Showing posts with label PTSD. Show all posts
Showing posts with label PTSD. Show all posts

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Unbroken-Survival Resilience and Redemption- A Book Review


A World War II Story

of Survival, Resilience,  

and Redemption


   Laura Hillenbrand

Reviewed by

   Geoffrey W. Sutton

Unbroken is the true story of Olympian Louis Zamperini who survived the crash of his plane in the Pacific Ocean and endured severe abuse at the club wielding hands of his captors.

Hillenbrand provides key elements of Louis biography. He was in trouble with the law as a youth but became a track star in High School. Eventually, he was chosen to be on the 1936 US Olympic Team, which competed in Berlin. A few years later, Louie enlisted in the military.

Zamperini became an airman. On a mission in 1943, his plane crashed in the Pacific. He and two other men floated on a raft for 47 days punctuated by severe thirst and starvation, sharks aboard the raft, Japanese machine-gun fire, and even a typhoon. 

They were captured by Japanese and sent to a POW camp where they were severely tormented until he was near death by the time the war ended. His particular ordeal was the extreme pain and anguish inflicted by a man called "The Bird."

Sadly, Louis Zamperini was only physically liberated. He would now have to endure psychological torture now known as PTSD. Hellish dreams destroyed his nights. He was filled with rage, hatred, and thoughts of revenge. And he drank too much. 

Louis Zamperini's life was transformed in a classic conversion story. He found peace, let go of his anger, and lost motivation to seek revenge. Instead, he returned to the nation that tortured him in 1950. Naturally, he thought about the one man most responsible for the extreme brutality and haunting post-war suffering. The arch tormentor, The Bird, was not there. It was at this time that Louis felt a sense of compassion and realised he had forgiven his enemy.

I recommend this book for several reasons. Hillenbrand is an excellent writer who documents her research in copious end-of-book notes. My parents survived World War II in London so I am used to learning about death and destruction as well as miraculous survivors, but Louis' story overwhelms me with respect for this man's life-- his courage, bravery, and resilience are extreme. And the story of forgiveness and redemption inspire even now as I write this review.

As a psychologist, I am well acquainted with soldiers and civilians who have struggled with PTSD. I have studied forgiveness and religious conversions. The story of Louis Zamperini offers a case study that rings true and offers hope that others may also experience post-traumatic growth and a transformed life.

Unbroken on AMAZON

To read more about Forgiveness, see FORGIVENESS and RECONCILIATION

Key Words: World War II, POW, Survival, Resilience, PTSD, Post-Traumatic Growth, Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Spiritual Conversion


Hillenbrand, L. (2010). Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. New York: Random House.

Unbroken has been made into a movie (2014) directed by Angelina Jolie. Here is a link to the YouTube trailer.

Here is a link to Zamperini's story of conversion.

At age 81, Louis Zamperini carried the Olympic Torch.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Therapy After Terror - A Book Review



   Karen M. Seeley (2008)

Reviewed by

  September K. Trent
  Geoffrey W. Sutton

“Everybody’s trauma was so raw. It didn’t matter who you were talking to
—relief worker, direct victim, other therapists
—you were all the same body in some ways”
 (p. 152). 

Seeley peppers her analysis of the effects of 9/11 on psychotherapists and the field of mental health with excerpts from pungent and thoughtful interviews. We glimpse the chaos through the eyes of psychotherapists who lived the trauma in their personal and professional lives. On the morning of September 11, 2001, New York therapists are running to the Red Cross shelters to donate their time, psychologists are treating patients who are eyewitnesses to the worst enemy attack on the American homeland, and counselors, themselves victims who lost everything, are trying to counsel others through trauma-colored lenses. Seeley examines the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in light of the severe impact of the terrorist attacks and the difficulties mental health professionals had when attempting to formulate a diagnosis. The author, Karen M. Seeley, MSW, Ph.D., is a clinical social worker and cultural psychologist in the Anthropology Department at Columbia University. In addition to her academic qualifications, she provides a highly readable and thoughtful analysis of psychotherapy in the context of terror.

In the first and second chapters, the events of 9/11 are retold in the context of therapists’ views of the event and their attempts to donate their skills. Project Liberty, a government funded mental health project, was formed immediately following 9/11 to help its victims deal with their unsteady mental health. Seeley uses personal recounts by psychotherapists as they tried to volunteer their services for Project Liberty and the Red Cross. Many psychotherapists experienced confusion, which they attributed to problems of organization and education about handling a mental health crisis. Most of the professionals did not feel helpful because they were sent to places where no victims arrived. Only later did they learn that no victims arrived because so few survived the twin towers attack.

As readers, we gain insights from Seeley and the psychotherapists that are notably different perspectives on the effects of the terrorist attacks. Because the American mass media
focused on the visual assault and the horrific destruction, an in-depth exploration of the psychological sequellae has been missing. Seeley illustrates how the emotional aftermath silently but powerfully impacted a wide swath of people in New York City. In particular, the psychotherapists’ stories are heart wrenching. Their narratives take the reader to ground zero, facilities where families are struggling to find lost loved ones, and the private offices of psychologists. Through Seeley’s reconstructed timeline of the events and the ineffective efforts to cope with the trauma by some of New York’s most experienced therapists, chapters one and two capture the reader’s desire to learn the lessons from these untold stories of 9/11.

A few days after 9/11, the Red Cross and Project Liberty identified the problems and places where psychotherapists were needed. Chapters three and four explore a range of psychotherapists’ experiences in different facilities. Both the Red Cross and Project Liberty sent psychotherapists to ground zero to talk with fire fighters, police, and construction workers who were searching for survivors. Other professionals were sent to Family Assistance Centers or Service Centers that were set up by the government to help families find and identify lost loved ones and to obtain monetary support from the government. All of the psychotherapists spoke about the extreme difficulty they experienced in trying to help so many victims and their families. The workers at ground zero did not want to talk about anything; they wanted to keep working because they might find one of their fallen colleagues. For the families of those who were in the twin towers, it was difficult to accept a loss that included no remnants of their dead family members. A poignant example of emotional pain is one psychotherapist’s report of a family receiving a container representing the ashes of their loved one from one of Rudy Giuliani’s aides. Seeley offers great insight into the emotional vulnerability of many different kinds of victims—both clients and psychotherapists. As clinicians we appreciate the
analysis but, as ordinary readers, we are captivated by the stories and yearn to know what happened to these people.

Chapters five and six discuss the toll that helping trauma survivors takes on psychotherapists and the problematic diagnosis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. All of the psychotherapists
experienced the same emotions that their clients experienced. Many of the psychotherapists lived through the same traumatic events as did their clients. Understandably, psychotherapists found it difficult to hide their own emotions and experiences during psychotherapy so that their
clients could fully disclose their feelings and focus on their recovery. How appropriate is it
for psychotherapists to treat clients while struggling to manage the same symptoms? Many New York therapists did just that. They felt that they had to help the victims; the victims’ mental health was more important than their own. With every new client and every recounting, the psychotherapists were retraumatized. Should psychotherapists endanger themselves under extreme circumstances?

Related to the problem of psychotherapists’ perspective on the trauma, is the difficulty they experienced in diagnosing their clients. Many diagnosed their clients with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) without considering the time the client had experienced the symptoms or the related diagnosis of Acute Stress Disorder. Many psychotherapists felt that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) was not useful in the diagnosis of victims from 9/11 because there was no appropriate diagnosis. Complicating the psychotherapists’ dilemma were signs listing PTSD symptoms posted throughout New York City. Although PTSD came closest to the expressed symptoms, other nuances could not be accounted for such as the variations in intensity of responses experienced by those walking among human debris versus those experiencing and re-experiencing the visual violence on television and realizing their husband or wife was in that conflagration. She closes chapter six with a thoughtful discussion of emotional contagion as so many trauma victims in close proximity shared their stories and symptoms. Disturbingly, some of these were also psychotherapists, who may have increased rather than alleviated the trauma.

In the last chapters, Seeley summarizes what psychotherapists learned about trauma and how to treat it. Numerous classes and programs are not educating the psychological community because many of the psychotherapists felt incompetent. Many of the psychotherapists questioned the relevance of traditional psychotherapy. They felt that the therapy sessions and all the theories of psychology that they had been taught were not working. The question of theory has stimulated research about the psychological impact of 9/11 and effective treatments for victims of extreme trauma. Seeley identifies spirituality as one dimension that can be helpful to those experiencing trauma. Many psychotherapists found it exceedingly difficult to work with clients who had no spirituality. Psychotherapists will find that these last chapters are very informative because Seeley identifies specific problems and difficulties experienced by victims of terrorist attacks.

The foregoing review is from a review published by Trent and Sutton.

I (Sutton) am adding a note for readers unfamiliar with academic discussions of spirituality and psychotherapy to note  that in recent decades a considerable amount of research has been done to discover the role of spirituality in helping people cope with stress, including trauma. 

Cite This Review

Trent, S. K. & Sutton, G.W. (2020, September 4). Therapy after terror: 9/11, psychotherapists, and mental health. Sutton Reviews

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Tuesday, November 21, 2017


Author: Edith Eva Eger

A sixteen-year-old girl is in love. She loves to dance. She has a boyfriend. And she lives with two sisters and her parents and the attendant conflicts that come with family life. One morning in 1944, her life is violently disrupted when soldiers rip her family apart. Next, we are on a journey with her. We see her enter the bleak dream-destroying Auschwitz. We learn about survival amidst a human hell.

I wasn’t excited by the novel I started during a visit to Washington DC. My wife thought I might like Eger’s book, The Choice. She was right. By the end of our DC visit, we returned to the Holocaust museum, which became a new experience through Dr. Eger's lens. I found myself looking at the faces in a new way--wondering about victims, survivors, and perpetrators in terms of life-choices.

Eger’s tells her story of survival through the eyes of a young woman. We see her near death experiences, wonder at her tiny triumphs, worry about whether she will make it, rejoice in her successes, and feel her warmth and joy as we learn of her wisdom in later years.

Dr. Eger is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at UCSD. But she did not enter college until middle age. She connects with Viktor Frankl with whom she shares not only a common past but also a common love for humanity.

As Edith struggles with her past and works to live in the present, she is faced with many life-choices. We are treated to a case study in post-traumatic growth as she reviews her past through the lens of a psychologist in healing whilst helping others heal as well.

The Choice is an inspirational story that will be of interest to anyone who enjoys seeing people break free from the past. She offers us an opportunity to dance with a star.


Eger, E. E. ( 2017). The choice: Embrace the possible. Simon & Schuster. La Jolla, CA.

Watch Dr. Eger in a Ted talk


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Saturday, March 26, 2016

PTSD and recovery come alive in Railway Man

The Railway Man

By Eric Lomax

Reviewed by
Geoffrey W. Sutton

The Railway Man is an emotionally powerful film based on the true story of Eric Lomax. Eric (Colin Firth) meets Patti (Nicole Kidman) on a train. We’re on a quick romantic journey to marriage but soon discover Eric’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is linked to brutal torture as a POW. The severe PTSD symptoms threaten to destroy his relationship along with his life.

We’re in a time shuffle from the relationship and early marriage in the 1980s to WWII.

Lomax was a British officer sent to railway work as a slave of the Japanese when Singapore fell in 1942. After his marriage, Eric discovers one of his Japanese torturers, Nagase, is alive. Now the gut-wrenching inner struggle takes place on a larger stage. The war is not over for either man. Rather than reveal the dramatic and unpredictable conclusion, I’ll stop with the story-telling.

Clinicians like me have seen many people with PTSD. The portrayal of Eric’s struggle is incredibly moving. Denial followed by torment, anger, and anxiety is palpable as is Eric’s drive to survive rather than succumb.

What can be learned
 The ability of humans to inflict long-lasting pain worse than death on others
  • The torment of PTSD experienced by soldiers and their loved ones
  • Glimpses of how some survive torture, albeit at a high price
  • What revenge, remorse, redemption, reconciliation, forgiveness might look like


The Railway Man is based on Eric Lomax’ memoir. I have not read the book but understand from summaries that the film is close to the story except for some aspects of the ending.

I'd rate the film 4 of 5 stars. The only negative for me was the awkward shuffling between the present and the past. I also wanted to know more about Eric's wife but that may have been too much for a standard screen time.

Cite this blog post

Sutton, G. W. (2016, March 30). The railway man. [Web log post]. Retrieved from 


Twitter  @GeoffWSutton