The best books on trauma and recovery

The Books I Picked & Why

Nobody Knows My Name

By James Baldwin

Nobody Knows My Name

Why this book?

Baldwin first opened my eyes to the possibilities of memoir. When English teachers held up fiction as the literary ideal, I was drawn to Baldwin’s essays instead. I was a New Yorker, living not far from the author’s Harlem, and growing up at the time of the civil rights movement. Baldwin was writing autobiographical non-fiction that, knitted together individual temperament and social history. “I left America because I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the color problem here,” he wrote in Nobody Knows My Name. I read that paragraph as the daughter of Czech Jewish immigrants, white people who had survived both Nazism and Stalinism. Baldwin’s voice was like the voices I heard at home telling stories of the Second World War. It was both compelling and trustworthy. Fifty years later, I still think so.


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Wave

By Sonali Deraniyagala

Wave

Why this book?

When I was a young arts journalist, I was very lucky to have been assigned by the Sunday New York Times to write a profile of theatrical producer Joseph Papp. I later wrote his biography. Sometime during our interviews, he talked to me about books and plays that were so urgently written that you felt that if the author hadn’t done so they would have killed someone instead. He believed in that kind of art – not in playing around with art for art’s sake. I thought of him when I read Wave, which is about the author’s surviving the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Sri Lanka and losing her husband and two young children to it. The author is not a professional writer; she is an economist by training. Wave, however, is a searing eyewitness account of being caught in a natural disaster and suffering years of trauma in its aftermath. It is extraordinary.


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The Elimination: A Survivor of the Khmer Rouge Confronts His Past and the Commandant of the Killing Fields

By Rithy Panh, Christophe Bataille, John Cullen

The Elimination: A Survivor of the Khmer Rouge Confronts His Past and the Commandant of the Killing Fields

Why this book?

Filmmaker Rithy Panh does not like the word trauma. He prefers to describe the after-effects of what happened to his Cambodian family as “an unending desolation.” Ever since the Khmer Rouge were driven from power in 1979 and he survived as a teenager, he has not stopped thinking about his family and trying to understand Comrade Duch, a man Rithy regards as “The Commandant of the Killing Fields." Mao and Stalin, Nazism and the Nurenberg Trials, and The Hague all hover at the edges of Rithy’s consciousness. He describes dispossession; dehumanization beginning with the annulment of names; demonization of education and traditional notions of culture; deportation;  slow starvation; corruption; terror; torture and language itself. Rithy Panh is a documentary filmmaker and reading The Elimination is an act of witness by both writer and reader. 


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Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence--From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror

By Judith Lewis Herman

Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence--From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror

Why this book?

When I was trying to understand my own childhood trauma, Dr. Judith Herman's trauma and recovery made the most sense to me. The study of trauma, she wrote, has a curious history. Not only individuals, but entire societies have alternated between periods of remembering and periods of forgetting. Judith Herman was trained as a physician and came into contact with patients who had been sexually abused as a psychiatric resident. Her ability to integrate history, medicine, psychology, feminism, and literature into her book was indispensable to me.

Shame, secrecy, and silence, she wrote, were the deadly trio that prolonged the effects of trauma. But that trio was often rendered inoperative when trauma was experienced collectively, as happens during a war or natural disaster or an event during the world trade center attack on 9/11, which is witnessed, documented, and validated in hundreds of public ways. Trauma experienced by just one person, in private, was characterized by the absence of validators and, often, the inability of the victim to put his or her experience into words. Herman did it for me.


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A Wolf in the Attic: The Legacy of a Hidden Child of the Holocaust

By Sophia Richman

A Wolf in the Attic: The Legacy of a Hidden Child of the Holocaust

Why this book?

A Wolf in the Attic by Sophia Richman is a book written by a psychotherapist who was hidden in an attic in Poland as a Jewish child during the second world war. She describes this experience (she was told to never utter a sound) as well as its impact on her relationship with her parents and her life after the war in Paris and then in New York City. She maintained her reluctance to speak in public until very late in life and this book is a kind of coming out for what is now known as a “hidden child” or “child survivor.” I found it fascinating to read how a psychologist analyzes her own childhood and the life choices she makes as an adult.


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