Uncovering Trauma Through Therapeutic Writing: Part II

by Shonnie Brown, MFT

In Part I of this article I explored the healing effects of therapeutic writing in working with traumatized World War II veterans. My experiences have been validated by the research of James Pennebaker and many others. Since I wrote that original article I have been using LifeStory Therapy™ more extensively in writing groups and with individual psychotherapy clients of all ages. I am most grateful for the opportunity to combine my two passions--writing and paying witness to people's deep inner processes.

I teach a life story writing class at a local Senior Center where I am learning much about the "dos and don'ts" of that unique generation who struggled through both the Great Depression and World War II. A few of their beliefs seem to be:
  1. Don't express your pain and grief.
  2. Don't cry about the past. It will open a bottomless well of grief.
  3. Don't ever cry in public.
  4. If you're going to write memoir, write about only happy memories.
The elders who attend my class all share one thing in common. They've all said: "I have never written from my feelings before and I wouldn't even know how to do it."

With the creation of a safe space and an explanation of why witnessing by others is an essential part of the healing process, I began my technique of immersing group members in their sensual memories--the specific details of sight, sound, taste, smell and touch that we carry in our cells throughout life. I helped them understand that if they could place themselves back "there" in words, they would be bringing us along as compassionate witnesses.

By the second class, there was enormous progress. Class members were writing descriptively and emotionally. Justine, in particular, wrote an emotional memory from her childhood in another country which brought tears to her eyes.

During the third class, there was a a real shift. Another senior, Diane, chose voluntarily to write some of her World War II memories of being relocated as a child in England during the war--something she vowed many times that she'd never do.

Diane's style was journalistic. Bang, bang, bang! Memories flew onto the page in a whirlwind of rapidly moving pen strokes. And at the end she had written a recollection of great love and pain that had been locked in her cells for all these years. With tears rolling down her cheeks, she read her piece, telling the group: "I've never told anyone about this incident. But I knew I had to write about it. I just knew it."

Therapeutic writing helps people of any age deal with trauma in a number of ways. Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D. in Becoming Whole: Writing Your Healing Story shares some therapeutic writing tips which may be used to modulate one's reentry into the trauma:
  1. First write about what happened in the third person, using "she" or "he" instead of "I". Eventually you will want to write in first person.
  2. Fictionalize the characters and setting and look at the incident through a lens.
  3. Tell your story in a letter to your most nurturing, supportive friend.
  4. Write the story from the point of view of who you are now or as another adult who witnessed it.
Alice Miller, in her esteemed book, Drama of the Gifted Child, writes about the prevalence and denial of childhood abuse and trauma. She states that for healing to take place, shame and trauma must be revealed to a compassionate witness or witnesses. When we tell our story to a therapist or in a safe group, we become more whole. Likewise, when we write our story, we become witness as well as narrator and author.

In my writing class I teach that silent witnessing and reflective mirroring are part of the healing process. By reading her trauma aloud and being validated, Diane was beginning to integrate this long rejected memory as "another part of her story" instead of a shameful secret. Beginning this process after 65 years of compartmentalizing was, of course, very frightening for Diane. After she shared a second war scarred memory, she began dotting the corners of her eyes with tissue throughout the class meeting. This unexpected giant leap had opened up a deep well of grief. Not surprisingly, Diane stayed after class that week, expressing doubt and questioning if she could bare the pain that she now feared might overtake her.

Thanks to substantial research now available in this field, I have increased awareness of how to offer support in such situations and how to help clients deal with these fears:
  1. Honor that experiences in war or as a result of war are unlike any other life experience, thus exposing us to trauma that others may never understand.
  2. Don't push the traumatized person--wait until they feel ready, even in writing. One week they may be open, the next week closed. Self modulation is empowering.
  3. Be aware of the tools (mentioned above) that help modulate one's reentry into the trauma. Writing therapy has now become a mainstream way of working through trauma.
For more information about LifeStory Therapy™ or the use of writing as a means of working through trauma, please feel free to contact me at (707) 526-4353.


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