Lately, I’ve read a number of books about trauma, abuse, and the therapies leading to healing and recovery. I find this such a fascinating and important topic, because (as is pointed out in The Body Keeps the Score), even if we are not personally victims of abuse, when it is not properly treated, it ripples through society and causes damage on every level. It affects every one of us, and only through raising our awareness and compassion can it be addressed. The following books, with their personal narratives of difficult experiences, can help with that.
Catherine Cho, Inferno (Henry Holt, August 2020)
I find it amazing that Catherine Cho is able to so eloquently describe such a traumatic experience: her descent into postpartum psychosis, and her involuntary hospitalization when she began to hallucinate and hear voices saying her baby had to die. With remarkable self-awareness, yet conveying powerfully the fragmented state of psychosis, she takes us through this terrifying story, a difficult but necessary one to hear.
Moving back and forth in time, we also learn of her past abuse by her father and a former boyfriend (not her current husband); her suffering through the societally sanctioned abuse of a medicalized birth; and of how her in-laws continue to burden her with their anxiety, fear, and criticism. Pregnancy and birth is a precarious time, not well carried in our society, and previous unhealed trauma can make it a dangerous one — although, oddly, nobody in this book seems to attempt to look into Catherine’s past, or make a connection between these experiences and her psychosis. Drugs and waiting for time to pass are all they have to offer. I do not know much about this field in particular, but it seems to me there is a large gap in understanding to be filled here.
After her harrowing journey through hell, Catherine comes to a tenuous recovery at the end, but there seems to be more healing needed for her, and I hope she will find it. No story of recovery is ever really over; given the brilliant writing in this book, it would be good to hear more about this one.
Catherine Gildiner, Good Morning, Monster (St. Martin’s Press, September 2020)
This is an inspiring and humbling book — five stories of people who came through childhood neglect and abuse, repairing a damaged sense of self and bravely reconnecting to the world and other people. If I get upset about anything that happens to me, I just have to think of what they endured, and try to emulate their strength and courage. Written by a therapist, this book gives an interesting glimpse into the therapeutic process, including failures and setbacks along the way, and the path to recovery and renewal.
While this can be extremely valuable for those going through similar issues, it also made me a little uncomfortable at times. There is a voyeuristic element in looking through the private window into someone’s life, witnessing such horrible things. We are meant to empathize with them, but there is also a kind of distancing that can be disturbing. How can we truly understand another person’s suffering, how can we possibly treat it with enough reverence and respect? This includes the author’s own abusive upbringing, which she reveals at the end in an oddly naive way, not seeming to fully realize how much it mirrors her own patients’ inability to recognize what they have been subjected to. It made me wonder if she herself needed therapy more than she realized.
That said, this is a fascinating, compulsively readable book which gives a glimpse of true heroism, of the noble side of humanity that lurks in the darkest places. We need such images today.
Julie Andrews Edwards, Home (Hachette, 2008) and Home Work (2019)
The word “abuse” may not be immediately associated with the name “Julie Andrews” in your mind. Her sunny, joyful soprano voice seems made to banish darkness and pain, not born out of them. Yet her youth was not easy, as she reveals in her first memoir Home. At an early age her parents separated, and she was taken away from her beloved “Dad” to live with her mother and an alcoholic, sexually predatory stepfather. The couple were aspiring performers, and when young Julie’s amazing voice manifested she became part of their act. In fact, her success soon outstripped theirs and as soon as she was legally able to leave school her mother put her to work full time, regardless of her wishes.
Andrews relates all of this with frankness but also without malice or resentment; she seems to have accepted her role of supporting the family, both financially and emotionally. She gives a fascinating picture of her early life and first successes as a performer — in the shows The Boy Friend, My Fair Lady, and Camelot. For those who are interested in backstage theatre stories, hers are priceless.
The second volume, Home Work, was the one I actually read first, after I glimpsed the new hardcover last year in a bookstore in Gstaad, Switzerland — a place that Andrews fell in love with when she visited it many years ago, and that she has made her home. It’s not as compelling, but still interesting, as it goes into the Hollywood career, the time of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, and her second marriage to the mercurial director Blake Edwards. Andrews seems concerned to protect her family here, and one senses there are difficulties that she does not describe. Her hectic rushing to and fro in the way of movie stars is quite painful to read about, and must have been hard on her children.
But one does still get a sense of her as a person of great integrity who has gone through suffering (assisted by therapy, which she credits with saving her life) and brought out of it beautiful art. Not an egoistic prima donna, she is modest about her own abilities and grateful to many who helped her along the way. We can be thankful to her in turn for sharing her story with us.
Inferno and Good Morning Monster were received as e-galleys from the publisher for review consideration through Netgalley. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.