Book Review: Stephanie Foo’s What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma, Penguin Random House.
Trigger warning: contains descriptions of child abuse
Stephanie Foo thought she’d conquered her demons, moving past an abusive childhood to become a successful journalist and prestigious audio producer. But even in her 30s, turmoil kept creeping into her relationships. She was plagued with a nebulous dark feeling she called “the dread,” which would pop up even when things were seemingly perfect. She asked herself: “If I possessed the anxiety-and-depression combo meal everyone else had, then why was I the only one crying on the subway every morning?”
Foo pursues that question and her demons in her new book, What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma. As someone who built a successful career despite a traumatic childhood, Foo was long admired for her pluck and resilience. She’d worked as a producer at Snap Judgment and This American Life, later creating her own podcast called Pilot. She co-developed an app that listeners could use to share audio across social media sites.
But back then she didn’t realize her material success was masking the work that she still needed to do. She had friends, a nice apartment, a good wardrobe, a 401-K – “and, of course, my career. Nothing lent more credibility to my healing than my career.” As it turns out, overworking was one of her unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Without her awareness, Foo’s traumatic childhood was seeping into her adult relationships, her relationship to her work, and her sense of self. Even as a teen, she found herself becoming “a tiny, foul-mouthed pirate” who alienated her friends. She was later diagnosed with C-PTSD – complex post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a form of PTSD not yet recognized officially in the DSM that is linked to a long history of multiple traumas. Her story begins at the time of her diagnosis, as she writes: “My past was spilling over, exploding, a volcano spewing hot toxic waste all over my present life…”
In her book, Foo lays bare the truth. Her writing is clear and sometimes brutal. She doesn’t shy from her lowest, most vulnerable moments, including the horrendous physical and emotional abuse from her parents. Her father brought a golf club down on her head; her mother blamed her for her suicide attempts. Foo describes the time she emotionally abandoned a friend in cancer treatment and the moment she realized that her parents didn’t love her. Through these admissions, Foo builds trust with her readers and very early on lets us know the true stakes of her emotional journey. We see her at her deepest, most calamitous moments, and we root hard for her success.
Her memoir has resonated with readers and reviewers. “Funny, tragic, unflinchingly honest and relentlessly hopeful, it is a marvel of a book,” wrote Ed Yong, the best-selling author of I Contain Multitudes, in a cover note. Kirkus Reviews, known for its often snarky book reviews, called it “a sharp, insightful, and stirring memoir.” And the Library Journal, which gave it a coveted “highly recommended” rating, said that “in telling her story so compellingly, she joins authors such as Anna Qu and Ly Tran in adding nuance to the ‘model minority’ myth, if not actively subverting it.”
But Foo admits that she didn’t always know how she felt about her most traumatic experiences – a refreshingly honest take on hard-to-fathom events. Her admission made me trust her more as a memoirist. She doesn’t tell the audience – her editors, her readers – what they want to hear; she stays true.
Even at a young age, Foo starts to fight for herself. In a heart-wrenching scene, Foo finds a rusty ax in the side yard and tucks it under her pillow while she sleeps. In the middle of the night, she wakes her father and threatens him with the ax, finally turning the tables. “How does it feel,” she asks him, “when someone wants to kill you?” Foo learned how to protect herself, but her desperate attempts at survival came at an emotional cost. Moving forward, a major part of her healing became dismantling this emotional architecture of violence.
Foo goes beyond the personal memoir to interrogate the origin of her family’s trauma, which is rooted in war, violence, and her Chinese Malaysian family’s tumultuous immigration to the United States. After an aggressive outburst of her own, Foo says, “It was only then, in the wake of so much I had demolished, that I realized… I had done it because it had been done to me.”
The contagious nature of violence is more than any one journalist can investigate, but Foo framed her personal trauma journey in this bigger question. She examined the immigrant community she grew up in to understand why child abuse was part of the norm. She contends that her “community was built in large part from the wreckage of America’s brutal proxy wars against communism.”
In a breakthrough, Foo found a therapist who showed her how her past shaped her interactions with others. “Dr. Ham,” she wrote, “in some ways became my anti-mother – a caring parental figure…who could skillfully counter my parents’ voices in my head.”
Not everyone has a Dr. Ham, but Foo’s book itself is a powerful resource for those with similar struggles. In an email discussion with Foo, she said, “Many trauma survivors say that it’s provided hope in an otherwise somewhat bleak landscape of trauma literature – a compliment I particularly appreciate, because it is the reason I wrote the book in the first place.”
Some of the later scenes may go on longer than necessary, and the book could benefit from some trimming. My major critique is that the penultimate chapter is all about Foo’s wedding. So many memoirs from women (and only women!) feature a wedding. But Foo gets a pass on this, because C-PTSD affects her relationships with other people – Foo’s therapist believes “complex trauma is fundamentally relational trauma” – and her wedding was rooted firmly in community.
But Foo’s romantic relationship, which is part of the book early on, was not a keystone for her interpersonal difficulties. The problem with including the wedding, especially near the end of the story, is it becomes part of the false cultural narrative that if we get married, we’ve “fixed” ourselves enough to have a “normal” life. It is the mental illness version of happily ever after.
Post-wedding, Foo rebounds and saves us with her meaningful last chapter, which looks at how C-PTSD can actually be adaptive in times of crisis and survival. Foo found herself thriving (compared to her neurotypical peers) during Covid times. Her sometimes-obsessive preparation is no longer “too much.” This contextual dependency is part of the social construction of mental “illness.” We call neurodivergent people “ill” or “disordered,” but only when their mental makeup doesn’t match their environment.
Foo’s lineage set her up to thrive in times of crisis, with an emotional cost to herself and her relationships, especially during calmer times. In an email to me, Foo wrote that she tries to accept her differences and harness the preternatural abilities her C-PTSD offers. This reframing, she told me, “is a way to move forward that involves far less shame and despair, which can really hold trauma survivors back.”