This is a long blog. But stick with me. It begins with a passage from Seeing the Elephant. Then the blog moves to what “seeing the elephant” means and how it came into being, a brief discussion of how events contributed to Eli’s growing struggle with PTSD, and finally the action he takes to relieve his symptoms. No. He is not “cured” by any means, but his symptoms are somewhat diminished.
How Seeing the Elephant Begins
Eli Smith was inside the house. It had been eerily quiet until someone or something began to keen. He frowned. That had never happened before. Who or what would make a noise like that? And why? He went down the hall and as he did, his heart began to pound, and his breath came short.
He’d been there before. He knew what he would see. But he opened the front door anyway.
Outside was a horrifying sight. People, horses, and wrecked wagons were strewn everywhere. Knees shaking, Eli stepped onto the porch. He hated this place. Even though it resembled his old family home in Gettysburg, it was completely alien at the same time. It was as if his fear had been made manifest and palpable.
I don’t want to look, he thought, squeezing his eyes shut. Don’t make me look.
But he knew he had to. He had to see it.
He turned to his right and his breath left him.
His stepdaughter Frankie was collapsed in a rocking chair. The chair was still, though. That was because she was dead.
The haunting keening started all over again. It raised the hair on the back of his neck. What was making that noise? It couldn’t be a good sign. Its newness, its otherworldliness caused panic to rise.
Oh, God! Make it stop! Make it stop!
Eli shut his eyes again and clapped his hands over his ears.
And then, suddenly, there was a strange rustling sound, and something moved, brushing his right arm.
Eli’s eyes shot open in panic. It was pitch-black. He could still hear that God-awful wailing, though, and his heart thumped against his ribs. Oh, God, where was he? Was he dead? Was this hell?
He was startled next by the sound of scratching. It was short and sharp, like someone striking a match. The noise was followed by the smell of sulfur and a yellow glow gradually grew, splitting the darkness.
In the dim light from what he now realized was a lamp, Eli saw Maggie walk across the room. Breathing heavily, he tried to work things out. What was she doing walking around?
He managed to croak, “Maggie?”
“It’s all right, love. I’ve got her.”
Then he saw his wife bend and lift something up. It was Faith, his daughter, their beautiful little girl. He watched as a smiling Maggie cradled the wailing baby.
That’s it, Eli thought. That’s the keening noise!
Was this a dream? Was the other a dream? Which thing was real?
Eli drew a shaky breath.
The Book’s Title
One of the earliest uses of the phrase “seeing the elephant” appeared in The Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) on June 26, 1842. The newspaper had printed a chapter of a book by George Wilkins Kendall (published later in 1844). The book’s name appears to be a description of what a reader would find within: Narrative of the Texan Santa Fé expedition, comprising a description of a tour through Texas, and across the great southwestern prairies, the Camanche and Caygüa hunting-grounds, with an account of the sufferings from want of food, losses from hostile Indians, and final capture of the Texans, and their march, as prisoners, to the city of Mexico.
In the work, Kendall wrote: "When a man is disappointed in any thing he undertakes, when he has seen enough, when he gets sick and tired of any job he may have set himself about, he has 'seen the elephant.'" (https://wordhistories.net/2018/01/14/see-elephant-meanings/ World histories, "Original Meaning of 'To See the Elephant," by Pascal Tréguer.)
Eli says much the same thing in Seeing the Elephant: “I’ve seen too much, Maggie. I’ve seen the damned elephant.” However, he is referring specifically to the American Civil War. Furthermore, he is reflecting upon his choice of following the 15th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry Regiment as a war correspondent. He fears that he has seen more than he would have liked or stomached, and that the experience has damaged him in some way.
Eli’s Emotional Struggles
Eli’s emotional issues begin as early as the second book, Walk by Faith, when Confederate troops shell Union soldiers as they attempt to cross the Rappahannock River. Eli and his friend Chester Carson (aka simply “Carson”) are traveling in the news wagon. They push ahead of the Union troops but soon get mired in the river’s mud. When Eli works to push one wagon’s wheels free, a shell lands too close. It spooks Sadie the horse, who bolts away in panic, causing Carson to lose control of the reins. All he can do is hang on during the wild ride to the other side of the river.
Meanwhile, Eli is left standing on the opposite shore until a shell explodes close by and throws him into the air. When he lands, he hits his head and loses consciousness.
Later, Eli wakes up in a field hospital at Salem Church in Virginia, where he learns that his son-in-law, Edgar Lape, has been critically wounded. He is taken to see Edgar who, before he dies, dictates a final letter to his wife Lydia and gives Eli a Bible and a small photo to give to her. Then Edgar breathes his last.
Shattered, Eli stumbles outside, desperately wanting relief from the darkness, the stench of death, and the cries of the wounded. Instead, though, he vents his anger about Edgar’s death, the wounded soldiers inside, and perhaps the war itself.
Eli lifted his eyes to the heavens. It was a beautiful night overhead. Stars sparked sharp and white against a deep, endless black sky.
“Damn,” he whispered. “Damn!” And suddenly he was furious. Jutting his jaw defiantly, Eli shook his fist at the uncaring night sky as he shouted, “You saved my damn eyeglasses! Why couldn’t you save Edgar? You’re no God at all! You hear that? You’re no God at all! You’re useless! Useless!”
Flopping down onto a bench by one of the front doors, Eli put a hand over his face. “Damn!!” And he began to weep bitterly.
Trying to Find Answers
Eli has begun a journey with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), something that starts in Walk by Faith, goes throughout A Time to Heal, and finally leaves him doubting his sanity when he experiences recurring nightmares in Seeing the Elephant.
Sadly, the medical profession of the 1860s did not recognize PTSD as a mental and emotional health issue. People who experienced its symptoms generally were labeled “insane.” Furthermore, if as soldiers they ran away from the noise and confusion of battle, they were identified as cowards and deserters.
When Eli learns that a hospital has been built just north of his home in Blaineton, New Jersey, he decides to do research for a news story about the new “insane asylum,” while simultaneously seeking help for his own struggles.
So, Seeing the Elephant is very much Eli’s story about his struggle with PTSD, but it also is a story about how people with mental and emotional issues were treated in United States of the 1860s. Additionally, the story reveals how institutions of that era could take a darker path under differing styles of leadership.
Words for Eli
Yes, Elijah Amos Smith, Seeing the Elephant is indeed your story, and I’m ever so grateful that when I was wondering exactly whose story it was, you marched right up to me, grabbed my shoulders, and shouted, “It’s my story, dammit!”
Janet R. Stafford
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder