What happens after trauma? After you’ve told your story and pursued all of the therapeutic strategies aimed at making you feel whole and safe again? After you’ve gone through the motions of trying to get back to normal—whatever “normal” means; the word no longer makes sense—and sat, center stage, as friends and loved ones have watched and waited for you to somehow, miraculously, morph back into the person you once were. But that person is no longer here, and in her place is this stranger you’ve become: this person who doesn’t want to get out of bed in the morning.
Before I started writing my most recent novel, Jane Anonymous, I knew I wanted to aim my camera lens on that period of time, post-trauma, when the threat is removed but the wounds remain, raw and searing, as the individual tries to acclimate back in her safer space. My main character hides her identity under the guise of “Jane Anonymous” as she writes about the seven months she spent in captivity, having been taken by someone she refers to as “the monster” and locked in a room with a bed and adjoining bathroom. “Jane” received meals and toiletries through a cat door, never knowing if it was day or night. The story is told on two timelines—then (during her time in captivity) and now (after she gets back). We see how the traumatic experience (and the losses incurred from it) changes her. Not only does Jane lose seven months of her life, but she also loses friends, relationships, and a sense of self.
When trauma strikes, we’re typically given an “acceptable” amount of time to heal and “move on,” but what happens when that allotted window of grieving time closes and the individual simply can’t move on? What happens when one feels as though she’s disappointing those around her for not being able to readjust quickly or radically enough, and so the trauma deepens, while emotions of guilt, anger, and alienation grow?
There are no easy answers, and people’s reactions to trauma are as varied and complex as the trauma itself. Numerous factors can influence one’s reaction(s), including age, personal history, one’s own brain chemistry, and the nature of the trauma. Time, effective treatment, and having a solid support system are also key factors. But, bottom line, while therapists can and do identify common threads and behaviors among victims of trauma, every case is as unique as the person who experiences it. The titles below explore some of those varied reactions.
Find Her by Lisa Gardner
Seven years ago, Flora Dane, a college student, was abducted while on spring break in Florida. She spent 472 days in captivity, a good deal of which were spent inside a coffin-like box. The novel begins after her escape. Now, while trying to lead a somewhat normal life (with a bedroom wall covered with the photos of missing girls), Flora has become a vigilante of sorts, determined to unravel the missing-persons cases of those like hers. The novel details the trauma of Flora’s tragic past, but also shows how that trauma has affected her daily life, her relationships, and her will to survive.
The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham
Agatha is pregnant and works part-time at a grocery store, anxiously awaiting the birth of her child. During her shifts, Agatha looks forward to crossing paths with picture-perfect Meghan, who frequents the store. To Agatha, Meghan has it all: two beautiful children, a handsome husband, an idealistic marriage, a circle of fashionable friends, plus a fabulous job; Meghan writes a funny parenting blog in which she confesses about her daily struggles as a mom. It’s a blog that Agatha reads each night, unbeknownst to Meghan. When Agatha discovers that Meghan is also pregnant, she musters up the courage to initiate a conversation. Little-by-little, Agatha orchestrates her way into Meaghan’s life. But why? Where does her motivation come from? The reader sees how childhood trauma and neglect influence Agatha’s chilling (and heartbreaking) present-day action, motivation, and relationships.
Room by Emma Donaghue
Ma, whose real name we never learn, was held captive by Old Nick for seven years. After two of those years, Ma gives birth to Jack, and the room in which they’re held (the eleven-by-eleven-foot space) becomes Jack’s whole world: the place where he sleeps, eats, plays, and does his lessons. When Jack is five, Ma devises a plan of escape for Jack. Once he and Ma are out of their captive situation, Ma must somehow readjust to her old life again (an insurmountable task), and Jack needs to learn how to acclimate to a world he’s only learned about from television.
The Vanishing Season by Joanna Schaffhausen
Abby Hathaway now goes by her middle name Ellery in an effort to hide her traumatic past. Kidnapped on her birthday at the age of fourteen, she was the one lone survivor of serial killer Francis Michael Coben. Now, years later, motivated by her history, Ellery works for the Woodbury, Massachusetts Police Department, and tries to feign a normal life, despite not having any close connections. When three people disappear in three years, all around her birthday, her anxiety is triggered and old wounds reopen. She fears that someone knows about her past – and that a copycat killer might be on the loose. Is she being paranoid? Or are these disappearances related to her crime? As Ellery works to uncover the truth (with the help of the FBI agent who saved her years ago), we see just how much past trauma has influenced the person she is now: someone still trying to survive.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
After a recent stay in a mental health facility, Camille Preaker, a reporter, is assigned to return to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri to cover the story of two murdered girls. Camille, still experiencing the effects of a traumatic incident and a dysfunctional childhood, tries to get out of the assignment – without success. Now, back in Wind Gap, staying in her childhood bedroom in her family’s home, Camille is triggered by memories of her old stomping grounds – and what happened there. As she investigates the case, she finds herself haunted by old ghosts. The reader is able see the effects of those ghosts carved all over her skin.
Speaking of Summer by Kalisha Buckhanon
Autumn and her sister Summer move to New York City, seeking the excitement and possibility that the city promises. One night, Summer, an artist whose work hints at a troubling past, goes missing from the rooftop of their Harlem apartment building; her footsteps are left behind in the snow. The detective assigned to Summer’s case is less-than-motivated to find her: a woman of color. Autumn’s friends don’t seem much too concerned about the disappearance either. As Autumn’s compulsion to find her sister grows, other areas of her life, including her livelihood, begin to come apart, shedding light on her mental stability. The reader sees just how deeply unresolved trauma can affect one’s shaping of reality. Can family secrets truly stay buried or do those secrets eventually rise up to haunt? In her search to find her sister, Autumn also searches for her missing self.