Sethe doesn’t have PTSD. Well, she does, but also she doesn’t. As I said in the title, it’s complex.
Complex PTSD, also known as C-PTSD, is a form of PTSD that differs in how the trauma occurred. PTSD typically occurs after one instance of trauma, like a house fire, an assault, etc. In situations where the trauma occurs over a period of time, the sufferer would most likely have C-PTSD instead. Examples include ongoing abuse, living in a war zone, and of course, slavery.
While PTSD and C-PTSD are similar, they differ in important ways. Additional symptoms of C-PTSD include issues with emotional regulation, distorted perceptions of the perpetrator(s), disassociation, and others.
Let’s examine how we see this play out for Sethe. Sethe has trouble with both blocking out certain memories and reliving them. Her flashbacks are triggered constantly, by many different things. She also has a complicated relationship with her owners; she has a seemingly positive relationship with Mrs. Garner and reflects on her with some level of fondness, despite her perpetuating her trauma. With schoolteacher, he takes on an almost otherworldly level of power, and her attempt to attack who she perceives to be him at the end of the book can be viewed as simultaneously her trying to protect Beloved and Denver and an act of revenge. Seeking revenge, whether through mental fantasy or action, is another symptom of C-PTSD.
C-PTSD is only beginning to be seen as separate from PTSD. But the distinction is important. While all forms of PTSD are difficult to handle and deserving of help, C-PTSD invades the sufferer’s life entirely, often from a young age. It keeps a hold on them forever.