The Healing Power of Stories of Childhood Trauma and Recovery
Jennifer Kane, LCSW, contracted therapist with Insight Counseling Center
Two recent bestselling memoirs have poignantly illuminated the effects of childhood trauma – particularly emotional deprivation – on two women who endured the pain and lived to share their experiences.
Tara Westover writes about being 17 the first time she set foot in a classroom in her memoir titled Educated. Raised by fundamentalist Mormons in Idaho, her (undiagnosed) bipolar father forbade hospitals, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Everything from an abscessed tooth to a burn from an explosion was treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that no one ensured that the children receive an education and no one intervened when one of Tara's older brothers became violent. Despite these obstacles and the inner turmoil she experienced, Tara taught herself enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University, where she learned for the first time about world events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. Her quest for knowledge allowed her to face the powerful traps of family loyalty, secret keeping, and grief that would lead to her slow transformation into a young adult who had the God-given right to self fulfillment and forgiveness.
Maude Julien shared about being physically incarcerated by her father‘s perverse experiment to raise the perfect ‘super-human’ being in the book titled The Only Girl in the World: A Memoir. Maude and her parents lived in an isolated mansion in northern France, where her father made her undergo endless horrifying endurance tests. Maude had to hold an electric fence without flinching. Her parents locked her in a cellar overnight and ordered her to sit still on a stool in the dark, contemplating death, while rats scurried around her feet. Maude was sustained by her love of nature and animals and her passion for literature. Her heartbreaking retelling of her severe trauma is accompanied by a psychological inner-reconciliation and acceptance that can only be described as miraculous. Her story shows that it is possible to overcome severe trauma and find self-compassion and hope.
All of us are affected, for better or worse, by our early attachment experiences. It’s much easier for those who had healthy, functional childhoods to deal with life’s inevitable struggles later on. It’s more complicated for those who didn’t have the early experience of a parent or guardian who was responsible, accessible, and affirming. How do people believe in their self-worth as young adults if they have never gotten the message that they are important, unconditionally loved, and able to trust the goodness in others?
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reported that today’s young adults in their 20s and 30s are seeking therapy in record numbers. As a therapist and parent, that is great news. Psychotherapy can help burgeoning adults make sense of their experiences of deprivation and lead to healing and self-fulfillment. It’s never too late or too hopeless to love and be loved, as these recent memoirs validate.