Jul 24

“Scared Selfless”: Therapist’s Horrific Childhood Trauma

I was raped and tortured and prostituted to countless men. I was used in child pornography. As a result of this abuse, I grew mentally disturbed and was in danger of a wasted existence. But I made a decision not to give into despair. I vowed that, no matter what, I was going to fight for a good, decent, normal life. The journey to that good life wasn’t easy. It was fraught with pain and self-doubt and self-loathing. But I persevered and eventually found the help and love I needed to be happy. Psychologist Michelle Stevens, from her memoir Scared Selfless (2017)

Michelle Stevens, PhD, founder and director of Post-Traumatic Success, a nonprofit that provides education and support to victims of psychological trauma, is the author of Scared Selfless: My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving. Scared Selfless is based on her psychology dissertation, one that merited special distinction from her school, Saybrook University.

Stevens’s memoir presents a unique viewpoint: on the one hand, as a therapy client she’s addressed the severe mental health effects of her own horrific abuse; on the other, she’s now a therapist herself, able to offer her specialized expertise to clients who also have trauma histories.

In the brief video below, Stevens explains further:


Kirkus Reviews summarizes what happened to the author early in life:

Stevens was 8 years old when Gary Lundquist came into her life. A primary schoolteacher and toystore owner, his apparent interest was in the author’s impoverished, poorly educated mother. But shortly after the pair began dating, Lundquist declared his intention to develop a ‘special relationship’ with Stevens and took the child home with her mother’s consent. There, he began to ‘train’ her as a sex slave whom he also prostituted to other equally sadistic pedophiles. The abuse, which Stevens could not articulate to her mother, continued for six years.

The toll the trauma and forced silence took was enormous. As the book blurb states, “Michelle suffered from post‐traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression, and made multiple suicide attempts. She also developed multiple personalities.”

“In the end,” adds Kirkus, “it was the empathetic, nonjudgmental kindness of a dedicated therapist—who later became Stevens’ professional role model—that saved her life and gave her the courage to begin the journey toward psychological health.”

Selected Reviews

Sara Corbett, co-author of A House in the Sky“Michelle Stevens has written a fierce, honest account of her life that will stay with any reader long after the last page has turned. This book does more to explain what it feels like to live with the effects of trauma than anything I’ve ever read. It’s the rare book that’s both personal and clinical. It should be a resource and an inspiration not just to survivors but to those who love and seek to understand them.”

Dave Pelzer, author of A Child Called “It”: “a riveting memoir that takes readers on a roller coaster ride from the depths of hell to triumphant success. Michelle’s extraordinary life story and diligent, compassionate work as a therapist teaches us that, with true-grit determination, it’s possible to overcome the worst adversity. Scared Selfless offers courage, strength, and resilience to anyone who desires a better life.”

Joe Navarro, Special Agent (Ret.) and author of Dangerous Personalities“…This is a story about the psychological legacy of abuse, the struggle to survive a troubled mind, the challenges of finding elusive help and about finally and triumphantly finding redemption through the most unapologetic example of personal grit I’ve ever read…”

Oct 23

“Room” Is the Film to…Well, Make Some Room For

The most terrifying movie of the season does not involve aliens, ghouls or men in hooded masks. Regina Weinreich, Huffington Post, about Room

Because of the subject matter, a movie like Lenny Abrahamson‘s Room, adapted from Emma Donoghue‘s bestselling 2010 novel by the author herself, will not be readily received by everyone. But many critics want us to try.

Too grim and heartbreaking for some viewers, Room is nevertheless an extraordinary film so powerful and unforgettable that it must be seen,” says Rex Reed, New York Observer.

Others are largely in agreement, not only about the high quality of the film itself but also about the powerful performances.

The gist: Jack (Jacob Tremblay), now five years old, has always lived in a small garden shed, imprisoned, with his Ma (Brie Larson).

As Chris Nashawaty, EW.com, elaborates, “Their jailor is a brutal sadist named Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), who grants and withholds privileges depending on his whims. How long have they been in this room? What cruel fate put them here? The movie doles out these answers slowly, making us feel as disoriented as these doomed souls in confinement.”

Although some, including Nashawaty, indicate that further info about the plot constitutes spoilers, others recognize that many viewers will already have accessed certain info from the trailer and/or press and/or reading the book. But if none of the above applies, the following may not be for you.

Basically, the first “act” is their Room experience, the second their escape toward Joy’s (Ma’s) parents (Joan Allen, William H. Macy).

The First Act

Amy Nicholson, Village Voice:

To keep Jack calm, his mom convinces him that the world on TV is make-believe. All dogs are fake, the ocean is fake, the other people are just ‘made of colors.’ Their room — or, as he calls it, ‘Room,’ the same way we say ‘America’ or ‘Earth’ — is the only reality.

The twist is, to Jack it’s not that bad…

Susan Wloszczyna, rogerebert.com:

As for Ma, her whole focus is on Jack’s well-being and rarely her own. She ignores a painful rotting tooth in her mouth until it falls out and it immediately becomes one of her son’s most prized possessions. She is endlessly resourceful, turning cardboard toilet paper rolls and egg shells connected by string into playthings. For her, Jack is her anchor and her reason to carry on.

The Second Act

Justin Chang, Variety:

…Abrahamson and Donoghue invite and achieve an uncommon level of audience identification as they give due weight to their characters’ post-traumatic stress disorder. Their story implores us to consider the normal or expected passages to adulthood — the gradual separation from one’s parents, the growing sense of self-sufficiency, the ability to put away childish things, the understanding that what we are losing is (hopefully) being matched by what we are gaining — and to realize the impossible situation that now confronts Jack. Yet a subtle, provocative question also rises to the surface, slyly articulated in a scene where his mother wistfully scans the photos of her former classmates in a high-school yearbook: With their comparably blessed, sheltered, mundane lives, were they really that much better off?

Susan Wloszczyna, rogerebert.com:

Jack especially thrives in the company of his grandmother (Joan Allen, whose smile alone gives a boost to the film’s last third). She got divorced in the wake of her daughter’s disappearance and has a new man in her life, the good-natured Leo (Tom McCamus) who patiently guides and encourages Jack. If there is a weak link in ‘Room,’ it is William H. Macy, who is too predictably cast as Joy’s father, ill-equipped to handle her reappearance, let alone the news that he now has a grandson.

The Trailer

Selected Reviews and Take-Aways

Chris Nashawaty, EW.com: “Room is the kind of spare and lean film that lives or dies depending on its performances. Fortunately, Larson and Tremblay are remarkable…Room may not be a pleasant place to spend two hours, but it’s an unsettling experience you won’t forget.”

Dana Stevens, Slate: “Though it goes to places as dark as any you could imagine, Room carries at its heart a message of hope: Two people in four walls can create a world worth surviving for, if they love each other enough.”

Susan Wloszczyna, rogerebert.com: “’Room’ is a soul-searing celebration of the impenetrable bond that endures even under the most unbearable of circumstances between a parent and a child.”

Justin Chang, Variety: “…a suspenseful and heartrending drama that finds perhaps the most extreme possible metaphor for how time, regret and the end of childhood can make unknowing captives of us all.”

Amy Nicholson, Village Voice: “Like with Jack in his magical Room, paradise is a matter of perspective. How much we appreciate this world is up to us.”

Aug 14

“Call Me Lucky”: A Stand-Up Comedian For the Vulnerable

Suffering is hard, but trying to be a good person when you know what the world is capable of doing to the weakest within it is one of the few things that might be harder, especially when you were one of those people at one time. This is a pretty universal truth, and it’s one to which comedian Barry Crimmins can provide real, hard-lived testimony. Dominick Suzanne-Mayer, Consequence of Sound, about Call Me Lucky

Stand-up comedian Barry Crimmins was mentor to many others back in the day, including Bobcat Goldthwait in the 1980’s. Like Crimmins, Goldthwait has since turned away from the kind of comedy he once performed and toward roles that feel truer to himself. He’s now, in fact, made a documentary about Crimmins, Call Me Lucky.

Dennis Harvey, Variety, has called it “a terrifically engaging surprise.” An intro:

‘Call Me Lucky’ immediately establishes its subject as a simultaneously nurturing, courageous, intimidating and angry figure who walked away from a degree of national success more than two decades ago. The reasons for that prove very complex…

Vintage performance clips reveal the man himself to have been hilarious but challenging by contemporary standards: Where sensations of the day like Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay celebrated the frequently misogynist, homophobic rude ’n’ crude, Crimmins’ higher-minded ‘political and social satire’ was fueled by an acute awareness of injustice.

Duane Byrge, Hollywood Reporter: “Crimmins’ comedy was fueled by anger: His two most hated institutions were the U.S. government, particularly the Reagan and Nixon administrations, and the Catholic Church, which he dismissed as being based on ‘fear and real estate’.”

Why the sensitivity to injustice?

Odie Henderson, rogerebert.com: “Goldthwait doesn’t telegraph the terrifying turn ‘Call Me Lucky’ eventually takes. If you are unfamiliar with Crimmins’ activism, as I was, this turn is one hell of a blindside. It’s as unexpected as the actual revelation was to Crimmins’ audience on the night he bared his soul and his secrets in 1992.”

That surprising disclosure during the ’92 monologue: “he’d once been a victim of horrific, ongoing abuse” (Variety).

And the follow-up? Enraged upon learning about internet-related child abuse, he started to channel his activist streak into protecting vulnerable kids.

More from Henderson:

The film’s final moments achieve a sort of grace. Before the last few minutes of Crimmins’ latest stage performance, ‘Call Me Lucky’ revisits the basement where the sexual assaults took place. The way this scene is shot, and Crimmins’ reaction to returning there, are both surprisingly understated and extremely inspiring. Goldthwait focuses on the room, leaving his subject off-screen for his most private moments. ‘I don’t see myself as a victim,’ Crimmins says after the visit. ‘I’m not a victim. Well not anymore. I’m a witness.’

‘It’s not like it killed me,’ he continues. ‘It almost killed me, but I’m still here. So you can call me lucky.’

In an interview with Terry Gross, NPR, Crimmins admits feeling suicidal before coming to terms with his childhood trauma (which he reportedly did with the help of therapy), and he refers to having PTSD.

The trailer below offers additional glimpses into the man:

Selected Reviews

Drew McWeeny, Hitfix: “…(W)hat struck me most about ‘Call Me Lucky’ is how deeply, powerfully felt it is. It’s the kind of film you can’t just shake off when you walk out of the theater. There are images and ideas here that I won’t forget, and I found myself laughing, crying, and just plain amazed as the story unfolded.”

Katherine Pushkar, New York Daily News: “Angry, quixotic, tragic, heroic — Crimmins’ life is stunning. Catch this portrait and you can definitely call yourself lucky.”

Simon Abrams, Village Voice: “…expresses a thorny truth that many films about truth-telling artists fail to convey: Anger is appealing because it can sometimes feel cleansing. ‘Sometimes’ is the key word, and filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait…proves he knows it in his keen, evenhanded portrait…”

Now playing in select theaters.

Aug 05

Posttraumatic Growth: Books By Stephen Joseph, Jim Rendon

For those of you worrying about your too-high ACE scores (see related post regarding the new book Childhood Disrupted) and level of past trauma, maybe “what doesn’t kill you” can actually make you stronger after all. Posttraumatic growth is what it’s called.

The Posttraumatic Growth Research Group at University of North Carolina, where this term was coined, defines it as follows: “positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event.”

Per their website, five areas in which posttraumatic growth may occur:

  1. “Sometimes people who must face major life crises develop a sense that new opportunities have emerged from the struggle, opening up possibilities that were not present before.”
  2. An increase in certain kinds of interpersonal connectivity.
  3. “An increased sense of one’s own strength.”
  4. “A greater appreciation for life in general.”
  5. A possible deepening of spirituality accompanied by a possible change in beliefs.

Psychologist Stephen Joseph, PhD, published the well-reviewed What Doesn’t Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth in 2011. As reviewed by Nature: “Tsunamis, assault, near-death accidents: such experiences are popularly imagined to scar victims ‘for life’ and leave them in thrall to post-traumatic stress disorder. After two decades of research, positive psychologist Stephen Joseph argues that, for many, these traumas can become an ‘engine for transformation’.”

John Harvey, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, University of Iowa: “The book is replete with powerful story-lines of people who persevered in the face of great pain and loss: From Michael J. Fox to Viktor Frankl we learn how survivors lived Nietzsche’s dictum of what doesn’t kill you can make you stronger. Joseph gives voice to the non-famous and famous alike as he tells stories of survival and thriving, both in personal and global crises.”

And now there’s another book on the subject, this one by journalist Jim Rendon. Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth, addresses how, “with the right circumstances and proper support, survivors can actually emerge from their trauma stronger, more focused, and with a new and clear vision for the future. In fact, as many as two-thirds of trauma survivors report positive changes—far more than suffer from PTSD.”

As Rendon wrote a few years ago in the New York Times, “The way we cope with trauma is far more complex than once thought, and the way it molds us is similarly complex. We bend, we break, we repair and rebuild, and often we grow, changing for the better in ways we never would have if we had not suffered.”

Kirkus Reviews: “…Rendon’s research has convinced him—and likely will convince readers—that a return to the old normalcy is rarely achievable. It may not even be desirable. ‘[Trauma] is transformative’—not always for the good, but more often than one might think.”

Concluding that “Upside is a true gift to the field of trauma recovery,” Linda Graham, MFT, sums up Rendon’s contribution: “The key elements of healing and thriving, not in spite of but because of trauma – creating a coherent narrative, reaching out for help and helping others, expressing the pain, focusing on the positive, bonding with those who share similar experiences, resourcing through religious faith, creativity, physical activity and therapy – can all lead to experiences of meaning and fulfillment unimaginable before the trauma.”

Selected Reviews of Upside

Gail Sheehy, author: “No one gets out of life without some trauma. Jim Rendon delves behind the tragic face to find out why so many of us post-traumatic survivors emerge stronger, in search of more meaningful ways to live. Rendon’s original psychological reporting and poignant writing points us to the passage to hope and inspires us to help others.”

Henry Emmons, MD: “None of us wants it, but severe stress may not be as bad as we think. Upside provides authentic hope, grounded in science and enlivened by real-life stories, that it is possible to emerge from a traumatic experience not diminished, but somehow enlarged by it. This book offers scientific evidence,personal understanding, and practical tools to transform trauma into an occasion for growth.”

Kirkus Reviews: “Rendon examines how to train optimism, how to find absorption and nurture creativity in new experiences, how camaraderie and support lead to gratitude and commitment, and how ‘when you decide to struggle, you say I am going to elect to be challenged. You are enlivened’.”

Jul 06

“Trauma and Recovery”: Getting Up to Date With Judith Herman’s Classic

Originally published in 1992, psychiatrist Judith Herman‘s Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror has been viewed as a seminal work in the area of trauma and PTSD. The latest edition, out tomorrow, has a new afterword in which the author “chronicles the incredible response the book has elicited and explains how the issues surrounding the topic have shifted within the clinical community and the culture at large.


Many abused children cling to the hope that growing up will bring escape and freedom. But the personality formed in the environment of coercive control is not well adapted to adult life.
The survivor is left with fundamental problems in basic trust, autonomy, and initiative. She approaches the task of early adulthood――establishing independence and intimacy――burdened by major impairments in self-care, in cognition and in memory, in identity, and in the capacity to form stable relationships.
She is still a prisoner of her childhood; attempting to create a new life, she reencounters the trauma.

The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.

The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.
Atrocities, however, refuse to be buried.

In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure no one listens.

When the truth is finally recognized, survivors can begin their recovery. But far too often secrecy prevails, and the story of the traumatic event surfaces not as a verbal narrative but as a symptom.

The dialectic of trauma gives rise to complicated, sometimes uncanny alterations of consciousness, which George Orwell, one of the committed truth-tellers of our century, called “doublethink,” and which mental health professionals, searching for calm, precise language, call “dissociation.”

The guarantee of safety in a battering relationship can never be based upon a promise from the perpetrator, no matter how heartfelt. Rather, it must be based upon the self-protective capability of the victim. Until the victim has developed a detailed and realistic contingency plan and has demonstrated her ability to carry it out, she remains in danger of repeated abuse.

After a traumatic experience, the human system of self-preservation seems to go onto permanent alert, as if the danger might return at any moment.

By developing a contaminated, stigmatized identity, the child victim takes the evil of the abuser into herself and thereby preserves her primary attachments to her parents. Because the inner sense of badness preserves a relationship, it is not readily given up even after the abuse has stopped; rather, it becomes a stable part of the child’s personality structure.

The mental health system is filled with survivors of prolonged, repeated childhood trauma. This is true even though most people who have been abused in childhood never come to psychiatric attention. To the extent that these people recover, they do so on their own. While only a small minority of survivors, usually those with the most severe abuse histories, eventually become psychiatric patients, many or even most psychiatric patients are survivors of childhood abuse. The data on this point are beyond contention. On careful questioning, 50-60 percent of psychiatric inpatients and 40-60 percent of outpatients report childhood histories of physical or sexual abuse or both. In one study of psychiatric emergency room patients, 70 percent had abuse histories. Thus abuse in childhood appears to be one of the main factors that lead a person to seek psychiatric treatment as an adult.