This post is part of an ongoing series about our lab’s fall book club. We’re reading The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. We hope you can join us at our next meeting or share your thoughts in the comments below.

Prologue: Facing Trauma

In the prologue to The Body Keeps the Score, author Bessel van der Kolk introduces the topic of trauma, discusses how common traumatic experiences are, and outlines the various scientific approaches to studying trauma and its treatment.

  • “[Victims of traumatic experiences] become so upset when they think about what they experienced that they try to push it out of their minds, trying to act as if nothing happened, and move on. It takes tremendous energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror, and the shame of utter weakness and vulnerability” (p. 2). What role does shame play in the experience of trauma? How do people move past or heal from intense feelings of shame?
  • “The challenge is: How can people gain control over the residues of past trauma and return to being masters of their own ship?” (p. 4). What do people need in order to feel empowered, especially after an overwhelming or traumatic experience?

Chapter 1: Lessons from Vietnam Veterans

The author describes his early professional experiences treating veterans of the Vietnam War. The author discusses how treatment of trauma and PTSD has changed in the last several decades, and he describes common symptoms of trauma: loss of self, numbing, reorganization of perception, and feeling stuck in trauma.

  • The author quotes a mentor who stated, “The greatest sources of our suffering of the lies we tell ourselves.” He says this was true for both his patients and himself. “We don’t really want to know what soldiers go through in combat. We do not really want to know how many children are being molested and abused in our own society or how many couples … engage in violence at some point during their relationship” (p. 11). Do you agree with this statement? What would be the social implications if we all really knew how commonplace trauma is in society?
  • After treating the veteran, Tom, for months, the author discovers he committed atrocities against Vietnamese villagers after his own traumatic experience. What would it be like, to work with a patient who disclosed similar past behaviors?
  • “After trauma the world becomes sharply divided between those who know and those who don’t. People who have not shared the traumatic experience cannot be trusted, because they can’t understand it. Sadly, this often includes spouses, children, and co-workers” (p. 18). How would you approach helping someone who can only relate to those who have shared their traumatic experience?
  • The author repeatedly alludes to the body’s physical sense of memory: “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” (emphasis added; p. 21). What do you think it means, for the body to learn something?

Cover photo from National Archives

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