The Whispering of Ghosts: Trauma and Resilience by Boris Cyrulnik (translated by Susan Fairfield) takes on the deep and disturbing topic of trauma that occurs during childhood and how this trauma sometimes manifests itself as the mental illness known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Cyrulnik divides his book into short, easy to digest chapters (between two and four pages) so the book can be easily read by psychologists and non-psychologists alike. He begins with a definition of trauma and then the process of resilience. Trauma is a “rip” in normal development, and resilience is “the resumption of some kind of development” (2). Simply separating the child from the trauma is not enough and can often, in the case of parental abuse, be a kind of trauma itself (18). Early on, he makes the initially controversial claim that children must claim some responsibility for the trauma. By doing so, he or she can take actions that lead to healing and resilience; instead of curling up and giving up, the child exerts effort and heals himself, though often not without the help of a professional. Resilient children, furthermore, “transform the memory of their trauma into a relationship tool” (34), giving themselves self-esteem and establishing control over their own trauma.
The only way to
give care to a traumatized person, Cyrulnik claims, is through understanding. After an initial trauma, simply speaking to the victim is enough. Afterward, “the coherence of the narrative will bring coherence to the event. Children who have managed to become resilient adults have been assisted in making sense of their injuries” (39). Still, changes in brain chemistry can make recovery difficult, especially for younger children who lack the vocabulary to narrate their stories.
Resilience can be triggered by anything or anyone. He notes that “It is astonishing to note the extent to which teachers underestimate their influence as people… Many, many people tell their therapists how much a teacher changed their lives, years ago, simply through an attitude or a few words, ordinary for the adult but decisive for the child” (63).
Cyrulnik illustrates all his theories with sometimes disturbing stories of traumatized children. Some children grow up to be normal adults, some don’t, and many have stories that are left unfinished. This may disturb some readers, but unfortunately this is how psychology works. Complete stories, with definite cause-and-effect, are hard to come by. He does an excellent job integrating narration with psychological theory and presenting his ideas to a lay audience. Any adult interested in trauma, child abuse, or post traumatic stress disorder could learn a great deal from this book.