Memoir/Biography/Autobiography · Nonfiction

What My Bones Know

First off, this cover is damn gorgeous. Stunning. Second, though this hasn’t *yet* taken the world by storm, it should…because it has gotten such comprehensively stellar reviews and after reading it myself, I find I can only add to that praise. Whether it actually is groundbreaking (which it does seem to be, based on the dearth of existing details/research around this type of trauma, alongside Foo’s intersectional representation of it throughout this writing), or just seems to be based on my personal (lack of) previous knowledge of the topic, this book feels groundbreaking. In ways both personal and universal. I took so many notes while reading it, so get ready for a hefty, but glowing, review. 

What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma by Stephanie Foo

“Being healed isn’t about feeling nothing. Being healed is about feeling the appropriate emotions at the appropriate times and still being able to come back to yourself. That’s just life.”

Alright, a quick synopsis, though to be honest, the subtitle ” A Memoir of Healing From Complex Trauma,” really sums it up. Foo opens this book with a first section detailing, explicitly, the physical, verbal, emotional and psychological trauma she experienced at the hands of her parents growing up. It starts young, and it is violent in all the ways that violence can be interpreted, so please, be aware of that before reading. (To this end, Foo has a lovely content warning at the start as well, so I recommend reading her words directly too.) She then continues through the myriad ways that that childhood trauma affected everything from her work life to her personality to her relationships (how it truly did and how she was only perceiving that it did, in balanced measure). Then, the experience of getting her diagnosis of Complex-PTSD and the following years of working through what that means for her. She details the therapies and therapists she tries, the research she delves into and learns from, and the process of learning to come to terms with it all, as well as learning to love herself (and let herself be loved). As Foo says herself, this story has a “happy ending.” So, while it is a journey to get there, and a constant work of effort and awareness to maintain, it does happen.

I want to just start by reiterating what I said in my little intro/opening paragraph: this book absolutely blew me away. It was extraordinary, incredible. It is such a nuanced look at trauma, from a combined journalistic/research and memoir/individual approach, with Foo using her professional background to bring clarity to the science and health aspects, while providing examples of how it looks “in real life” with an unbelievable bravery in the openness with which she shares her own life. Absolutely amazing. There are so many factors that can affect a person’s mental health, from environmental experiences (like childhood trauma) to brain chemistry to intergenerational elements to access to support/intervention, and Foo weaves them all together here flawlessly, showing how each aspect can, depending on the situation, both negatively and positively impact mental health. 

To be more specific about some of these components of this reading experience, I want to go ahead and mostly just transfer over many of the reactions I noted down as I read. So, this next section might be a little all over the place, but each of these thoughts was important enough for me to pause reading (listening, in my case) to record them, so I want to keep them all here for posterity. 

  • If you haven’t already had this in mind, or it’s been relegated to somewhere on the backburner, this book will make you (re)consider the kids that “act out,” and what they must be dealing with to cause it and/or what they are trying to protect themselves from. Because wow, wow this childhood hurts so much to read about. I’m glad Foo has been able to comfort her child-self a bit, because that’s all I wanted to do while reading.
  • As Foo tries to find the line of where her C-PTSD symptoms are, versus her own personality and humanity, there is such a clarity of anger and confusion and frustration and, also, tenderness, for what she lost/what was taken from her (and her future) as a child.
  • Connecting her triggers/psychological symptoms with the chemistry and electricity of the body, the nuances therein and how to tease them apart from one another, while recognizing the ways they are inextricably intertwined, was so fascinating.
  • The stress and barriers and daunting-ness of finding the right therapist were…ooof…overwhelming. And on top of an already overwhelming mental health situation (reminiscent of themes in other books about mental health that I’ve read, but especially The Collected Schizophrenias.) Why does this remain such a barrier?! I mean, I know why, but also would like to scream a rhetorical “whyyyy?” into the void, because come on, America, do better already.
  • Such an insightful commentary on the intergenerational trauma aspect. Foo balances a condemnation of the originating source for much of it ( American violence and colonialism and imperialism and war) with an equally critical look at the individual tendency towards secrets and obfuscation, the cultural and traditional and belief-based and psychological (purposeful forgetting) reasons behind the Asian(-American) family approach to silence about traumatic events, that can be just as harmful. Foo speaks to the way the body remembers trauma, even when it’s been buried it’s still coded in our bones/DNA, and makes a clear and strong call for talking about and bringing it out into the open, as the only chance for healing and breaking cycles.
  • Foo gives a well-rounded, but approachable, overview of the mind-body connection and how mental health/childhood trauma are related to physical health (in this case especially women’s reproductive/sexual health). Related, her detailing of the sexism of PTSD as a connection to men/war and not women/abuse against women, and the resulting lack of knowledge/research about how it affects male and female bodies differently, is striking.
  • The power (and terror) Foo describes in advocating for herself in a medical setting (both mental and physical health), because as an individual YOU know your body better than anyone else, is so deeply (and too widely) necessary. One of the most inspiring parts of this book for me.
  • I mentioned that I did the audiobook version (which Foo reads herself, and it’s wonderful). Well, there are also actual clips of her therapy sessions that are absolutely stunning, and a profound addition to this reading experience. 
  • So much of how we see things and how others see things does not line up, and learning to balance and work through that, as a part of the overall journey Foo took, was phenomenal to be able to witness as a reader. 
  • OMG, the wedding story at the end is *oh my heart.*
  • I really appreciate consideration of the perspective change the pandemic gave people, in being more understanding about certain mental health issues, etc., as well as from a more personal POV for Foo about herself and the way her survival adaptations were a boon in these circumstances. 

I LOVED the way this ends with such a positive take. Foo shows herself and the reader the ways her C-PTSD adaptations made her better in certain circumstances, that they are part of who she is for bad and good. It is aching, but in a beautiful way. Overall, what a journey; not just of healing, but the self-discovery that comes with it. There’s a message there for everyone, even those of us without this level of trauma, about how worth it it is, the effort of finding what grounds and steadies you, what allows you to be present and alive. It’s worth it, to pinpoint where the love in your life truly comes from (and that you deserve to have it, even through f*ck ups), in order to really, fully, live. And Foo does this while also recognizing that how that looks/happens is different for everyone, and you cannot “fix” it for someone else with what has worked in your own experiences. I just…if you are able to read this, I cannot recommend it enough.

Lots of reactions to this read means lots of highlighted passages. Here’s a selection:

Hatred, I learned quickly, was the antidote to sadness. It was the only safe feeling. Hatred does not make you cry at school. It isn’t vulnerable. Hatred is efficient. It does not grovel. It is pure power.”

“When we say someone is resilient, we mean that they adapt well to conditions of adversity – they are strong, in possession of ’emotional toughness.’ But how do you measure someone’s emotional toughness exactly? […] Resilience, according to the establishment, is not a degree of some indeterminable measure of inner peace. Resilience is instead synonymous with success.”

“Just because the wound doesn’t hurt doesn’t mean it’s healed. If it looks good and it feels good, it should be all good, right? But over the years I’d smoothed perfect white layers of spackle over gaping structural holes.”

“San Jose is America’s consolation prize for those who lost Saigon and Seoul.”

“These negative emotions only become toxic when they block out all other emotions. When we feel so much sadness that we can’t let any joy in. When we feel so much anger that we cannot soften around others. True mental health looks like a balance of these good and bad feelings.”

“Here’s a theory: Maybe I had not really been broken this whole time. Maybe I had been a human – flawed and still growing but full of light nonetheless. […] Perhaps the only real thing that was broken was the image I had of myself – punishing and unfair, narrow and hypercritical. Perhaps what was really happening was that, along with all of my flaws, I was a fucking wonder. And I continue to be a fucking wonder.”

4 thoughts on “What My Bones Know

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