International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Book Review: The Power of Words in Healing Trauma

Posted 1 July 2001 in StressPoints by ISTSS

Give Sorrow Words is a revision and expansion of John Harvey's 1996 book, Embracing Their Memory: Loss and the Social Psychology of Storytelling. It is written as a textbook for university courses on loss and trauma. Harvey provides an integrative conceptualization of trauma using a framework of loss: "Traumas by definition involve major losses" (p. 18). In doing so he incorporates events that usually are not explored in trauma literature (e.g., loss of relationships to divorce, loss related to social stigmatization), along with events more commonly considered in trauma literature (e.g., experiences of war veterans, and physical and sexual aggression).

This book provides a broad overview of different experiences of loss, capturing the reader's attention by including personal narratives collected from various sources including interviews and newspaper articles. Despite this breadth and readability, Harvey does not sacrifice the inclusion of a coherent theoretical perspective, and he includes examples from research.

The book is divided into three sections. The first two chapters include an introduction to the text and an overview of the author's perspective for understanding trauma and loss. Harvey integrates theories ranging from Viktor Frankl's existentialism and Erik Erikson's theory of generativity to research on memory processes and environmental triggers for intrusive memories. He outlines his perspective on the importance of storytelling and the creation of meaningful verbal accounts of experiences of trauma and loss for healing. His model of recovery includes paths to successful coping and to failures in adapting. He also addresses the inevitability of loss across a lifetime and the necessity for finding meaning and socially sharing this meaning in even the most seemingly incomprehensible and senseless experiences of trauma and loss: "Thus the challenge to the survivor is to work on his or her story until the account feels complete and along the way confide parts of the account to a close other. Completion, in fact, will have occurred when the individual accepts what has happened and its meaning for him or her" (p. 34).

The middle section of the book covers more specific topics ranging from the individual (i.e., loss of relationships with significant others and loss due to disease and accidents) to the social (i.e., interpersonal violence, poverty and homelessness), and finally to the international (i.e., war and genocide and a case study of loss and trauma in Romania). Harvey's accounts cover extensive topics, focusing on case examples. In the chapter on "senseless violence," he covers basic research on aggression and violence, maternal filicide, domestic and relationship violence, sexual abuse, terrorism and school violence. In this format, he is able to demonstrate the connections and differences among these types of violence; however, he loses the ability to examine the complexities within each topic.

This lack of detail is offset by Harvey's ability to connect topics in a thoughtful, original manner. For example, he draws comparisons between the plight of abandoned and orphaned children in Romania to that nation's population of malnourished stray dogs that wander the streets, often ill or maimed. Also, in the final chapter of this section, Harvey uses the concept of "disenfranchised grief and stigmatization" to tie together a group of specific losses. This theory examines societal tendencies to "mark" and marginalize a set of trauma victims by both blaming them and rendering them invisible, which allows the "majority" to feel safe in their separation from the victim (e.g., the impact of racial discrimination and the stigma associated with breast cancer and mastectomies). Harvey asserts the importance of "social recognition of the necessity and honorableness of loss and grieving" in order to cope with such losses.

In the final section of the book, the author illustrates his perspective on adaptation to loss and trauma. He reviews some current treatment approaches including EMDR, logotherapy and stress inoculation training. Also provided is an overview of theories for treatment for pathologic grief and complicated mourning, and Herman's stage theory of trauma treatment. Finally, Harvey presents his model of healing as storytelling. This is a "story-action" model that includes acceptance, creating a meaningful account of experiences, and taking action to transform the loss (e.g., a rape survivor writing a book about her experiences). He ends with an extension of the action model to a social level, emphasizing the need to educate and encourage a social climate in which people feel responsible for one another - where people are able to transform their experiences into action for peace and wholeness. The epilogue gives specific suggestions for coping with loss.

Give Sorrow Words provides a comprehensive introduction to theories of loss and trauma and would serve as a valuable textbook in a course on trauma and loss and as an overview of a narrative/account-making understanding of trauma and loss. For the reader more familiar with these areas, another recent book edited by Harvey and Miller, Loss and Trauma: General and Close Relationship Perspectives, provides a more in-depth research-based presentation of similar and related topics.

This book was reviewed by Rebekah Bradley, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill.