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Uncovering Trauma through Therapeutic Writing
by Shonnie Brown, MFT
More and more I use writing as a therapeutic tool. In addition to being a therapist, I
assist people in writing their memoirs, and this too can be very healing. Several months ago I
began working with an 85 year-old World War II veteran. George remembers the facts of his life,
especially the war stories, but is completely out of touch with his senses and feelings. Recently,
when I was in the midst of re-editing his war tales, he silently passed me a scribbled note.
"I know you are not interested in my war stories," the note read. "But to me they are the most
important part of my life... Can you imagine being left standing in the middle of this field with
the entire squad down and all these Germans shooting at me? Can you imagine feeling there was no
hope at all?"
"George, were you writing this to me?" I asked, deeply touched.
"I guess so," he mumbled, looking away.
George's note said everything. His family teases him about his preoccupation with old war stories,
and I had colluded in not really understanding their impact on his life. I was glad that he was
able to write what he had been unable to say to me aloud. Now I have a much more compassionate
approach to our work.
George's grandson wrote a beautiful tribute to him which I decided to use in the memoir. It read
in part: "Every day he (George) lives with the terrors he saw and endured on the battlefield... To
my grandfather, as to other soldiers in America, memories on the battlefield remain an open
When I read this aloud to George, I saw tears brimming in the corners of his eyes. He excused
himself to leave the room. When he returned, I mentioned that he had looked sad a bit earlier.
"Sad?" he asked, in a tone suggesting that such an idea was quite preposterous. And I began to
understand how dissociated he still was from the images of death and destruction he saw every day
on the front lines in World War II. I started wondering if, after all these years, I was the first
person who had ever taken the things George saw and did in battle seriously. From there I began to
educate myself about the war and watched several of the movies George recommended so that I could
ask the appropriate questions in helping him unravel the very complex and ambivalent feelings
which he had been disconnected from for so long.
When I mentioned these breakthroughs with George to my colleagues, someone remarked: "Isn't it
interesting that George, in the last part of his life, decided to write the stories that no one
has really paid much attention to, and that he unknowingly hired a therapist to do the writing?"
One might wonder why George wanted to write his stories. George just missed being killed at least
nine times in four months of war. He has, as his grandson observed, contained these painful
memories all his life. I believe that George hired me because at this time in his life he wanted
to let someone know what his wartime experience was really like, as painful as it is to remember.
Writing a memoir is simply the tool.
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