• Megan Johnson, Ph.D.

A 2020 Reading List From Your Therapist

The 10 Books You Should Read in 2020 to Develop Self-Awareness and Support Your Mental Health

This past year I FINALLY passed all of my licensing exams to become a licensed psychologist in California. I’m counting that as not only my win of the year, but my win of the decade. After six years of graduate school and a two-year post-doctoral fellowship, I finally returned to one of my all-time favorite hobbies – reading for fun!

I participated in two book clubs in 2019 and they did not disappoint. Not only did I read some gripping novels and fascinating memoirs, but my love for reading was reignited. Interestingly enough, though, the themes of trauma and mental health still followed me. However, I got to approach these topics from a real, human perspective as opposed to the clinical perspective I am so accustomed to. So as 2019 comes to a close, I have compiled a reading list for those of us on this journey of developing emotional intelligence and working through trauma.

1. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

Takeaway message: You are not responsible for your trauma, but you are responsible for your healing.

Themes: Intergenerational trauma, culture, identity, adverse childhood experiences, personal agency

Favorite Quote: “Psychologists call it ‘learned helplessness’ when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life. From Middletown’s world of small expectations to the constant chaos of our home, life had taught me that I had no control.”

My Thoughts: All throughout graduate school I took classes on diversity and cultural sensitivity but I am ashamed to admit that the coursework never once touched on Appalachian culture. Although Vance is a Yale Law School graduate, he grew up in white working-class America and his memoir illustrates the socioeconomic makeup of this group of people. Wherever you fall on the political or economic spectrum, this book somehow speaks to all of us alike. From a psychological standpoint, though, Vance gives an accurate portrayal of the trauma of poverty, domestic violence, broken families, drug addiction, and war. Vance dives into adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and describes the effects that they had on his life. But more importantly, he details how identifying unhelpful patterns and actively pursuing healthier choices can actually change the trajectory of your life. For those who have experienced trauma, loss, and heartache at a young age, it can be tempting to shrink back and accept the lie that life will always be hard. But Vance gives the reader hope that it doesn’t have to be this way.

2. Educated by Tara Westover

Takeaway Message: Leaving an abusive situations is no easy task, but you have the strength inside of you to do it. Themes: memory and subjectivity, psychological abuse, parental mental illness, codependence

Favorite Quote: To admit uncertainty is to admit to weakness, to powerlessness, and to believe in yourself despite both. It is frailty, but in this frailty there is a strength: the conviction to live in your own mind, and not in someone else’s. Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now. What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon, it was me.”

My thoughts: Westover provides a gripping account of what it is like to grow up in a family with a mentally ill father and a codependent mother. She describes vividly the societal, education, financial, relational, and medical impacts of growing up in her cult-like family, who were so tied to their delusions that they denied her and her siblings adequate care. As we grow up, we all begin to shed the lenses our parents have handed down to us, and start to see things through our own eyes. Westover is no exception to this process of maturing, but in order to live a life in accordance with reality, she has to craftily disentangle herself from her abusive family of origin. Throughout her process of becoming educated, which is more than what is learned from school and books, Westover struggles with the consequences of denying her family’s reality and embracing her own. She takes us on her journey from being insufficiently home schooled in rural Idaho to graduating with a PhD from Cambridge and shows the reader the importance of owning and speaking your truth.

3. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk

Takeaway Message: Developing an understanding of how your body and mind respond to trauma is the first step in healing and taking back control of your life.

Themes: Big-T trauma, Little-T trauma, adverse childhood experiences, trauma, recovery, public health, neuroscience

Favorite Quote: “Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going inside ourselves.”

My Thoughts: Of all the books on this list, this is probably the most clinical. However, it still does a brilliant job of illustrating to the reader in a digestible way the impact of trauma. Van der Kolk weaves together research and decades of his own clinical experience to demonstrate that trauma and its effects constitute a public health crisis. As a culture, we have a skewed view of what of trauma is. But van der Kolk shows us that trauma is universal, and its symptoms often manifest bodily. He illustrates the way that trauma results in a survivor feeling disembodied and offers numerous evidence-based treatment recommendations to reestablish embodiment, safety, and integration. For any survivor of trauma, this book is crucial for understanding and normalizing what happens in the aftermath.

4. Know My Name by Chanel Miller

Takeaway Message: You don’t find your voice – it has always been inside of you. But when you discover and embrace that voice and begin speaking your truth, powerful things happen. Trauma heals and cultures change.

Themes: Sexual assault, rape culture, the criminal justice system, privilege

Favorite Quote: “I survived because I remained soft, because I listened, because I wrote. Because I huddled close to my truth, protected it like a tiny flame in a terrible storm. Hold up your head when the tears come, when you are mocked, insulted, questioned, threatened, when they tell you you are nothing, when your body is reduced to openings. The journey will be longer than you imagined, trauma will find you again and again. Do not become the ones who hurt you. Stay tender with your power. Never fight to injure, fight to uplift. Fight because you know that in this life, you deserve safety, joy, and freedom. Fight because it is your life. Not anyone else’s. I did it, I am here. Looking back, all the ones who doubted or hurt or nearly conquered me faded away, and I am the only one standing. So now, the time has come. I dust myself off, and go on.”

My Thoughts: This is probably the best book I read all year. Miller and I went to the same undergraduate university (Go Gauchos!) so I think a large part of me was proud to see my fellow classmate doing such important work. But beyond that connection, I deeply appreciate Miller’s blend of tenderness, honesty, and persistence in how she responded to her attacker and find it incredibly inspirational for those who are seeking justice in clunky systems motivated to perpetuate oppression and silence. Miller’s memoir provides an eloquent primer on rape culture and forces the reader to wrestle with societal norms that result in the victimization of women. I’ll admit that portions of this book were extremely difficult to digest and sit with, but I believe that doing so makes the reader a more informed and compassionate member of his or her community.

5. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

Takeaway Message: Mental states, motivations, and behaviors are not always what they appear to be on the surface.

Themes: forensic psychology, psychoanalytic theory

Favorite Quote: “We are made up of different parts, some good, some bad, and a healthy mind can tolerate this ambivalence and juggle both good and bad at the same time. Mental illness is precisely about a lack of this kind of integration – we end up losing contact wit the unacceptable parts of ourselves.”

My thoughts: Although this book is a novel, it does an excellent job of demonstrating complex psychoanalytic concepts in a relatable and understandable way. I initially picked this book up because it falls into one of my favorite genres – psychological thriller – and quickly fell in love with its exploration of forensic psychology. Michaelides does a fabulous job of weaving the narrative with psychoeducation and the history of psychoanalytic thought. It takes the science and philosophy behind psychiatric treatment and illustrates what actually goes on in treatment. Granted, the case in question is quite an extreme example of pathology, but the intense depiction gives a memorable portrayal of psychoanalytic case conceptualizations.

6. Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide by Karen Kilgariff and Georgie Hardstark

Takeaway Message: This world is a tough place in which to exist, but therapy can help lighten the load.

Themes: Coming of age, true crime, substance abuse, depression, eating disorders

Favorite Quote: “Friendship leads to human connection, which feeds your soul. More than kale or spinning or fifteen-minute naps under your desk, conscious communication with your clutch friends is the best form of self-care.”

My Thoughts: My obsession with true-crime podcasts led me to pick up this book, but as I got into the thick of it, I became mesmerized with the stories of the authors, who host true-crime podcast “My Favorite Murderer.” Throughout the book, the reader comes to understand the anxiety behind why some of us come to rely on quirky defense mechanisms, including an obsession with true crime. The authors spend a good portion of the book detailing their own mental health struggles and revealing insights they have learned and growth they have achieved through regular therapy. They also explore the way in which culture shapes people, and in particular women, through its assumed demands and expectations. We are encouraged to question these societal norms and embrace honesty, authenticity, and self-care; which I might argue is also one of the main goals of therapy. The book is full of wise anecdotes and witty one-liners that will inspire you to live a more authentic life. Overall, I found the authors to embody the same traits I encourage folks to seek in a good therapist – warmth, brutal honesty, deep insight, an awareness of the darker sides of humanity, and humor.

7. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Takeaway Message: Childhood trauma and neglect wreak havoc on an individual, but receiving care and having a sensed of belonging bring healing.

Themes: violence, neglect, independence, prejudice, belonging

Favorite Quote: “It happens in humans, too. Some behaviors that seem harsh to us now ensured the survival of early man in what­ ever swamp he was in at the time. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. We still store those instincts in our genes, and they express themselves when certain circumstances prevail. Some parts of us will always be what we were, what we had to be to survive—way back yonder. Maybe some primitive urge—some ancient genes, not appropriate anymore—drove Ma to leave us because of the stress, the horror and real danger of living with Pa. That doesn’t make it right; she should have chosen to stay. But knowing that these tendencies are in our bio­ logical blueprints might help one forgive even a failed mother. That may explain her leaving, but I still don’t see why she didn’t come back.”

My Thoughts: This novel tells the story of Kya Clark, a girl who grows up virtually alone in the marshlands of South Carolina after being abandoned by her mother and father. Kya is forced to learn to care and provide for herself at a young age, while simultaneously being ostracized by her community. The narrative jumps back and forth between Kya’s story of finding her way as she matures from a neglected child into an independent adult, and a murder in her community for which she is later blamed. Owen’s depiction of Kya and her isolation demonstrate to the reader the impact of trauma and the power of social support in healing and reintegrating into community.

8. It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We are and How to End the Cycle by Mark Wolynn

Takeaway Message: Understanding your family of origin is crucial to your mental health.

Themes: intergenerational trauma, family systems, genograms, epigenetics

Favorite Quote: “By developing a relationship with the painful parts of ourselves—parts we have often inherited from our family—we have an opportunity to shift them.”

My Thoughts: This book is an excellent read after you have finished The Body Keeps The Score. Whereas van der Kolk’s work illustrates the impact of early experiences on the health and wellbeing of an individual, Wolynn’s book depicts how those effects are passed down from one generation to the next. Wolynn’s first couple chapters shed light on intergenerational trauma and epigenetics, and then the second half of the book launches into his approach to healing. At times his therapeutic stance seems to oversimplify certain concerns and I’m not convinced that his approach is applicable in all circumstances, so I recommend this book with the caveat of taking the second half with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, the discussion of inherited trauma is well worth the read.

9. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Takeaway Message: Life is not about avoiding suffering, but about finding meaning in all circumstances.

Themes: cancer, grief, loss, family, medical school, vulnerability, optimism

Favorite Quote: ”Scientific knowledge [is] inapplicable to the existential, visceral nature of human life. Which is unique and subjective and unpredictable.

My Thoughts: This memoir of a Stanford neurosurgery resident who receives a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer invites the reader to consider the fragility of life. His quest for what makes life meaningful encourages us to consider our own experiences and values. This book gives the reader a front-row seat to a physician as he wrestles with issues of life and death while balancing medical science with his subjective experience.

10. Braving The Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brené Brown

Takeaway Message: The fullness of our humanity cannot be defined by a single label and we actually have far more in common with others than what meets the eye. Embracing our humanity and connecting over these commonalities is a spiritual practice that promotes community and belonging

Themes: vulnerability, community, authenticity, belonging

Favorite Quote: “We are complex beings who wake up every day and fight against being labeled and diminished with stereotypes and characterizations that don’t reflect our fullness. Yet when we don’t risk standing on our own and speaking out, when the options laid before us force us into the very categories we resist, we perpetuate our own disconnection and loneliness. When we are willing to risk venturing into the wilderness, and even becoming our own wilderness, we feel the deepest connection to our true self and to what matters the most.”

My Thoughts: Would this really be a reading list from a therapist if there wasn’t a book by Brené Brown on it? Brown’s writing always does such a beautiful job of presenting a third way in a culture that sets up a zero-sum game. Society has created dichotomies of black vs. white, democrat vs. republican, rich vs. poor, right vs. wrong, etc. that force us to take sides and demonize those on the other side of the wall. Brown invites us to do the hard work of connecting with those who we view as “other,” which is a process that involves both honoring our own values without dehumanizing those who do not ascribe to them.


©2019 by Quincee Gideon, PsyD. Proudly created with Wix.com