Trauma is a near universal fact of life. Both popular and clinical literature on trauma grow as we become more culturally aware about how traumatic experiences impact us through the lifespan. As the ACE or Aversive Childhood Experiences study brought to widespread attention, one in four people has experienced three or more aversive experiences in childhood that increase risk for chronic illness, mental health issues, addiction, suicidality and perpetuating or being victimized by crime. Many of us who make it through early life without significant traumas will encounter them later in life. “Traumatic events are extraordinary,” Judith Herman Miller writes in Trauma and Recovery, “not because they occur rarely but because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life” (p. 33). Trauma occurs in relationships and healing from trauma happens in relationships, to others and to the parts of ourselves that have been wounded and overwhelmed.
The books I’ve chosen to highlight here all address trauma in creative ways and speak to the power of art to heal. Some content that follows may be triggering.
Night Thoughts, by Sarah Arvio (Knopf, 2013)
A series of sonnets and what Arvio describes as “notes,” this book offers a deeply psychological take on the discovery of and recovery from childhood trauma. Lyrical and associative, Arivo's words articulate the sometimes haunting and riddle-like logic of traumatic memory, language that feels at times driven by a force her psyche can barely contain and possessed of a momentum that drives the collection to catharsis. Consider as example this excerpt from the poem “poker”:
the only hands that that touched the cards were his
one was the queen card I was the queen
then he left the room with a poker face
he left me with jack meaning nothing
the jack who jacked me up against the wall
& who poked me & played me & poked me (p. 36)
The first part of the book, “poems,” gives expression to the fragmented and repetitive images of Arivo’s dream life. The second portion, “notes,” offers a narrative that situates the poems within an arc of time, place and experience. Arivo’s source material comes from dreams explored over years of psychoanalysis and speaks to the role of the therapeutic relationship in the healing of trauma. A powerful read.
Irritable Hearts, A PTSD Love Story, by Mac McClellin (Flatiron Books, 2015)
Irritable Hearts opens with McClellin, a journalist, on assignment in Haiti, where she struggles to cope with the cumulative exposure to violence from years of covering wars and natural disasters around the world. The narrative turns personal when she begins to make connection between the distress of her professional life and earlier events she experienced as a child and young adult.
McClellin contrasts the broader cultural frame for PTSD, so often visible in war veterans, with the private battle that traumatized individuals and families, including herself, wage in an effort to heal. McClellin takes the reader along as she details experiences with a variety of therapies and includes a brief history of their development.
The title Irritable Hearts is reference to a term used during the Civil War to describe the condition now known as PSTD, and also a reference to the love story at the heart of the book’s narrative. When McClellin meets a French solider with a sad past, both find redemption in love. Irritable Hearts crosses genres to deliver equal parts romance, mystery and history.
You are the Mother of All Mothers, by Angela Miller (Wise Ink, 2014)
Miller combines direct language with abstract images to bring a message of hope to the grieving heart. In these pages the inconsolable pain of a mother whose child has died becomes an empowered mantra of radical acceptance and strength. Miller, a grief advocate and bereaved parent, lays bare the stark truths of loss without the platitudes that often follow. Most validating is Miller’s message that motherhood does not end with death.
…I never saw another butterfly…Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-44 (McGraw-Hill, 1964)
Of the 15,00 children who lived in the ghetto of Terezin, only 100 survived. Most died in the gas chambers of other internment camps during WWII. This book collects selected drawings and poems created by the children during their stay in Terezin, described as “a funnel without an outlet” (epilogue), offering a window into a child’s view of the Holocaust.
This heartbreaking collection speaks to both the devastation of trauma and the resilience of the human spirit. In a world still marred by war, violence and hatred, these poems and illustrations are as relevant today, perhaps more so, than when they were created.
I Afterlife, an Essay in Mourning Time, by Kristen Prevallet (Essay Press, 2007)
In the aftermath of her father’s suicide, Prevallet explores essay, poetry, and image to reckon with the raw facts of death and the unanswerable questions of grief: a story “conflicted, abstract, difficult to explain” (xviii).
Elegy, Prevallet writes, “is the complexity of what is actually left behind….believing that holes can be filled with language is dangerous—only space itself occupies empty spaces” (p. 10). Testing the limits of elegy, I Afterlife is truly a mediation on form. Prevallet, who is also a hypnotherapist, delivers a personal, nuanced work of art that will challenge you to reconsider your orientation to loss. All proceeds from sales of the book go to the Violence Policy Center’s efforts to treat gun violence as a public health issue.