Book Recommendations – PART ONE: Trauma
November 13, 2022
In the epilogue of my memoir, I wrote, “I will never fully understand how I survived what I did. But it seems to me that books and reading have contributed their fair share toward both my survival and recovery so far.” I plan for this blog post to be the first in a series which continues in this theme, to share more about the most impactful books which helped me grow in knowledge, courage, and health. I believe other willing and searching readers can benefit from their specialized information, moving stories, and crucial vocabulary.
A few notes: When I was younger, I had free access to a significant home library. Although there were later times when my influences were heavily monitored and policed, most of us can get our hands on books through our local public libraries if nothing else. I continue to be a dedicated reader, so this is not a complete nor comprehensive reading list as much as it is a history or retracing of my literary journey as a young adult, specifically, what I read that led me to make the move out of one life and into another, book by book, step by step. This information is shared in the spirit of “take what you need, leave the rest.” And finally, many if not all of the books I plan to share were recommended to me by individuals and I am always adding to my to-read list. Recommend away!
Okay. These first three books are the best books I have read on trauma so far. Having experienced either sexual, physical, emotional, religious or emotional abuse throughout the first 24 years of my life escalating up to an almost daily basis, I landed in therapy in 2016 knowing I needed major help. I cannot overstate how helpful these books and their information were—and still are—to me. Hopefully you are not in such a dramatic and dire circumstance yourself, but just in case, these would be the books I would smuggle under your mattress at all costs.
- The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk
When I think of beginning to tackle the topic of trauma, I think, “Start with this book.” If you are asking any of the following questions—What is trauma? Where does it come from? How do we stop it? Can we heal it?— The Body Keeps the Score introduces so many illuminating concepts, terms, and sources for further study. It’s LONG and covers a ton of ground, so the audiobook could be a good alternative if 400+ physical pages are intimidating to you.
I was recommended this book by my first therapist, Dr. Lee Norton, and I initially read it within months after moving out from my abusive family home. I felt compelled to plow through and grab all the applicable information I could handle as fast as possible. Not everything made sense at that time, but I have since kept it on my shelf and still benefit every time I pick it up. It’s probably time for another pass soon!
From my copy’s back cover: Trauma is a fact of life. Veterans and their families deal with the painful aftermath of combat; one in five Americans has been molested; one in four grew up with alcoholics; one in three coupes have engaged in physical violence. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world’s foremost experts on trauma, has spent over three decades working with survivors. In The Body Keeps the Score, he uses recent scientific advances to show how trauma literally reshapes both body and brain, compromising sufferers’ capacities for pleasure, engagement, self-control, and trust. He explores innovative treatments—from neurofeedback and meditation to sports, drama and yoga—that offer new paths to recovery by activating the brain’s natural neuroplasticity. Based on Dr. van der Kolk’s own research and that of other leading specialists, The Body Keeps the Score exposes the tremendous power of our relationships both to hurt and to heal—and offers new hope for reclaiming lives.
Obviously, a lot of other people have been recommending this book for a while as it is currently sitting at #1 on the NYTimes Bestseller’s List for paperback non-fiction. First released in 2014, it has been on the list for 211 weeks so far. Roughly the first half of the book covers all things trauma while the second half focuses on overviews of various methods of recovery. The last 60-ish pages include further reading lists, resources, notes, an appendix and index.
2. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith Herman
Originally published in 1992, the year I was born, this older book was groundbreaking and instrumental in shaping the way the world has come to understand trauma and healing in recent decades, a true predecessor to books such as The Body Keeps The Score. Again, at Dr. Norton’s advice, I read a more recent edition with a new afterword, described on goodreads as bringing “a new level of understanding to a set of problems usually considered individually. Herman draws on her own cutting-edge research in domestic violence as well as on the vast literature of combat veterans and victims of political terror, to show the parallels between private terrors such as rape and public traumas such as terrorism. Meticulously documented and frequently using the victims’ own words as well as those from classic literary works and prison diaries, Trauma and Recovery is a powerful work that will continue to profoundly impact our thinking.”
I have clear memories of reading this book and contending with the powerful triggers certain passages brought up within my own body. In particular, one account of childhood sexual abuse made me close the book until I next had the chance to work through my overwhelmed reaction in a therapy session. The effect of working my way through Trauma and Recovery was transformative and when I finished, I was able to admit, articulate, and validate my own lived experiences like never before.
3. What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing – Oprah Winfrey, Bruce D. Perry
I read this book for the first time earlier this year and immediately began recommending it along with these first two books as the best sources I’ve come across for learning about trauma. The book is formatted as a conversation and I truly feel it adds some wonderful new information—especially on the nature of the best modes of healing according to the latest research, just how incredibly deep trauma effects us the younger we are, and more.
The title of this book reminds me of a phrase I encountered in my own work: seeking therapy isn’t about what’s wrong with you, it’s about what’s right with you. The negative stigma that can accompany one’s view of recovery work can change when we shift the question of “what’s wrong with you?” to instead ask, “what happened to you?”
From the back cover: “Many of us experience adversity and trauma during childhood that has lasting impact on our physical and emotional health. And as we’re beginning to understand, we are more sensitive to developmental trauma as children than we are as adults. ‘What happened to us’ in childhood is a powerful predictor of our risk for physical and mental health problems down the road, and offers scientific insights into the patterns of behaviors so many struggle to understand.”
Especially if you’ve read the previous two books, What Happened to You? will cover much of the same ground, but I found certain key concepts were explained in a way that hadn’t gotten through to me before and therefore I was able to put even more puzzle pieces together as a result of adding this book to my recovery shelf.
I promise not all my future book recommendations will be trauma-centered—I’ll be covering categories and topics from fiction to faith, writing, grief, sexuality and more—but again, in case that’s the daily reality you are trying to make sense of, this is where I would urge anyone to start.
With love and gratitude, Jessica