“Not the Price of Admission” by Laura S. Brown PhD

book cover

Subtitle: Healthy relationships after childhood trauma

Recommended to me by: a client

Relationships are hard for everyone. For people with less-than-adequate caregivers early in life, the difficulty feels personal, a cause for shame as well as sadness. Laura Brown, a feminist psychologist, kindly lays out the likely consequences of early attachment wounds and repeatedly advocates for self-compassion.

Feminist therapy looks at people’s experiences in the context of marginalized identities that often lead to disempowerment and maltreatment, rather than saying that all the problems are inside the individual. The first example in the book is about a same-sex couple. And they’re not the only ones. The book fairly bursts with same-sex couples, as well as emotionally important friendships and work relationships, not just heterosexual romantic partnerships, in a matter-of-fact, “you are all welcome here” way.

I also felt welcomed by seeing quotes from Jewish scholars and traditions. She translates Yom Kippur as “Day of Return,” day of mending connections. And, even though I never watched it, quotes from “Deep Space Nine,” a science-fiction TV show felt welcoming as well.

There is a lot of great material densely packed into this book. It does not skip disorganized attachment like many relationship books do. It shifts the focus to disorganizing caregivers, since the disorganization is not inherent to the child.

Frozen-in-time child states are called EPs, short for Emotional Parts. The book also emphasizes that emotions are positive and useful, so that didn’t seem like the most helpful terminology. EPs are in contrast to ANPs, Apparently Normal Parts that handle day-to-day adult tasks like going to work.

Relationships similar to what we experienced as babies will have limbic resonance and feel “right,” even when they hurt.

The goal is to mindfully notice when a pattern from childhood has taken over, and compassionately self-soothe and notice what is happening in the present, both positive and negative. It’s okay to be imperfect. We don’t have to be abused or used or ignored to be in relationship. We can tolerate conflict that has the goal of reaching better understanding, rather than causing more hurt.

Highly recommended. There is so much more useful material in the book than I can even begin to summarize.

Available at Amazon.

“A Safe Place for Pearl” by Ani Rose Whaleswan

book cover

Recommended to me by: Ani Rose Whaleswan. I’ve known the author for a long time online, and I contributed an essay to her collection We Have Come Far.

“A Safe Place for Pearl” is a gentle offering of artwork, dreams, and narration, full of hope and inner resources. When there is no human support available, Nature and Spirit step in to support a child going through hard times. (The hard times are not described.) The remembering adult is supported as well. This book powerfully answers the question, “How did you survive? What helped you through?”

Recommended as support for looking inside and trusting what supports you, even if it is not visible to others.

Available at Amazon.

“Flight Behavior” by Barbara Kingsolver

book cover

Recommended to me by: Reading Barbara Kingsolver’s other books

This book has Barbara Kingsolver’s trademark combination of vivid characters and complex global issues. The issues in this book are climate change and, relatedly, mass production of cheaply made products that end up in landfills or the ocean. We get a clear picture of rural Appalachian life, including the exposure to unwarranted contempt from wealthier, more educated urban folks. Also including their vulnerability to climate disaster.

I was completely absorbed. Highly recommended.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Lost Connections” by Johann Hari

book cover

Subtitle: Uncovering the real causes of depression – and the unexpected solutions

Recommended to me by: Alice

This is a carefully researched, elegantly written book about depression and its causes. Hari interviewed people doing basic research on depression, its causes, and its solutions. He also shares about his own experiences with depression and meds that only worked temporarily.

Along the way, the idea that depression is caused by a lack of serotonin is thoroughly debunked. Apparently scientists never thought so, but it’s convenient for marketing anti-depressant drugs. Which, by the way, studies show only work for a minority of people to alleviate a small amount of depression. When they work long-term, it is largely through the placebo effect. Which is great as far as it goes, but there are serious “side-effects” (main effects) caused by these drugs.

Careful studies show that depression is not an internal malfunction. Depression is a sane response to external circumstances. Hari explores 9 causes. He notes that there are probably others, and that one of them (childhood trauma) covers a lot of ground.

Depression is caused by disconnection from:

  • meaningful work
  • other people
  • meaningful values (as opposed to pursuing material wealth)
  • [ourselves because of] childhood trauma
  • status and respect
  • the natural world
  • a hopeful or secure future

The last two causes are genes and changes in the brain. Genes can predispose us to depression, but external events trigger it. Changes in the brain happen in response to those external circumstances, and can change back when circumstances improve.

He explores solutions that have helped people reconnect. We can find anti-depressants that are social solutions rather than chemicals taken to “fix” individuals.

  • People coming together in community, extending their sense of home not just to four walls, but to the people around them.
  • Social prescribing: doctors who prescribe group projects when needed, as well as surgery and drugs when those are appropriate to the patient’s problem.
  • Co-ops and other ways to find meaning at work.
  • Exploring meaningful values and getting away from advertising that promotes feelings of inadequacy to make people buy things.
  • Sympathetic joy: shifting from envy and competition to sympathetic joy and cooperation. Also meditation and reconnecting with the self.
  • Overcoming trauma. This is a very short section for a very big topic. Hari mentions overcoming shame by speaking what happened and being heard non-judgmentally.
  • Restoring the future. This is another huge topic. Universal basic income is mentioned as a good start.

The only downside I noticed in this book is some concern-trolling about the “serious medical crisis” of obesity. It was jarring in a book where I didn’t notice other overtly oppressive language. He interviews enough women scientists that I didn’t feel the need to go back and count how many women and men there were. I don’t know how many were people of color.

Highly recommended for everyone who is experiencing our highly disconnected, advertising-saturated, chronically insecure society.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“What Remains to Be Seen” by Lauren Rusk

book cover

Recommended to me by: Eric Roberts

This is a chapbook of poems about some of the children’s art left behind at the concentration camp Theresienstadt.

Cover art: The image of Kain and Abel by an unknown artist is from the collections of the Jewish Museum in Prague. One of the poems richly describes this piece and the experience of the child making it.

The poems describe both art and artist child, the context of camp around the child, and allusions from the wider world. They are conversational, translucent, including author and reader in the experience of looking at art created in the midst of horror.

Recommended as a tribute to the children artists, as a way to keep their memory alive, as way of bearing witness so we never forget, so it never happens again.

An interview with Lauren Rusk that talks about how she integrates poetry and art.

Available at Finishing Line Press.

“It Didn’t Start With You” by Mark Wolynn

book cover

Subtitle: How inherited family trauma shapes who we are and how to end the cycle

Recommended to me by: a client

The book starts with Mark Wolynn’s story. He had sudden trouble with an eye and, fearing blindness, traveled in southeast Asia seeking gurus and healers who could help him. Finally, two separate gurus said, “Go home and call your mother and your father.” He went home, healed his relationship with his parents, felt much better, and incidentally his vision returned.

The next section reviews scientific research on epigenetics, how people’s cortisol levels and behaviors are affected by trauma experienced by their parents. When our grandmother is pregnant with our mother, the precursor cell of the egg that will become us is already formed. It makes sense that bodies would be prepared for a dangerous environment if the parents experience danger.

The next section has case histories of how an early break in the maternal relationship can cause ongoing problems. Parents are described as an ongoing source of the flow of life, so being estranged from them interrupts that flow. Since the author solved his problem by reconnecting with his parents, everyone should reconnect with their parents. Bizarrely, for a book about inherited trauma, actively abusive parents are never mentioned.

A person can unconsciously act out a parent’s or other relative’s story, even if they don’t know about the past events. Anything that is hidden can surface inside a relative.

The remedy, in addition to reconciling with your parents “even if you’d rather eat thumbtacks,” is to identify your core sentence and listen for echoes of past stories. Write down your worst fear, and look for phrases that are more intense or resonate with the past. When a family is affected by war or atrocities like the Holocaust, trauma can reverberate through the generations.

We can imagine making contact with past relatives, and respectfully return their feelings to them, and imagine them wishing us well. We can similarly imagine returning parents’ feelings to them if it is not safe to contact them directly.

Accepting our parents is important. As Martha Beck said in (I think) “Leaving the Saints,” it’s possible to accept a rattlesnake exactly as it is and stay respectfully out of range of its fangs.

Recommended as food for thought, as long as you remember that the author’s solution will not be the solution for everyone. Since my family tree has several branches chopped short by the Holocaust, it’s good to see an acknowledgment of the repercussions for later generations.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“The Night Child” by Anna Quinn

book cover

Recommended to me by: Katherine Macomber Millman

A powerful, heartbreaking book about a woman slowly remembering and coming to terms with the childhood abuse she endured.

It reminded me of Susan Palwick’s “Flying In Place” in the way her pain is visible to the people around her, and she receives a lot of skilled, kind help. For many people, the process is less visible and they receive less assistance.

Anna Quinn has skillfully fictionalized her memoir, with lots of present-time sensory details to balance the horror of remembered abuse. The focus is on recovery, not the abuse itself.

Highly recommended if you want to read about an emotionally intense healing process which clearly shows the lasting harm done by abuse and the hard work it takes to recover.

Anna Quinn’s blog post When Your Memoir Wants To Be A Novel

Available at Powell’s Books.

“The Best of All Possible Worlds” by Karen Lord

book cover

Recommended to me by: boxofdelights

From the back cover: “Karen Lord has been a physics teacher, a diplomat, a part-time soldier, and an academic at various times and in various countries. She is now a writer and research consultant in Barbados.”

Like their author, the characters in this science-fiction novel have brown skin, although sadly the cover of the edition I read is white-washed. The main character is a woman, and has a woman boss. Relatedly, this is an emotionally non-violent book. Violence does occur off-screen, but the emphasis is on relating, healing, and grieving, rather than on domination and victory.

I enjoyed the plot, but the reason I kept reading is that I enjoyed watching the characters relate to each other and themselves in a future where we’ve gotten better at not oppressing each other.

Highly recommended.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Lessons from the Fat-o-sphere” by Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby

book cover

Subtitle: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce With Your Body

Recommended to me by: Kate Harding’s blog post The Fantasy of Being Thin

The introduction begins:

“Did you ever notice that the very same magazines that tell you each and every month how to lose weight, burn more calories, fight the flab! […] will turn right around and tell you to love your body? And then, adding insult to injury, tell you that confidence is the sexiest thing in the world?

And did you ever just want to light every one of those magazines on fire?

We’re right there with you.”

The whole book is like sitting down to tea with chatty, warm, kind friends who eagerly share their smarts and personal stories because they care about you. It’s a delight to read.

First they work through the evidence that diets simply don’t work. Even if you call them “lifestyle changes” or a spiritual practice, food restriction does not result in sustained weight loss over 5 years for 95% of people.

They introduce Health At Every Size (HAES) – making the best choices you can for food and movement at whatever size your body likes to be.

They briefly address depression and its compounding effect on negative body image and advocate for seeking treatment for ongoing depression symptoms.

They encourage finding body-positive doctors because you deserve good healthcare at every size, and “you should lose weight” is not healthcare. Also body-positive friends, because why hang out with people who subtly or overtly put you (or themselves) down all the time.

To find new friends, and replace all the time spent dieting and obsessing about food, try out new hobbies.

And more! Highly recommended for anyone who struggles with body image.

Kate Harding’s blog (archived)

Marianne Kirby’s blog

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Pain Is Really Strange” by Steve Haines, art by Sophie Standing

book cover

Recommended to me by: reading Trauma Is Really Strange

This is in the same format as “Trauma Is Really Strange,” a graphic “novel” (although it’s non-fiction) or comic, or graphic medicine book. Each page is divided into panels with drawings and word bubbles, sometimes with additional explanations in tiny red print at the bottom of the page.

Most of the book talks about the complex neurology of pain as a lead up to saying that long term chronic pain is almost entirely unrelated to gnarly looking bone bumps or torn muscles on MRIs. Pain is the brain’s way of signaling danger, and our bodies each interpret danger in different ways. Tissue damage usually heals in 3-6 months, so most chronic pain that lasts longer than that is due to a sensitized nervous system.

Cancer pain is an exception, since tumors continue to physically push on body structures. I suspect there are other exceptions for chronic infections, etc.

Telling ourselves stories about pain that allow room for change is more functional than telling ourselves stories that have no hope, like “I’m just getting older,” or “I have arthritis.” Choose metaphors with hope as well. Pain as protective rather than pain as punishment.

Getting in tune with your body, feeling what is happening in this moment, and gradually adding gentle movement can all help the brain feel safer and thus reduce pain.

Paying attention to what feels good not only feels good in the moment, it can reduce overall pain over time.

Much of the information in the book is in tiny red print at the bottom of the pages under the cartoon panels. The cartoon format helps defuse a difficult topic, but also simplifies its complexities. I like the overall message, and at the same time the topic doesn’t quite fit into this format.

Recommended if you need a gentle introduction to the ways chronic pain can improve.

Available at Powell’s Books.