Sometimes it seems like books just arrive at the right time. It’s like they’re in the path and a Dyson-like whirlwind sucks them up, sorts them out, and sets the particular ones I should be reading in my lap.
And then I realize they intersect, or support, some issue that I’m struggling with, whether it’s on the surface or bubbling underneath.
That’s what happened in the last month or so, and the issue was childhood trauma.
It’s not like I don’t have a healthy to-read stack, but I took my son to the library last month and there, in the “Quick Reads” section, was Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone. I’d been reading reviews: they were uniformly positive. I enjoyed The Nightingale. And I couldn’t believe a copy of this new, anticipated book was available, so I snapped it up and took it out. I shoved aside books that had been waiting patiently, and I read it.
The Great Alone is set in the 1970’s, when Leni, the main character, is a teen. All the carefully researched Seventies’ pop culture references in the novel rang true—the songs on the radio, the earth shoes on the feet, the jeans and army jackets and the war and the cigarette-smoking and the drinking and the art. I was Leni’s age during the time of Leni’s story, albeit in a very different place, and the pinging recognition drew me in.
And Leni grew up witnessing domestic violence. Her father, Ernt, came home from Viet Nam with medals and memories and deep, deep damage. He loved Leni’s mom, Cora, with a desperate love—he needed her, he said, to breathe,–but the black times would come, and he would berate her and he would beat her.
Cora could not leave him. She tried to explain it to her daughter; she tried to shelter her. But when they move into a tiny cabin in Alaska, way, way off the beaten trail, there is no shielding Leni from the dysfunction. Cora, finally, has to shield Leni from the violence she has borne alone, and the story swings into a whole new arc.
I read the book quickly, closed it, and took it back to the library, where I finally took out a book that I’d been seeing and wondering about for months. That was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. I took that home, too, and ignored the stack to read it.
Eleanor, in Honeyman’s break-out novel, is an odd, lonely, thirty-something; she lives in a spare depressing apartment and works at a job that supports but doesn’t challenge her. She is scarred, physically and emotionally. From the beginning, we know the main character had been in a fire as a child; we suspect the fire may have been partly her fault.
Eleanor has no friends, and the people at her job make fun of her. She knows it and doesn’t seem to care much; her life is structured around a schedule, drinking vodka to make the weekends go by, and perilous phone conversations with her toxic mother. But then things begin to change.
There’s a rock singer Eleanor decides she will pursue,–good husband material, she surmises, based on a quirk of his attire. She begins to think about buying new clothes, getting a haircut, going to clubs. On one of her outings, she sees a man collapse, and she reluctantly goes to help him, assisted by a nice but bumbling guy from the IT department at her work. That simple act sets things in motion, and Eleanor slowly encounters a network of people who care about her.
And she slowly turns to confront her past, too. It’s a catastrophic confrontation, but one that leads her out the other door, to a place where she can begin to really engage in life.
Eleanor’s story is set in Scotland, and that’s where my mother’s family came from, so again, I felt those recognition pings.
And when I took Eleanor back to the library, I had a reserve waiting for me: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore. Lydia is another thirty-something protagonist, another under-employed woman, but one who loved her bookstore job. She was good at what she did; she had a following of quirky, gentle customers she calls “The Book frogs”—men released from prison or another institution who find solace and refuge at Bright ideas. Lydia welcomes them and connects with them and never condescends.
Joey is one of the Book Frogs, a sweet and gentle, just-beyond-boy, man who one night hangs himself from the upstairs ceiling at the store that nurtured him. He leaves messages in books for Lydia, a cryptic chain that leads her to Joey’s identity and to confronting the horror in her own past.
Lydia was the only survivor of a gruesome killing; she’d been spending the night at a friend’s when an intruder, armed with a hammer, entered the house. Lydia was able to make it to the kitchen sink; she crawled into the cabinet and hid. But her friend ran to see if her parents were okay; the three of them died in a bloody pile.
Lydia stayed under the sink until finally her father, the next morning, let himself into the house to find her. They left Denver and headed, literally, for the hills.
Three stories of childhood trauma; three protagonists stuck in lonely and less-than-fulfilling lives. Each finally reaches the point where she cannot run from her past any longer. The turn-around, the confrontation, is painful in each book; it exacts a toll. But afterward, each main character goes on to begin, tenuously at first, but with growing confidence and joy, a new life that includes family and friendships and, finally, fun.
I had just finished Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore when my younger brother forwarded me a link to the paper for which he writes. And there, headlined, were the names of 42 priests who had been accused, by many more than one accuser, of abusing the young boys they had worked with. Prominent among the photos was one of the man who pastored our church—the man who heard our confessions and oversaw altar boys and bullied my mother into all kinds of volunteer roles.
I had heard rumors throughout the years about this man’s holy persona and real-life villainy—his hypocritical and systematic abuse of boys, from as young as seven to late teens, who were entrusted to him to be mentored and spiritually grounded. Seeing his photo, reading the truth was shocking.
And I wondered what those boys—men, now, many with families and respectable places in the community—suffered because of that childhood trauma.
Then, straightening the living room, sorting through magazines, I came across “The Long Shadow,” an interview with Dr. Bruce Perry in the November 2016 issue of The Sun. Perry is an MD and a PhD in neuroscience; he made it his business to uncover what victims of childhood trauma bring with them into adulthood. I sat down and re-read the article.
Those victims, Dr. Perry says, are often stuck in fight-or-flight mode. They may turn to drugs or alcohol to help process or shut out the constant pain of remembering, the constant fear that, having happened once, it can happen again. They are often isolated. They are not open to new experiences. They may engage in risky, even violent behavior. Their brains, says Dr. Perry, are irrevocably, physically, changed by the trauma of childhood events.
The books about trauma survivors. The revelation of childhood trauma inflected in my hometown. The article about the real-life, long-term, undeniable effects of childhood trauma. They all come to find me, like a parade, like a march: one after another after another.
I am not sure what to make of this. Maybe it is all just a fascinating coincidence. Maybe, without realizing, I was searching for reading on the topic. Maybe I am meant to be awakened, to walk in this world knowing what sufferers and survivors are going through. I feel raw and aware and not able to un-see the effects trauma inflicts on young and helpless victim.
Maybe I need to do something with this awareness, push to a new level, act in some constructive way to help the folks who trudge through lives with almost unbearable scars.
This is not comfortable knowledge to have, nor are these comfortable thoughts to entertain. But I am glad the books and articles found me, glad to have been opened to this sorrow. I will stay open; I will wait to see what transpires,–to see, maybe, if I am called to take a more active role. If, indeed, those books arrived at the right time, for the right reason, I think it will soon be clear.