The Body Keeps the Score, by the trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk, has spent nearly five years on the New York Times paperback nonfiction best-seller list. It has sold three million copies and been translated into over 30 languages – an unusual feat for a dense, academic, treatise on a niche subject. Kolk’s views on trauma were initially controversial (to the point he was booted out of Harvard) but are now firmly integrated into trauma research, although not without lingering disputes. His thesis, as detailed in a mammoth New York Magazine profile, is that traumatic memories are not the same as ordinary memories. Unlike, say, a happy recollection of a childhood holiday, traumatic memories are “filed” differently in the brain and then register in the subject’s physical body. In part, the success of Kolk’s work can be attributed to events over the last two decades that have brought trauma and its impact into sharp focus: 9/11, the subsequent war on terror, the Covid-19 pandemic and recognition of the prevalence of systemic racism and sexual violence (women are nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with PTSD than men). Now 80, Kolk has attained a celebrity/guru status that he resists while also claiming we are at the start of a “new scientific epoch” in understanding the truth about trauma.
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