Nonfiction Book Review: The Body Keeps the Score

Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma (2014)

In keeping with my resolution to read more nonfiction this year — ideally, not only memoir or biography — I made my way through this book in the first couple of months of 2020. It took time because I wanted to read slowly and take in all the information, but the hours were well spent. For anyone who wants to know more about how our bodies and minds deal with traumatic experiences, this is an essential resource. And in light of current events, we’re going to need it more than ever.

The author is an expert on the treatment of trauma, director of The Trauma Center in Boston for over 30 years. The first half of the book deals with the psychology and neurochemistry of trauma, with many fascinating discoveries unfolded in a clear and accessible manner, easily understandable by the layperson. The second half goes briefly through a number of therapies that Dr. van der Kolk has found to be of use in treatment, each of them engaging the wisdom of the body in some way.

For “the body keeps the score” throughout all of our life experiences, and our bodies store vital information and knowledge that we cannot access through intellectual thinking alone. The talking cure, predominant in psychotherapy for more than a century, simply is not enough. The reasons why become clear when we start to understand how the brain actually works, thanks to recent advances in this field.

Putting those discoveries at the service of human beings who want to heal themselves and return to a life of relationship, rather than being trapped in a traumatic past, is the mission of the book. Unfortunately, along with some amazing stories, we also read of resistance to change from the establishment. Research is not done into some very promising fields, funding is not given, diagnoses are not accepted, and harmful patterns are reinforced — including the over-administration of medications that should be only part of a whole therapeutic program.

It’s a human tendency to suppress symptoms rather than truly addressing underlying issues. The latter is far more difficult, because it means stepping out into the unknown, and into an encounter with much that is frightening and unsettling in our unhealed selves. The medical establishment, like society as a whole, is not very supportive of this work. But there are brave, pioneering people who are doing it anyway, fighting their way out of the nightmare of trauma — and there are researchers and therapists who have found ways to help them.

The need is immense, because such experiences are far more common that you may imagine. They cause untold harm as they reverberate throughout life with destructive force, shattering relationships, impacting future generations, laming our potential.

This cycle of trauma must be stopped. We owe it to ourselves and our society to take up any path that can help us to do this, even if it runs counter to our habitual notions and assumptions, even if we must change ourselves in fundamental ways.

Mind and body are a whole, whose complex workings belie the crude and simplistic ideas with which we often delimit them. There is still so much to learn and to explore, but a book like this gives me hope that we are making at least some steps in the right direction. At its center is real respect, caring, and awe for the human  process of recovery. And it is my belief that it is through such a humanist science that our world may be truly healed.


Beyond the gender wars: Three books by Terrence Real

Terrence Real, I Don’t Want To Talk About It (1997)
Terrence Real, How Can I Get Through to You? (2003)
Terrence Real, The New Rules of Marriage (2007)

After going through a major relationship crisis last summer (now thankfully resolved), I was searching for solace in the used-book section of my favorite bookstore and came across the title I Don’t Want To Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression. I devoured it in a matter of days, and quickly sought out psychotherapist Terrence Real’s other two books, amazed at the light they cast upon not only my immediate dilemma, but on larger familial, cultural, and indeed global issues. These are some of the most helpful “self-help” books I have ever read, and have been real game-changers for me at a difficult time.

Real’s argument is that boys are systematically discouraged from experiencing the nurture and connectedness that all humans need in order to become psychologically healthy and strong. Even without overt trauma in their lives — which is all too common — the cultural expectations for males in our society tend to leave them inwardly wounded and emotionally inept. The symbolic image for this is “separating from the mother,” which is forced upon most boys much too early. There is so much fear in our culture of being consumed and engulfed by the female realm that boys are subjected to shaming, criticism, and outright abuse for not being strong and independent at far too young an age.

In adult life, these men carry a burden of depression that is not recognized or treated — depression itself being considered a “female disease.” They carry on a cycle that was generally handed down from their fathers, and pass it down to their children, who often act out the dysfunctionality that they refuse to recognize and heal. And their marriages frequently fall apart, when their women have had enough.

Because men do not learn how to be intimate, connected, or emotionally aware while still remaining appropriately themselves, they can’t understand why their wives are unhappy with them. Trained to mask their underlying sense of inadequacy and shame with grandiosity and belligerence, they may frighten women and children into silence or flight, or trade a difficult spouse for a more admiring and compliant one. Or they may simply retreat into a confused state of baffled hurt. Through multiple case studies, Real describes how men and women in his therapeutic practice have been able to come through this impasse, when they bravely take up the work of facing covert depression and the underlying trauma that created it.

How Can I Get Through to You: Closing the Intimacy Gap Between Men and Women extends this view, focusing on methods of communication and interaction that build intimacy within male/female partnerships. Real reiterates the message that the bifurcation of human experience into two mutually incompatible categories serves no one. For true healing to take place, we need to recognize and honor needs that are universally human, even though they may present differently in male vs. female experience.

And we need to recognize the abusive legacy of “false empowerment,” through which men are encouraged to cover up a core of buried shame, fear and rage by keeping themselves in a position of dominance over others. This is not a man-only phenomenon, of course; women, too, are now able to empower themselves out of relationship and intimacy as well. The problem is not in either gender’s tendencies, but in the imbalanced relationship between them, the deeply ingrained contempt of one side for the other.

In fact, the traditional privileging of masculine over feminine qualities is one of the most destructive forces in our world. Feminism has made great strides in allowing women opportunities traditionally granted to men — which was necessary, but not enough. The opposite, equally necessary movement has not taken place, for obvious reasons. What man wants to give up his grandiosity and privilege to become “downwardly mobile,” to become humble, receptive, and vulnerable? What person in a “one-up” position wants to give up that power, in order to receive the greater gift of true intimacy and connectedness?

Only the truly courageous ones, many of whom are profiled in Real’s books. They want to reconnect, they don’t want to lose their wives and children, and they are willing to work hard to make this happen. They embark on a journey of facing their own early trauma, learning new skills and techniques for workable, respectful relationships, and recovering the heartfulness they lost in childhood.

It’s not only men who have to do the work, although women have a head start in recognizing and trying to do something about the problem. (Nearly all couples’ therapy is initiated by the woman.) There’s a therapist’s catchphrase: “Everyone is either blatant or latent.” If men in general tend to be the “blatant” ones, acting out with more overt behavior like addiction, battering, and infidelity, women tend to be the “latent” ones whose sharp perception of the faults of others often functions like a screen protecting them from their own unhealed wounds. Once a man has begun to change, they need to learn how to accept and adapt to that change, and not continue to punish him in lieu of others who have hurt them in the past.

When such unhealthy patterns can be transformed, an amazing kind of inner alchemy takes place. As Real puts it, “vicious cycles” are turned into “charmed circles,” with one partner’s positive steps reinforcing and encouraging the other’s. The New Rules of Marriage is a manual with systematic steps for creating such a relationship, through wise and loving practices that leave each partner feeling heard, respected, and empowered.

Even if you are not married and never plan to be, I think these books are worth reading. If nothing else, they shed light on the phenomenon of the wounded, falsely empowered child-men who are currently running our country and our planet — and on the premature, misguided separation from our great Mother (the Earth) which is driving us into the coming environmental catastrophe. We all need to learn that we can be intimate and strong, independent and connected. Each of us, whatever gender we identify with, needs access to the full range of human capacities, if we are to stop the cycle of destructive rage which results from the split into polar opposites. It may have played a role once, but that time is over.

Books like these give me hope that a better world is possible, that change is in the air and that we can move in a positive direction when we commit to living with honesty, integrity, and love. Marriage, with all its trials and challenges, is the goal of life — marriage to our true selves, to one another, to our world. I’m so glad to have encountered these helpful guides along that path.


Jungian explorations

During a previous era of my life I became interested in Jungian psychology. I think it started after college when I fell in love with the novels of Robertson Davies, which reflect his own interest in the work of the Swiss psychologist. (One of them, The Manticore, is even based around the main character’s sessions with an analyst in Zurich.) The acknowledgment of the importance and reality of symbols, dreams, and archetypes strongly appealed to me, along with the overall vision of a mythic dimension to life. This chimed with the way I experience the world, and with what has brought healing and integration to me in my own path.

I started to look at some non-fiction works that explored these ideas further, and I’ve been going back to some of them lately. The books of Robert A. Johnson are very accessible and were helpful to me in learning how to use dreams and the associated method of “active imagination” to work through difficulties in my life, along with considerations of masculine and feminine psychology. I think that Owning Your Own Shadow was the first one of his books that was recommended to me, and I still find it a brief but very useful introduction to this important concept.

Our dominant white American culture strongly resists going into the shadow, as we prefer to project it elsewhere (especially onto other races and countries) so that we don’t have to acknowledge our own “dark side.” As we can see from current events this causes immense problems, yet action can only really start with the individual. It’s a task that every thinking, caring person should take up, lest the darkness in our souls overwhelm us.

Also helpful to me in going down this path have been the fairy tale studies by Marie-Louise von Franz. With my lifelong interest in folklore and mythology, I found these absolutely fascinating. Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales and The Feminine in Fairy Tales have been particularly thought-provoking. Again, through considering these stories we learn how important it is to bring to light what is overlooked and downgraded in our modern, patriarchal culture. In this unconscious realm are buried the treasures and gifts we need to bring wholeness into a shattered world.

Some other favorites include Here All Dwell Free: Stories to Heal the Wounded Feminine by Gertrud Mueller Nelson, a wonderful in-depth exploration of the tales “The Handless Maiden” and “Briar Rose”; and The Kingdom Within: The Inner Meaning of Jesus’s Sayings by John A. Sanford, which gets at the heart of Christianity’s archetypal wisdom by revealing it as an inner path.

Have you read any of these books, or do you have any others to recommend on the topic? Are there other approaches to psychology that appeal to you?

Classics Club: Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946)

This year, I decided to add some categories to my Classics Club list. Though I’m still aiming to read 50 books in 5 years, there are now 80 books on my list from which I can pick and choose. This helps me feel a little less constrained.

One of the categories I added was “Rereads from school,” i.e. books that I first read as a school assignment, but now want to encounter again at a more mature age. Many of these are from a wonderful double-period honors class I took as a senior in high school called “Humanities Block,” which covered many of the canonical works of philosophy, drama, poetry, and fiction, from the ancient Greeks to the twentieth century.

This had the benefit of introducing me to many great books at a young age, which I would certainly not have picked up on my own, being more drawn to sword-and-sorcery fantasy at the time. On the other hand, it had the drawback of giving me the impression that I had actually read these books, when at age 17 I surely picked up only a fraction of their deep and complex significance. I’ve revisited some over the years, but there others that I feel I really need to give another go.

Our very first book for the class was Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, the classic work by a concentration camp survivor who founded the “third Viennese school of psychotherapy,” which he called Logotherapy. You have very likely encountered it as well, as it’s one of the most-read, most-assigned, and most-influential books of all time — and it is well worth reading. In the face of so many forces that seek to degrade and dehumanize us, it’s an important chronicle of one who has truly been through the fire and come out not with despair, but with renewed faith in humanity and the will to heal what is broken in our world.

Frankl was convinced that the fundamental human drive was not for pleasure, nor for power, but for meaning; and his internment in four camps served only to strengthen this belief. Shortly after his release, he published a brief account of some of his experiences and of his resulting observations about the human soul and spirit, which formed the basis for his later therapeutic work. To this was later added a more thorough description of the principles and practices of Logotherapy, and even later a short “postscript” based on a lecture further summarizing Frankl’s world view. The e-book edition I read also adds a foreword by Rabbi Harold Kushner and an afterword by William Winslade that includes a biographical sketch of the author.

This collage of contents is valuable for the way it expands and elaborates on Frankl’s life and work, but the heart of the book remains the original seed-text, which in German was called “Say Yes to Life in Spite of Everything.” Adding scientific precision to a deep sense of compassion, Frankl vividly describes scenes exemplifying the extreme conditions of camp life, and draws from them observations of how paradoxically the inner core of the human being has the possibility to shine forth in such dark circumstances. That this happens only in a few cases did not matter to him; the radiance of what he observed was so powerful that its reality outweighed all the forces that were trying to hamper and obscure it.

Other than its basic premise, which has always rung true to me, I had almost completely forgotten the specific contents of the book in the 30 years since I last read it. I would not name it as a book that deeply affected me, and yet as I read it for the second time I had a strange, recurrent sense of familiarity. I had met ideas similar to Frankl’s in many places and many ways, and also confirmed them with my own life experience, paltry as it seems in comparison with his. Meeting them again was like coming home to a place I had never really left, as perhaps it must always seem when we find eternal truths in the ever-changing circumstances of life.

I’m glad I read it again, and that I can mull it over more consciously in the years to come. I’ll look forward to doing the same with more of my teenage reading.