The New York Times (February 9, 2014) article After War, A Failure of Imagination challenges the traditional belief that personal experience of war is the only way to understand its trauma. The author, Phil Klay, contends that the bystander’s tendency to classify pain as unique to the individual further isolates victims, making recovery and reconnection more difficult.
While the article focuses on attitudes toward veterans, it underscores a common misunderstanding of the nature of trauma. It’s not specific events that are necessarily traumatizing. Any experience that exceeds one’s capacity to cope can be equally devastating. And the results are strikingly the same regardless of the situation. Trauma typically leaves victims speechless, unable to conjure up the words needed to communicate their pain.
Imagine then the relief that comes through the discovery of “a vocabulary …for something you thought incommunicably unique”. That’s how Klay describes the self-recognition he discovered reading Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. Others find meaningful descriptions of themselves in drama or poetry.
Whatever the genre, the brain can use other people’s words to integrate random trauma memories into a coherent narrative that is both meaningful and manageable…a huge step in moving beyond the past to a more promising future.
Here are some ideas for using other people’s words to help children with early trauma histories:
Angelou, Maya (1993). Life Doesn’t Frighten Me. New York, NY: Stewart, Tabori & Chang.
Bentrim, W.C. (2009). Mommy Has a Black Eye. W.C.Bentrim
Bunting, Eve (1993). Fly Away Home. New York, NY: Scholastic
Christ, J.J. (2004). What to Do When You’re Scared and Worried. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.
Hazen, B.S. & Hyman, T.S. (1983). Tight Times. New York, NY: Scholastic.
Trauma Drama: An Intervention Program for Violence Exposed Youth (Spinazzola, J., Allay, A., Blaustein, M., Dewey, T., Jones, R., Perkins, M., Smith, K., Soloway, F., and B. A. van der Kolk