Woman Veteran as Wounded Healer

Woman Veteran as Wounded Healer: The Ellie McEnroe Novels by Lisa Brackmann

Interview by Rev. Denise Dumars, M.A.


Novelist Lisa Brackmann has created a character, Ellie McEnroe, who is a veteran with both physical and psychological injuries. Ellie’s journey through the three novels which feature her pust her in situations in which she gradually becomes an example of the archetype known in Jungian and New Age philosophy as the Wounded Healer. In an interview with Brackmann, the examination of the protagonist in the Ellie McEnroe novels will resonate with the larger discussion of women in the military and the physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual costs of being wounded in war.

The idea of the wounded healer is probably as old as mankind itself, but in the modern era we come by the term through C. G. Jung when he explored this fascinating concept as one of his many archetypes. Jung’s wounded healer archetype originates from the myths of Chiron and Asklepios: the centaur Chiron is wounded by an arrow intended for Heracles, but as an immortal, he survives but suffers pain from his wound for the rest of the days he chooses to remain on earth. Asklepios, legendary patron of doctors, whose snake and staff have become the symbol of the modern medical profession, was the student of Chiron in the Greek myths.

Jung (1985) himself delineates the idea of the wounded healer thusly: that a “good half of every treatment that probes at all deeply” consists in a self-examination by the doctor, for experience in treating him- or herself is a necessary step in what he or she hopes to treat in the patient. Clearly, according to Jung, if a doctor has never experienced pain or illness then he or she is not fully equipped to treat others. This is the way Jung explicates the meaning of the Greek myth of the wounded physician (Jung, 1985, pp. 115-116). Or, as Henri J. M. Nouwen renders it in metaphor, “The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.”

From a New Age perspective, a “wounded healer” is often described as a person who undergoes a kind of initiation through a serious illness or injury. The trauma itself lends the person a special kind of understanding of human suffering, be it physical, psychological, emotional, or spiritual. The Editors of The Wounded Healer Journal the connection between the therapist who has experienced trauma and his or her ability to then treat others who have experienced similar trauma, such as abuse during childhood (McClure).dragon-day

After reading Rock Paper Tiger (2010), The Hour of the Rat (2014), and Dragon Day (2016), the Ellie McEnroe novels by Lisa Brackmann, I came to the conclusion that her character, wounded Iraq War veteran Ellie McEnroe, typifies a certain type of wounded healer. As Paul Levy (2010) says, “Just like a dream, the situation in our outer world is reflecting back to us what is happening deep inside of us.” Levy’s claim speaks to Rock Paper Tiger, the first novel in the series, which finds Ellie Cooper, a veteran with both PTSD and physical wounds, set adrift in China when her husband leaves her for another woman. She quickly is embroiled in a mystery when her friend, artist Zhang Lao, disappears. Limping through the book (quite literally) and self-medicating with pills and beer, Ellie is determined to protect her friend and keep the paranoid Chinese officials from oppressing artists who have done nothing wrong. She faces some frightening (and painful) situations in order to help someone whom she feels deserves protection, even if it means endangering herself.

In Hour of the Rat the stakes are even higher and Ellie faces even more life-threatening situations as she finds herself the target of both Chinese and American covert forces when one of her fellow wounded soldiers asks her to find his brother in China—said brother turns out to be implicated in acts of ecoterrorism associated with a group that he belongs to. Even though she knows that she could lose her life, she powers through to find him because of her belief in the idea of completing the mission, based on ideas learned through military training.hour-of-the-rat

In Dragon Day, Ellie really comes into her own as a power player in the Chinese art scene, this time dealing with “businessmen” who are little more than mobsters who, while committing various heinous acts, wish to collect contemporary Chinese art. Though she is not herself an artist, Ellie sees the healing power of art and sees herself as an agent of healing through representing it.

Clearly, Ellie represents one type of wounded healer: the kind that has been wounded physically, psychologically, and emotionally and understands the needs of the similarly wounded. I see her by the third book as a kind of “angel of art” who can find the good in the midst of frightening and dysfunctional social forces.

Throughout the three novels, Brackmann gives us insight into the paradoxical Chinese art world, a world in which artists are encouraged to make as much money as possible yet without garnering support, which the government sees as a threat. How does one make money without gaining fans? That’s the paradoxical situation of many real-life artists in China, and is the situation of some of the main characters in the novels. Ellie’s role in the novels mirrors the paradox of the modern idea of the wounded healer: a healer who, in this case, is able to function at least as much as she needs to through the use of Percocet and beer, but cannot heal herself, yet uses her own experience and compassion to heal others.

I sat down with author Lisa Brackmann over craft beer in San Diego—a big military town, thanks to the U.S. Navy—to discuss the character of Ellie McEnroe and what she means as a modern American “woman warrior” and as an example of the “wounded healer” archetype. I pulled no punches and Brackmann was gracious, insightful, and more than willing to talk about the larger implications of her novels; just as the paintings in the stories can have far-reaching effects, so can the courageous and thought-provoking stories that Ms. Brackmann has chosen to tell.


CJMT: When you started Rock Paper Tiger, why did you decide to make the protagonist an Iraq war veteran? Why is it so important that Ellie was a member of the armed forces?

Brackmann: I started thinking about Rock Paper Tiger in 2006 and wrote the bulk of the book in 2007. At the time I was very upset and angered by the Iraq War, especially the so-called “War on Terror.” The premise of the Iraq War was built on lies; the conduct oftentimes was unconstitutional. Things like indefinite detention without trial and “enhanced interrogation techniques” to me are profoundly un-American in that they go against the best principles on which this country is based. So I wanted a protagonist who experienced some of these things firsthand. I made her a member of the National Guard whose unit was sent to Iraq because this happened quite a bit during the early days of the war, and these were soldiers who had joined the Guard to defend the homeland, not fight in foreign wars. I wanted this element where she was more of an accidental Iraq War vet than a person who had enlisted with the expectation that she could be called upon to serve overseas and subsequently became disillusioned.rock-paper-tiger

Instead, she finds herself in a situation that she most definitely did not sign up for. I was thinking of female soldiers like Jessica Lynch, who joined the Army because she couldn’t afford to go to college and ended up as the war’s first POW, used by the U.S. government for propaganda purposes, and on the opposite end of the moral spectrum, Lynndie England, who was convicted of participating in the torture at Abu Ghraib. I made Ellie a medic because I knew she needed an MOS, a military occupational specialty, and years ago I actually certified as an EMT. So I felt like this was something I could portray more credibly than say, making her a Humvee mechanic. I really didn’t realize the extent to which her being a medic would form her character and drive the story when I made the decision.

CJMT: We sympathize with Ellie and her war wounds, but some readers may lose some of their sympathy for her when they read a description of her role in the more sordid aspects of the war in Iraq. Why add that complication to your character’s back story?

Brackmann: The things Ellie does – and even more so, witnesses and does nothing about – really were my motivation for having an Iraq War plot in my book in the first place. I wanted someone confronted by wrongdoing not just on the part of a few individuals but by the command structure that had decided to go to war and that was conducting it and that to this day has never suffered any real consequences for their lies and law-breaking – the people “up the chain,” at the top of the decision-making process. I made her actions morally ambiguous because I think that most people when confronted by wrongdoing under cover of authority, for a cause you’re told is just, do not become heroic whistleblowers. Instead they tend to rationalize, or push the reality away or even become participants. Ellie was very young and unsure of herself but she knew what she witnessed was very, very wrong, and even then she was a pretty stubborn individual. Maybe if she hadn’t gotten injured she would have done something about it, but she will never know, and she feels terrible guilt as a consequence. This guilt is one of her driving motivations to seek justice, as if by “completing the mission” in the present she can somehow make up for the crimes of the past.

CJMT: I am well aware of the healing properties of art from my great-aunt, a nun who taught art therapy back when it was a new and unproven strategy. In what ways do you feel that the art movement and the artists themselves in China provide a kind of healing for Ellie? How do they provide a kind of healing for China?

Brackmann: That’s an interesting question and one I hadn’t really considered before. I think that for China, when the contemporary art movement started, expressing one’s personal opinions in this way, using creativity, was something that was in its own way revolutionary – this kind of free artistic expression had been repressed since Mao’s revolution, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, which didn’t end until 1976 and was an incredibly chaotic, traumatic time for so many Chinese people. The more political artists are also expressing truths which are not always discussed in Chinese public discourse – while nowadays Chinese people are pretty free to express themselves on a personal level, political topics can be very sensitive.

I think for Ellie, finding a group of people who are able to express themselves creatively, who can take the raw material of their lives and shape it into something artistic, is something she admires and something she wishes she could do, but she lacks the tools to make art out of her own life, so instead she wants to protect it and thinks it’s worth fighting for.

CJMT: Does Ellie see the struggles of Lao Zhang and other artists in the books as being in any way similar to her own struggles?

Brackmann: I think she recognizes that empires act like empires, that unrestrained authority can be irrational, arbitrary and cruel, and that certainly there are parallels between her experiences of being up against powerful structural forces that she can’t necessarily defeat and her artist friends who face far more pervasive and heavy-handed authority that lacks the restraint of a rule of law.

CJMT: Why do you think the archetype of the woman warrior is important in modern fiction? Do you think Ellie would be as interesting and convincing a protagonist if she was not a wounded veteran?

Brackmann: War and warriors have been seen primarily as male realms for a long time. This has affected a lot of things, from policies to politics to gender and family dynamics. Women claiming that space, whether you agree with their military roles or not, is another way in which women are trying to claim a greater share of “space” in our society.

As for Ellie, I think her experiences in Iraq are central to the person she is in China. Because so much of my motivation for writing the book was saying something about Iraq and the War on Terror, I don’t think you can separate Ellie the character I came up with to be a vehicle for these concerns from her wartime experiences. And the “wounded” part was also central for me – I think that far too often in the U.S. we engage in short-term thinking, and one of the ways we do this is by not acknowledging the long-term effects that war has on the soldiers who wage it.]

CMJT: Since women in the military is the topic of the issue in which this interview will appear, why do you think women in the U.S. want to serve in the Armed Forces, especially since they often face all of the same trauma that the male soldiers do, plus discrimination and a lack of respect by many of their own male counterparts and by many in our society? I am very disturbed by news stories that state that our women warriors are often rape victims—primarily by their own male colleagues. Considering all of these negative factors, why do women still enlist?

Brackmann: I think there is a whole range of reasons, just as there is a range of reasons that men enlist. The need to prove oneself, the desire to belong to something larger than any one individual, to serve one’s country, for adventure—and then the practical reasons, to learn a skill or trade, to get money for college, just to get a job in a difficult economy. For many women, and I know I share this motivation, it’s showing that you are as good as a man, that you can contribute and be valued in this previously male arena. I think for some women, it’s the idea that you can compete and be rewarded in a structure that is a lot closer to a real meritocracy than a lot of other systems.

It’s interesting because the military is a place that has had to confront a lot of big societal issues, in some cases ahead of civilian organizations – the integration of troops for example, in the face of pervasive racism at home. For sure, male-dominated environments are going to have big problems with sexism and sexual assault, but on the other hand, look at the problems we have on college campuses, in the tech and finance industry, and the list goes on and on. If the military can actually tackle these issues head-on, maybe it will be able to provide a better model of how to address the problem across our culture.

CJMT: Ellie really comes into her own in the third novel, Dragon Day. By this novel she has become a representative for Chinese artists, but is put in a dangerous situation by a powerful and murderous Shanghai businessman. Ellie uses her own strength and compassion in working with this man to get him to divert some of his funds into support for the Chinese art scene. How do you feel that Ellie has become the fully realized wounded healer in this novel? I feel that in supporting the artists she aims to heal some of the negativity of the modern Chinese society, which I see as a hybrid of the worst aspects of both Communism and Capitalism. Ideas? Am I wrong?

Brackmann: I think you definitely see a progression in Ellie’s character through the three books. In Rock Paper Tiger she really is flailing a lot of the time, trying to come to grips with her own PTSD and massive guilt and insecurities and rage. She has no real idea how to handle the mess she’s in other than to keep going. She didn’t choose the mission, but she decides she will complete it in an honorable way, to make up for what she did and didn’t do in Iraq.

In Hour of the Rat, she has her legs under her and she freely chooses to take on the mission of finding her Army buddy’s missing brother. Sheer stubbornness keeps her going, but even more than that is having a purpose. A mission to complete. She’s still dealing with a heavy load of depression and psychological problems and needs a goal, something she can accomplish.

By the third book, Dragon Day, she is more confident than she was. She went up against a bunch of bad people and survived, and she did it with honor. She’s learned a lot more about the art scene and even though she knows she isn’t an expert, she knows enough to do a good job. But a lot of what she deals with is her recently constructed new life falling apart—with the government looking for Lao Zhang, hassling her business partner, ending up as the suspect in a murder, and basically dealing with very powerful people who could squash her like a little bug if they so choose. She tells herself that she doesn’t really care about Sidney’s crazy museum, about justice for the dead girl, about any of it, but the truth is, she cares very much. Without giving too much away, I intended for the ending to be more than a little melancholy. Ellie experiences yet another trauma, and it’s an open question how she will heal from it.

I think all through the books she is drawn to the art scene because of the sense of community she finds there, because she believes what the artists are creating is important and valuable, and maybe that the sheer act of creation has the capacity to heal. She’s also fundamentally drawn to the underdog, to the persecuted, because I think on some level that’s how she sees herself, but she has an easier time fighting for others than she does healing her own wounds. I doubt that in her own mind she’s fully articulated the idea that art can heal the wounds of a damaged society, but she is utterly certain that what her artist friends create is worth fighting for, even if she isn’t sure why.

CJMT: Thank you so much for your insights and cooperation in fielding these somewhat difficult questions.


Brackmann, L. (2016) Dragon day. New York: Soho/SohoCrime.

(2014) Hour of the rat. New York: Soho/SohoCrime.

(2010) Rock paper tiger. New York: Soho/SohoCrime.

Jung, C. G. (1985), Collected works, Vol. 16. Princeton University Press: Princeton,

New Jersey. pp. 115-116.

Levy, P. (2010). “The Wounded Healer, Part 1,” in: Awaken in the dream. Retrieved on


McClure, C. (2014). Home. The Wounded Healer Journal.

Retrieved from http://twhj.com/

Nouwen, H J.M. (1979). The wounded healer: Ministry in contemporary society. New York: Image/Image Books.

Trackbacks & Pings