Oh, Trauma! How Little We Know Ye

A Book Review
Michael Johnson

The Therapy Journal
by Steve Wineman
Golden Antelope Press, 2017

 

In The Therapy Journal , Steve Wineman gives us a novel about sexual trauma that is deeply relevant to all social change agents both in their practice and in the strategies they work from. It’s a good novel and it an important piece of work. I could critique it as a novel, but that’s not the purpose of my review. My interest here is to alert you to a piece of work deeply relevant to social change.
 
Its importance lies in what it’s two stories have to tell us about the nature of trauma, and how that relates to the very complex and little understood phenomenon of power. We can find out enough from the two interlocking stories to realize how little we know about a major social force that hobbles and even devastates our whole society. Through the interplay of these stories Wineman skillfully takes us into the complexity of abusive trauma—sexual in this case—power (agency), and powerlessness. He doesn’t explain; he lets the stories talk.
 
The novel intertwines two stories of sexual abuse, both women. Lathsamy is Laotian who was sold into sexual slavery by her impoverished family and “rescued” by a WASP family while still young and raised here in the States in a secure middle class setting. From there she was able to establish a new identity—she took on the name “Laura” from her American family— which included graduating from Harvard Law School, marrying, and having a child. That identity eventually crashed.
 
The other woman, Rebecca, was her therapist, a white, upper middle class woman in her late 30s. She spent 10 years helping Lathsamy work through the devastating effects of her traumatic experiences. She is professionally established, unmarried, not able to maintain a stable sexual relationship, pregnant, and deeply ambivalent as to what to do about her pregnancy. In addition, she is severely alienated from and enraged with her family, but not able to cut ties.
 
In the process of working with Lathsamy—who at various times lives out a professional identity, a mother/wife in recovery identity, and a street whore identity (‘Lulu’)—Rebecca herself remembers that she is the victim of sexual abuse. Her repressed memories become a character in her own right, “Becky.” How Rebecca/Becky works through her complex situation unfolds within Lathsamy/Lulu’s story. Actually, working with Lathsamy/Lulu becomes the midwife of Rebecca’s recovery. She is successful in her struggle, but Lathsamy is not.

The stories reveal the continuing distortion of normal function that is an inherent part in how trauma plays out. What can seem objectively incomprehensible to us—and the traumatized person as well sometimes—can have little if anything to do with what’s going on within the experience of the one going through a traumatic episode. Through these two stories we come in contact with dynamics that can roar on for decades as long as the traumatic experiences lay concealed under the cover of shame and the fear of finding out what it all might mean to me, the victim.
 
We can feel the confusion and resistance within the two women as well as Lathsamy’s husband and Rebecca’s parents. After all, who among us is without deep conflict about opening up our boxes of private shame? Hardly any of us want to know about that stuff until the consequences crash through our compromised adjustments, which may never happen.
 
In The Therapy Journal we get a four-fold look into these matters since it happens for both Lathsamy and Rebecca as well as ‘Lulu’ and ‘Becky.’ Further, because of the starkly different origins of the two women we are able to sense how sexual abuse—and abuse in general—knows no boundaries. More importantly, Wineman shows how the complicit abuse of willing ignorance and disremembering by all involved are essential elements in the trauma dynamic.
 
And those consequences go way beyond the individuals and families. The failure of society to face trauma and its consequences cripples both Lathsamy’s overwhelmed husband and her groping therapist (Rebecca) to adequately help Lathsamy. How could they! It’s not just that they weren’t adequately prepared to understand how trauma works. But, like us, they were socially trained to block or minimize such understanding. Without any preaching at all, Wineman lets his stories show how the fierce dynamics of trauma overwhelm our best intentions.
 
And here lies the special relevance of The Therapy Journal for us as change agents. In our lifetime no one is going to understand the full scope of the critical part trauma plays in our tragedies and oppression. There isn’t sufficient collective will and skill to confront our fear-driven shame. That will take more time than we have. As a result we think we understand ourselves way too much. And we rely almost solely on our objective economic and political analyses of oppression for our change strategies with little understanding of how the trauma of abuse is deeply involved in all of it. We are not ready to grasp how there is a vicious circle at the core of oppression involving both “victim” and “victimizer” in which trauma from abuse feeds and feeds-on oppression, which, in turn, feeds and feeds-on that kind of trauma. Those of us who have either done deep personal work, or who are deeply empathetic, or both can come away from Wineman’s stories knowing a little more about our ignorance—how there is so much we don’t know about ourselves, or personal change, or social change. And that is a great gift.
 
On the other hand, I fear that those of us who haven’t done much personal work will just come away from reading The Therapy Journal more deeply enraged about sexual abuse and society’s failings in general. I hope not. I hope the sheer weight of these stories that simply unfold through his telling will trigger our humility and stir a healthy sense of incompetence about our ability to do our change work.
 
Wineman knows both the world of trauma and activism well, and from the inside out. (See his bio at the end.) He has also written what I believe is the most insightful book I have read on the role of trauma in power dynamics: Power-Under: Trauma and Nonviolent Change. (You can download it for free.) Reading it ten years ago was a journey in which I had so much of my conscious thinking turned upside down, while, at the same time, sensing that his book was confirming a deep intuition I had barely recognized. Having read The Therapy Journal I am realizing I still don’t adequately understand what he told me in that book. I think it’s now time for me to go back and give it all the time and attention I need to really get it.
 
The Therapy Journal is available in print and ebook on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties are being donated to organizations providing support to survivors of sexual violence (the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center and The Gatehouse in Toronto) and promoting nonviolence (Bay Area Nonviolent Communication).
 
Finally, Steve says The Therapy Journal will rely on word of mouth in order to reach readers who value serious literature about critical social problems, asking reader to consider spreading the word.


 Steven Wineman is the author of two books of nonfiction, Power-Under: Trauma and Nonviolent Social Change (self-published at www.TraumaAndNonviolence.com , 2003) and The Politics of Human Services (South End Press, 1984). His essays and fiction have appeared widely in literary magazines. He is a survivor of childhood trauma, and a lifelong proponent of nonviolence and social equality. Steve retired in 2014 after working in community mental health for 35 years.  Steve welcomes comments about The Therapy Journal, and is available for author readings in the Boston area and elsewhere as travel logistics permit.  He can be contacted at steven.wineman@gmail.com.

 

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Citations: 
When citing this article, please use the following format: Michael Johnson (2017). Oh, Trauma! How Little We Know Ye: A Book Review. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). http://geo.coop/story/oh-trauma-how-little-we-know-ye
Publication Date: 
Friday, December 1, 2017
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