Book Review of The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk: Growth and Trauma

“Scared animals return home, regardless of whether home is safe or frightening,” writes Bessel Van Der Kolk in his book, The Body Keeps the Score. Van Der Kolk’s book is about trauma, but its central question is existential: how do we break free of our self-destructive patterns—how do we experience post-traumatic growth? How do we transcend the habits of comfort and familiarity that can keep us from growing? Trauma can freeze its victims in time and within the traumatized body. Post-traumatic growth occurs when a person utilizes creativity, storytelling, and meaning to transform stasis into motion, to make sense of that which has no sense.

Change is a long and difficult process. Sometimes it is so incremental that it cannot be seen directly. I don’t believe we are doomed to repeat the same self-destructive cycles, but the process of breaking these patterns is a long and difficult one. We don’t need to keep drinking to blackout every weekend and regretting it on Monday morning. We don’t need to keep surrendering our agency to relationships, to the vicissitudes of our desires, to the accidents of time and circumstance. We can take control of the narrative.

In his nonfiction book, Van Der Kolk writes about “attractors.” Attractors are the things that “draw us, motivate us, and make us feel alive. Typically, attractors are meant to make us feel better. But sometimes, we are drawn to the same things that make us feel worse, the same patterns that destroy us.

“…why are so many people attracted to dangerous or painful situations?” Van Der Kolk asks. Researchers found that “strong emotions can block pain.” For example, watching a graphically violent movie can create the same analgesic effect as eight milligrams of morphine, “about the same dose a person would receive in an emergency room.”

For some of us, the dangerous is not only thrilling, but it can sometimes be a kind of self-medication against other types of emotional pain.

Sometimes, the dangerous life choice can give us the jolt of endorphins we need so that we don’t feel depressed, anxious, or sad. 

What is the alternative? Happiness is completely contingent on living authentically, honestly, and in facing reality. Van Der Kolk, writes about his “great teacher” Elvin Semrad who said, “The greatest sources of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves.”

I have gotten married, moved to another country, jumped into wild oceans in Hawaii, and climbed cliffs without a rope on the premise that I am unlovable, alone, and can’t trust other people. I have sought these situations for the thrill and also because I was scared of the alternative. I have braved waves big enough to drown men, cliffs tall enough to crush them, and tornadoes wild enough to make trucks jackknife, but I still have trouble saying one word: “help.”

Reality will not be denied its course. We can hide from it, drug from it, run from it, deny it, rage at it, eat ourselves away from it, exercise ourselves into a stupor from it, fuck from it, drink from it, but the only way out of it, is through it—through actually experiencing whatever it is we don’t want to experience.

Trauma is the ultimate expression of self-alienation. The very thing that we need to experience can feel like it has the power to kill us. Van Der Kolk writes, “Trauma, whether it is the result of something done to you or something you yourself have done, almost always makes it difficult to engage in intimate relationships. After you have experienced something so unspeakable, how do you learn to trust yourself or anyone else again?” And how can you connect with those closest to you if you can never talk about an experience so core to your being or so formative? Trauma alienates its survivors from themselves but also from everyone else around them.

The tragedy of trauma is that it destroys the free play of communication, of imagination. Trauma can freeze a person in a place where they can neither transform the traumatic event into something meaningful, nor integrate the experience into the larger course of their lives. The key to growth is integration of experience so that the experience becomes one aspect of a larger story of transformation.

Van Der Kolk explains, “Trauma has shut down their inner compass and robbed them of the imagination they need to create something better.”

For me, the key word here is “imagination.” Creativity. Creation. For the bereaved and the grieving, creativity is not a luxury, nor is it a pastime—it is a life and death matter. To create is to take charge of your life. Grief can knock us to our knees, but creativity, art, and writing can give us agency again and help us invent new ground to stand upon. Reality might be difficult right now in this era of massive job losses and global pandemic, but we still have the agency to shape reality. We can respond to life creatively.

Without creativity and imagination, we run the risk of going through life numb and disconnected from ourselves, unable to know what is upsetting us, feeling like something is wrong, but unable to put it into words. To live like this is to be alive and not living.

At the heart of the traumatic situation or challenging experience is the seeming meaninglessness of it all. What meaning can there be in losing a child, a parent, or a friend? What meaning can we find in pandemic? In war? In assault?

The question of trauma is always one of transformation. And transformation requires us to see the larger story, one of transcendence and triumph. This is at the heart of post-traumatic growth. But to tell the story of your life, you need to own the story and have control of the narrative. You need to give yourself permission to be the protagonist of your own life.

For Van Der Kolk the answer lies in agency: “‘agency’ is the technical term for the feeling of being in charge of your life: knowing where you stand, knowing that you have a say in what happens to you, knowing that you have some ability to shape your circumstances.”

Often that means telling an inconvenient story, or an uncomfortable story. It sometimes means disappointing other people.

Tell it anyway. Disappoint other people.Poetry and art, if it is to be good, must be willing to blaspheme, and say that which cannot be said. It must be willing to be ugly. It must be willing to go anywhere the human heart can go, and that is literally anywhere. We must be willing to peer into the abattoir of our souls and make sense of what we find there.

By being honest about ourselves, by attending to our needs, by addressing the unspeakable, we become fully human.

We tell ourselves lies in order to live. And yet the lies we tell ourselves in order to go on living so often prevent us from living. For Van Der Kolk, in The Body Keeps the Score, post-traumatic growth comes through words, images, and creations that allow us to face the unspeakable, the unsayable, and the unknowable.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.