Various schools of psychology, psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy specialising in contemporary trauma theory have conducted research and case studies suggesting that post-traumatic growth in adults who have suffered from complex childhood trauma is possible and does happen. Santiago Ramón y Cajal, (1852-1934) a trailblazer in neuroscience, first challenged the long-accepted conviction that the adult brain could not be changed nor could brain cells be replaced. He proposed that the adult brain does indeed have the plasticity, and therefore capacity, to adapt and function in accordance with the nervous system. Subsequent research has gone on to confirm that ‘neuronal plasticity,’ (when the brain proceeds to change the structure of its neuronal networks connectivity as well as modifying neurobiochemical exchanges) is possible regardless of age.
The brain can be transformed through its capacity to make new connections and therefore create new pathways. And for adult survivors of complex childhood trauma this means that effective attitudes, behaviours and beliefs can always be learned and consciously practiced in daily life until they become automatic, from which post-traumatic growth ensues. What each individual is personally capable of and prepared to work for is different, as are the external resources and environment, but neurologically there is, generally speaking, no limit to the growth and change possible. It is however important to acknowledge that “repetition-compulsion” is a hard aspect to overcome as it inhabits the psyche at a core, unconscious level. This repetition, re-living or re-exposure to the original trauma that is “repetition-compulsion” can take place via dreams, toxic relationship dynamics, somatisation and emotional reactions as well as “acting out”.
In the 1980s literary theorists enlisted Trauma Theory to discuss trauma fiction, predominantly Holocaust fiction, by taking Freud’s theories on trauma as the primary lens through which to read and discuss texts. Cathy Caruth one of the pioneers of this literary movement, has used the definition of trauma as a wound to discuss ways of listening to, engaging with and recognising psychic injury and Freud’s notions of “repetition-compulsion” to discuss how narratives engaging with trauma are structured to reflect this symptomatic, or metaphorical, circling round the wounding experience, without ever fully realising it.
Caruth explores how we might come to know something of trauma, through trauma narratives, and its impact on individuals’ subjective experience in Trauma: Explorations in Memory (1995), Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (1996), and Listening to Trauma: Conversations with Leaders in the Theory and Treatment of Catastrophic Experience (2014). Caruth does not support the notion that writing or talking about trauma has the power to cure it. Rather, she argues that because trauma defies language, linear time and being fully conscious in the present, that it is impossible to ever fully know, articulate or understand traumatic experience. For my PhD project, I as an adult survivor of childhood trauma, tested whether writing and reading trauma fiction might assist in and facilitate post-traumatic growth when practiced alongside therapy. While it would be reductive and highly misleading to suggest that writing and reading trauma fiction alone are the cure, they do and can play an essential collaborative part in treating and alleviating the limiting and life annulling effects of childhood trauma in adult life.
Childhood trauma may involve emotional, mental and financial abuse in conjunction with either or both physical and sexual abuse. As outlined in previously previous posts, adult survivors adversely affected by childhood trauma generally experience PTSD. Symptoms include nightmares, flashbacks, hyperarousal, social withdrawal, and the avoidance or acute fear of people, places, objects and situations that have associations with past trauma. These symptoms overwhelm the psychic, somatic and emotional life of a survivor, as they are a means through which the past is re-experienced or remembered as present, regardless of the survivor’s will to forget, avoid or escape all knowledge and awareness of past events that have demeaned, horrified, hurt and threatened their sense of wellbeing and safety. Each of the three novels Push (1996) by Sapphire (Ramona Lofton), In Perfect Light (2005) by Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Bastard Out of Carolina (1992) by Dorothy Allison discussed in a prior post How Reading Coming of Age Trauma Fiction Gives Insight to Adult Survivors’ Persisting Struggles represents adult survivors’ experience of PTSD in fiction differently. For example, In Perfect Light shows Andrés being subject to murderous fits of rage, depression and thoughts about death.
He is thinking of another kind of death. Being held prisoner by his claustrophobic past, that is the worst kind of death—the kind of death that doesn’t let you touch or breathe, that makes your heart feel as if it’s a stone. “I died before I died.”
Sáenz 2005, 30
To survive the experience of powerlessness over what is happening to their child body, as it is treated like an object, some remain internally dead and externally vacant. In instances of “repetition-compulsion”, a survivor unconsciously re-creates situations and encounters that again reduce the body to an object. In turn this reinforces the survivor’s conviction of being nothing and deserving this kind of treatment.
I big, I talk, I eats, I cooks, I laugh, I watch TV, do what my muver say. But I can see when the picture come back I don’t exist. Don’t nobody want me. Don’t nobody need me. I know who I am. I know who they say I am—vampire sucking the systems blood. Ugly black grease to be wipe away, punish, kilt, changed, finded a job for.
Sapphire 1996, 33
In the first two thirds of Push, Precious often dissociates; her narration poetically performs this disappearance from the present moment and into re-living past trauma or fantasy. This defense mechanism facilitates the escape of being conscious through incest and serves to protect the psyche from irreversible damage. For example:
…he just come in my room any ole time, not jus’ night. He climb on me. Shut up! He say. He slap my ass, You wide as the Mississipi, don’t tell me a little bit of dick hurt you heifer. Git usta it, he laff, you is usta it. I fall back on bed, he fall right on top of me. Then I change stations, change bodies, I be dancing in videos! In movies! I be breaking, fly jus’ a dancing! Umm hmm heating up the stage at the Apollo for Doug E. Fresh or Al B. Shure. They love me! Say I’m one of the best dancers ain’ no doubt of or about that!
Sapphire 1996, 25
Precious changes stations in her head and, unsurprisingly, the station it goes to is the complete opposite of the reality she is fleeing. In her fantasy she can move freely to music, a metaphor and literary motif for being alive to life. In reality, her father has climbed on top of her and she cannot move or speak, otherwise the sex will turn into a beating. On the TV, Precious is a greatly admired dancer, yet it must be acknowledged that in this fantasy Precious rejects and erases herself by not allowing herself to be as she is in it. She gives herself a different body: a white, thin cheerleader body that will never be her reality because, even if she loses the weight, as she mentions wanting to, she will always be African-American and the life she has lived will always be the life she has lived. Nothing can undo the fact that she is the mother of two children conceived of incest. All that has the potential to change is the way she feels about and perceives this.
“I’m gonna marry you,” he be saying… Nigger, how you gonna marry me and you is my daddy! I’m your daughter, fucking me illegal. But I keep my mouf shut so’s the fucking don’t turn into a beating. I start to feel good; stop being a video dancer and start coming. I try to go back to video but coming now, rocking under Carl now, my twat jumping juicy, it feel good. I feel ashamed. “See, see,” he slap my thigh like cowboys do horses on TV, then he squeeze my nipple, bite down on it. I come some more. See, you (24) LIKE it! You jus’ like your mama—you die for it!” He pull his dick out, the white cum stuff pour out my hole wet up the sheets.
Sapphire 1996, 24-5
Not only is Precious betrayed by her father using her as a sex object but her body betrays her by becoming pregnant, causing her to feel ashamed and responsible for what is not of her own volition. Furthermore, later in the text, she hates herself for desiring her father to make her come again and wishes she had a boyfriend to love her and to raise her children with. In her fantasy life she has a white version of herself experience admiration and praise. Her physical girth, ‘black’ African-American skin and sex are crudely mocked by her father, Carl Kentwood Jones. Precious is large, vulnerable and invisible to herself and others. Her world is predominately invisible and socially and culturally unrepresented the way that her value is invisible to her.
Countless young women like Precious go unnoticed and sometimes even die from the impossible circumstances illuminated in Push. Sapphire has Precious tell her story as an illiterate young obese woman to demand that the excessive weight that the sixteen-year-old complex trauma survivor carries is seen in her own words. The degree of abject degradation and abuse to which Precious and those like her are subject to becomes visible through the body of the text, which includes the life stories of other women in her pre-GED writing class at the alternative school she attends. The body of the text gives sufficient context to understand the meaning and significance of what is shown. Without Precious’s speaking up, her great physical weight remains unrecognised for what it is, and she continues to be subject to the ridicule and invisibility endured before entering Ms. Rain’s class. Precious is often subject to paralysis as well, retreating into fantasy where she is unable to speak anything further of the internal monologue combusting within her. The monologue to which the reader is given privileged access in turn makes it possible for Precious’s silence to be heard. It is Sapphire’s black words on white paper that render Precious visible and invite public attention and awareness to the heartbreaking reality of many young African-American women from welfare families.
Precious gave birth to her father’s daughter at the age of twelve. Social services have this on record but nothing was done and by sixteen Precious is pregnant to her father for the second time. Despite Precious’s need to dissociate and retreat into fantasy, the trauma (wound) interrupts the fantasy, and proves unable to fully facilitate the escape it attempts to provide. Similarly the unconscious never fully conceals one’s traumatic experience.
“Are you getting on the bus, young lady? I blink at bus driver staring down at me. He shake his head, bus door close. I’m leaning against glass panel of bus stop. I stare at 101 bus disappearing down 125th Street. …
“You OK?” guy in a uniform for like working in a garage ax me.
It’s a elevator wif black doors. I step inside, stand there. Don’t go anywhere. Push the button, stupid, I tell myself.
Sapphire 1996, 25
When words, places, feelings or people trigger Precious into dissociating, Sapphire signposts the now by having another character speak to bring her attention and the narrative to the present. ‘“Are you getting on the bus, young lady?”’ Physically, Precious has been standing at the bus stop while mentally an intrusive memory of her father raping her while she dissociates into fantasy has colonised her consciousness. Upon returning to the now, Precious does not know where she is and what she is doing until she maps her way back to remembering by connecting her wearing ‘NEON YELLOW’ leggings with her new school.
Disassociation helps Precious survive but as a young adult this coping mechanism makes her lose time and repeat the erasure of self originally done to her by her abusers. When either her mother or father is having sex with her she is desperate to either black out or retreat into her fantasy of being a white celebrity but on an unconscious level she continues to register what is going on (for an in depth understanding of how this works please visit “Picturing out” Trauma, Fiction and the Unconscious). All abused children experience a manner of unconscious knowing and remembering as adults.
Precious, through a gradual shift in perspective, does however come to positively change her life and experience post-traumatic growth as her character arcs. The wound ceases to be all there is and she is able to continue with scars rather than remain subservient to the wound re-enacting or re-opening itself time and again and superimposing itself onto her present. By the novel’s close she is a young literate mother of two who writes poetry and has friends.
In Bastard Out of Carolina, after Daddy Glen’s initial physical, verbal and sexual abuse, Bone becomes hypervigilant, anti-social and numb. She is angry and full of self-loathing. A way of dealing with the conviction that she is evil is by giving herself over to gospel music and the church. This infatuation is featured midway through the story, after she steals and gets into fights. It also provides a much needed reprieve for the reader from Bone’s world dominated by Daddy Glen.
In In Perfect Light, Andrés has maintained an isolated adult life so that even though he survived his childhood he is not living his life. He protects the world from who and what he is convinced he is: a cowardly prostitute so filled with hate and bitterness that he did not attend his older sister’s funeral. He punishes himself for what he is not responsible for and is unable to perceive himself as the blameless child he has been. This false perception of self is what prohibits growth and disconnects him from life. It ensures that all he has and can have is the pain and loss of his past, which is no longer actually present, but remains psychologically and emotionally real. So, while this remains his state of being, he exists alone in the drama of his mind that trauma is, with no sense of linear time but the circularity incarceration of “repetition compulsion”.
Journeys of Post-traumatic Growth
Early on in Push, the reader intuits that learning to read and write is part of what it takes for Precious to realise how to speak out, rather than keep it all in. As the novel progresses, the reader observes Precious share the truth about herself with the teacher Ms. Rain and her peers at Each One Teach One. Through their acceptance of her, she too begins loving and accepting her children, despite feeling ashamed of their incestuous origin. She also comes to see the beauty, value and strength in herself. For Bone, we see how this post-traumatic growth experience is shaped through living with her aunts and telling her story as a mature woman walking the reader through her past so that she might move forward. For Andrés this takes place through the therapeutic relationship, going to college and his friendship with, and forgiveness for his lawyer, Dave, who is the one responsible for driving the car that killed his parents. These novels all feature the protagonists reading, writing and telling their story as integral to their post-traumatic growth journey, but why? What is it about the reading and writing and its relationship to the unconscious that makes it so effective? How is it that each dramatized narrator-protagonist finds relief and reprieve in reading novels, which inspire and give them hope, just as the novel they are in does for others?
Ms Rain say, You not writing (96) Precious. I say I drownin’ in river…If you just sit there the river gonna rise up drown you! Writing could be the boat carry you to the other side. One time in your journal you told me you had never really told your story. I think telling your story git you over that river Precious.
I still don’t move. She say, “Write.” I tell her, “I am tired. Fuck you!” I scream at Ms Rain. I never do that before. Class look shock. I feel embarrass, stupid; sit down, I’m made a fool of myself on top of everything else. “Open your notebook Precious.” “I’m tired,” I says. She says, “I know you are but you can’t stop now Precious, you gotta push.” And I do.
Sapphire 1996, 97
Pushing through the confusion, pain and silence with a pen across the page is what Precious and Bone do. Could it be that the therapeutic benefits of this for both reader and author are that writing and objectively witnessing, externalises trauma, which is predominantly an internal affair? That the writing process works to make unconscious content conscious and through the ever-present text on paper, ensures the survivor is never alone with their “stuff”? There is always the story or paper and pen to contain it where the therapist is not always available to listen and be the emotional container needed.
The reason that trauma typically remains unconscious and therefore not experienced, is that the child at the time of traumatic experience/s is developmentally unable to cognitively, emotionally and somatically process what is happening. Consequently, the survivor is particularly underdeveloped in certain aspects and his/her adult self is an agglomeration of unintegrated parts and what they have internalised of the abuser. Adult survivors imprisoned by trauma to the extent that they can no longer function with efficacy have not and cannot synthesise their shattered parts. They remain stuck in the various stages of human development, unable to fully inhabit the present. Their capacity to remain in present awareness is thwarted by the trauma reigning over their unconscious life and wreaking havoc in their conscious life. For example, while the sixteen-year-old Precious is at the sink washing dishes, pregnant for the second time to her father, she is transported back to when she was twelve at the kitchen sink giving birth to her first child. She relives being on the kitchen floor overwhelmed with labour pain while her mother kicks her for being “a slut” and stealing her man.
Then she kick me in ribs. Then she say, “Thank you Miz Claireece Precious Jones for fucking my husband you nasty little slut!” I feel like I’m gonna die, can’t breathe, from where I have baby start to hurt.
“Fat cunt bucket slut! Nigger pig bitch! He done quit me! He done left me ‘cause of you. What you tell them mutherfuckers at the damn hospital? I should KILL you!” she screaming at me.
I’m lying on the floor shaking, crying, scared she gonna kill me. “Get up Miss Hot-to-Trot,” Mama say. “Git your Jezebel ass up and fix me some dinner ‘fore I give you something to cry about.”…I’m in the kitchen two hours, I know that, even though I don’t tell time so good, ‘cause man on the radio say four o’clock, tell some news, play music, and by the time I’m fixing Mama’s plate man say six o’clock.
Sapphire 1996, 19
The twelve-year-old Precious is too young to know and understand exactly what is happening to her as she gives birth to her first child. The reader is positioned to vicariously re-live, with Precious, this horrific, painful and confusing sequence of events triggered by Precious again being pregnant, at the same kitchen setting where she is at the sink with the sound of her mother verbally abusing her. Sapphire uses repetition to make coherent the triggering of Precious’s mind by association and the variation of dialogue to alert the reader of location and place in time. Without effective use of framing and signposting time-shifts the power of being immersed in Precious’s psychic reality would get lost in incoherence.
“I’m still tripping me out that I had a baby. I mean I knew I was pregnant, knew how I got pregnant. I been knowing a man put his dick in you, gush white stuff in your booty you could get pregnant. I’m twelve now, I been knowing about that since I was five or six, maybe I always known about pussy and dick. I can’t remember not knowing. No, I can’t remember a time I did not know. But that’s all I knowed. I didn’t know how long it take, what’s happening inside, nothing, I didn’t know nothing. The nurse is saying something I don’t hear. I hear kids at school.’
“Mother,” [the nurse] say. “What’s your mother’s name?”
Sapphire 1996, 10
Again dialogue is employed to interpolate Precious into her present. However, in this instance, it is back to the hospital at twelve. Here the narrative circles to another past moment before again realigning with the present, in which her mother is saying, “Precious!” to her now: sixteen and pregnant at the kitchen sink. This narrative device is repeatedly used by Sapphire to show the fluidity, instability and non-linearity with which time is experienced by the trauma-affected psyche. The adult survivor is unaware that his or her consciousness, shifting between past, present and fantasy. When triggered, traumatic memories repeat themselves intrusively and out of chronological order.
Following from the text quoted above, the narrative jump-cuts from Precious giving birth, to the hospital, to her being bullied at school and back to her mother verbally abusing her. Throughout Push, the past relentlessly interrupts Precious’s present. Intrusive memories and thoughts take over and Precious loses time, clarity and coherence. In the second half of the novel, as Precious learns to speak, write, and express herself other than in the inner monologue circling her head, she begins to experience time as linear and increasingly remains present. Consequently, her actual present and future experience cease to be compromised and inhibited by the unprocessed past mediating, deadening and even obliterating her capacity to openly engage with the external present and create a desired future. Through reading, writing and speaking Precious stops being out of time, adrift in the past, in which past drama re-enacts itself in her mind and obese body. Until Precious speaks about what she is going through, we see that all she can be is: alone. This is exactly the same when it comes to Andrés and Bone. Hiding, withdrawing and silencing one’s truth can only result in alienation.
An adult survivor of complex childhood trauma typically continues merely to survive life, as she or he did in childhood and adolescence, unless some kind of intervention or professional help has taken place. Without post-traumatic growth occurring to some capacity an adult survivor is not living life, knowing it, experiencing it and feeling it for what it is or as that person truly is. For it to be possible that a partner, friend or offspring authentically know the person inside the survivor, the trauma needs to be experienced for what it was. Mean a survivor must undergo a process of assimilating the trauma into the past tense, so that it is a scar rather than an open wound.
The scar creates the space in which to be present, whereas the wound bleeds all over the present. In all three novels we see the protagonist disclosing to another, or releasing on the page, through writing, the sound of their wound (the meaning of trauma) and this helps them transition into a state of post-traumatic growth, where the survivor is able to resume her/his progress through the stages of human development. For example, as In Perfect Light comes to a close, Andrés chooses to live and to realign with his former self as an open, sensitive individual and to return to school; in Push, Precious has loving people in her life and her baby boy Abdul, who is ‘…song in my life’ (Sapphire 1996, 98), and Bone has told her story. It is the love for others that arguably saves the protagonists from completely shutting down or even becoming perpetrators themselves: Bone’s love for her mother; Andrés’s love of his little sister Ileana; and, in Precious’s remarkable case, it is the love for her baby, Abdul, her daughter Mongo, her teacher Ms Rain, as well as for the friends at Each One Teach One and the incest survivors’ group. Using their capacity to love others not only gives them a reason to continue but it keeps alive what is humane in them. What is difficult to ascertain is whether the survival of their humanity and capacity to love is what makes their post-traumatic growth possible.
This brief examination of the three survival novels of complex childhood trauma suggests how the voice of the wound trauma is can be heard, acknowledged and transcended through the post-traumatic growth journey.
This article accompanies:
Allison, Dorothy. 1992. Bastard Out of Carolina. Flamingo: Penguin.
Fletcher, John. 2013. Freud and the Scene of Trauma. New York: Fordham University Press.
Levine, Peter A. 1997. Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkley, California: North Atlantic Books.
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____. 2010. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkley, California: North Atlantic Books.
McCann, Lisa and Laurie Anne Pearlman. 1990. Psychological Trauma and Adult Survivor Theory: Therapy and Transformation. London: Pluto Press.
Renn, Paul. 2012. The Silent Past and the Invisible Present: Memory, Trauma, and Representation in Psychotherapy. New York: Routledge.
Sáenz, Benjamin Alire. 1992. Carry Me Like Water. New York: Harper Perennial.
____. 2005. In Perfect Light: A Novel. New York: Harper Perennial.
Sapphire (Ramona Lofton). 2010. Push. London: Vintage Books.