misrepresent the view held” (Williams 2012). It is not clear from the article whose view Barker is trying not to misrepresent, but what this does indicate is that Barker does not see herself as a revisionist; therefore, what she writes about historical characters her reader is permitted to read as true. In Regeneration, Rivers is depicted directing his patients to understand “that breakdown [is] nothing to be ashamed of, that horror and fear [are] inevitable responses to the trauma of war and [are] better acknowledged than suppressed, that feelings of tenderness for other men [are] natural and right, [and] that tears [are] an acceptable and helpful part of grieving” (1992: 48). Conversely, Yealland is shown treating his patients with “strong” and painful electrical therapy, and suppressing their fears and concerns. For example, a psychological breakdown receives a diagnosis of “Very negative attitude” and a question from a “distinctly alarmed” patient regarding the extent to which the prescribed electrical therapy will hurt, receives the following response: “I realize you did not intend to ask that question and so I will overlook it. I am sure you understand the principles of the treatment which are […] Attention, first and foremost; tongue, last and least; questions, never” (1992: 226). Barker’s unfavourable depiction of Yealland is both manifest and sustained; even Rivers is left feeling “ill” and “exhausted” following a visit to Queen Square to observe a Yealland “performance” (1992: 224). Furthermore, Rivers' memory of Yealland treating Callan, the patient suffering from mutism, with electrical therapy pursues him “inside his head. Uninvited”, with the result that it causes him to experience “palpitations,” “breathlessness,” and his very own “battle” nightmare, the “dream action” of which he is said to recognize as “both an accurate representation of Yealland’s treatment [of Callan] and uncomfortably like an oral rape” (1992: 26, 234−236). Whilst this scene is focalized through Rivers, it is Barker who puts the words “oral rape” into Rivers’ mouth. And, since the “accurate representation of Yealland’s treatment” amounts to “oral rape”, I would argue that it is possible to read Yealland as a rapist. The notion of Yealland as rapist about to commit rape, rather than as doctor about to administer medical treatment, is reinforced by the actual preparations he is shown to make to the electrical room in advance of Callan’s arrival: he “empties his bladder in preparation for a long session” (1992: 229). He prepares to conceal the offence by pulling down the blinds and keeping the overhead lights off despite it being a “dank, November day” and in spite of Rivers expecting him to do otherwise (1992: 229). The notion of Yealland as rapist is further reinforced by the actions he is shown to take once Callan is inside the electrical room: he locks the door to prevent Callan from escaping; he keeps the key in his possession “ostentatiously dropping [it] into his top pocket” (1992: 229); he binds Callan’s wrists and feet to a chair, and threatens to “hurt” Callan if Callan fails to do as he commands. Yealland is further demonized by being made to appear as if he is looking forward to the anticipated “long [electricity] session” since he is shown “rubbing his hands” and appearing “cheerful” as he enters the electrical room and, during the treatment, “gratified” when Callan complies with his instructions and makes the sound, “Baaaa! Baaaaa! Baaaaaa!” (1992: 232). Furthermore, as Rivers and Callan sit in darkness, Yealland’s face is illuminated by a circle of light from the battery, which I would suggest Barker does to underscore not just Yealland’s omnipotence, but also his maniacal hue (1992: 229). When Callan recovers his voice, he smiles. However, Yealland finds Callan’s smile “objectionable” so applies electricity to the side of Callan’s mouth until such time as the “objectionable” smile is wiped from Callan’s face (1992: 233). Barker’s depiction of Yealland then concludes with Yealland compelling Calland to utter a perceptible sound of gratitude:

‘Are you not pleased to be cured?’ Yealland repeated.
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Nothing else?’
A fractional hesitation. Then Callan realized what was required and came smartly to the salute. ‘Thank you, sir’ (1992: 233).

Later, the witnessing of this “oral rape” on Callan causes Rivers to suffer post-traumatic stress since the symptoms he is shown to experience, i.e. hyperarousal and re-experiencing, match those associated with the condition. As such, Yealland’s propensity for inflicting psychological damage on others is narrated by Barker as being not only masochistic in origin, but also boundless in scope: both the mentally-ill and the mentally-well are at risk.

However, in Historical Disorders of Warfare, Yealland’s account of the preparations made to the electrical room in advance of treating “A1” with electrotherapy, read as follows:

In the evening [A1] was taken to the electrical room, the blinds drawn, the lights turned out, and the doors leading into the room were locked and the keys removed. The only light perceptible was from the resistance bulbs of the battery. (1918: 8)

These preparations read as no more than perfunctory since there is no “emptying [of the] bladder in preparation for a long [treatment] session”, no “rubbing [of the] hands”, no “cheerful nod”, and no “[ostentatious] dropping [of] the key into [the] top pocket”. Not only is there nothing in this account to suggest that he, the real-life Yealland, was gratified by these preparations, there is also nothing to suggest that he was the individual to undertake these preparations. The absence of the “I” voice in this paragraph is striking. That the real-life Yealland does not say “I drew the blinds, I turned out the lights, I locked the room and removed the keys” is anomalous, given the number of times he says “I” in the paragraphs that precede and follow it. One might be inclined to ask the question, “Well, who did undertake these preparations?” I do not know the answer but the perfunctory nature of the preparations makes the identity of the person immaterial; as does the fact that, ultimately, the conduct of whoever undertook the preparations cannot be considered as conduct preparatory to the commission of rape because no rape is committed here, or anywhere else, in Yealland’s monograph. What is significant is that in the process of fictionalizing Yealland’s version of this event – and one accepts that Yealland’s version of events, though first-hand, is arguably just another narrative construction – Barker effectively transforms the real-life Yealland from a psychiatrist who practices electrotherapy to treat mutism into a person who commits oral rape on a patient suffering from mutism.

In her “Author’s Note” Barker invites the reader of Regeneration to consult the sources she herself consulted in order to write the novel. The only source cited in relation to Yealland is his monograph. The inclusion of a bibliography is rationalized by Barker as follows: “Fact and Fiction are so interwoven in this book that it may help the reader to know what is historical and what is not” (Barker 1992: 251). However, Barker fails to warn her reader that her depiction of the real-life Dr Yealland may owe substantially more to her own “imaginative fabrication” than to fact (Duffy 2011: 3). When Barker was asked by Williams about the extent to which she considered historical figures “pliable sources of inspiration for [her] imagination”, she seemed to suggest that the obligation to be “accurate” and “fair” superseded any obligation to be creative or imaginative: “With a real historical figure, you have to be fair and this is not an obligation you have in dealing with your own creations, so it is quite different” (2012). Can Barker’s depiction of Yealland – a depiction which brands him a rapist, portrays him as a man that makes his victim express gratitude for his ordeal, and shows him using electrotherapy to wipe the smile from the face of his victim – really claim to be fair?

Contemporary psychiatrists, Stephanie Linden, Edgar Jones and Andrew Lees, concur that, when strong electrical currents were used by Yealland for long periods of time, “treatment could be extremely painful”, and admit that “The Queen Square case records and Yealland’s book provide incontrovertible evidence of his harsh treatment methods and the asymmetrical relation between doctor and patient” (2013: 1984 − 1985). However, they also make the claim that Yealland’s approach was “generally in line with medical practice of the time” and state that doctors known for their “empathy” and their desire to foster “trusting” doctor-patient relationships, such as neurologist Sir Frederick Walker Mott (1853−1926), also had recourse to electrotherapy (2013: 1985−1986). Yealland was one of two doctors at Queen Square who favoured electrotherapy: the “terse” and “detached” electrophysiologist, Edgar Adrian, was not only Yealland’s colleague but also co-author of the paper, “The Treatment of Some Common War Neuroses” (Shephard 2000: 77). Adrian and Yealland’s paper promoted the use of electrotherapy in combination with “persuasion” and/or “suggestion” to treat war neurosis; here the authors also assert that “the method is certainly not new, indeed it is probably employed in some measure by all who have had much to do with functional disorders, and recently several French neurologists have called attention to its value in the treatment of military cases” (1917: 867). That Yealland used strong electric currents only on shell-shocked soldiers and practised this in isolation from the rest of the neurological community is described as “myth” and “misconception” by Linden, Jones and Lees; they also point out that, after his death, Yealland was remembered both for his empathy and his concern for patients (2013:1986−1987). Furthermore, the military historian, Ben Shephard, describes Yealland as “fervent, sincere, over-dramatic […] grappling with evil” rather than embodying it (2000: 77). I am not defending the use of “extremely painful” electricity on traumatized soldiers by Yealland and his contemporaries, nor suggesting that its use was acceptable merely because it was “generally in line with medical practice of the time”. Rather, I am acknowledging those accounts that suggest Yealland’s treatment methods were neither peculiar to Yealland, nor quite as peculiar in practice as Barker’s novel implies.

If readers of Regeneration are not inclined to research the historical figure of Yealland for themselves and to read these differing accounts, they will have no other account of Yealland than the fictional one given to them by Barker. Whilst a reader of Regeneration may be forgiven for coming to “know” Yealland as a man who derived sexual gratification from torturing the mentally ill with electrotherapy, can Barker be forgiven for this portrayal of a historical figure? Of course, writers should have autonomy when it comes to making authorial choices; but if a writer uses a historical figure in their fiction and also the name of that historical figure, as Barker did, I would argue, as Barker claims to believe, that they bear a responsibility to that person to portray them accurately and fairly. As demonstrated, Barker took many words from Yealland’s monograph and pasted them into Regeneration but she added others too, and it is this act of embellishment that renders some of “her” words, and by extension some of her “true war story”, problematic. I do not want to prescribe how much research should be undertaken by a writer in pursuit of historical accuracy or fairness, but suggest that a writer is obliged to consult more than a mere handful of sources to achieve this. If a writer does not intend to conduct proper historical research or to depict a historical character fairly, they can simply, to use Barker’s own words, “[deal]” with their “own creations”. An indistinct mixture of the two might be dangerous.

While the characters in my novel, The Other Way, are informed by the research I have conducted, I would argue that they are characters who are quite separate from those I researched and I am not asking that history be re-thought. I obtained and read Ron’s war memoir to give my protagonist, Alfie Edwards, a face, because it is through the face that the person is seen and recognized. However, Alfie Edwards is not Ron Stone in name or any other characteristic. My characters are situated in a historical moment, but they are not puppets of history and do not asked to be judged as such. Finally, when it comes to writing a true war story, by all means read the words of other true war stories such as Ron’s:


But then find words of your own to tell your story:

[Alfie] is ten minutes late getting back to the guard hut that day and is put under arrest by his sergeant. He is confined to barracks for fourteen days and is made to do four hours’ pack drill in full kit at the double. As he doubles around the parade square like a Nazi on tanker’s chocolate, and while he still has the energy to have thoughts of any kind, he wishes he hadn’t bust a bleeding gut getting back to camp and concludes that he may as well have been hanged for a sheep as a shitting lamb. (Dawson: 297)



1. The following sources I consulted in relation to Holocaust literature are illustrative rather than exhaustive: Danieli, Y. (ed.) (1988) International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma. New York: Plenum Press; Hirsch, M. (2008) The Generation of Postmemory. Poetics Today, 29:1; Yehuda, R., Bell, A., Bierer, L. M. and Schmeidler, J. (2008) Maternal, not paternal, PTSD is related to increased risk for PTSD in offspring of Holocaust survivors. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 42.

2. My aunt, Diane, thought that writing about his experience of being a combatant and a prisoner-of-war might help stop the nightmares that her father had begun to suffer after this traumatic period of his life. However, this was not how Diane put the idea of writing a memoir to him. Ron wrote his memoir because Diane convinced him that it would be wrong not to give his story to subsequent generations. This reason for writing is explicit in the penultimate line of his memoir: “[I] HOPE THAT IT WILL BE OF SOME INTEREST.”

3. For example, Ovid vs William Shakespeare; Heinz von Lichberg vs Vladimir Nabokov; Stirling Silliphant vs Bob Dylan; John Donne vs Ernest Hemmingway; Muddy Waters vs Robert Johnson; Plutarch vs William Shakespeare and Leonard Bernstein and T. S. Eliot (about which Lethem declares, “If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism); Ben Shephard vs Andrew Motion; Dorothy Lewis vs Bryony Lavery; and Lewis Yealland vs Pat Barker.

4. Motion’s defence substantiates Kate McLoughlin’s view that “war literature as record keeping is more often expressed as the need to keep the record for others – those who were there and can no longer speak for themselves, and those who were not there and need to be told” (McLoughlin 2009: 19).

5. The Anxiety of Influence is the title of Harold Bloom’s scholarly monograph on the theory of poetry.



Adrian, E.D., and Yealland, L.R. (1917) The Treatment Of Some Common War Neuroses. The Lancet, pp. 867-872.

Andrews, L. (2007) No Time For Romance. London: Corgi.

Barham, P. (2004) Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Barker, P. (1992) Regeneration. London: Penguin.

Boyle, J. (2008) ‘I Got a Mash-up’ in The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 122–159.

Carpenter, S. Thomas Jefferson on patents and ideas. Available from: [Accessed 30 June 2015].

Duffy, D. (2011) The Strange Second Death of Lewis Yealland. Ontario History, CIII, (2), 2–23.

Flood, A. (2009) Andrew Motion rubbishes plagiarism charge. The Guardian. 9 November. Available from:, [Accessed June 10 2015].

Gladwell, M. (2004) Something Borrowed: Should a Charge of Plagiarism Ruin Your life?. The New Yorker. November 23. Available from:, [Accessed 17 June 2015].

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Langdon, J. (2006) Ian McEwan Accused of Stealing Ideas from Romance Novelist. Mail on Sunday. 25 November. Available from: [Accessed 6 May 2014].

Lethem, J. (2007) The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism. Harpers Magazine. 59–71.

Linden, S. C., Jones, E, and Lees, A. J. (2013) Shell shock at Queen Square: Lewis Yealland 100 years on. Brain, 136 (6),1984-5.

McEwan, I. (2005) Atonement. London: Vintage.

McEwan, I. (2006) An Inspiration, yes. Did I copy from another author? No. The Guardian. 27 November. Available from: [Accessed 6 May 2014]. 

McLoughlin, K. (2009) ‘War and Words’ in McLoughlin, K. (ed.) War Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 15-24.

O’Brien, T. (1991) ‘How To Tell a True War Story’ in The Things They Carried. London: Flamingo. 67-80.

‘Post-traumatic stress disorder’. Available from: [Accessed, 9 May 2016].

Pynchon, T. (2006) Thomas Pynchon on plagiarism. Letters of Note. Available from: [Accessed 10 June 2015].

Shephard, B. (2000) ‘Home Fires’ in Soldiers and Psychiatrists 1914-1994: A War of Nerves. London: Jonathan Cape. 73–95.

Shields, D. (2010) Reality Hunger. London: Penguin.

Stevens, W. (1954) ‘Letter 895: to Richard Eberhart’ in Stevens, H. (ed.) Letters of Wallace Stevens. Berkeley: University of California.

Vonnegut, K. (2000) Slaughterhouse Five. London: Vintage Classics.

Williams, J. (2012) Art and War: Pat Barker talks about Toby’s Room. The New York Times. 8 November. Available from: [Accessed 6 May 2014].

Yealland, L. R. (1918) Disorders of Warfare. London: MacMillan and Co.


Tory Dawson has studied at the University of Ulster, the University of Surrey, The Moscow State Institute for International Relations, and the University of Southampton. Having recently received her doctorate in English and Creative Writing, Tory now writes fiction for both adults and children. She has just completed work as a writer and researcher on an interdisciplinary Leverhulme Trust-funded digital humanities project entitled: “StoryPlaces: Exploring the Poetics of Location-Based Narratives”. Her Neo-Victorian short story, “The Destitute and The Alien”, features Southampton’s Emigrants’ Home and highlights the plight of those forced to flee persecution in their native countries. Tory was a finalist in the 2015 Sozopol Global Fiction Seminars for a chapter of her novel, The Other Way, entitled, “Picking up the Pieces”. She is currently employed by Bournemouth University as a Lecturer in English and Communication, and is working on a historical thriller for Young Adults.