When Rachel and I were first preparing to teach the class on Psychology of Trauma together way back in the summer of 2002,
we started talking about portrayals of trauma in
fiction. There's a lot out there, but here's a list of some things that I recommend as fascinating page-turners! If you
have any suggestions, email me.
- Dorothy Allison's Bastard out of Carolina gives a unique perspective on trauma because we see Bone's relationship
with her mother as well as the resilience that is made possible by her extended family. (Recommended by Rachel also.) (interview
with the author)
- Strands of Starlight, by Gael Baudino, is about a young woman literally transforming herself in order to
heal from marginalization and abuse. I thought the rest of the series went downhill after this book, but this one's worth a read.
- Amy Bloom writes luminous fiction about people with mental "disorders" and those who love them. All
of it is exquisite. (interview with the author)
- Orson Scott Card's books often deal with themes
of guilt and redemption. One example is Hart's Hope.
- Matilda, by Roald Dahl, is about a neglected and emotionally abused child
who turns out to be quite extraordinary.
- The Onion Girl is one of Charles
de Lint's Newford books. You can read them in any order, and they are all superb. They are sort of like magical realism. Sort of.
- Elizabeth Flock has written two notable books. The first
one, But Inside I'm Screaming, is a little bit "Girl, Interrupted" but still good. It is the story of a woman who survives
domestic violence and finds the start of healing in a mental hospital. It got a little insipid towards the end, but it's the kind of insipid
that really does happen. A fast read. Flock's other book, Me & Emma, is a rip-snorter. Carrie
and her sister Emma are young girls caught in an abusive family situation and looking out for each other. Other people might not even see the
twist at the end coming. Hard to put down.
- Neil Gaiman's Sandman series is one of the finest examples of storytelling I've ever
seen, graphic or otherwise. The collection A Game of You is about identity and about what happens to the
worlds we create as children.
- Mouthing the Words, by Camilla Gibb, is a quick read that
plays with what is real, what is in our heads, what is sane, insane, imaginary, normal. Recommended.
- Nina Kiriki Hoffman's A Red Heart of Memories puts an interesting
spin on multiple personalities. Its prequel, A Stir of Bones, is a gripping story about a girl finding the
strength to deal with an abusive situation.
- Memories to Die For is the pseudonymous Adrian Gold's first novel. It does suffer from first-novel flaws, such as too much exposition and a
main character who is ludicrously, implausibly slow on the uptake. Still, it is deliciously catty-- thinly disguised and very satisfying! I'll definitely
read the sequel.
- Blood Memory, by Greg Iles: This book has been
passed around our lab. Not only does it give an uncommonly accurate representation of the state of scientific knowledge, but it's pretty much
been universally regarded as a page-turner. Another book by Iles, Dead Sleep, is possibly even better, and even more of a page-turner. The
portrayal of the murderer is highly implausible, though the facts are correct as given. Despite this minor flaw, it's still a great read!
- Hadley Irwin's Abby, My Love is a young adult novel, but very good. It's interesting to learn of events from the best friend's perspective,
to see the role of fantasy in coping with trauma, and to see a portrayal of the Child Protective Services system when it doesn't fail.
- A little-known wonder by Stephen King is The Eyes of the
Dragon, a novel about shame and about how we hurt the ones we love most.
- One of Barbara Kingsolver's many excellent books is Animal Dreams, which
demonstrates how unspoken trauma can affect a family for years.
- In She's Come Undone, by Wally Lamb, we again see a complex relationship between the survivor and her mother, which affects how the
main character organizes her life. (reading guide here.)
- Dan McCall's novel Messenger Bird tells the story of a doctor trying to cope with the violence and despair
he finds on an Indian reservation in New Mexico.
- Mysterious Skin, by Scott Heim, has apparently been made into a movie, though I don't see how. The problem I had with this book was
that it is extremely realistic, and therefore hard to read in places. It's very well written, though, and well worth a read if
you're not looking for escapist fiction. I would read more from this author.
- Deerskin, by Robin McKinley, is a powerful retelling of
the Charles Perrault fairy tale "Donkeyskin", about an incest survivor's
recovery and healing. Often recommended, and for good reason.
- Books by Toni Morrison contain a wide variety of traumatic situations (including incest, infanticide, suicide, slavery, racism, and murder), and also contain
a variety of strong characters struggling to survive, cope, and thrive. Particularly recommended are:
- The Bluest Eye
- Song of Solomon
- A trauma experienced by one member affects the whole family in Joyce Carol Oates' We Were the Mulvaneys. I thought that parts of the book were pretty
clichéd, but then it kept going beyond my expectations. If you can put aside the predictability of the middle section, the end of the book is quite worth it.
(Reading Guide here)
- Award-winning local writer Bruce Holland Rogers has written a short story, Thirteen Ways to Water, about how
the effects of war linger years later.
- Push, by Sapphire, is about an abused young woman slowly learning to take control of
her life. (Recommended by Rachel also.) [Using Push in the classroom; for more on
Push, see also here.]
- How I Learned to Drive is a powerful play written by Paula Vogel.
- The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, speaks of overcoming the traumas of racism, molestation, poverty, etc. Also by Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy
is an incredible novel dealing with female genital mutilation. Definitely worth a read.
- A recent read: Breathing Underwater, by Alex Flinn, is about a high schooler forced into therapy to stem his dating violence, and how he struggles to understand and overcome his experiences, and figure out what healthy relationships are. Young adult book.
Autobiographical books that read as easily as fiction:
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
A Family Exposure,
by Jill Christman, a University of Oregon graduate!
- Madison Clell's Cuckoo is a trade-paperback publication of her
autobiographical comic books about living with multiple personalities. Both disturbing and amusing. (Another UO graduate!)
- Memory Slips, by Linda Katherine
Cutting, is a memoir not only of music and healing, as the subtitle says, but also of religion and
- Brenda Daly's Authoring a Life: A woman's survival in and through literary studies is a fairly
academic book, focused mainly on literary criticism. It is nonetheless fascinating and talks a lot about teaching
incest literature and the language that people use to talk about trauma. One of the chapters is an interesting comparison between Bastard out of Carolina, which
displays the narrator's empowerment, and Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, a retelling of King Lear that
systematically undercuts the survivor's voice by its placing of the incest narrative within the story.
- Of the many first-people accounts of multiple personalities that are out there, I have a new favorite! The Magic Daughter, by
Jane Phillips, is fascinating and re-readable; it particularly interests me because the author is a professor. Another great read (but also the most graphic choice)
is When Rabbit Howls, usually listed as by Truddi Chase but on the
cover as by "the Troops for Truddi Chase". The next best is
The Flock, by Joan Frances Casey, with Lynn Wilson. Most of the rest range from
mediocre to downright bad and misleading. Several are like textbooks of how not to conduct therapy with a multiple; many contain examples of
ethical breaches. The recent Switching Time, by Richard Baer, is solidly middle-of-the-road; neither great nor awful. It is certainly not, as the
book description suggests, "the first complete account of such therapy to be told from the perspective of the treating physician". However, it's a quick and ok read.
- Recommended by me and by JJF is Miss America By Day, the story of Marilyn Van Derbur, who was
Miss America in 1958. You can read exerpts from her book on the website, and the Knight Library has a video called A Story of Hope, which is
her giving a talk (she is now a public speaker and advocate for child abuse survivors).
See also: Madison Clell's list of
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