Jason Kander, Invisible Storm: review and reflection

If you don’t know who Jason Kander is, he ran for president “for a minute,” as he says, and has served my state as a legislator and secretary of state, where he worked hard at fighting voter suppression before that term was in the mainstream. He was to Missouri much as Stacey Abrams is to Georgia: a determined champion of democracy with a lot of star power fueled by a well-harnessed supernova of anger.

Then he pulled the emergency parking brake on his career to get treatment for PTSD.

This is the book* that tells the story of how his experiences in the army in Afghanistan led to a decade of maniacal effort to outrun, suppress, atone for, and deny the trauma he sustained. PTSD hijacked all his stellar qualities — his work ethic, his desire to help others, his patriotism — turned them into fun-house mirror versions of themselves, and drove him to the brink of suicide before he quit politics to get treatment at the VA.

I’ve been following Kander for a while, particularly since he challenged Roy Blunt for his Senate seat in 2016. Counting the time I lived in southwest Missouri, I’ve been represented by Blunt since 2002, and I really wanted not to be. After what I still call “that goddamn election,” Kander wrote pretty much the only political blast email I ever thought worth reading, urging us not to dwell on what we couldn’t control, but to focus on what we could, and “get to work.” In this book, we get the backstage story of that email, and a lot more than that.

For people living with the fallout of trauma, anger can be — if not comforting, exactly — a handy emotion. Other feelings happen to you: anger is a feeling you can use. In certain of its aspects, that is. In its aspect as depression, not so much; in its aspect as directionless rage, it can be destructive rather than useful. But when you are confronted with a great offence deserving of great anger, your only option is to choose which aspect of it you tap into. Stacey Abrams has said as much: she talks about turning her anger over into work rather than venting it on useless criticisms of things she could not change. Anger is an excellent kickstarter emotion. But it’s not something that sustains you; you need something else.

Kander found that out the hard way.

You don’t have to be a fan of Democratic politics in general or Missouri politics in particular — or even be a veteran — to get the full value of this book. (If nothing else, Covid has ensured that trauma will be a relevant topic for many, many people for the foreseeable future.) Being the kind of person he is, Kander wants to turn his experiences into something useful for anyone dealing with PTSD, especially those who are undiagnosed and don’t know that what he calls “post-traumatic growth” is a real thing, and eminently achievable with help and the right treatment. In a snappy, wisecracking, economical style, Kander draws together a tissue of anecdotes to illustrate his hard-won insights, without jargon and without falling into the trap of condemning himself for his anger and his resistance to getting help. Best of all, his spouse Diana interpolates some insights of her own, helping Kander tell the story by showing another dimension of what was happening outside her husband’s POV; the secondary PTSD she developed after Kander returned is an important part of the story of their family’s transformation.

So this is an unreserved recommendation for Invisible Storm, not just because of its therapeutic testaments, but also because it offers lasting food for thought. Kander describes at one point a therapy session in which his therapist shows him that the human response to trauma has its own internal logic. PTSD makes you feel broken: but what creates PTSD is not dysfunction but function, transferred to a context where it no longer helps but harms. Recovery from PTSD is, to borrow language from Marie Kondo, a matter of thanking your human instrument for protecting you, and convincing it to let go now. Not necessarily easy: but rewarding.

This book is proof of that.

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*NB: Kander is donating the revenue from this book to the Veterans Community Project, the non-profit that helped him, and that he now works for.

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