On April 15, 2013, Jeff Bauman’s life and the lives of so many others changed forever.
Standing close to the finish line of the Boston marathon, Bauman recalls making eye contact with a man carrying a backpack. Then there was a white flash, followed by several loud pops. The rest is a blur. Jeff was on down and he was hurt. Bauman underwent surgery the same day with doctors amputating both of his legs at the knee. When he came round, Jeff had just one thing on his mind though: the man with the backpack.
Bauman’s subsequent description helped the FBI track down Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the brothers behind the Boston bombing. Jeff’s actions made him a national hero, but his own personal journey to reclaim his life was just beginning. The incident left Bauman battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as he attempted to put the pieces of his life back together.
“When people are exposed to a situation that is perceived as a life threat the mind may work to survive and to protect the individual from the horrific experience that they are being exposed to,” Dr. Walter Busuttil, Medical Director of Combat Stress, a UK charity that supports veterans with mental health issues, explains.
“The normal process of the filing of memories for the horrific material is deferred and suspended. But later on the mind tries to file away the traumatic material and this is manifested in nightmares, flashbacks and intrusive memories. These are very unpleasant and the individual starts to feel anxious and hyper-vigilant waiting for the next threat to appear. They also become emotionally numb. They learn that avoidance of anything to do with the traumatic material is the best and safest way to cope.”
Jeff’s story and battle with PTSD is the focus of David Gordon Green’s new film Stronger, based on Bauman’s own book, which sees Gyllenhaal step into the role of Jeff for a funny, emotional and ultimately uplifting movie that ranks among the best of the year.
“I feel really lucky that I got the opportunity to do this film,” Jeff tells loaded. “Terrorist attacks happen all over the world. I know there are other stories out there too and I got a rare opportunity to tell my story.”
What made the experience so special for Bauman was the fact that Gyllenhaal and director David Gordon Green were able to create a film that reflected the reality of his experience. “I would have loved for them to have made a movie where I look like a badass but that’s not the real me and that’s what I like about this movie. It’s not that. And I’m really proud it isn’t.”
“I used to drink, I used to get rowdy, and I jumped straight back into that during my recovery which was super unhealthy. The film doesn’t paint me as this perfect person but that’s the truth and sometimes the truth hurts.”
It’s been an incredible journey that has also allowed Bauman to build some special bonds, with both Green and Gyllenhaal among his close friends – something that must be surreal in itself. “It’s weird,” he tells loaded. “Jake and I do stuff together. He lives in New York and I’m in Boston and it’s a three-hour drive so I go up and see him.”
“He never interviewed me for the role though. We just got to know each other. I shared everything with Jake. He dove into all of it but it never seemed like he was an actor to me, more like he was friend.”
Bauman has nothing but kind words for Gyllenhaal’s efforts and the resulting movie either. “I always say he’s stealing my soul with that performance,” he jokes “I’m proud of everybody that worked on the film.”
Jeff also feels the film’s representation of PTSD and his own journey and experience of it, was well handled. “I went through something traumatic. The isolation was huge, when I pushed people away to be by myself. You would be drawn to that isolation. The film captures that but it also captures me coming out of that and letting people help me and then me helping others. I suffered trauma, sure, but there’s trauma in everyone’s life.”
Even now, he admits that PTSD remains a part of his life. “Getting blown up and having that explosion on my mind in crowded situations like the one that day can be tough. And when I see stuff like shootings and terrorist attacks, I get upset and almost sick. Because I know what those people are going through and it’s tough. Part of me still wonders why we do it. Why we fight. It’s crazy.”
Jeff is moving on with his life though. He’s returned to school and enrolled in a mechanical engineering programme, while he’s also kept pretty busy by his daughter, Nora. His family remain a constant source of support and, as Stronger highlights to amusing effect, occasionally frustration. “My family has been there to help me with everything. They are really amazing even if they can also be kind of crazy sometimes.”
Stronger is the perfect testament to Jeff Bauman’s story. He’ll never forget what happened on April 15, 2013, but he’s fighting to ensure that both he and others like him can also hold on to hope for what’s to come tomorrow.
Stronger is in cinemas now and comes highly recommended.