The Book That Marked the Beginning of My
New Sense of Self
Veronica Esposito on Bessel van der Kolk's The Body Keeps the Score
I often think of the work I do in peer support for transgender people as helping others get the locks off their minds. Those locks are whatever prevents us from being—and loving—our true self, and very often these locks are in place because of trauma. I know how powerful trauma can be, because it has caused me crippling anxiety, self-sabotaging thoughts, an inability to feel self-compassion, an overpowering shame, and belief that I was an imposter. For years, the trauma of transphobia forced me to hate and hide my true self.
Freeing ourselves from trauma is not an easy task, nor one that we can confront alone. We need others who can sit with us in community and help us heal. One of the reasons why book-lovers are so passionate about reading is we intuitively know that books can be part of this healing community. We can all think back to the book that helped change the course of our life, the book that saved us, the book that taught us new ways of seeing, the book that gave us new insight just when we needed it. Although books can’t spread their arms in an empathetic hug or give us a shoulder to cry on, they can help us to discover fresher, more fruitful language, confront unhelpful ways of thinking, and point us toward new ways of living. They can make us feel less alone and show us that our emotions are more normal than we feared.
In the fall of 2019 Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score came along to help knock the locks off of my mind. I read it in the first semester of my counseling masters program in a course on human development. I remember very clearly how during our first class, as my fellow students and I took the first small step in a three-year course of study, the instructor asked us each to state why we were interested in studying human development. It was a hot late-summer evening in a room packed with nerves and adrenaline, and when it came time for me to speak I was trembling with the emotions that came from returning to school after 20 years—and doing it as a new gender. I didn’t really know what it meant to study human development. Like everyone else in that room, I was enrolled in the class because our course of study was prescribed by the college, so I wasn’t sure what to say. I reached down into myself, and suddenly I felt an authentic thought: I told the instructor that I had always been fascinated by origins, that to me the study of human development meant the chance to return to the origins of who I was and to understand what had gone into creating me.
As I spoke those words they felt important, memorable, and true, and I realized I was articulating the desire for a more coherent life narrative. Maybe, just in that moment, I was realizing how little I knew about my origins—how the foundations of my life-story had been scrambled by two traumatic decades of childhood filled with family dysfunction and the disempowerment and humiliation of being a transfeminine child—and that this was crucial to the hurt I was trying to overcome.
In The Body Keeps the Score, van der Kolk tells us that it is imperative for each of us to have a coherent life narrative, and one of the most deleterious things about trauma is how it shatters these stories. This happens not just on a metaphorical level but also on a biological one: unlike normal memories, traumatic incidents are encoded in our brains as fragments, and traumatized individuals can remain permanently lost among those fragments. Because of this lostness, traumatized individuals again and again relive their devastating memories, never moving forward because they are incapable integrating these painful memories into a full account of what happened. As van der Kolk’s work has shown, this speechlessness can persist for a lifetime, and one of the brain’s speech centers, Broca’s area, actually turns off when a victim’s trauma is triggered. Confronted with a trigger, their body reacts somatically by a pounding heart, heavy breathing, and even panic and dissociation, but they are unable to articulate the terror and helplessness that they are feeling. The traumatized individual is unable to understand why their body has suddenly been thrown out of control, and nor can they ask for help.
As I read van der Kolk’s book, it threw open doors in my mind, and I began to be capable of articulating things about my life that I had never before understood. All during that fall semester as I read The Body Keeps the Score, I felt the energy and hope of one for whom things are finally making sense. For instance, I learned to explain why, during the several years it took me to come out as transgender, I would experience cold sweats, shortness of breath, and even be on the verge of fainting just by standing next to a rack of women’s clothes in a store.
I finally understood that my body was returning to the terror it had felt during my childhood on the many occasions my mother had screamed at me and threatened me for trying to wear women’s clothing. That treatment by my primary caregiver—an individual who should have been a source of absolute comfort and unquestioned love—caused me to form a deep connection between shame, panic, and the clothes I needed to wear. This trauma had become so deeply entrenched that I lost track of what was happening to my own body whenever I tried to share my desire to be feminine. I didn’t even realize that this trauma reaction was abnormal, nor that it might be healed.
Essentially, I was experiencing what van der Kolk describes when he writes that “trauma is not the story of something that happened back then. It’s the current imprint of that pain, horror, and fear living inside people.” Because of this, trauma survivors find it challenging to live in the present, fearing potential danger at every turn. Not knowing how to heal, they attempt to cope through depersonalization, creating a protective distance between themselves and their own body. Over time, as the trauma that got it all started becomes buried under repression, and this distancing seems to just be a part of who these individuals are. Their unbelievable feats of detachment, stoicism, and compartmentalization are not seen as unfortunate responses to deplorable events but rather are believed to be their true personality.
Through insights such as these, van der Kolk helped me to see that what I thought of as my own personality was really more a manifestation of the trauma that I carried with me than who I actually was. I began to understand my personal fascination with things like illness, death, and chaos, and I started to grasp why I felt fundamentally broken as a human being. As van der Kolk explains, human beings are creatures who find comfort in the familiar, and when illness, shame, and trauma is what feels familiar to us, then we will find it comforting to believe that we are diseased and unlovable beings who can only express ourselves through anger. Even as these emotions and beliefs limit our lives and hurt our relationships, they will still feel safe and true. As I started healing through my gender transition and therapy, I began to understand this. I worked to dig down beneath trauma’s teachings and instead reconnecting with my real body, personality, and emotions.As I read van der Kolk’s book, it threw open doors in my mind, and I began to be capable of articulating things about my life that I had never before understood.
As a part of this transformation, I learned the importance of the language that I used to narrate my life—how to be aware of it and how to change it as a way of becoming the person I wanted to be. I understood how the literature that had felt truest to me was often a literature of trauma. For instance, my love of the texture of Thomas Bernhard’s language, the way his mind worked, was born of one traumatized mind communing with another. Looking back at Bernhard’s work now, I see an intellect that is most comfortable when working in extremes, when obsessively handing the same extreme phrasing, when feeling detached from its body and denying the possibility of human connection:
I knew why I had made the woman at the labor exchange take out dozens of cards from her card-index: it was because I wanted to do in the opposite direction. This was the phrase I had repeated to myself over and over again on my way to the labor exchange. Again and again I had used the phrase in the opposite direction. The woman did not understand what I meant, for I actually told her that I wanted to go in the opposite direction. She probably thought I was out of my mind, for I used the phrase to her several times. How can she possibly understand me, I thought, when she knows nothing about me, not the slightest thing? Driven to desperation by me and her card-index, she offered me a number of apprenticeships, but none of them was in the opposite direction and I had to turn them down. I did not just want to do in a different direction—it had to be in the opposite direction, a compromise being no longer possible.
As I read The Body Keeps the Score, I understood why such mean-spirited, obsessive, aggressive, chiaroscuro writing had once felt so familiar and comforting. I understood that part of what had brought me to train as a therapist and to work in peer support was my childhood home, where I had learned to remain calm while the adults around me screamed at each other. This environment taught me to sit placidly during extreme confrontations and to calmly de-escalate others, and these were skills that were central to both my work as a literary critic and to my new profession in counseling. Understanding why I was a natural at such things helped me to prove traumatization, as well as key to heal from it.
This was what I brought with me to my counseling program, and as I progressed through that first semester I cultivating new ways of relating to it. Van der Kolk proved essential in putting everything into perspective, giving me at last a bird’s eye view of my psyche and my history. This was work of renaming and integrating what was once broken, as well as work of reconnecting—with my body, emotions, thoughts, and personality. Much of van der Kolk’s writing centers around this idea of reconnecting, of the healing effects of simply recognizing how our body exists and responds to the environment around it. Just noting these things can be revolutionary for us. As I began to listen to what my body was telling me, I learned to tell so much more of my story than I ever had before. And not just to tell it—to believe it, in spite of the gaslighting and internalized doubt that inevitably try to eat away at a survivor’s capacity to hold her truth.
The semester that I took my human development course and read The Body Keeps the Score was the end of one era in my life, and the beginning of another. To mark the conclusion of the term, we were all asked to give brief, imaginative presentations symbolizing something that the course had helped us learn about ourselves. For my presentation, I first read poems that I had collaged out of journals that had chronicled the discoveries I made during the class. And then, after the poems were done and the room fell silent, I asked my classmates to join me in saying goodbye to the Veronica who had, three months earlier, so naïvely and tentatively said she wanted to study human development to learn about her origins. As the class chanted “goodbye old Veronica,” three times, I felt tears well up. I sensed the gulf between who I had been and who I had become. This was my way of saying goodbye to that brave and traumatized girl who had no idea how much the education she was embarking on would change her. Letting go of her and all her brokenness was sad and emancipatory, and I knew that letting go can sometimes be the hardest part of moving on.