An extended Reading the Bestsellers review of a 2014 book by Bessel van der Kolk
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Penguin Books, 2014. 464 pages. $15 (e-book $16)
This book explores the way that trauma exists not only as a narrative that hooks onto people's minds and consumes their day-to-day thoughts, but also as a physical mark etched into human bodies. Because trauma is in the body, the most effective trauma treatments are the ones that address trauma holistically – not merely as a metaphysical knot to untie.
Author Bessel van der Kolk is an authority on trauma research, having published over 150 peer reviewed scientific articles. He headed the Trauma Center in Brookline, Mass., until he was accused of undisclosed and unverified bullying behaviour. He took the settlement money from that case and founded the Trauma Research Center in 2018.
Amazingly, this book is still a bestseller almost a decade after it was published.
While it is somewhat academic, it is accessible to a wide audience and assumes no prior study in psychology. The breadth of his work invites practitioners from a wide variety of fields to begin imagining how they might offer respite for trauma survivors in their communities of practice.
This book proposes an exciting argument – trauma is carried in our bodies, and therapeutic efforts must seek to treat our embodied trauma in order to be effective. The ideas here hold vast potential for Christian readers to explore both their own individual trauma, as well as how their church tradition can cause or heal trauma by how they incorporate bodies into their worship life. One of the methods Van der Kolk touts in his book as an effective trauma treatment is called psychomotor therapy.
He tells the story behind encountering psychomotor therapy where he observed a patient recruiting different members during group therapy to enact distinct parental figures in her life – her father, mother and also a set of flawless parents. Through the exercise the woman is able to articulate her anger at her father for abusing her and the disappointment she felt toward her mother for never speaking up. This sorrow gives way to catharsis as the patient also names and personifies her desire for her ideal parents. The session ends with the patient throwing her arms around her idealised father and him saying “If I had been your ideal dad, I would have loved you just like this and not have inflicted my cruelty.”
Van Der Kolk explains that bodily proximity to symbolic actors plays a large role in the release this exercise brings. I have to wonder what kinds of psychomotor realities are at play when my church family gathers.
The Body Keeps the Score drew out some of the ways my own body was keeping score, and sometimes caused me to act out past issues. I always felt stress in my neck, so I made an appointment with my wife, a manual osteopath, and she was able to release significant stress tension that had built up in my body. Afterwards I felt at peace and grounded, and even slept better.
There’s more to healing our bodies than a 60-minute treatment, but suffice to say I found the argument of The Body Keeps the Score compelling. I invite you as a potential reader to explore how your body may be keeping score, too.
However this book did not leave me without my criticisms. While Van der Kolk’s methods and philosophy are a helpful paradigm shift, they do retain a utilitarian emphasis on ending suffering and trauma at any cost. Trauma and suffering ought to be prevented, but Christianity is not primarily concerned with the absolute dissolution of suffering so much as it is with suffering well.
There are wounds that may not heal, and there are sacrifices that are worth enduring for another person’s sake, and these are the sort of wounds our Saviour bears as He bids us to follow Him through baptism and into the resurrection.
Nonetheless, alleviating trauma and suffering is hardly at odds with Christianity. I only wish to emphasise that Jesus will one day restore us to a far greater glory than trauma therapies could ever hope to, and that we shouldn’t confuse help with hope.
Van der Kolk exudes care and compassion for his trauma patients, and this care informs his thoughtful approach to trauma therapy. Van der Kolk listens to his patients' words and bodies as they tense up, blow up, and offer broken smiles. He has successfully treated and trained tens of thousands of people, and he has earned my own recommendation. This is a book worth reading..
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