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.