Hunger by Roxane Gay

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

A selection of my favorite passages from the book

  • Every body has a story and a history.
  • The story of my body is not a story of triumph. This is not a weight-loss memoir. There will be no picture of a thin version of me, my slender body emblazoned across this book’s cover, with me standing in one leg of my former, fatter self’s jeans. This is not a book that will offer motivation. I don’t have any powerful insight into what it takes to overcome an unruly body and unruly appetites. Mine is not a success story. Mine is, simply, a true story.
  • But I soon realized I was not only writing a memoir of my body; I was forcing myself to look at what my body has endured, the weight I gained, and how hard it has been to both live with and lose that weight. I’ve been forced to look at my guiltiest secrets. I’ve cut myself wide open. I am exposed. That is not comfortable. That is not easy.
  • This is a book about my body, about my hunger, and ultimately, this is a book about disappearing and being lost and wanting so very much, wanting to be seen and understood. This is a book about learning, however slowly, to allow myself to be seen and understood.
  • how to accept that the “normal people” (his words, not mine) in our lives might try to sabotage our weight loss because they were invested in the idea of us as fat people.
  • But when people use the word “obese,” they aren’t merely being literal. They are offering forth an accusation. It is strange, and perhaps sad, that medical doctors came up with this terminology when they are charged with first doing no harm. The modifier “morbidly” makes the fat body a death sentence when such is not the case. The term “morbid obesity” frames fat people like we are the walking dead, and the medical establishment treats us accordingly.
  • I don’t know how things got so out of control, or I do. This is my refrain. Losing control of my body was a matter of accretion. I began eating to change my body. I was willful in this.
  • This is the body I made. I am corpulent—rolls of brown flesh, arms and thighs and belly. The fat eventually had nowhere to go, so it created its own paths around my body. I am riven with stretch marks, pockets of cellulite on my massive thighs. The fat created a new body, one that shamed me but one that made me feel safe, and more than anything, I desperately needed to feel safe. I needed to feel like a fortress, impermeable.
  • My mother proudly wrote, “Reads almost everything at five years old.” Those are her exact words, written in her neat penmanship, though family lore has me reading the newspaper with my dad about a year and a half before that.
  • The why is complicated and slippery. I want to be able to hold the why in my hands, to dissect it or tear it apart or burn it and read the ashes even though I am afraid of what I will do with what I see there. I don’t know if such understanding is possible, but when I am alone, I sit and slowly page through these albums obsessively. I want to see what is there and what is missing and what happened even if the why still eludes me.
  • Something terrible happened, and I wish I could leave it at that because as a writer who is also a woman, I don’t want to be defined by the worst thing that has happened to me. I don’t want my personality to be consumed in that way. I don’t want my work to be consumed or defined by this terrible something.
  • I had (and have?) this void, this cavern of loneliness inside me that I have spent my whole life trying to fill. I was willing to do most anything if that boy would ease my loneliness. I wanted to feel like he and I belonged to each other, but each time we were together and then after, I felt quite the opposite. And still, I was drawn to him.
  • The food my mother cooked for us was good, but it was secondary to the way we invested in being so connected to one another. My parents always made it seem like my brothers and I were terribly interesting, asking us thoughtful questions about our childish musings, urging us to be our best selves. If we were slighted, they were offended on our behalf. When we had some small moment of glory, they reveled in it. I fell asleep most nights flush with the joy of knowing I belonged to these people and they belonged to me.
  • My parents were pleased that I had gotten my body under control. I went back to school, and my classmates admired my new body, offered me compliments, wanted to hang out with me. That was the first time I realized that weight loss, thinness really, was social currency. Amidst this attention, I was losing my newfound invisibility, and it terrified me. I was scared of so much as a teenager.
  • Bottomless. Fearless. This is the reputation I developed in my social circle. One of those things was true.
  • My parents also want to understand—they are intellectual, smart, practical. They want my weight to be a problem they can address with the intellect they apply to other problems. They want to understand how I could have let this happen, let my body become so big, so out of control. We have that in common.
  • Fat, much like skin color, is something you cannot hide, no matter how dark the clothing you wear, or how diligently you avoid horizontal stripes. You may become very adept at playing the role of wallflower. You may learn how to be the life of the party so that people are too busy laughing at or with you to focus on the elephant in the room. You may do whatever you have to do to survive a world that has little patience or compassion for a body like yours.
  • Instead of fever, leaking pustules, swollen glands, or lesions, your symptoms are girth and sheer mass. The obese body is the expression of excess, decadence, and weakness. The obese body is a site of massive infection. It is a losing battleground in a war between willpower and food and metabolism in which you are the ultimate loser.
  • I hate these shows, but clearly I watch them. I watch them even though sometimes they enrage me and sometimes they break my heart and all too often they reveal painfully familiar experiences of loneliness, depression, and genuine suffering born of living in a world that cannot accommodate overweight bodies. I watch these shows because even though I know how damaging and unrealistic they are, some part of me still yearns for the salvation they promise.
  • What does it say about our culture that the desire for weight loss is considered a default feature of womanhood?
  • When a celebrity loses weight she is often billed as “flaunting” her new body, which is, in fact, the only body she has ever had, but at a size more acceptable to the tabloids.
  • The less space they take up, the more they matter.
  • Specific body parts, “problem areas,” also get labels—fupa, gunt, cankles, thunder thighs, Hi Susans, wings, cottage cheese thighs, hail damage, muffin tops, side boob, back fat, love handles, saddlebags, spare tires, double chins, gocks, man boobs, beer bellies. These terms—the clinical, the casual, the slang, the insulting—are all designed to remind fat people that our bodies are not normal. Our bodies are so problematic as to have specific designations. It’s a hell of a thing to have our bodies so ruthlessly, publicly dissected, defined, and denigrated.
  • There is a smugness to how they use the exercise equipment, programming the computers for the most challenging levels. Their placid facial expressions say, “This is hardly bothering me,” their bodies glowing with a thin patina of perspiration rather than the gritty sweat of serious exertion. They wear their cute little outfits—shorts so short that the material is more a suggestion than an actual item of clothing and narrow tank tops with the scooped shoulders designed to reveal as much surface area of their perfect bodies as possible. They know that they work hard and look good and they want everyone else to know it too.
  • I am hyperconscious of how I take up space. As a woman, as a fat woman, I am not supposed to take up space. And yet, as a feminist, I am encouraged to believe I can take up space. I live in a contradictory space where I should try to take up space but not too much of it, and not in the wrong way, where the wrong way is any way where my body is concerned.
  • My breath catches at the mere thought of wearing something sleeveless, baring my brown arms. Fierce vanity smolders in the cave of my chest. I want to look good. I want to feel good. I want to be beautiful in this body I am in. The story of my life is wanting, hungering, for what I cannot have or, perhaps, wanting what I dare not allow myself to have.
  • Most of us have these versions of ourselves that terrify us. We have these imperfect bodies we don’t quite know how to cope with. We have these shames we keep to ourselves because to show ourselves as we are, no more and no less, would be too much.
  • I try not to take these men seriously because what they are really saying is, “I am not attracted to you. I do not want to fuck you, and this confuses my understanding of my masculinity, entitlement, and place in this world.” It is not my job to please them with my body.
  • What I feel is guilt and uncontrollable self-loathing, and oftentimes, I find something else to eat, to soothe those feelings and, strangely, to punish myself, to make myself feel sicker so that the next time, I might remember how low I feel when I overindulge. I never remember.
  • Before I go to a restaurant, I obsessively check the restaurant’s website, and Google Images and Yelp, to see what kind of seating it has. Are the seats ultramodern and flimsy? Do they have arms, and if so, what kind? Are there booths, and if so, does the table move or is it one of those tables welded between two benches? How long do I think I can sit in those chairs without screaming? I do this obsessive research because people tend to assume that everyone moves through the world the way they do. They never think of how I take up space differently than they do.
  • Part of the pleasure of baking is in its precision. Unlike cooking, which favors experimentation, baking requires weighing and measuring and exact times and temperatures. The pleasure of having rules to follow is multiplied.
  • The thing about shame is that there are depths. I have no idea where the bottom of my shame resides.
  • I always wonder what healing really looks like—in body, in spirit. I’m attracted to the idea that the mind, the soul, can heal as neatly as bones. That if they are properly set for a given period of time, they will regain their original strength. Healing is not that simple. It never is.
  • Despite the frustrations and humiliations and challenges, I also try to find ways to honor my body. This body is resilient. It can endure all kinds of things. My body offers me the power of presence. My body is powerful.
  • I understand if that truth is not something you want to hear. The truth makes me uncomfortable too. But I am also saying, here is my heart, what’s left of it. Here I am showing you the ferocity of my hunger. Here I am, finally freeing myself to be vulnerable and terribly human. Here I am, reveling in that freedom. Here. See what I hunger for and what my truth has allowed me to create.
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Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

A selection of my favorite passages from the book

  • Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky. Slow-moving creeks wander, carrying the orb of the sun with them to the sea, and long-legged birds lift with unexpected grace—as though not built to fly—against the roar of a thousand snow geese. Then within the marsh, here and there, true swamp crawls into low-lying bogs, hidden in clammy forests. Swamp water is still and dark, having swallowed the light in its muddy throat. Even night crawlers are diurnal in this lair. There are sounds, of course, but compared to the marsh, the swamp is quiet because decomposition is cellular work. Life decays and reeks and returns to the rotted duff; a poignant wallow of death begetting life.
  • A swamp knows all about death, and doesn’t necessarily define it as tragedy, certainly not a sin.
  • Maybe it was mean country, but not an inch was lean. Layers of life—squiggly sand crabs, mud-waddling crayfish, waterfowl, fish, shrimp, oysters, fatted deer, and plump geese—were piled on the land or in the water. A man who didn’t mind scrabbling for supper would never starve.
  • When cornered, desperate, or isolated, man reverts to those instincts that aim straight at survival. Quick and just. They will always be the trump cards because they are passed on more frequently from one generation to the next than the gentler genes. It is not a morality, but simple math. Among themselves, doves fight as often as hawks.
  • But this morning, Ma had been quiet; her smile lost, her eyes red. She’d tied a white scarf pirate style, low across her forehead, but the purple and yellow edges of a bruise spilled out. Right after breakfast, even before the dishes were washed, Ma had put a few personals in the train case and walked down the road.
  • Then—make-believe coming and going easily—she walked to a mossy log and sat. Silently, he joined her. He wanted to say something to get her mind off Ma, but no words came, so they watched the swimming shadows of water striders.
  • After Ma left, over the next few weeks, Kya’s oldest brother and two sisters drifted away too, as if by example.
  • They had known Chase since he was born. Had watched his life ease from charming child to cute teen; star quarterback and town hot shot to working for his parents. Finally, handsome man wedding the prettiest girl. Now, he sprawled alone, less dignified than the slough. Death’s crude pluck, as always, stealing the show.
  • But the gulls squatted on the beach around her and went about their business of preening their gray extended wings. So she sat down too and wished she could gather them up and take them with her to the porch to sleep. She imagined them all packed in her bed, a fluffy bunch of warm, feathered bodies under the covers together.
  • Proving that imagination grows in the loneliest of soils, she shouted, “Ho! Pirates ho!”
  • When he reached the road and unexpectedly looked back, she threw her hand up and waved hard. A shot to keep him tethered. Pa lifted an arm in a quick, dismissive salutation. But it was something. It was more than Ma had done.
  • Kya tooled along, a tiny speck of a girl in a boat, turning this way and that as endless estuaries branched and braided before her.
  • Alone, she’d been scared, but that was already humming as excitement. There was something else, too. The calmness of the boy. She’d never known anybody to speak or move so steady. So sure and easy. Just being near him, and not even that close, had eased her tightness.
  • His dad had told him many times that the definition of a real man is one who cries without shame, reads poetry with his heart, feels opera in his soul, and does what’s necessary to defend a woman.
  • The next morning, as Kya careened down the sandy lane, her arms held straight out, she sputtered wet noises from her lips, spittle spraying. She would lift off and sail over the marsh, looking for nests, then rise and fly wing to wing with eagles. Her fingers became long feathers, splayed against the sky, gathering the wind beneath her. Then suddenly she was jerked back to Earth by Pa hollering to her from the boat. Her wings collapsed, stomach pitched; he must have figured out she’d used it. She could already feel the paddle on her bottom and the backs of her legs.
  • Pa leaned out and snatched it in the net, then sat back, slapping his knee and yahooing like she’d never seen. She grinned wide and they looked into each other’s eyes, closing a circuit.
  • Before Pa strung it up, the bream flopped around in the boat bottom and Kya had to watch a distant string of pelicans, study the cloud forms, anything but look into dying fish eyes staring at a world without water, wide mouth sucking worthless air. But what it cost her and what it cost that fish was worth it to have this little shred of family. Perhaps not for the fish, but still.
  • Pa knew the marsh the way a hawk knows his meadow: how to hunt, how to hide, how to terrorize intruders. And Kya’s wide-eyed questions spurred him to explain goose seasons, fish habits, how to read weather in the clouds and riptides in the waves.
  • Sand keeps secrets better than mud.
  • Then the kerosene light flickered, faded, and died. One minute there was a soft circle of a world, and then darkness. She made an oh sound. Pa had always bought the kerosene and filled the lamp, so she hadn’t thought much about it. Until it was dark.
  • No longer did she daydream of winging with eagles; perhaps when you have to paw your supper from mud, imagination flattens to that of adulthood.
  • A great blue heron is the color of gray mist reflecting in blue water. And like mist, she can fade into the backdrop, all of her disappearing except the concentric circles of her lock-and-load eyes. She is a patient, solitary hunter, standing alone as long as it takes to snatch her prey. Or, eyeing her catch, she will stride forward one slow step at a time, like a predacious bridesmaid. And yet, on rare occasions she hunts on the wing, darting and diving sharply, swordlike beak in the lead.
  • Jodie had said that if a bird becomes different from the others—disfigured or wounded—it is more likely to attract a predator, so the rest of the flock will kill it, which is better than drawing in an eagle, who might take one of them in the bargain.
  • But they backed down the steps, ran into the trees again, hooting and hollering with relief that they had survived the Marsh Girl, the Wolf Child, the girl who couldn’t spell dog. Their words and laughter carried back to her through the forest as they disappeared into the night, back to safety. She watched the relit candles, bobbing through the trees. Then sat staring into the stone-quiet darkness. Shamed.
  • And yet here was an extra spark plug, to be set aside until needed. A surplus. Her heart filled up. The same feeling as having a full tank of gas or seeing the sunset under a paint-brushed sky. She stood absolutely still, trying to take it in, what it meant. She had watched male birds wooing females by bringing them gifts. But she was pretty young for nesting.
  • For days, Tate didn’t return for the reading lessons. Before the feather game, loneliness had become a natural appendage to Kya, like an arm. Now it grew roots inside her and pressed against her chest.
  • Part of her longed to touch his hand, a strange wanting, but her fingers wouldn’t do it. Instead she memorized the bluish veins on the inside of his wrist, as intricate as those sketched on the wings of wasps.
  • The war with Germany was an equalizer. Boiled down to the same uniform-hue as everyone else, he could hide his shame, once again play proud. But one night, sitting in a muddy foxhole in France, someone shouted that their sergeant was shot and sprawled bleeding twenty yards away. Mere boys, they should have been sitting in a dugout waiting to bat, nervous about some fastball. Still, they jumped at once, scrambling to save the wounded man—all but one.
  • But Jake never improved the shack or finished high school. Soon after they arrived, he took up drinking and poker at the Swamp Guinea, trying to leave that foxhole in a shot glass.
  • Aldo Leopold taught her that floodplains are living extensions of the rivers, which will claim them back any time they choose. Anyone living on a floodplain is just waiting in the river’s wings. She learned where the geese go in winter, and the meaning of their music. His soft words, sounding almost like poetry, taught her that soil is packed with life and one of the most precious riches on Earth; that draining wetlands dries the land for miles beyond, killing plants and animals along with the water. Some of the seeds lie dormant in the desiccated earth for decades, waiting, and when the water finally comes home again, they burst through the soil, unfolding their faces.
  • Each hour warmed until noon, blistered after midday, throbbed past sunset. Later, the moon threw hope across the water, but that died, too. Another sunrise, another white-hot noon. Sunset again. All hope gone to neutral. Her eyes shifted listlessly, and though she listened for Tate’s boat, she was no longer coiled.
  • Hot wind rattled the palmetto fronds like small dry bones. For three days after giving up on Tate, Kya didn’t get out of bed. Drugged by despair and heat, she tossed in clothes and sheets damp from sweat, her skin sticky. She sent her toes on missions to scout for cool spots between the sheets, but they found none.
  • She tried to force herself to avoid that beach and stick to the marsh, searching for bird nests and feathers. Stay safe, feeding grits to gulls. Life had made her an expert at mashing feelings into a storable size. But loneliness has a compass of its own. And she went back to the beach to look for him the next day. And the next.
  • She rolls faster into the deepening wave, against streaming shells and ocean bits, the water embracing her. Pushing against the sea’s strong body, she is grasped, held. Not alone.
  • But nothing could stop the burning shame and sharp sadness. A simple hope of being with someone, of actually being wanted, of being touched, had drawn her in. But these hurried groping hands were only a taking, not a sharing or giving.
  • Like most people, Chase knew the marsh as a thing to be used, to boat and fish, or drain for farming, so Kya’s knowledge of its critters, currents, and cattails intrigued him. But he scoffed at her soft touch, cruising at slow speeds, drifting silently past deer, whispering near birds’ nests.
  • Kya was of the low country, a land of horizons, where the sun set and the moon rose on time. But here, where the topography was a jumble, the sun balanced along the summits, setting behind a ridge one moment and then popping up again when Chase’s truck ascended the next rise. In the mountains, she noticed, the time of sunset depended on where you stood on the hill.
  • Perhaps love is best left as a fallow field.
  • Nature seemed the only stone that would not slip midstream.
  • “I’ve read a lot about this since. In nature—out yonder where the crawdads sing—these ruthless-seeming behaviors actually increase the mother’s number of young over her lifetime, and thus her genes for abandoning offspring in times of stress are passed on to the next generation. And on and on. It happens in humans, too. Some behaviors that seem harsh to us now ensured the survival of early man in whatever swamp he was in at the time. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. We still store those instincts in our genes, and they express themselves when certain circumstances prevail. Some parts of us will always be what we were, what we had to be to survive—way back yonder. “Maybe some primitive urge—some ancient genes, not appropriate anymore—drove Ma to leave us because of the stress, the horror and real danger of living with Pa. That doesn’t make it right; she should have chosen to stay. But knowing that these tendencies are in our biological blueprints might help one forgive even a failed mother. That may explain her leaving, but I still don’t see why she didn’t come back. Why she didn’t even write to me. She could’ve written letter after letter, year after year, until one finally got to me.”
  • She imagined taking one step after the other into the churning sea, sinking into the stillness beneath the waves, strands of her hair suspending like black watercolor into the pale blue sea, her long fingers and arms drifting up toward the backlit blaze of the surface. Dreams of escape—even through death—always lift toward the light. The dangling, shiny prize of peace just out of grasp until finally her body descends to the bottom and settles in murky quiet. Safe. Who decides the time to die?
  • As night fell, Tate walked back toward the shack. But when he reached the lagoon, he stopped under the deep canopy and watched hundreds of fireflies beckoning far into the dark reaches of the marsh. Way out yonder, where the crawdads sing.

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

★★★★★ (5/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Our universe is ruled by physics and faster than light travel is not possible — until the discovery of The Flow, an extra-dimensional field we can access at certain points in space-time that transport us to other worlds, around other stars. Humanity flows away from Earth, into space, and in time forgets our home world and creates a new empire, the Interdependency, whose ethos requires that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war — and a system of control for the rulers of the empire. The Flow is eternal — but it is not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well, cutting off worlds from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that The Flow is moving, possibly cutting off all human worlds from faster than light travel forever, three individuals — a scientist, a starship captain and the Empress of the Interdependency — are in a race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.

The Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby was a fiver, a ship whose size and design meant that theoretically it could support a full complement of crew from its own resources for roughly five standard years before everything began to go bad,

“Nine months ago your sister ship, No, Sir, I Don’t Mean Maybe, arrived with a shipment of grapefruit graft stock that carried a new strain of virus. It spread through your licensed orchards and devastated your client’s crops.”

The committee sat, senior-most closest to the emperox’s chair at the head of the table, with the exception of Archbishop Korbijn, who sat opposite of Cardenia. Cardenia noted the dress of each—the church bishops in fine red robes lined in purple, the guild representatives in their formal black and gold, the parliamentarians in somber blue business suits. Her own Very Serious Uniform was imperial green, dark with emerald piping. We look like a box of crayons, Cardenia thought. “You’re smiling, Your Majesty,” Archbishop Korbijn said, as she sat. “We were remembering our father, who often spoke of meeting with this committee.”

And when we designed the church, we intentionally made the divine aspect of it as ambiguous as possible. People don’t mind having the mystical aspect of a church being poorly defined as long as you make the rules of the church clear.

Bomb Ubdal was to plant on Yes, Sir exploded on our ship, causing operational damage. Could not move to intercept and destroy. Captain Wimson unhappy Ubdal’s bomb came onto our ship. Sent Ubdal out the airlock in his medical gurney.

It was one thing to know intellectually that Hub, which included the namesake planet of Hub, its immense imperial station, the equally immense autonomous habitat of Xi’an, and dozens of other associated habitats, was the most populated and advanced human nation in the Interdependency. It was another thing for Marce to disembark from the Yes, Sir at Hub’s imperial station, several times the size of End’s station, and to take in the bustle and rush of so many humans arriving and departing and doing their business—and knowing that the planet below held even more people in even more crowded habitats, pressed together in underground domes or technologically advanced kilometers-long spinning cylinders, living their lives oblivious to, or simply unconcerned about, how close they were to the hard vacuum or cold rock or searing radiation that could kill them in minutes.

the human species was threatened with extinction, not in an abstract way or over a long period of time, but in a concrete fashion in the span of less than a decade. In less than ten years every human system would be isolated, alone and forced to survive solely on what resources existed in-system, and with what craft existed to exploit those resources. Habitats could theoretically last decades or even centuries before they failed, but there was the human element as well. Humans didn’t react well to the knowledge they were cut off and doomed to slow death by habitat failure. Cardenia recalled what they knew of the fall of Dalasýsla. The humans malfunctioned long before their habitat did.

“The Interdependency was built on a lie, you know,” she said, to Attavio VI. “Yes, I know. If not a lie, then perhaps on the least malignant projection of its original intent.”

“The Interdependency began with a lie.”“Yes.” Cardenia smiled. “I think it needs to end with another one,” she said.

Mac’s Problem by Enrique Vila-Matas

★★☆☆☆ (2/5)

A selection of my favorite passages from the book

First Lines

  • I’m fascinated by the current vogue for posthumous books, and I’m thinking of writing a fake one that could appear to be “posthumous” and “unfinished” when it would, in fact, be perfectly complete. Were I to die during the writing process, the book really would be my “final, interrupted work,” and that would, among other things, ruin my great dream of becoming a falsifier. Then again, a beginner must be prepared for anything, and I am just that, a debutant. My name is Mac. Perhaps because I am only a beginner, the best and most sensible thing would be to wait a while before attempting anything as challenging as a fake “posthumous” book.

Essence of the Story

  • It’s as if what she really meant is: “The Mercury-Sun conjunction for Aries indicates that only the book matters, but that, ultimately, the book is there only to lead you on in your search for the book.”
  • All of which leads me to suspect that what’s going on with me is this: before the time comes for me to set about rewriting my neighbor’s novel, my reading of the book is obliging me to actually live out certain scenes first.
  • I’ve always been fascinated by that German quality. More than that, I’d like to spend one day of my life, or at least part of a day, just being a German writer of deeply tedious prose, the most incredibly boring German writer ever, a German who would take real delight in the pleasure it would give him to write those boring, knotty sentences, in which one’s memory, without any help at all, would, for five whole minutes, follow the lesson being taught, until, finally, at the end of that protracted Teutonic sentence, the meaning behind what is being said would appear like a lightning flash and the puzzle would be solved. The motto of many German writers was always this: may heaven grant the reader patience.

On Literary Creativity and Otherwise

  • and I want to say this now with no more beating about the bush — in order to write one must cease to be a writer.
  • I love short stories. I don’t, on the other hand, have much sympathy for novels, because they are, as Barthes said, a form of death, transforming life into Fate. If I were to write a novel, I’d like to lose it the way you might mislay an apple after buying a whole bagful from the local Pakistani convenience store. I’d like to lose it just to prove that I don’t care one bit about novels and prefer other literary forms.
  • I realize now that I behaved as if I didn’t know that — ultimately — perfect paragraphs don’t stand the test of time, because they are mere language, and can be destroyed by a sloppy typesetter, by changes in fashions and usage, in short, by life itself.
  • Creative people are punished for aspiring to find happiness in the public exercise of the imagination and the written word.
  • The anonymous narrator, who employs what Hemingway called the Iceberg Theory, pours all his skill into the hermetic telling of that other secret story — two revelers in love with a young woman they never mention — and so skilled is he at the art of ellipsis that the reader becomes aware of that other, absent story of which the girl in question would be the protagonist.
  • I found the parakeet’s squawks rather inspiring, but I couldn’t say this to her, because it would only have made matters worse. The squawking was helping me to write, especially when the bird communicated — through the open window — with its brothers and sisters, the family of parakeets that appeared to be waiting for it outside. I sat writing in the middle of the imaginary flight path of those desperate cries, which traveled up from the depths and out onto the street, where they were greeted by the squawks of other parakeets who, from the tops of the trees, seemed to be asking my accidental pet where its anguished cries were coming from. And perhaps the worst thing was not being able to say any of this to my wife, because it would only prove to her that I was even crazier than she already thought I was.
  • I imagine Sánchez in the building next door, he, too, safe in his apartment, bedding down for a night of replenishing sleep, but then, quite suddenly, jumping to his feet, as if the slightest of noises, coming from underground, had alerted him to the as-yet-undefined danger that I, his neighbor, represent to him; I, who, unbeknown to him — or anybody — have spent weeks thinking constantly about all the modifications I’ll make to Walter’s memoirs. And I haven’t even finished reading them yet.
  • I entitled “Diary of a Washed-Up Contractor.”“Why a contractor?” she asked. “I see, so the word ‘contractor’ alarms you, but never mind that I consider myself washed up.”
  • There’s no point in denying that I adore the enormous, mad, limitless extravagance of Foster Wallace’s obsessive footnotes. I see in them a kind of troubling, irrepressible impulse to keep on writing, to write until you’ve written everything, and to transform the world into one great perpetual commentary, with no final page.
  • If I were to rewrite “Something in Mind,” that narrator would be a double of me — but it would never be me myself, because I consider that impossible: as far as I know, the person speaking (in a story) is not the person writing (in real life), and the person writing is not the person he is — he would be a duplicate
  • No, I wouldn’t stand in her way, I said, meanwhile quietly cursing her absurd determination to reassert herself as a woman of science and not of literature, as if, in order to reaffirm her personality, she had to be the polar opposite of me.

On Repetition

  • My vocation is as a modifier of things. And as a repeater of things, too. But that vocation is more commonplace. Essentially we are all repeaters. Repetition, that most human of gestures
  • “The fear of repeating yourself is offset by the joy of knowing that you’re making your way forward in the company of stories from the past.”
  • We come into this world in order to repeat what those who came before us also repeated. There have been supposedly significant technical advances, but as regards our human nature, we remain unchanged, with exactly the same defects and problems. We unwittingly imitate what those who preceded us tried to do. These add up to mere attempts with very few successes, which, when they do occur, are always second-rate. Every ten or fifteen years, people speak of new generations, but when you analyze those generations, which, on the face of it, do appear to be different, you see instead that they merely repeated, like a mantra, how urgent and vital it is to overturn the previous generation and, just to be safe, the one before the previous one, which, in its time, tried to erase the one before that. Oddly, though, no generation wants to position itself on the margins of that Great Path, but, rather, on the firm ground occupied by the previous generation. They must think there’s nothing else beyond that firm ground, and this belief ultimately leads them to imitate and follow in the footsteps of those they started out despising. And so it goes on, not a single generation has placed itself on the margins or has said, almost as one voice: we don’t like this, you can keep it. The young arrive, only to slink away the next day, no longer young, but old. In fleeing from the world, they’re destroyed; and their memories are destroyed and they die, or they themselves die, so destroying their memories, which were born dead. This rule knows no exception.
  • I felt there was no escape, that I was stranded in the circular geography of Coyote, and, at the same time, at the end of the world, knowing that, even if I traveled to the ends of the earth, I would always return to Calle Londres. The truth is that noting down all these incidents or simple details was doing me good, perhaps because I was immersed in the kind of banal activities described in all my favorite diaries. That’s why, for some time, while I walked, I devoted myself to seeking out the irrelevant.
  • Every ventriloquist knows that if there’s one thing that characterizes a voice, any voice — including the first voice — it’s the knowledge that the voice will not last; it emerges, shines brightly only to fade again, consumed by its own brilliance. A voice has something in common with a falling star with none to see it. There is no voice that doesn’t eventually burn out. You can recapture it, but you never truly find it again; to think otherwise is as naive as thinking that a time machine could carry us back to the beginning of everything. You can imitate a voice, or repeat what a voice has said, and in that way prevent it from disappearing altogether, but it will no longer be the voice, nor will it say exactly what that voice said. Repetitions, versions, perversions, interpretations of what the extinguished voice said will inevitably produce distortions. Voices are the building blocks of literature, which, for me, is a way of keeping alive the flame of tales told around the fire since the dawn of time: a way of turning around the impossibility of accessing something that is lost by at least reconstructing it, even when we know that it doesn’t exist and that the best we can hope for is an imitation.

Thought-Provoking Instances

  • That’s how I began yesterday, with the intention of maintaining a readiness to learn slowly and steadily and perhaps, one day, achieve a depth of knowledge that might allow me to take on far greater challenges.
  • Women seem better able to quash all those absurd concerns that haunt and devastate us poor men; we are always more foolish and tormented than our female counterparts, who seem to have a sixth sense that allows them to simplify problems intelligently
  • It happened to me, and I know it’s happened to others: the first time I went to Lisbon, I had the feeling that I’d lived there before; I didn’t know when, and it made no sense, but I felt that I’d been in that city before ever having been there.
  • These are pictures that emerge from the beauty of this gray day, serenely advancing along the streets of Coyote, and which emerge, too, from my own debutant artist’s world: those mental sketches, always so close to what is actually happening, that are rather charming and, fortunately, rather naive mental engravings; naive, in my case, because the person producing them is still in the initial phase of everything and has no aspirations to go much beyond that, satisfied with the calm state of being the beginner, satisfied with the happy state of the beginner, able to travel from his place at the window, never losing sight of the fact that he is content with the comfortable grayness of his modest knowledge. In short: let others advance.
  • If you ask me, reality doesn’t need anyone to organize it into a plot; it is itself a fascinating, ceaseless creative center. But there are days when reality turns its back on the aimless drifting center that is life and tries to give events a novelish turn.
  • It was a matter of blocking out everything that had the power to upset me and that might seriously hinder the diary’s legitimate function: to make me happy. I was loving these carefree days, where even my strongest-held beliefs were dissolving into easy indifference.
  • I spent the whole morning telling myself that there wasn’t a moment to waste. By the afternoon, nothing much had changed. Once again, I obsessed over not wasting a minute while wasting them all.
  • Sometimes, strange though it may seem, all it takes for us to discover the unknown is the faintest curl of the lip, a tiny random gesture, the briefest flash of insight, and we discover it — as Rimbaud said —“not in some far-off terra incognita, but in the very heart of the present moment.”
  • I thought about the fragility of the strange and ultimately improbable air surrounding us and which we never think of as being made for us, and also about our intuitive sense of exile, of rootlessness, all those things that make us long to go home, as if that were still possible.
  • But I’ve always had my doubts about suicide, because, whenever I think of it, I can’t help remembering that the man who kicks away the chair he is standing on takes the leap into the void only to feel that the rope around his neck binds him ever closer to the very existence he wanted to leave.

Quotes

  • As Nathalie Sarraute once said — writing really is an attempt to find out what we would write if we wrote
  • Kierkegaard was referring to this attractive aspect of repetition when he said that repetition and recollection were the same movement, only in opposite directions, since “what is recollected is repeated backward, whereas repetition properly so-called is recollected forward. Therefore repetition, if it is possible, makes a man happy, whereas recollection makes him unhappy. . . .”
  • “The man who thinks he can live without others is mistaken; the one who thinks others can’t live without him is even more deluded.”
  • A quote from Bernard Malamud: “What’s next isn’t the point.”
  • “I do not evolve: I travel,” wrote Pessoa. In a way, this reminds me sometimes that one can know a man better by what he despises than by what he admires,
  •  “I can forgive you for murdering your wife and your mother, for burning our beloved Rome, for befouling our fair country with the stench of your crimes. But one thing I cannot forgive is the boredom of having to listen to your verses, your second-rate songs, your mediocre performances. Adhere to your special gifts, Nero — murder and arson, betrayal and terror. Mutilate your subjects if you must; but with my last breath I beg you — do not mutilate the arts. Farewell, but compose no more music. Brutalize the people, but do not bore them, as you have bored to death your friend, the late Gaius Petronius, so much so that I’ve chosen to kill myself rather than have to continue listening to your ridiculous attempts at poetry.”
  • “What we all dread most is a maze with no center. That is why atheism is only a nightmare.”
  • Pessoa said that some men rule the world and others are the world.
  • Roland Barthes once said that the only possible success a personal diary can hope for is to have survived the battle, even if that means distancing oneself from the world.
  •  “When you learn of my death that will be my moment of triumph! You will never have loved me so much, and I will never have occupied so much space in your life.”

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • Life seen as a single afternoon, as an elemental, anodyne afternoon; very occasionally glorious, but never without a grayish undertone.
  • I drank too much in the house of the literatureless; that is, at Julia and her husband’s place. By the end of my visit, I verged on the ridiculous, although, luckily, I didn’t make a complete fool of myself and was able to bite my tongue and not tell Julia — in somewhat rambling terms, which I hope to be able to reproduce here now — that I saw her as a great river, and that this new condition of hers — as a powerful rushing stream and not as a sister — was transforming her, in my eyes, into the most fitting and precise image of the course of my own life. It was as if she and her waters encapsulated both my past and my destiny, so closely were both these impressions linked to our favorite childhood holidays
  • I’ve noticed lately that the things that happen to me seem far more narratable than before I started writing this diary, when I was merely submerged in the eternal monotony of the real and, more specifically, in the tedious maelstrom of the construction world, in the day-to-day of business, always glumly marooned on the gray plains of the quotidian.
  • Everything I studied, saw, and learned were illuminated by a kind of potent light I can’t identify, perhaps because it’s merely the subtle glow given off by everything that I am starting to learn.
  • She then started saying how I do less and less each day — as if, once again, she were making a concerted effort to ignore the existence of my diary, and as if my having witnessed a possible murder were proof of my idleness — and she asked what I’d done that morning, wanting to know — as she put it — if I’d spent it sitting on my hands. I considered how fickle a thing falling in love can be and how it can flare up or die down in a moment. My hands were kept pretty busy, I told her. And if plates didn’t fly, that’s only because they happened to be out of Carmen’s reach.
  • It was followed by another contradiction, for Claramunt told me that he greatly admired the sudden sound, which, in Antiquity, must have broken the silence of the original chaos of the universe; and he added rather emphatically that he also admired the grandeur and portentousness of humanity’s first sages, who invented — wherever it was they did invent it — the most extraordinary of all works of art: grammar. They must have been real marvels, he said, those gentlemen who created the different parts of the sentence.

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk MD

★★★★★ (5/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Facing Trauma

  • Even years later traumatized people often have enormous difficulty telling other people what has happened to them. Their bodies reexperience terror, rage, and helplessness, as well as the impulse to fight or flee, but these feelings are almost impossible to articulate. Trauma by nature drives us to the edge of comprehension, cutting us off from language based on common experience or an imaginable past.
  • When something reminds traumatized people of the past, their right brain reacts as if the traumatic event were happening in the present. But because their left brain is not working very well, they may not be aware that they are reexperiencing and reenacting the past—they are just furious, terrified, enraged, ashamed, or frozen. After the emotional storm passes, they may look for something or somebody to blame for it. They behaved the way they did way because you were ten minutes late, or because you burned the potatoes, or because you “never listen to me.” Of course, most of us have done this from time to time, but when we cool down, we hopefully can admit our mistake. Trauma interferes with this kind of awareness,
  • In other words: If an organism is stuck in survival mode, its energies are focused on fighting off unseen enemies, which leaves no room for nurture, care, and love. For us humans, it means that as long as the mind is defending itself against invisible assaults, our closest bonds are threatened, along with our ability to imagine, plan, play, learn, and pay attention to other people’s needs.
  • Once you recognize that posttraumatic reactions started off as efforts to save your life, you may gather the courage to face your inner music (or cacophony), but you will need help to do so. You have to find someone you can trust enough to accompany you, someone who can safely hold your feelings and help you listen to the painful messages from your emotional brain. You need a guide who is not afraid of your terror and who can contain your darkest rage, someone who can safeguard the wholeness of you while you explore the fragmented experiences that you had to keep secret from yourself for so long.
  • Many behaviors that are classified as psychiatric problems, including some obsessions, compulsions, and panic attacks, as well as most self-destructive behaviors, started out as strategies for self-protection. These adaptations to trauma can so interfere with the capacity to function that health-care providers and patients themselves often believe that full recovery is beyond reach.
  • Twenty years after working with Mary, I met Richard Schwartz, the developer of internal family systems therapy (IFS). It was through his work that Minsky’s “family” metaphor truly came to life for me and offered a systematic way to work with the split-off parts that result from trauma. At the core of IFS is the notion that the mind of each of us is like a family in which the members have different levels of maturity, excitability, wisdom, and pain. The parts form a network or system in which change in any one part will affect all the others. The IFS model helped me realize that dissociation occurs on a continuum. In trauma the self-system breaks down, and parts of the self become polarized and go to war with one another. Self-loathing coexists (and fights) with grandiosity; loving care with hatred; numbing and passivity with rage and aggression. These extreme parts bear the burden of the trauma.
  • As Joan’s treatment progressed, we identified many different parts that were in charge at different times: an aggressive childlike part that threw tantrums, a promiscuous adolescent part, a suicidal part, an obsessive manager, a prissy moralist, and so on. As usual, we met the managers first. Their job was to prevent humiliation and abandonment and to keep her organized and safe. Some managers may be aggressive, like Joan’s critic, while others are perfectionistic or reserved, careful not to draw too much attention to themselves. They may tell us to turn a blind eye to what is going on and keep us passive to avoid risk. Internal managers also control how much access we have to emotions, so that the self-system doesn’t get overwhelmed.

Traces of Trauma

  • Traumatic experiences do leave traces, whether on a large scale (on our histories and cultures) or close to home, on our families, with dark secrets being imperceptibly passed down through generations. They also leave traces on our minds and emotions, on our capacity for joy and intimacy, and even on our biology and immune systems.
  • While we all want to move beyond trauma, the part of our brain that is devoted to ensuring our survival (deep below our rational brain) is not very good at denial. Long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones. This precipitates unpleasant emotions intense physical sensations, and impulsive and aggressive actions. These posttraumatic reactions feel incomprehensible and overwhelming. Feeling out of control, survivors of trauma often begin to fear that they are damaged to the core and beyond redemption.
  • Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.
  • Some people simply go into denial: Their bodies register the threat, but their conscious minds go on as if nothing has happened. However, even though the mind may learn to ignore the messages from the emotional brain, the alarm signals don’t stop. The emotional brain keeps working, and stress hormones keep sending signals to the muscles to tense for action or immobilize in collapse. The physical effects on the organs go on unabated until they demand notice when they are expressed as illness. Medications, drugs, and alcohol can also temporarily dull or obliterate unbearable sensations and feelings. But the body continues to keep the score.
  • If elements of the trauma are replayed again and again, the accompanying stress hormones engrave those memories ever more deeply in the mind. Ordinary, day-to-day events become less and less compelling. Not being able to deeply take in what is going on around them makes it impossible to feel fully alive. It becomes harder to feel the joys and aggravations of ordinary life, harder to concentrate on the tasks at hand. Not being fully alive in the present keeps them more firmly imprisoned in the past.
  • Alexithymics substitute the language of action for that of emotion. When asked, “How would you feel if you saw a truck coming at you at eighty miles per hour?” most people would say, “I’d be terrified” or “I’d be frozen with fear.” An alexithymic might reply, “How would I feel? I don’t know. . . . I’d get out of the way.” They tend to register emotions as physical problems rather than as signals that something deserves their attention. Instead of feeling angry or sad, they experience muscle pain, bowel irregularities, or other symptoms for which no cause can be found.
  • The price of this loyalty is unbearable feelings of loneliness, despair, and the inevitable rage of helplessness. Rage that has nowhere to go is redirected against the self, in the form of depression, self-hatred, and self-destructive actions. One of my patients told me, “It is like hating your home, your kitchen and pots and pans, your bed, your chairs, your table, your rugs.” Nothing feels safe—least of all your own body.
  • The mind works according to schemes or maps, and incidents that fall outside the established pattern are most likely to capture our attention. If we get a raise or a friend tells us some exciting news, we will retain the details of the moment, at least for a while. We remember insults and injuries best: The adrenaline that we secrete to defend against potential threats helps to engrave those incidents into our minds. Even if the content of the remark fades, our dislike for the person who made it usually persists.
  • “Hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences,” they proclaim, and go on to note that these memories are not subject to the “wearing away process” of normal memories but “persist for a long time with astonishing freshness.” Nor can traumatized people control when they will emerge: “We must . . . mention another remarkable fact . . . namely, that these memories, unlike other memories of their past lives, are not at the patients’ disposal. On the contrary, these experiences are completely absent from the patients’ memory when they are in a normal psychical state, or are only present in a highly summary form.”
  • The internal system of an abuse victim differs from the non-abuse system with regard to the consistent absence of effective leadership, the extreme rules under which the parts function, and the absence of any consistent balance or harmony. Typically, the parts operate around outdated assumptions and beliefs derived from the childhood abuse
  • Trauma and abandonment disconnect people from their body as a source of pleasure and comfort, or even as a part of themselves that needs care and nurturance. When we cannot rely on our body to signal safety or warning and instead feel chronically overwhelmed by physical stirrings, we lose the capacity to feel at home in our own skin and, by extension, in the world. As long as their map of the world is based on trauma, abuse, and neglect, people are likely to seek shortcuts to oblivion. Anticipating rejection, ridicule, and deprivation, they are reluctant to try out new options, certain that these will lead to failure. This lack of experimentation traps people in a matrix of fear, isolation, and scarcity where it is impossible to welcome the very experiences that might change their basic worldview.

Thought Provoking

  • Imagination is absolutely critical to the quality of our lives. Our imagination enables us to leave our routine everyday existence by fantasizing about travel, food, sex, falling in love, or having the last word—all the things that make life interesting. Imagination gives us the opportunity to envision new possibilities—it is an essential launchpad for making our hopes come true. It fires our creativity, relieves our boredom, alleviates our pain, enhances our pleasure, and enriches our most intimate relationships.
  • For real change to take place, the body needs to learn that the danger has passed and to live in the reality of the present.
  • The brain-disease model overlooks four fundamental truths: (1) our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being; (2) language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping us to define what we know, and finding a common sense of meaning; (3) we have the ability to regulate our own physiology, including some of the so-called involuntary functions of the body and brain, through such basic activities as breathing, moving, and touching; and (4) we can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive.
  • After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system. The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their lives. These attempts to maintain control over unbearable physiological reactions can result in a whole range of physical symptoms, including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and other autoimmune diseases. This explains why it is critical for trauma treatment to engage the entire organism, body, mind, and brain.
  • Very few psychological problems are the result of defects in understanding; most originate in pressures from deeper regions in the brain that drive our perception and attention. When the alarm bell of the emotional brain keeps signaling that you are in danger, no amount of insight will silence it. I am reminded of the comedy in which a seven-time recidivist in an anger-management program extols the virtue of the techniques he’s learned: “They are great and work terrific—as long as you are not really angry.”
  • When our emotional and rational brains are in conflict (as when we’re enraged with someone we love, frightened by someone we depend on, or lust after someone who is off limits), a tug-of-war ensues. This war is largely played out in the theater of visceral experience—your gut, your heart, your lungs—and will lead to both physical discomfort and psychological misery.
  • In a statement released in June 2011, the British Psychological Society complained to the APA that the sources of psychological suffering in the DSM-5 were identified “as located within individuals” and overlooked the “undeniable social causation of many such problems.” This was in addition to a flood of protest from American professionals, including leaders of the American Psychological Association and the American Counseling Association. Why are relationships or social conditions left out? If you pay attention only to faulty biology and defective genes as the cause of mental problems and ignore abandonment, abuse, and deprivation, you are likely to run into as many dead ends as previous generations did blaming it all on terrible mothers.
  • Since then neuroscience research has shown that we possess two distinct forms of self-awareness: one that keeps track of the self across time and one that registers the self in the present moment. The first, our autobiographical self, creates connections among experiences and assembles them into a coherent story. This system is rooted in language. Our narratives change with the telling, as our perspective changes and as we incorporate new input. The other system, moment-to-moment self-awareness, is based primarily in physical sensations, but if we feel safe are not rushed, we can find words to communicate that experience as well. These two ways of knowing are localized in different parts of the brain that are largely disconnected from each other.
  • Like several of my other traumatized patients, Kathy was able to become completely absorbed in her studies: When she read a book or wrote a research paper, she could block out everything else about her life. This enabled her to be a competent student, even when she had no idea how to establish a loving relationship with herself.

Interesting Facts

  • We can now develop methods and experiences that utilize the brain’s own natural neuroplasticity to help survivors feel fully alive in the present and move on with their lives. There are fundamentally three avenues: 1) top down, by talking, (re-) connecting with others, and allowing ourselves to know and understand what is going on with us, while processing the memories of the trauma; 2) by taking medicines that shut down inappropriate alarm reactions, or by utilizing other technologies that change the way the brain organizes information, and 3) bottom up: by allowing the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma.
  • For every soldier who serves in a war zone abroad, there are ten children who are endangered in their own homes.
  • The way medicine approaches human suffering has always been determined by the technology available at any given time. Before the Enlightenment aberrations in behavior were ascribed to God, sin, magic, witches, and evil spirits. It was only in the nineteenth century that scientists in France and Germany began to investigate behavior as an adaptation to the complexities of the world. Now a new paradigm was emerging: Anger, lust, pride, greed, avarice, and sloth—as well as all the other problems we humans have always struggled to manage—were recast as “disorders” that could be fixed by the administration of appropriate chemicals.
  • The drug revolution that started out with so much promise may in the end have done as much harm as good. The theory that mental illness is caused primarily by chemical imbalances in the brain that can be corrected by specific drugs has become broadly accepted, by the media and the public as well as by the medical profession.
  • The most important job of the brain is to ensure our survival, even under the most miserable conditions. Everything else is secondary. In order to do that, brains need to: (1) generate internal signals that register what our bodies need, such as food, rest, protection, sex, and shelter; (2) create a map of the world to point us where to go to satisfy those needs; (3) generate the necessary energy and actions to get us there; (4) warn us of dangers and opportunities along the way; and (5) adjust our actions based on the requirements of the moment.
  • Neurons that “fire together, wire together.” When a circuit fires repeatedly, it can become a default setting—the response most likely to occur. If you feel safe and loved, your brain becomes specialized in exploration, play, and cooperation; if you are frightened and unwanted, it specializes in managing feelings of fear and abandonment.
  • Economists have calculated that every dollar invested in high-quality home visitation, day care, and preschool programs results in seven dollars of savings on welfare payments, health-care costs, substance-abuse treatment, and incarceration, plus higher tax revenues due to better-paying jobs.
  • Increasing our time in REM sleep reduces depression, while the less REM sleep we get, the more likely we are to become depressed.

Childhood and Trauma

  • Children have no choice who their parents are, nor can they understand that parents may simply be too depressed, enraged, or spaced out to be there for them or that their parents’ behavior may have little to do with them. Children have no choice but to organize themselves to survive within the families they have. Unlike adults, they have no other authorities to turn to for help—their parents are the authorities. They cannot rent an apartment or move in with someone else: Their very survival hinges on their caregivers.
  • Winnicott thought that the vast majority of mothers did just fine in their attunement to their infants—it does not require extraordinary talent to be what he called a “good enough mother.”But things can go seriously wrong when mothers are unable to tune in to their baby’s physical reality. If a mother cannot meet her baby’s impulses and needs, “the baby learns to become the mother’s idea of what the baby is.” Having to discount its inner sensations, and trying to adjust to its caregiver’s needs, means the child perceives that “something is wrong” with the way it is. Children who lack physical attunement are vulnerable to shutting down the direct feedback from their bodies, the seat of pleasure, purpose, and direction.
  • Bowlby noticed that when children must disown powerful experiences they have had, this creates serious problems, including “chronic distrust of other people, inhibition of curiosity, distrust of their own senses, and the tendency to find everything unreal.”

The Unbearable Heaviness of Remembering

  • The traumatic enactment serves no function. In contrast, ordinary memory is adaptive; our stories are flexible and can be modified to fit the circumstances. Ordinary memory is essentially social; it’s a story that we tell for a purpose
  • Memories that are retrieved tend to return to the memory bank with modifications. As long as a memory is inaccessible, the mind is unable to change it. But as soon as a story starts being told, particularly if it is told repeatedly, it changes—the act of telling itself changes the tale. The mind cannot help but make meaning out of what it knows, and the meaning we make of our lives changes how and what we remember.
  • There were two major differences between how people talked about memories of positive versus traumatic experiences: (1) how the memories were organized, and (2) their physical reactions to them. Weddings, births, and graduations were recalled as events from the past, stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Nobody said that there were periods when they’d completely forgotten any of these events. In contrast, the traumatic memories were disorganized. Our subjects remembered some details all too clearly (the smell of the rapist, the gash in the forehead of a dead child) but could not recall the sequence of events or other vital details (the first person who arrived to help, whether an ambulance or a police car took them to the hospital).

The Science of the Brain

  • The birth of three new branches of science has led to an explosion of knowledge about the effects of psychological trauma, abuse, and neglect. Those new disciplines are neuroscience, the study of how the brain supports mental processes; developmental psychopathology, the study of the impact of adverse experiences on the development of mind and brain; and interpersonal neurobiology, the study of how our behavior influences the emotions, biology, and mind-sets of those around us.
  • We now know that the two halves of the brain do speak different languages. The right is intuitive, emotional, visual, spatial, and tactual, and the left is linguistic, sequential, and analytical. While the left half of the brain does all the talking, the right half of the brain carries the music of experience. It communicates through facial expressions and body language and by making the sounds of love and sorrow: by singing, swearing, crying, dancing, or mimicking.
  • The left and right sides of the brain also process the imprints of the past in dramatically different ways. The left brain remembers facts, statistics, and the vocabulary of events. We call on it to explain our experiences and put them in order. The right brain stores memories of sound, touch, smell, and the emotions they evoke. It reacts automatically to voices, facial features, and gestures and places experienced in the past. What it recalls feels like intuitive truth—the way things are. Even as we enumerate a loved one’s virtues to a friend, our feelings may be more deeply stirred by how her face recalls the aunt we loved at age four.
  • Deactivation of the left hemisphere has a direct impact on the capacity to organize experience into logical sequences and to translate our shifting feelings and perceptions into words. (Broca’s area, which blacks out during flashbacks, is on the left side.) Without sequencing we can’t identify cause and effect, grasp the long-term effects of our actions, or create coherent plans for the future.
  • While the smoke detector is usually pretty good at picking up danger clues, trauma increases the risk of misinterpreting whether a particular situation is dangerous or safe. You can get along with other people only if you can accurately gauge whether their intentions are benign or dangerous. Even a slight misreading can lead to painful misunderstandings in relationships at home and at work. Functioning effectively in a complex work environment or a household filled with rambunctious kids requires the ability to quickly assess how people are feeling and continuously adjusting your behavior accordingly. Faulty alarm systems lead to blowups or shutdowns in response to innocuous comments or facial expressions.
  • The amygdala doesn’t make such judgments; it just gets you ready to fight back or escape, even before the frontal lobes get a chance to weigh in with their assessment. As long as you are not too upset, your frontal lobes can restore your balance by helping you realize that you are responding to a false alarm and abort the stress response.
  • Breakdown of the thalamus explains why trauma is primarily remembered not as a story, a narrative with a beginning middle and end, but as isolated sensory imprints: images, sounds, and physical sensations that are accompanied by intense emotions, usually terror and helplessness.
  • The autonomic nervous system regulates three fundamental physiological states. The level of safety determines which one of these is activated at any particular time. Whenever we feel threatened, we instinctively turn to the first level, social engagement. We call out for help, support, and comfort from the people around us. But if no one comes to our aid, or we’re in immediate danger, the organism reverts to a more primitive way to survive: fight or flight. We fight off our attacker, or we run to a safe place. However, if this fails—we can’t get away, we’re held down or trapped—the organism tries to preserve itself by shutting down and expending as little energy as possible. We are then in a state of freeze or collapse.
  • Firefighters will do anything to make emotional pain go away. Aside from sharing the task of keeping the exiles locked up, they are the opposite of managers: Managers are all about staying in control, while firefighters will destroy the house in order to extinguish the fire. The struggle between uptight managers and out-of-control firefighters will continue until the exiles, which carry the burden of the trauma, are allowed to come home and be cared for.
  • Exiles are the toxic waste dump of the system. Because they hold the memories, sensations, beliefs, and emotions associated with trauma, it is hazardous to release them. They contain the “Oh, my God, I’m done for” experience—the essence of inescapable shock—and with it, terror, collapse, and accommodation. Exiles may reveal themselves in the form of crushing physical sensations or extreme numbing, and they offend both the reasonableness of the managers and the bravado of the firefighters.

The Road to Recovery

  • The challenge is not so much learning to accept the terrible things that have happened but learning how to gain mastery over one’s internal sensations and emotions. Sensing, naming, and identifying what is going on inside is the first step to recovery.
  • interoception, our awareness of our subtle sensory, body-based feelings: the greater that awareness, the greater our potential to control our lives. Knowing what we feel is the first step to knowing why we feel that way. If we are aware of the constant changes in our inner and outer environment, we can mobilize to manage them. But we can’t do this unless our watchtower, the MPFC, learns to observe what is going on inside us. This is why mindfulness practice, which strengthens the MPFC, is a cornerstone of recovery from trauma.
  • We also worked on mindfulness: Learning to keep her mind alive while allowing her body to feel the feelings that she had come to dread slowly enabled Marilyn to stand back and observe her experience, rather than being immediately hijacked by her feelings.
  • This combination of core strengthening—psychological, social, and physical—created a sense of personal safety and mastery, relegating my memories to the distant past, allowing the present and future to emerge.
  • In order to change you need to open yourself to your inner experience. The first step is to allow your mind to focus on your sensations and notice how, in contrast to the timeless, ever-present experience of trauma, physical sensations are transient and respond to slight shifts in body position, changes in breathing, and shifts in thinking. Once you pay attention to your physical sensations, the next step is to label them, as in “When I feel anxious, I feel a crushing sensation in my chest.” I may then say to a patient: “Focus on that sensation and see how it changes when you take a deep breath out, or when you tap your chest just below your collarbone, or when you allow yourself to cry.” Practicing mindfulness calms down the sympathetic nervous system, so that you are less likely to be thrown into fight-or-flight. Learning to observe and tolerate your physical reactions is a prerequisite for safely revisiting the past. If you cannot tolerate what you are feeling right now, opening up the past will only compound the misery and retraumatize you further.
  • Study after study shows that having a good support network constitutes the single most powerful protection against becoming traumatized. Safety and terror are incompatible. When we are terrified, nothing calms us down like the reassuring voice or the firm embrace of someone we trust. Frightened adults respond to the same comforts as terrified children: gentle holding and rocking and the assurance that somebody bigger and stronger is taking care of things, so you can safely go to sleep. In order to recover, mind, body, and brain need to be convinced that it is safe to let go. That happens only when you feel safe at a visceral level and allow yourself to connect that sense of safety with memories of past helplessness.
  • Some patients discover their own islands of safety—they begin to “get” that they can create body sensations to counterbalance feeling out of control. This sets the stage for trauma resolution: pendulating between states of exploration and safety, between language and body, between remembering the past and feeling alive in the present.
  • IFS recognizes that the cultivation of mindful self-leadership is the foundation for healing from trauma. Mindfulness not only makes it possible to survey our internal landscape with compassion and curiosity but can also actively steer us in the right direction for self-care.
  • The task of the therapist is to help patients separate this confusing blend into separate entities, so that they are able to say: “This part of me is like a little child, and that part of me is more mature but feels like a victim.” They might not like many of these parts, but identifying them makes them less intimidating or overwhelming. The next step is to encourage patients to simply ask each protective part as it emerges to “stand back” temporarily so that we can see what it is protecting. When this is done again and again, the parts begin to unblend from the Self and make space for mindful self-observation. Patients learn to put their fear, rage, or disgust on hold and open up into states of curiosity and self-reflection. From the stable perspective of Self they can begin constructive inner dialogues with their parts.
  • This meant focusing on her many inner resources and reminding myself that I could not provide her with the love and caring she had missed as a child. If, as a therapist, teacher, or mentor, you try to fill the holes of early deprivation, you come up against the fact that you are the wrong person, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. The therapy would focus on Joan’s relationship with her parts rather than with me.
  • Projecting your inner world into the three-dimensional space of a structure enables you to see what’s happening in the theater of your mind and gives you a much clearer perspective on your reactions to people and events in the past. As you position placeholders for the important people in your life, you may be surprised by the unexpected memories, thoughts, and emotions that come up. You then can experiment with moving the pieces around on the external chessboard that you’ve created and see what effect it has on you.
  • Structures do not erase bad memories, or even neutralize them the way EMDR does. Instead, a structure offers fresh options—an alternative memory in which your basic human needs are met and your longings for love and protection are fulfilled.
  • Structures promote one of the essential conditions for deep therapeutic change: a trancelike state in which multiple realities can live side by side—past and present,
  • Our sense of agency, how much we feel in control, is defined by our relationship with our bodies and its rhythms: Our waking and sleeping and how we eat, sit, and walk define the contours of our days. In order to find our voice, we have to be in our bodies—able to breathe fully and able to access our inner sensations. This is the opposite of dissociation, of being “out of body” and making yourself disappear. It’s also the opposite of depression, lying slumped in front of a screen that provides passive entertainment. Acting is an experience of using your body to take your place in life.

Quotations

  • Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. . . . Live the questions now. Perhaps you will gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
  • I doubt that the poet e. e. cummings could have written his joyous lines “i like my body when it is with your body. . . . muscles better and nerves more” if his earliest experiences had been frozen faces and hostile glances. Our relationship maps are implicit, etched into the emotional brain and not reversible simply by understanding how they were created.
  • As the poet W. H. Auden wrote: Truth, like love and sleep, resents Approaches that are too intense.
  • “Major changes to our bodies can be made not just by chemicals and toxins, but also in the way the social world talks to the hard-wired world.”
  • “Who can find a proper grave for such damaged mosaics of the mind, where they may rest in pieces? Life goes on, but in two temporal directions at once, the future unable to escape the grip of a memory laden with grief.”
  • “There is a strangeness, bizarreness to this dual existence. I tire of it. Yet I cannot give up on life, and I cannot delude myself into believing that if I ignore the beast it will go away.
  • “When the fear subsides I realize I can handle it, but a part of me doubts that I can. The pull to the past is strong; it is the dark side of my life; and I must dwell there from time to time. The struggle may also be a way to know that I survive—a re-playing of the fight to survive—which apparently I won, but cannot own.”
  • I don’t go to therapy to find out if I’m a freak I go and I find the one and only answer every week And when I talk about therapy, I know what people think That it only makes you selfish and in love with your shrink But, oh how I loved everybody else When I finally got to talk so much about myself—Dar Williams, What Do You Hear in These Sounds
  • In Seven Pillars of Wisdom T. E. Lawrence wrote of his war experiences: “We learned that there were pangs too sharp, griefs too deep, ecstasies too high for our finite selves to register. When emotion reached this pitch the mind choked; and memory went white till the circumstances were humdrum once more.”
  • There can be no growth without curiosity and no adaptability without being able to explore, through trial and error, who you are and what matters to you.
  • “The greatest sources of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves.”
  • The greater the doubt, the greater the awakening; the smaller the doubt, the smaller the awakening. No doubt, no awakening.—C.-C. Chang, The Practice of Zen

Beautifully Crafted Sentences

  • Being a patient, rather than a participant in one’s healing process, separates suffering people from their community and alienates them from an inner sense of self.
  • Emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to experiences and thus are the foundation of reason. Our self-experience is the product of the balance between our rational and our emotional brains. When these two systems are in balance, we “feel like ourselves.” However, when our survival is at stake, these systems can function relatively independently.
  •  “Grounded” means that you can feel your butt in your chair, see the light coming through the window, feel the tension in your calves, and hear the wind stirring the tree outside. Being anchored in the present while revisiting the trauma opens the possibility of deeply knowing that the terrible events belong to the past. For that to happen, the brain’s watchtower, cook, and timekeeper need to be online. Therapy won’t work as long as people keep being pulled back into the past.
  • Of course we experience our most devastating emotions as gut-wrenching feelings and heartbreak. As long as we register emotions primarily in our heads, we can remain pretty much in control, but feeling as if our chest is caving in or we’ve been punched in the gut is unbearable. We’ll do anything to make these awful visceral sensations go away.
  • Our culture teaches us to focus on personal uniqueness, but at a deeper level we barely exist as individual organisms. Our brains are built to help us function as members of a tribe. We are part of that tribe even when we are by ourselves, whether listening to music (that other people created), watching a basketball game on television (our own muscles tensing as the players run and jump), or preparing a spreadsheet for a sales meeting (anticipating the boss’s reactions). Most of our energy is devoted to connecting with others.
  • How well we get along with ourselves depends largely on our internal leadership skills—how well we listen to our different parts, make sure they feel taken care of, and keep them from sabotaging one another. Parts often come across as absolutes when in fact they represent only one element in a complex constellation of thoughts, emotions, and sensations.
  • in order to become self-confident and capable adults, it helps enormously to have grown up with steady and predictable parents; parents who delighted in you, in your discoveries and explorations; parents who helped you organize your comings and goings; and who served as role models for self-care and getting along with other people.