Trauma & Recovery (or lack thereof): a list of books that inspired CLAIRE DeWITT

by Sara Gran

One big theme in the Claire DeWitt books, my forthcoming detective series, is trauma and how we recover from it. Although “recover” isn’t the right word. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about trauma, it’s that nothing is “recovered.” Trauma is a destructive process, not a creative one. When bad things or big changes happen, nothing ever “goes back to normal,” and to strive towards that is, in my opinion, to guarantee yourself a big mess. The old “normal” is gone and it’s never coming back. Even if you can rebuild your house, you will no longer be the same person living inside it. Much of Claire DeWitt & the City of the Dead is about how we create that new world, and how we can free ourselves from the stagnation that comes from trying to cling to the past. (But it’s also a page-turning mystery thriller so BUY IT, OK? I promise, it’s not all, like, deep and shit. I hate those books!)

I’ll be posting more about the books that inspired CLAIRE DeWITT as we lead up to the release (June 2–holy shit!). I’ll start with  list of books I’ve found useful, as a writer and a human, about trauma:

When Things Fall Apart; Pema Chodron. You’re probably heard of this book–it’s sold like a million copies, for good reason. Chodron, a Tibetan Buddhist nun, gives very good, practical advice on how to get through a crises. I think her most important teaching here is to stop looking for solid ground. When the world is falling apart around you, literally or metaphorically, our first inclination is to MAKE IT STOP. But in the effort to do so, we can cling to some really dumb stuff in our futile search for something to rely on. We glom onto stupid ideas, join cults, or just hang out with idiots. One of the great Buddhist teachings, in my very humble opinion, is that there is nothing to rely on. The nature of life is change. The good news is, if you come to terms with that, you can be happy anyway! Yay life! Yay Buddha! Thanks!

Persephone’s Return: Tanya Wilkinson. This is one of my favorite books of the past, say,  thousand years. I’ve always been oddly obsessed with the myth of Persephone, the Greek Queen of the Dead, which Wilkinson uses to illustrate how trauma changes us. Before Persephone was Persephone, she was a girl named Kore (which basically means “girl,” from what I gather). Then she was kidnapped by her uncle, presumably raped, and made to spend half of every year as the Queen of the Dead. She went on become an important goddess, but she never got to be Kore again. She was Persephone now. After traumatic experiences, I think that people are fundamentally changed. You never get to go back to being Kore. Persephone knew all kinds of things Kore never could have imagined. You can take that knowledge as shameful and try to pretend you don’t know it and keep calling yourself Kore. Or you can be grateful for the knowledge you’ve learned among the dead, and become Persephone. This is just one of many stories Jungian analyst Wilkinson uses to illustrate different ways trauma can change us. But it doesn’t have to change us for the worse. Nothing makes an event like, say, a terrorist attack, “worthwhile,” but given that these experiences are a normal part of our lives, it behooves us to mine them for gold rather than let them beat us down–and I am not putting down anyone who has let life beat them down or up a little or a lot, only trying to point out that for some us, sometimes, a better way can be possible. As Wilkinson says, victims are not responsible for their own betrayal, but they are responsible for their own recovery.

The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog; Bruce Perry. Terrible title but a great book by a compassionate psychiatrist specializing in childhood trauma. Although the author talks a lot about biology, hormones, and all that other shit that frequently drives me up the wall (I don’t agree that humans a basically a big bag of chemicals, although dear reader, believe as you choose), he does so from an interesting and useful place–rather than prove that our emotions are determined by our body’s whims, he argues that our emotional experiences can alter our body chemistry, and that understanding this can be useful in helping severely traumatized children (and all of us!) move forward. For example, in a home for naughty teenaged boys (what we used to call a J.D. hall), he gives some of the boys simple, side-effect free blood pressure medication to help them control their overheated fight-or-flight mechanisms. He isn’t limited to biological effluvia, though–he has a lot of insight into how to help children (and adults) who have lived through the unbelievable. Fascinating and wise. I would like to write an appendix to this book about how yoga and other mindfulness practices can affect these same flight-or-fight hormones, which is why I’m such a big fan of Street Yoga. DR. PERRY I AM AVAILABLE TO WRITE YOUR APPENDIX call me.

The Unsayable: Annie Rogers. I’ve spoken often about this book by Lacanian analyst Annie Rogers. Jacques Lacan was a follower of Freud who believed, among other things, that, our subconscious lives in our language. Rogers was herself an abuse survivor who found help through analysis. Her previous book, A Shining Affliction, is also a knockout. What interests me so much about Rogers work is how she always looks for, in her words, “the unsayable;” what isn’t said, what isn’t revealed, what we don’t exactly know–and often it’s these very hidden items that are writing the story of our lives. This book deals specifically with how these currents affect certain traumatized girls she’s worked with; sadly, though, the story isn’t confined to young women, and this book would be equally fascinating for all demographics. (By the way, in this very list you can see the conflict/dynamic between Freud and his two number one sons, Jung and Lacan, which was also a big inspiration for the Claire DeWitt books–more about that in another list!)

Wrong Place, Wrong Time: John A. Rich. I’ve talked before, but maybe not here, about this moving and deeply compassionate book on violence among young inner-city men. Rich, an M.D., takes the time to study and prove something many of have suspected: the greatest source of inner-city violence is the trauma caused by inner-city violence. Trauma=hypervigilence=thinking the world is out to get you=more violence=trauma again. Rich has an enormous respect for the young men he spends time with–he listens to young men in the inner city in a way that I’m sorry to say I just haven’t seen before in a mainstream work of nonfiction. Although the political and sociological causes of this violence are of course also important, I don’t think a political analysis can cut quite to the heart of the problem like a psychological analysis can. I think it’s true about inner-city violence, I think it’s true about most human violence, and I think it’s true about most human problems in general: I don’t believe that our problems will solved by a political or sociological or economic solution. I believe that going forward, our problems will be solved by psychological, spiritual, and emotional solutions. And yes, they can be solved, if you want them to. And you choose not to solve them, we will live in the same idiotic shit of fighting, violence, and stupidity forever. It’s all up to you! More good news!

These are the books I’ve found useful. If anyone has other books on trauma they’ve liked or learned from, please let me know in the comments, I’d like to hear it!

 

7 Comments to “Trauma & Recovery (or lack thereof): a list of books that inspired CLAIRE DeWITT”

  1. Thank you for sharing this, these are mostly new titles for me.

    I’m a big softie but I burst into tears at the mere sight of Pema Chodron’s name. I just want to go lie in her lap. I want her to sort it out. Her and Thich-Nhat-Hanh. Just fix it for me please. I’ll just lie here. Go Buddah

    Yeah don’t makin it all deep and shit!! So psyched to read your new one Sara!

    • Can you imagine spending the day with Pema and Thich? Just walking around, smelling the flowers, maybe meditating a little, lots of hugs, rainbows emminating from their fingertips…

  2. It was through you, Sara, that I came to Persephone and The Unsayable, both of which continue to impact me.
    Sara, at my day job, Union Settlement, our adult ed program has this innovative new GED-prep class, through a partnership with the Uptown Meditation Center. It helps students (most young men, many with troubled histories, very sad stories) study and prepare for the GED through mediation, focus training and martial arts. It’s been a big success and the Director presented at at the Naropa Univ conference in Colorado!
    Nathan, you will be transfixed by Sara’s amazing book!!!!

  3. Dave Grossman’s ON KILLING and ON COMBAT address how killing and violence effect people. His work is famous among the military and police types because he addresses things from that perspective.

    A big difference is that Grossman discusses the training methods to counteract the aftereffects of trauma before the trauma happens. “On Combat presents new and exciting research as to how to train the mind to become inoculated to stress, fear and even pain.”

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