5 Great Books for Making Sense of Trauma
By Renée Fabian
I woke up in a panic one morning, wondering if I had been molested as a child. I have no memory of this — certainly of later sexual abuse, but not as a child. How would I know?
Could I remember my childhood? I didn’t have a complete memory of every moment. Was that normal? My next therapy session was a week away, but that was too long to wait for an answer. I broke out my copy of Peter Levine’s Trauma and Memory and read enough to know that my memory is fine.
This isn’t the first time I have turned to expert books on trauma to answer my questions, understand what I’m going through and gather a little hope. Trauma recovery can be overwhelming and confusing between flashbacks, depression, anxiety and a host of other complex symptoms. While I’ve found therapy essential, sometimes it just isn’t enough. No matter how many times my therapist explains how body memories work, for example, I always find myself forgetting and reading up on the subject.
For those times when you just want more information, here are five of my favorite books on trauma.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel A. van der Kolk
Every time I pick up this book, I feel less out of control and more understood. One of the best books out there on trauma, van der Kolk uses easily accessible prose and anecdotes to underscore the impact of trauma on a person’s physiology, with a focus on the body. Based on decades of research and interactions with clients, the book touches on dissociation, attachment, memories and more. The extensive “Paths to Recovery” section offers a variety of potential effective holistic therapies, such as EMDR, yoga and theater and alternatives outside traditional models of trauma therapy. The Body Keeps the Score helped me understand that the effects of trauma are not my fault, but a natural survival reaction.
The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis
A veritable bible for trauma survivors, The Courage to Heal covers everything from A to Z, including anger, forgiveness, body issues, intimacy, a section for support people and a collection of personal stories from women survivors. First published in 1988 and updated in its fourth edition in 2008, The Courage to Heal thought of nearly everything on the path to recovery. It’s a great resource. My copy is bookmarked in several places and I have recommended it to my family. What I especially love is that the book encompasses the experience of both straight and LGBTQ women, using gender-neutral language and personal stories from a diverse group of women survivors. There’s also an accompanying workbook.
Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Over-whelming Experiences by Peter A. Levine
Levine is the founder of a type of trauma processing called Somatic Experience. Based on healing the leftover physiological reminders of trauma, Levine provides a framework for resolving stuck traumatic memories by working with the felt sense, the subtle clues buried in the body. He ties human physiology into the fight/flight/freeze instincts of all mammals, providing a clear understanding of why trauma affects us on even the most instinctual level and how we can manage. Though sometimes the anecdotes Levine provides about clients tapping into their bodies and feeling relived in only a single therapy session sound like magic, Waking the Tiger is clear on the importance of working with the body in trauma recovery. As a bonus, pick up some of Levine’s other books, such as his short exercise-based Healing Trauma or his latest, Trauma and Memory.
The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychia-trist’s Notebook by Bruce D. Perry
Its sensational title aside, Perry’s The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog discusses how deeply rooted the effects of early trauma become, to the point that our behaviors and even brain chemistry change. A mix of hard science and compelling anecdotes, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog normalizes the ingrained aftermath of trauma. This was the first book that helped me understand that the reactions I have, such as anger and isolation, can all be traced back to sexual abuse in sometimes unrecognizable ways. Perry outlines how he was able to work with many children to regain their sense of self, often by helping their brains form new associations and pathways. It’s a fascinating and hopeful read.
I Never Told Anyone edited by Ellen Bass and Louise Thornton
Sometimes it’s just nice to know you’re not alone, and that’s where I Never Told Anyone comes in. The anthology is a collection of essays from “women survivors of child sexual abuse” who have a diverse range of experiences. The essays are open and honest retellings of each survivor’s journey in their own words. Sometimes the reading is heartbreaking, but the catharsis from recognizing parts of your story through others is healing in itself. It’s a bit dated now, having been published in 1991, but it’ still one of the best collections of essays from women survivors available.
No matter if you’re looking for answers, a little solidarity or alternative ideas for healing, all five of these books will give you the information you need and more.