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Celebrating the forthcoming release of the new book, The Storyteller, today is Day 3 of the Book Giveaway! Each day for ten days (until October 7), I will post a question and response from the book’s Discussion Guide . Anyone who posts a response with h/her thoughts either on WordPress or Facebook (“Stories That Matter”) will be automatically entered to win a copy of the book when it is released! I will give away 3 copies.

Day’s 3 Question:

Daphne becomes selectively mute as a result of trauma. How can trauma can manifest itself physically?

Discussion Guide

The silence Daphne endures for fourteen years fascinates me. This was the reason I wanted to write this book; it was one of the main purposes. When she is four-years-old, Daphne witnesses the murder of her mother by her schizophrenic, hallucinating father. When she realizes her mother has died, Daphne screams. It is the last time she will speak for fourteen years. Her father, Dusty, always resented Daphne’s existence; he didn’t want a child and, because Dana suffered an agonizing birth, and afterbirth, Dusty is convinced that evil spirits live within his daughter. He goes to horrific lengths to “rid her” of these spirits including torture by branding her with the letter D (to tell the spirits she was taken; she belonged to him), captivity (to make sure she didn’t kill him while he slept), and rape (to “cleanse” her by giving her “new blood”). Dusty makes me simultaneously angrier than any of my other characters ever, and uncomfortable because his mental illness is real. His effect on Daphne is profound. Her silence is but one of these effects.

Reality is fickle. The mind is a powerful, powerful thing. It is capable of being an amazing, protective soldier, adapting in miraculous ways to intense emergencies. Even when exposed to prolonged danger, the mind has the ability to stand guard, to protect the core of who we are. But it doesn’t thrive in danger, it only survives. And, just like any soldier guarding a post, there are weak spots in the defense. The soldier (the mind) is only guarding your life; it’s not protecting you against sadness or from understanding what you’ve gone through. While many find constructive ways to cope, many abuse victims also survive the abuse only to break under the weight of trying to recover.

Ubiquitous influences of abuse follow the survivor throughout h/her life. There are as many effects as there are survivors. When I try talking about my past in specific details one-on-one, first, my hands clench into fists involuntarily. This is a way for me to feel in control of my body because not having control of your body is terrifying. Clenching fists is only the first sign; it’s a sign that I’m uncomfortable, but I can keep going. If I have to keep going, my shoulders will tighten, and then I start shaking. If I’m pushed beyond this, I’ll eventually cry. Each of these physical reactions triggers memories because it’s how I remember shaking and crying during and after the abuse, too.

Silence is Daphne’s way of coping with untenable abuse. Her silence fascinates me because so much of abuse is about keeping secrets and staying silent because one of the (many) lies of abuse is that silence is a way to stay safe. If I’m quiet, nothing bad will happen. If I don’t tell, nobody else will be hurt. If I’m silent, this person who seems capable of literally anything won’t destroy the rest of my life. Staying silent is a way of trying to make yourself invisible. I was not selectively mute, certainly not to Daphne’s extent, but I tried other ways to make myself invisible. If I blindly obey, I might not get in trouble. If I don’t eat, if I harm myself, if I work enough, I might escape detection, I might be okay. Trying to reconcile the confusing version of myself in the mirror with this dirty, shameful person I feel can lead to self-harm; the intense pain that comes when you start to realize that what was taken from you cannot ever be given back can lead down dangerous paths. I’ve known survivors who, as a result of the abuse, saw their bodies as worthless and, because they were worthless, became indiscriminate with dating and intimacy while other survivors, like myself, went the total opposite direction and decided that it was too painful to risk intimacy at all.

The body speaks. Just as loudly as words, how our bodies respond to trauma, and the memory of trauma, is important. In this book, Daphne’s lack of speech creates a life of silence: a life where she couldn’t share her desire to read, a life where she couldn’t talk about her love of the constellations, a life where communicating basic information was frustrating. This inner chaos and frustration, this inner dome of helplessness is also evidenced in the myriad of ways we tell our stories with our bodies. For me the acts of bone shaking and of clenching my hands mean I’m emotionally overwhelmed; it’s a way of communicating what I cannot say aloud. Recognizing the body language of those around us is more than a courtesy; it can give us insight into complex emotions and an opportunity to stand in the gap for those we love.

What Do You Think? What are other ways trauma shows up physically?