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Book review: “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Conn Coll chapter.

(TW: trauma, sexual assault) 

“Pop science” books have been all the rage lately, and it’s easy to understand why. This genre of writing aims to inform the general public about scientific concepts by using language that is more accessible for those of us who are not familiar with scientific terminology. And this is great… when it’s done both accurately and appropriately. 

Having recently finished Health Communism by Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant (an absolutely excellent read that I will never stop talking about), I was on a bit of a nonfiction high and decided to check out a book that had been on my TBR for ages: The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk. I was intrigued by the book’s premise, which sought to understand the physical and neurological effects of trauma on the brain. For months, my social media feed has been overflowing with glowing reviews of this book; many an Instagram story described it as being an ‘enlightening’ read. Yet as I began reading The Body Keeps The Score, I found myself becoming increasingly concerned by the amount of praise I’ve heard this book receive. While I did find some of the psychological details in the book to be interesting, I also felt that some of the content was extremely insensitive, including the author’s descriptions of cases involving sexual assault. 

Case in point: the entirety of Chapter 1. After a brief prologue about his medical background, Bessel van der Kolk begins his discussion about trauma by introducing readers to one of his earlier patients named “Tom,” a war veteran with severe PTSD. Bessel van der Kolk describes Tom’s experience watching his entire platoon being violently attacked by gunfire, citing this as the primary source of Tom’s trauma. He then explains that “loyalty to the dead was keeping [Tom] from living his own life,” most likely prompting many readers to sympathize with Tom’s ordeal. Unfortunately, things go downhill pretty quickly from there. After describing the events of the traumatizing attack Tom witnessed, Bessel van der Kolk writes that “maybe even worse for Tom than the recurrent flashbacks of the ambush was the memory of what happened afterward.” He then proceeds to describe the day after the attack, when Tom took out his rage on a neighboring village by killing children, shooting an innocent farmer, and raping a Vietnamese woman. 

But wait… it’s okay, because Tom felt really badly about it afterwards! 

Not only was there zero mention of Tom being criminally charged for the literal war crimes he committed, Bessel van der Kolk actually sympathizes with Tom’s actions, writing that he “could easily imagine how Tom’s rage about his friend’s death had led to the calamity that followed… Since time immemorial veterans, like Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, have responded to the death of their comrades with unspeakable acts of revenge.” Now you can call me a sensitive snowflake, but I am personally of the belief that comparing rapists to heroes in epic poetry doesn’t really send a great message. Furthermore, I reject the argument that mental health issues (including trauma) excuse a person from the consequences of their actions. 

Bessel van Kolk’s questionable narrative regarding sexual assault continued throughout the following chapters. In one case, he describes a nineteen-year-old victim-survivor of rape as being “gorgeous” and having an “aura of mystery.” He also seems to express more sympathy for rapists (who apparently “inflicted trauma on themselves” by their actions) than the actual victim-survivors themselves. Frankly, the fact that these views are coming from a psychiatrist just doesn’t sit well with me. 

All in all, I’m really disappointed by the amount of potential that was wasted on this book. Destigmatizing mental health issues and bringing attention to the lasting effects that trauma has on individuals could have been a great use of the author’s psychological research, but his insensitive and inappropriate narration of the book ruined it for me. Back to fiction for a while….

Tessa Stayton

Conn Coll '25

Hi! My name is Tessa & I am a junior at Conn Coll double majoring in English and Classical Studies (& minoring in Philosophy). I served as editor in chief for 2 years at my high school paper, and I was so excited to discover the Her Campus community at Conn! I'm really passionate about literature and music, so be on the lookout for future book and music reviews! :)