“One has to gaze upon the dead, cremate them and bury their ashes – then begin to tell their story. Remain silent about the dead, and they’ll never leave you in peace.”
Full disclosure: Joseph McBride is a friend of my husband’s. He tolerates me, as well, in all likelihood due to bemusement that my husband (also a Joe) finally gave up bachelorhood at age 43. So when he sent a copy of his new memoir, The Broken Places, it was kindly addressed to both of us.
I doubt he intended me to read it and then review it through the lens of a therapist with an awful lot of experience working with individuals with complex trauma histories. But just like he will always be the cool guy who co-wrote the screenplay for Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, I will always be the therapist who views intimacy through the lens of trauma experiences.
So clearly, he’s way more fun at parties than I am.
Joe’s latest book offers itself as a memoir of both the author’s childhood and adolescence, replete with a honest portrayal of his breakdown and stay at a psychiatric facility. Additionally, the story takes us on a journey through McBride’s first love, a young woman he met while at this facility, who wove in and out of his life until her untimely death when she (and Joe) were both in their early twenties.
Except it’s not a memoir. Not really. And it’s not a treatise on first love. Or an homage to the brilliant and shattered Kathy Wolf. At its core, The Broken Places is a trauma narrative. It’s about a childhood so intense, it causes an emotional shattering in the teenage Joe. And it is about his connection to a young woman, also shattered and also trying to find her way home.
Plato’s Meno is a Socratic dialogue on the nature of virtue. Plato asked “How do you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”
How do you, indeed? How do you realize your own empowerment when you have never, in the entirety of your life, experienced it?
Joe shares a letter sent to him by a friend and colleague of his mother during his period of institutionalization, a man named Marty Parnelli. In this letter, Parnelli encourages the psychotherapy available to him in this setting:
Most people blindly accept their conditions as intellectual, emotional, and moral pygmies, and are content to vent their frustrations by merely complaining about their negative situations. If one can recognize how, when, where and why he became stunted, then at least he starts thinking, and perhaps he starts to understand that he has a problem. His thinking about the problem will keep him from itching about the situation; and so long as he thinks there is a chance – and the hope – that he can solve the problem. If he solves one such problem, he can probably solve other and more complex problems.
One gets the feeling that the individuals on staff there to provide this service were dismissed as inept and useless. This is often the perspective of patients. Honestly, this can often be an exasperatingly accurate supposition. So instead, Joe and Kathy turn to each other for support, both drowning and holding onto each other in the process…in an effort to rescue themselves. McBride notes the unsustainability of the relationship near the end of the book:
I thought about how I was going away to a promising new life and abandoning her to unending emotional chaos. I felt there was something almost cannibalistic about our relationship, as if we could not both be healthy at the same time. She had rescued me once; didn’t I owe it to her to repay the favor? Well, I’d tried damn it. I’d tried every way I knew. She seemed saner in the hospital, and happier when she was craziest.
Exchanging his family home for an inpatient facility (and shortly thereafter, university) gave McBride some space to heal. But, as he notes, forming a bond with a deeply hurting and complicated woman mimicked the relationship he had with his mother, which was the impetus for his hospitalization in the first place. Kathy become his tether to the feeling of emotional hopelessness. He moves forward in many ways, but also continues to return to her. He felt responsible for her, as he had his own mother for all of those years.
In the final letter Kathy sent to Joe, she stated “I’ve gone where I belong and I know I will be happy.” Kathy never found her place of hope through empowerment, the healing Parnelli desired for Joe. It is unclear if Joe had yet done so, at that point.
But here is my guess (and doubtless he will rebut kindly if I’m wrong): Much of our work in trauma informed therapy is to help our clients find a safe place in which to find healing and meaning within their story. We fight our stories, most of the time. We fight because we feel no control over them. They become the pygmies Parnelli warned against. We complain of them rather than own them.
And they fester until they eat us alive. For Kathy, this was a literal experience. Because these broken places that Joe writes of are deep and painful and fester within us. We let them scab over and ignore them for a while, perhaps years or decades on end. But eventually they infect everything. They either kill us or we find a way to heal.
That’s what a trauma narrative does. It serves to move away from complaint into ownership. This is our best chance at moving forward. We are marked forever by these wounds, but have regained power over our lives. I think this was Joe’s ultimate task here. To let go his family, to let go Kathy, and to create a memoir that healed his past wounds. Joe would never be the same for these experiences. No one ever is. That was Parelli’s main point, likely unbeknownst to the teenaged Joe who first read that letter.
The Broken Places is an examination, in the end, of Joe’s scars. And blessed are those scars that
serve as reminders that we have healed.