Literature as a Lens to Understand Trauma

Literature is a valid resource to learn more about complex issues, including mental health and trauma. In fact, books can also play a vital role in mental illness recovery, and “bibliotherapy” considers reading as therapeutic in understanding emotions.

The art of storytelling should never be taken for granted. Writers pore over their works — whether fiction or nonfiction — sharing parts of themselves, hoping to resonate with readers. Great writing has the power to make connections, expand people’s worldviews and deepen our understanding about critical issues, such as trauma.

This is why Dr. Jessica Bowers, short fiction writer and professor of Maryville University’s English degree program, believes that creative writing and language are key aspects of understanding the world. When teaching her students, she guides aspiring writers to use their craft to help them and their readers better understand their lives. Studying, analyzing and reflecting on literature can help you learn to communicate better with others. Moreover, diverse works of literature by people of all of backgrounds can help foster greater empathy, particularly when it comes to seeing how people process trauma.

The following books can serve as springboards for anyone looking to better understand trauma. Please remember to approach these with caution as the content may be triggering for some.


“A Little Life” By Hanya Yanagihara

Although a work of fiction, Hanya Yanagihara’s book offers many life lessons through its characters. Ultimately a story about friendship, “A Little Life” follows the decades-long relationship of four characters who initially meet as roommates at a university. The story mostly revolves around Jude, whom the friends know little about despite their years of friendship. Jude’s past is fraught with incomprehensible traumas that haunt him for the rest of his life. “A Little Life” looks into trauma and self-harm, and it also serves as a reminder that as much as we want to, we cannot save everyone. This book isn’t meant to discourage us from trying, but rather to offer some closure for anyone who needs it.


“The Body Papers” By Grace Talusan

In this harrowing memoir, Filipino-American writer Grace Talusan tackles the nature versus nurture debate, arguing that we could be products of both. Talusan writes of her inherited cancer genes, her experience as a victim of sexual abuse by her grandfather, as well as her identity as an immigrant. These have all played significant roles on the deterioration of her mental health, which she also covers her struggles with depression. While the writing of this book was an act of catharsis on her end, she also says that she wrote it “for you, the living, and for those who come after me.”


“An Untamed State” By Roxane Gay

“An Untamed State” follows the story of Mireille Duval Jameson who has been kidnapped and held for ransom in her home country of Haiti. She is subject to torture and violence at the hands of her captors for 13 days, and Gay takes the readers into the mind and body of Mireille to witness her inner turmoil. We see the impact of trauma and the coping mechanisms victims of abuse use to make sense of these experiences. We are also privy to how such an act of violence can permanently divide a person’s life into “before” and “after” periods. While this is a work of literary fiction, Gay drew from her own experience of sexual violence, and writes more about the aftermath of this on her mental and physical health in her memoir “Hunger.”

Mental health representation in stories matters, especially when it is from a diverse set of writers and characters. Using literature as a lens to view and understand mental health encourages us to be a lot kinder and more empathetic. It also serves as a reminder that anyone could be fighting a silent battle.


Alicia Maddox is a mental health advocate who is working toward a graduate degree in psychology. She is also passionate about literature and uses her free time to catch up on new releases while facilitating discussions in her mini book club.