“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
― James Baldwin
I am always simultaneously inspired and stunned by how books were an invaluable source of respite and salvation for a good deal of my psychotherapy clients who survived unspeakable traumas. Many have shared that by entering a fictional landscape replete with parallel narratives and plights, hope and direction was offered, and accordingly, abysmal adversity was more effectively endured. In particular, trauma survivors early attunement to fairy tales, comic books, and myths speaks of the metaphorical symbolism evident in the trials of heroes and heroines, who like the reader, were challenged to persevere and triumph over the harsh reality of brutal malevolence and inconceivable circumstance. Through immersion in a fictional world, identification, catharsis and insight (Russell and Shrodes) occurs, allowing the inspired reader to reframe her own situation, have emotional release, clarity and possibly experience behavioral shifts.
Conceptualizing reading as a healing experience that can assist with resolving a multiplicity of struggles dates back to the middle ages. Samuel Crothers who coined the term bibliotherapy in 1916 imparted, “I don’t care whether a book is ancient or modern, whether it is English or German, whether it is in prose or verse, whether it is a history or a collection of essays, whether it is romantic or realistic. I only ask, “What is its therapeutic value?” As Crothers quote suggests, when applied in a therapeutic context, bibliotherapy comprised of fictional and/or non-fictional reading, can enhance the treatment process through psycho-educational, spiritual, and creative exploration. Often when I recommend a book that resembles a client’s process, or provides knowledge pertaining to a client’s condition, a deeper mobilization of analysis ensues. Frances Bacon’s quote “knowledge itself is power” is demonstrably evident when written word crystallizes into truth and recognition. When the reader can give name to her struggles and afflictions, an enhanced sense of agency occurs.
While one of the essential goals of clinical bibliotherapy is to enhance the client's understanding of the issues being addressed in treatment, it is also a vehicle for affirming our interconnectedness. As we read about the fundamental nature of our very existence we remember the universality of our shared humanity. Life-altering classic books about the human condition such as Catcher in the Rye, Long Days Journey into Night, Hamlet, Death of a Salesman, and Frankenstein, provide commentaries, which compassionately acknowledge the vicissitudes of life. Powerful non-fiction books such as Meeting the Madwoman, The Homecoming, Out of the Shadows, The Hero Within, Man’s Search for Meaning, etc., poignantly explain the psychological ramifications of trauma and recovery. Reading (and writing for that matter!) provides us with the solace of knowing our stories are shared through characters who champion our cause. Seeing the ailments and conditions one grapples with in elaborate descriptive detail and form, further reminds us what James Baldwin conveys in his beautiful quote, that even in our brokenness we are more alike, than we are different. That books offer us an awareness of that sentiment is indeed reparative.