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As neither a trauma therapist nor a survivor, Rebecca Coffey, a mental health researcher, believes she has a unique perspective on the issue of trauma and its effects. In her book, Unspeakable Truths and Happy Endings, she comes across as alternatingly zealous and shocked by what seems to be her first real experience with the horrors of human cruelty. She has written this book, she tells us in the preface, because another book by either a trauma therapist or a survivor would not be taken seriously. However, it is hard to know how seriously to take her book, which is a blend of survivors stories, facts about trauma, and personal feelings Ms. Coffeys and commentaries about the topic.
Unspeakable Truths and Happy Endings is intended for friends, family, and therapists of trauma survivors and is written in easy to understand language. She includes some jargon with which those involved with this subject should be familiar, but explains what therapist-ese she does use. This book is organized into four sections, each consisting of survivors stories of abuse intermingled with facts about trauma, symptoms survivors may experience, and ways that family and therapists can best respond. It is loosely organized and largely unstructured (she explains her vision of the book as an unrestricted forum for survivors stories); giving a kind of overwhelming feel to an already difficult subject. Ms. Coffey intends to educate her readers to the possibilities of human cruelty and how best to respond to its victims. But this books impact comes less from the purposeful inclusion of its straightforward, uncut content and more from the subtle, background account of the authors development as she makes her own journey from uninformed, eager student to insightful and humbled witness.
Ms. Coffeys initial tone is one of righteous indignation as she reports survivors stories and details the ways in which family and therapists repeatedly fail them. Her admiration for the survivors has an idealized quality, and her overprotective attitude towards them comes across as almost naively charitable. Like the sheltered rich girl who has just learned that her luxurious lifestyle is not a right but a lucky chance, her outrage seems to stem from the frightening realization that her ignorance of the possibilities of human cruelty does not protected her from them; she is as vulnerable as the rest of us.
This is an ironic but, I believe, unavoidable response that may ultimately and unintentionally be helpful to her readers. Ironic as she repeatedly warns us that friends, family and therapists should not let the very experience she seems to be having prevent them from really listening. Helpful, because readers will see that despite the growing unease her close proximity to abuse has given her, she does what she hopes others will do: continue to listen.
Perhaps unknowingly she documents and we witness her development from naïve beginner through angered observer to sadder but wiser insider. She has been changed simply through bearing witness to survivors stories of abuse and betrayal, and in so doing, has followed the path of survivors before her. This unintended but unavoidable response powerfully illustrates what most therapists already know; that really listening to stories of human suffering makes you a victim as well. It is the therapists (and family and friends) willingness to enter into the traumatic experience by listening that gives the survivor the strength to recover. It is the authors willingness to give up the illusion of safety to stay connected to the survivors through listening, which may make it easier for her readers to do the same.
Then maybe one more survivor will be able to tell her story without fearing the loss or condemnation of the listener. This is the ultimate goal of the book after all.
Kate Castle is a psychotherapist at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Centers Community Psychiatry Outpatient Clinic in southeast Baltimore. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.