Patricia Romano McGraw, It’s Not Your Fault: How Healing Relationships Change Your Brain and Can Help You Overcome a Painful Past (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing, 2004), ix + 264 pages, including index, appendix, and bibliography. Available at Amazon.
Reviewed by Mary K. Radpour for The Journal of Bahá’í Studies.
In the Báb’s earliest revelation, His address to the Letters of the Living, He asserts that “[t]he newly born babe of that Day excels the wisest and most venerable men of this time, and the lowliest and most unlearned of that period shall surpass in understanding the most erudite and accomplished divines of this age” (qtd. in Nabíl-i-A‘ẓam 65). We witness this prophesy unfolding before our eyes as our children help us decipher new technology. Each day’s news tells of a technology application developed by a high-school student that can change our lives. We no longer believe that human knowledge is generated solely by experts. Self-help literature seems born of this optimism, evincing the hope that we are all empowered to make meaning out of the jumble of our experience. The three books reviewed here—Healing the Wounded Soul, High Desert, and It’s Not Your Fault: How Healing Relationships Change Your Brain & Can Help You Overcome a Painful Past—fall into this hopeful tradition.
Phyllis Peterson’s Healing the Wounded Soul is a courageous autobiography that documents, in a deeply personal story, the abuse she experienced as a child and how it impaired her ability to enter into loving relationships. Anyone who discounts the destructive power of sexual abuse will be stopped short by the clarity of her testimony: abuse stunts development. Her book examines the distrust of authority that led to her debilitating paranoia and even psychosis. It explains how abuse and the secrecy that surrounds it interfere with rational thought. She makes clear how addictions and compulsions spring from the sense of shame that irrationally clings to victims of oppression. One of the most moving elements of her book is the letter she addresses to her daughter, in which she acknowledges the harm caused by her authoritarian style of parenting (replicating her father’s style) and recognizes the exact nature of that harm. She offers, through this letter, a valuable insight into the unconscious perpetuation of abuse throughout multiple generations. In the appendix, she includes the Universal House of Justice’s forceful January 24, 1993, letter on violence and the sexual abuse of women and children, as well as the Summary Policy Statement on Domestic Violence by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States. These documents raise her story from the domain of personal experience and ask the reader to reflect upon the social implications of abuse, its origins in the inequality of men and women, and the importance of its elimination for the future of humankind.
Kim Douglas’s High Desert: A Journey of Survival and Hope offers the reader another opportunity to understand both the destructive power of domestic violence and the resilience of the human spirit as it seeks to overcome such a painful history. As the author tells her story, the reader begins to understand the learned helplessness of victims of abuse—how they fail to see danger coming, how their unconscious attempts to become invisible to perpetrators are unsuccessful, and how they neglect to care for themselves in the most basic of ways. She describes domestic violence as a family disease—one that demands the complicity of the witnesses to the violence and that encourages every member of the family to replicate that same aggressive behavior. Her story begins in her childhood, at the dinner table, as her father demeans her mother. It details his assaults on the author as a child, attacks that lead to a broken collarbone and hospitalization, and chronicles his consistent denial and dismissal of these acts. The story continues through to his expulsion from a nursing home due to his outrageous behavior subsequent to a stroke , to the revelation of undiagnosed mental illness, and ultimately to treatment that limited his rages. Douglas’s father’s history should remind us of the social consequences of untreated mental illness. Like Peterson, Douglas acknowledges the impact of this authoritarian upbringing on her own experience as a parent, evidenced by moments like when she struggles to contain her anger over small infractions. Her success in this effort is a testimony to the power of her prayerful appeals to the divine world, and to her capacity for reflection and for the kind of forgiveness that leads to self-mastery.
It’s Not Your Fault: How Healing Relationships Change Your Brain and Can Help You Overcome a Painful Past, by Patricia Romano McGraw, Ph.D., describes itself at the outset as a self-help book that offers a reassuring explanation of why, despite all the books that suggest you can talk yourself out of the trauma of a painful childhood, you are unable to do so. McGraw leaves the reader with hope by explaining that while the brain is the source of those symptoms of hypervigilance, anxiety, and irrational fear, it is actually wired for healing and recovery. Her book is an engaging and readable answer to a question long-puzzled over: Why does therapy work, and how? Why is it that the foremost characteristic of all successful therapy is a warm and loving relationship between the therapist and the patient?
McGraw explores these questions systematically: How does the neural circuitry of the brain foster healing? What kind of impact do our early bonds with our caregivers have on our ability to form loving relationships? What is the difference between secure and insecure attachment patterns, and how do these affect our relationships? What has recent scientific inquiry into memory formation shown us about how new experiences can transform old memories? Through this exploration, she offers a four-stage model for recovery from trauma that explains why healing is sometimes slow and gradual. She explores the meaning of suffering in light of both spiritual wisdom and scientific research. Lastly, she considers the transformative social implications of loving relationships.
McGraw’s book is a valuable resource, both for persons struggling to make sense of their personal histories and for clinicians seeking an accessible explanation of the neurobiology of trauma and recovery. And the two first-person narratives of Peterson and Douglas are generous gifts to us wrought by their suffering. Taken together, they illumine the path for any reader wishing to understand the psychological impact of oppression.
Nabíl-i-A‘ẓam (Mullá Muhammad-i-Zarandí). The Dawn-Breakers: Nabíl’s Narrative of the Early Days of the Bahá’í Revelation. Translated and edited by Shoghi Effendi, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974.
Mary K. Radpour, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist in private practice in Chattanooga, TN, with over thirty years of experience in treating victims of rape and incest suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorders. She also offers supervision to young clinicians seeking licensure. She has had a lifelong interest in the links between spirituality and mental health, has served as an Auxiliary Board Member, has been on the board of the Bahá’í Network on AIDS, Sexuality, Addictions and Abuse (BNASAA) since 1989, and is one of the founding members of the Bahá’í Association for Mental Health Professionals and the Authenticity Institute. She is a frequent lecturer on issues of sexuality and spirituality, gender equality, and race relations. A mother of four and grandmother of fourteen, she resides in Lakesite, TN, with her Iranian-American husband, Iraj Radpour.