Book review ‘From madness to Wisdom’ by Iris van Zomeren

Through her beautiful email to ACE Aware NL I came into contact with the author of the book ‘From madness to Wisdom – The autobiographical life story of Iris van Zomeren’. We agreed that I would review it for the website. Iris sent it to me and as soon as I started reading it I was fascinated. (See also our book page; titles in alphabetical order of authors’ last names.)

The book begins with a foreword by psychotherapist Rachporn Sangkasaad Taal. She tells how she met Iris, who had already gone through all kinds of therapy. She writes that she is impressed by the post-traumatic growth (PTG) that Iris has achieved. With her introduction she makes it clear that the book is about a very tumultuous life, but to really understand how much lack of safety there was for Iris, reading cover-to-cover is the best thing you can do.

The book is written narratively, with lots of personal dialogues and exchanges between Iris and other main characters. That means that you as a reader are sucked into the poignant events. In addition, so much is explained in the field of psychological and emotional trauma healing processes that probably almost everyone can derive valuable insights from it. Iris takes the reader along on the journey she has made and we see her slowly but surely ‘breaking open’, blossoming, giving light and air to what she has endured. The intergenerationality is also evident: her parents were both damaged in their own childhood and the healing work that Iris is now doing has a positive effect not only for herself, but also for others in her family line. As a reader, you witness her deep self-examination and her harrowing recovery process; with how she writes, Iris invites you to “hold space” for that.

Iris starts with a sketch of her family situation, with parents with a background of domestic violence and sexual abuse, among other things. There is a lot that gets handed down to Iris and the other kids through intergenerational transmission. That is so intense that Iris can only survive by freezing and suppressing emotions and memories. With more trauma sensitivity, several adults could probably have picked up on signals, but Iris, like many children, is alone with her pain and despair.

In 38 often concise chapters she guides us through her experiences and in many chapters explanations are included in clear boxes about certain terms that are discussed in the text. This makes it easy for the reader who is new to the topic to follow unfamiliar concepts. Where relevant, Iris has included passages from letters, correspondence and diaries; these can be recognised by being written in italics.

Around the age of twelve, Iris starts to rebel more and more against the home situation, which leads to complex coping strategies. She finds no understanding at home; her parents lack the ability to acknowledge and address their own role in the problems. As a result, Iris loses the connection with her authentic self and an existential gloom arises.
Around the age of twenty, some of her painful experiences begin to emerge, but the time is not yet ripe and the sense of security is not yet sufficient to face everything. That sense of security does arise when she is in her early thirties and meets Erik, the love of her life. With him beside her, more and more of the trauma hidden in her emerges. It is a tough road and more and more she experiences a huge rage; this also puts pressure on her relationship with Erik. However, she notices that the anger also has a very good side and that it helps her to regain her self-esteem, her dignity, to undo the “in-dignation”.* As a result, she gradually and increasingly comes into contact with the underlying injuries. The realisation grows that anger does not have to be an obstacle, but can be a gateway to get in touch with yourself. Iris describes it beautifully: “You tend to see the anger as disorienting when in essence it is reorienting” (p. 62).

The desire for contact with her family of origin remains, but it also turns out to be very complicated again and again. This is mainly because the other family members continue to completely deny the events of the past. This is a phenomenon experienced by many people who want to address abuse and neglect within the family. There is often a great taboo on the subject, which makes restoring family relationships difficult and often temporarily or permanently impossible.

After two bizarre and very intense experiences, she comes closer to the origin of her trauma. Through a clearly described, very intensive therapy process, she becomes aware of how different sub-personalities have carried the trauma for her.

As many discover during their healing journey, a long-lasting need remains to seek the love you should have received as a child in places and with people where it cannot be found. The acceptance that that lack of the past can never again be compensated for, is often intense. It deserves mourning and processing time, time in which you learn to refocus, to see that what was not possible before, is possible now: choosing a social environment that can be with your pain and that sees your courage and your potential at the same time. Within a setting that is safe, nurturing, supportive and stimulating, the ‘detoxification process’ (p. 161) can still take place, a process necessary to return to your healthy core and from there to see and experience life in a new light.

With all the post-traumatic growth she is going through, Iris is increasingly successful in tracing the origins of the events of the past. Feeling through, seeing through and living through the old pain creates more and more compassion, not only towards other victims, but also towards the perpetrators of the past. Compassion is also in the foreground when she meets people from her childhood, with whom she enters into a conversation about what was going on for her at the time. This helps her experience the reality of her past more powerfully. She also increasingly experiences that the body, with all apparently ‘dysfunctional’ reactions, provides wise solutions to survive in circumstances that far exceed the comprehension, pain threshold and capacity a child has. The pain is stored in the most basic parts of the brain and in the cell memory of the body. The pain can therefore not be healed through cognitive insight alone. The body is allowed to speak, is allowed to tell the life story, supported by forms of therapy that are helpful.

Iris ends her book with the following observation: “Of course it is not the case that old things no longer arise, but there is less and less resistance in me and much more patience. And this patience is not a method, but the result of my intense healing process” (p. 303).

I see in that conclusion a beautiful link with the recently discussed book by Viktor Frankl. In his vision, happiness is not a goal, but the result of experiencing meaning in life. Iris says her patience was not a goal, but the result of her healing process. It is remarkable that life values such as patience and happiness seem to require profound processes in order to develop. They seem like a goal, but they turn out to be the result of something else, namely a deeply lived experience of recognition, acceptance and meaningful connection with the Self and the Other.

It seems that the great mandate and moral appeal which powerfully emerge from this book, are aimed at adults: the more courage they muster to face their own demons, the more likely they are to not pass on the evil spirits to the next generation. Working on your own trauma recovery is therefore an immense gift for your children and grandchildren. The cover-up culture with regard to family secrets, which Iris talks about in her book, can then undergo a fundamental change. This requires sincere compassion, so that judgment and shame do not have such a dominant place as is often still the case today. With her book, Iris has made an important contribution to that much-needed openness about the lifelong impact of domestic violence and abuse on the young child. Anyone who is (or has been) involved in this will be able to find, in addition to valuable insights, a lot of recognition, acknowledgment and also comfort and hope in this book. With more social awareness about this, we can ensure that our children do not have to go through madness to come to wisdom. They may then keep their childlike, often oh so wise giftedness and let it develop further.
This book, in which Iris has captured her life story in a poignant way, can be very helpful for those who are looking for knowledge about and possibilities for healing trauma.

*In this blog with Jet Markink we spoke about ‘de-guiltify’; both words, to ‘de-guiltify’ and to undo the ‘in-dignation’, are important aspects of the trauma healing process.

Posted in Book and movie reviews.