Voyage Around My Body

roxane gay hunger body trauma

I am reading Roxane Gay’s immensely powerful memoir, Hunger. It comes at a time when I am deep into another intense period of therapy, thinking about trauma in new ways and inching toward recognition of the traumas my body has been harboring ever since I was a very small child. I have been at odds with my body for such a long time.

EMDR therapy allowed me to see, for the first time in my life, my body’s intelligence. An emotional intelligence I’d wanted nothing to do with up to that point, because I’d wanted nothing to do with my own emotions. I knew they would be unbearable. After EMDR helped me to process and to bear what I was feeling about having been trapped in a crashed airplane, about having survived my little sister, about having been told—and believing—that I did not deserve to be alive, I thought I was done.

But here’s the thing I am coming awake to: my body is riddled with pockets of grief, and anger, and shame. And joy, thankfully. My body is mapped with sites of trauma, and if I can let myself follow its quiet guidance, if I can stand to visit each one and, with help, connect to how it feels, then I can hope to fully embody my emotion. I can own my whole feeing and thinking self.

I am seeing two therapists weekly now. It was getting difficult to hold on to—or even to understand, sometimes—the concepts we were discussing in talk therapy. It felt like they were sliding out of my brain before I could process them. This made sense, my therapist said. We were talking about abuses that occurred in early childhood, before I had the language to describe them to myself, to name them.

I found a somatic psychotherapist to work with, because those abstract concepts that slide out of my brain were preceded by wordless, flesh-and-blood traumas imprinted on skin. We are in the early stages of our work together, slowly setting out on a voyage around my body. She puts a hand on my back and I burst into tears. I lie on a green mat on the floor and sob. I am a small, small girl in bed in the dark, tail tucked between my legs.

Something my talk therapist said yesterday, when we were discussing Hunger, made me consider that I may not always hold myself at odds with my body. I am bereft of my body. Bereft of the whole, unbroken self who came into the world as a Song of Joy. She was taken by adults who had no right. But I am moving through the dark toward her again.

As Gay writes, “She is still small and scared and ashamed, and perhaps I am writing my way back to her, trying to tell her everything she needs to hear.”


Burning Down the House

reliving trauma

by guest blogger Andy Weisskoff, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Some people who survive a life or death event — like war, sexual assault, or a plane accident — get mired, reliving trauma for decades, experiencing the intense anxiety, depression, vigilance, flashbacks, and nightmares characteristic of PTSD. For these people, memories remain vivid and feel horribly alive until a therapeutic intervention, such as EMDR, softens them. For others, who have been through the same types of dangerous events, memories of the trauma transform apace into manageable life lessons, without professional intervention.

The difference is in large part determined by the social resources available in the aftermath of trauma. If you have people around who help you process the thoughts and emotions aroused by trauma, you are much more likely to recover. If, however, you struggle alone with your memories, and the conclusions about yourself that follow, (like, “It was all my fault,” or “I’m still in danger,” or “Something’s wrong with me), the memories stay stuck in their original form, inspiring fight/flight/freeze responses to triggers of the original event.

I’m reminded of the episode of the 1970s TV series The Waltons where the family’s house burns down. In case you don’t know the show, I’ll recap using my very faulty memory of watching it forty years ago. One night in Depression-era Virginia, John Boy Walton leaves his lit pipe on a table in the hallway. That same night Grandpa Walton leaves the electric heater running in the bathroom. The next day both artifacts are discovered in the smoking embers. But was it John Boy’s pipe or Grandpa’s heater responsible for the disaster?

Eventually, (it was a two-part episode), Grandpa Walton takes John Boy aside in an effort to ease his guilty mind. Grandpa says something like, “It was either your pipe or my heater that burned the house down. We’ll never know which. Either way it was an accident. Put it behind you or you’ll drive yourself crazy with guilt. And that won’t help anyone.”

Wisdom from Walton’s Mountain.

After a catastrophe, the reactions of family and friends have the power to either mediate or reinforce our tendency toward self-blame. At the time of the event, if the people close to us are non-blaming, if they tell us, “This is not your fault,” or, “Even if you participated, you had your reasons,” if they say, “I’m glad you survived,” and “I still love you,” we have a decent chance of setting the experience to rest alongside our other important life lessons. If, however, the soothing messages are absent, if they’re ambiguous or frankly accusatory, our memory of the event will stay alive indefinitely, along with the belief, “I’m bad.”

In Every Moment of a Fall, Carol’s memoir of recovery from trauma using EMDR, we watch in agony as her parents miss one opportunity after another to challenge her self-blame. Like John Boy with his pipe, Carol takes responsibility for the crash that killed her sister. Then, because there is no Grandpa Walton in her story, (not in her immediate family, nor, when she becomes an adult, in her primary relationships), she remains stuck. That is, until her therapists Connie and Jan arrive. Connie, with acceptance and gentle prodding, starts challenging her life’s narrative.  Jan, with EMDR, facilitates a radical re-examination of the facts. When the work is done, instead of believing the accident is all her fault, she sees it as nobody’s. From this vantage she gets curious about why her dad let her take the blame in the first place, why her mom went along, and why the other men in her life had followed suit.

After EMDR Carol rejoins her life from a new perspective: “Accidents happen. People who blame me when things go wrong, or allow me to blame myself, are not on my side.” This perspective suggests an action plan: “From now on, I’m only hanging with the non-blamers.”

And that, as the poet wrote, has made all the difference.

Andy Weisskoff, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and EMDR specialist. Learn more about EMDR and his practice at

Crash Convergence



Your odds of crashing in a commercial airplane are about the same as your odds of getting struck by lightning. The risk goes up considerably in a private plane. Still, how many people do you know who’ve been in an airplane crash? I’ve never personally met anyone else who survived one. Until recently, I’d only met two people who even had plane crash stories in their families.

Imagine, then, how eerie it was to find myself in a laundry room at a housewarming party with two strangers whose parents had died in airplane crashes. Wait, it gets even freakier. We quickly discovered that each of our family’s crashes occurred in the 1970s. Both of theirs happened outside the same city in Peru, of all places. One was a commercial flight. The other, like mine, was a private plane.

Hold on, you’re saying. What were you doing in the laundry room? That’s where our friends had set up the bar, on top of the washer and drier. The space could only hold half a dozen people, and 50% of us standing in it at that moment had either been in a plane crash, lost family members in a plane crash, or both.

What are the odds?

Turns out one of my new crash compadres, Ray, lives just a few blocks down the street from me. (Cue Twilight Zone music.) The other, Mark, is an Oakland-based journalist whose three books and scads of print stories focus on human-created environmental disasters. When he told me about his involvement with the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) in Emeryville, that was the last straw. My mind was fully and officially blown.

Here’s why. The Executive Director of CIR is Robert Rosenthal—a journalist with a long and storied career that’s included executive editor positions at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chauncey Bailey Project. Before he became an award-winning fancy-pants, though, Rosenthal was a reporter for the Boston Globe. After our plane crashed in October 1979, it was his byline on that newspaper’s coverage.

What this means, in case you’re having trouble tracking all the woo-woo connections, is that my new friend Mark, whose parents died in a plane crash around the same time as my little sister, happens to work with the guy who wrote the newspaper stories about the crash that killed her. The crash I survived 37 years ago.

I shit you not.

Mark gave me Robert’s email address and urged me to get in touch with him. He knew “Rosey” would be interested to hear from me. And guess what? He was right! I took my time contacting him, worried that a big-wig newsman wouldn’t have time for my small-potatoes story.  An hour after I finally sent the email, though, I got a reply. Robert asked if we could get together and talk. He had a vague memory of the incident, he said, and wondered if I had clips of the stories he’d written.

We met three days later in the CIR offices. He told me that once he’d read the clips I sent, memories of reporting the story came back to him. He’d spent a day in our small town outside Boston interviewing people, including a neighbor girl who’d been playing tetherball with Nancy the day before she died. He remembered how devastated everyone he spoke to had been by the news.

More than once in the course of our conversation he marveled at how infrequently this sort of thing happens. Journalists rarely get to follow up with the people they write about, he said, even though certain stories remain front of mind. To hear my version of the crash events, and to learn about my protracted struggle and how I finally got the help I needed to re-engage with life—this was clearly a moving experience for him.

As it was for me. I kept having to remind myself that I was face-to-face with someone who’d been there. Someone who canvassed the neighborhood while Mom, Dad and I lay in our hospital beds. He glimpsed a side of the events I would have missed, if not for his newspaper articles. It felt incredibly lucky and so very sweet to get the chance to connect with him after more than 35 years.

Perhaps the coolest coincidence of all is that I met these folks just a few months before the release of my memoir about the plane crash. It’s as if, once I’d got the story down on paper, the universe started putting people in my path to say: this matters.

I sent Robert my book manuscript. Once again, his reply was immediate. “Thank you Carol,” he wrote. “I just read the first few pages. The narrative is powerful, gripping and wonderfully written.” I flushed with pride.  He continued, “I think anyone who reads the first few pages will read the book. It pulls you along. . . . Congrats.”

I am here to say, alive to say: Life is brutal, enervating, raucous, stupefying, jubilant. Extremely weird. And so dear.