Jason Kander can’t help but notice the stories we tell ourselves about trauma.
A subset of what he calls the “American myth,” they especially crop up in pop culture. These stories portray the traumatized as “people in absolute chaos,” he said, with no way out.
If they do chart a path forward, it’s not through facing the pain but maneuvering around it in a “single act of redemptive heroism,” the former Missouri secretary of state and US Senate candidate added. These narratives, at best, tell half-truths about what real people with real trauma experience.
“What they don’t show is something that’s actually super-common in our society, which is people who have gone to treatment for their trauma, and now are going about their lives without it having a grip on them,” he said.
Thankfully, Kander is actively living out that better story, and is equipped to tell it. In his newly minted New York Times bestseller “Invisible Storm: A Soldier’s Memoir of Politics and PTSD,” Kander writes through thickets and thorns, into the clearing he’s found.
To Kander, who followed his desire to get well away from the political realm, the memoir represents “a continued act of public service by trying to help people feel seen, help people understand that post-traumatic growth is a real thing.”
“This is the book I needed 14 years ago. It didn’t exist, so I needed to write it,” Kander said in an interview this week.
A different kind of hopeful
“Invisible Storm” opens with an epigraph, credited to a Twitter user: “men will literally run for president instead of going to therapy.” For Kander, it isn’t hyperbole.
After serving Missouri as secretary of state, then giving incumbent Roy Blunt all he could handle in the 2016 Senate race, the Kansas City Democrat became the next big thing in national politics.
Kander’s political future looked brilliant, almost blinding. Ascending one, sometimes two rungs at a time, experienced trauma while serving the Army in Afghanistan threatened to knock him off the ladder altogether.
In an early anecdote — as pitch-black as comedy comes — Kander relays his 2018 intake visit to the Kansas City Veterans Affairs Medical Center, an intimidating but crucial step toward addressing his mental health. Explaining his line of work to a doctor, Kander let some truth slip: His eyes were fixed on the White House.
Given the setting, the physician responds with a cool bit of clinical snark: “Who told you that you could run for president?”
“I don’t know what to tell you, man,” Kander recalls saying. “I mean, I spent an hour and a half talking it over one-on-one with Obama in his office, and he seemed to think it was a pretty good idea.”
“The doctor sat back in his chair,” Kander writes. “‘Barack Obama told you that you could run for president?’ He tapped his notebook a couple of times with his pen, then pursed his lips. ‘So how often would you say you hear voices?’
As something of a concession — and confession — to himself, Kander loosened his grip on 2020, pivoting toward a run for Kansas City mayor. Still seeing trauma as a prelude in the story of his redemption, he pursued not just one, but a series of seemingly heroic acts.
“I think a lot of us were trying to do that,” he told the Tribune. “That’s what I was trying to do — because that’s how I thought you got better. The truth is, you can’t outrun it. You’ve got to turn around and confront it.”
Eventually, Kander suspended the mayoral run for his own sake, and the sake of his family. Navigating therapy, and attempting a different kind of life, wasn’t simple and didn’t initially feel safe — as the book shows in detail. But it altered Kander’s path for the better. He went from a political hopeful to a hopeful person, full stop.
Partners on and off the page
“Invisible Storm” is designed as a journey, Kander said, a sort of emotional and psychological travelogue penned with harrowing moments and heartfelt integrity. To remain as authentic as possible, and meet readers where they are, Kander revisited his former mindset.
In the book, he uses language available to him at a given moment to express the reality of that moment. Words that would prove quite illuminating don’t show up until chapters on therapy, for example, when he learned them in real time.
“If you’re writing a book for somebody who has trauma but hasn’t got treatment, and you use the term ‘hyper-vigilance,’ they’re not going to connect with that,” Kander said. “But if you explain that you felt like you were in danger all the time, that the world was a very dangerous place, that’s going to seem familiar to them.”
To present the fullest picture possible, Kander invited another voice to the page — his wife, Diana Kandera New York Times bestselling author in her own right.
Sometimes, Diana’s passages sing a duet with Jason’s, harmonizing a certain point. More often, they offer countermelody; not to contradict his account, but convey what he couldn’t see or express at the time.
She writes how he was “physically incapable of staying still” in the middle of PTSD, standing up to leave a restaurant as soon as the meal was done, “pressing down on a phantom gas pedal” at stoplights.
Like an vulnerable Atlas, Kander carried the weight of change in ways that ultimately changed him. “He was hard on the legislators and lobbyists who stood in his way, but he became harder and harder on himself,” Diana Kander writes.
And he transferred his hyper-vigilance to her, sharing each detail of his regular nightmares in what Diana called “Horrible Story Time.”
“The effects of this experience soaked into me slowly. I didn’t have nightmares,” she writes. “Instead, my days started to feature jarringly precise visions of terrible things that might happen. I began to develop severe anxiety, manifested in these daymares (nightmares that occur while you’re awake).”
Kander called Diana’s words his favorite aspect of the book, saying it fits the very mission for writing it. Trauma is a tragically social beast, unwilling to visit one person alone. Showing its effects in stark but lyrical language, Diana and Jason reach beyond one audience, people struggling with PTSD, to another — all those who love them.
What the future holds — for all the Kinders
Inquiring minds still puzzle over Kander’s political future. How long is this hiatus — if it remains a hiatus? He’s only 41, after all. Kander throws more than a bone to readers in the book’s epilogue, knowingly titled “The Question I Haven’t Answered.”
The simple answer: “I genuinely do not know. Sorry,” he writes.
Kander acknowledges he’s likely to run for office again some day.
“But not now, and not for a long time. Not until I know I can make a difference every single day as a politician and enjoy my life,” he writes. “When I think about whether to take a new job, I ask myself whether I want it more than the job I’ve already got.”
That job description is multi-faceted: husband and father; President of National Expansion at Veterans Community Project, which works on issues of veteran suicide and homelessness; podcast host and voting rights advocate; Little League coach and centerfielder for a Kansas City-area men’s baseball team.
Two feet firmly planted in the moment, Kander is actively unlearning old scripts about what he does or doesn’t owe potential constituents. “Today, America and I are square,” he writes in the book.
“I used to feel like I owed everyone everything all the time,” he said this week. “… Now I actually feel like I’ve done quite a lot. Instead of feeling like I haven’t earned the right to get help for what I was dealing with, now I’ve earned the right to be with my family and do things I enjoy.”
Kander still sees himself as a public servant, with capacity and means to help others, but he’s following a simple yet strict rule: “I never do anything so that I can do something else.”
The future he seems most concerned about is his family’s. Kander understands the risk of passing trauma to his two children like some moth-eaten inheritance. Fortunately, he owns more tools to build them a better life.
“The silver lining to going through treatment is not only that you can avoid passing on that generational trauma,” Kander said. “But it’s also that you become a little bit of an expert in your own emotions. And you learn to really value your emotions and your feelings, and take them seriously.”
He and Diana never dismiss their children’s feelings, he said, but rather are crafting a “really rich (emotional) vocabulary” for them to rely upon.
They’re the kinds of words Kander already recites, to himself and for his readers. Words to weather any storm.
Aarik Danielsen is the features and culture editor for the Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 573-815-1731. Find him on Twitter @aarikdanielsen.