Why we’re drawn to Colleen Hoover and read about trauma

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VSOlleen Hoover fans, a group of avid readers who call themselves The CoHort, prepare to be emotionally touched.

On October 18, Hoover will release It starts with us2016’s long-awaited sequel It ends with us. While his two dozen novels are mostly romances, Hoover specializes in the type of book that practically requires a reader to have their therapist on standby. Consider the recent reactions on TikTok, where the hashtag #ColleenHoover has been viewed over 2.4 billion times: “I never cry reading books but this ending just brought me to tears,” wrote one nobody. “I’m about to hit rock bottom so I was wondering if anyone needs anything while I’m out there,” another added, holding a copy of It ends with us.

Hoover’s novels explore dark themes: abusive relationships, toxic masculinity, sexual assault, miscarriages, infidelity. She was open about her personal connection to some of the things she writes about: Hoover said his father physically abused his mother, and that It ends with us was inspired by her mother. The novel introduces readers to Lily – a florist who grew up with an abusive father – and her neurosurgeon husband, Ryle, who turns a childhood incident into an excuse to assault her. He becomes particularly jealous and vengeful after Lily reconnects with her first love, Atlas. When Lily learns she is expecting Ryle’s baby, she must decide if she will continue to tolerate the cycle of abuse she has been trapped in all her life. It starts with us picks up where the novel’s epilogue ends and focuses on the relationship between Lily and Atlas. He promises to deliver more of Hoover’s heartache and ugly tears.

Some readers have noted online that books like It ends with us changed their perspective on domestic violence, helping them understand why a battered partner can have a hard time leaving an abuser they still love. Hoover remembers even more personal fan stories. “I’ve heard from readers who have left terrible situations that my books have inspired them to do so – it’s the most incredible thing I could hope to happen,” she told TIME by email. . “Just sharing stories could really help change another person’s life – the weight of that is huge, but if I’ve helped a person in any way, that’s something really special.”

Hoover isn’t the only designer to have drawn inspiration from the so-called traumatic plot: other examples include Hanya Yanagihara’s A little lifethe new Netflix movie The luckiest girl in the worldand the HBO drama barry. Some critics criticize the approach, arguing that characters are flattened when defined only by their trauma, and that could be exploitative.

That criticism is valid, says Naomi Torres-Mackie, a psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York and head of research at the Mental Health Coalition. “When trauma is absolutely central to a character’s existence, it can be dehumanizing and parallel to what happens in real life – when we learn of someone’s traumatic past and they have to fear that this that’s all we’ll see now,” she said. “It’s very unfortunate because, of course, trauma survivors are fully-fledged, multi-faceted human beings.”

However, adds Torres-Mackie, when done well, trauma looms large in literature and media. It is essential that such representations exist “in a holistic, humanizing and balanced way”. Darkness is an inevitable part of life, she points out: “Reading content like this can feel like a relief in a culture where we’re all meant to be carefree.”

Understanding Colleen Hoover’s Appeal

Hoover self-published his first novel, Slammed, in 2012, and has since reliably produced a few new books a year. Much of his work has seen a boom in popularity thanks to BookTok, the corner of video-sharing platform TikTok dedicated to book recommendations. She wrote books #1 and #2 on October 9 in New York Time list of bestsellers: Truth (43 weeks on the list) and It ends with us (68 weeks), both published over three years ago. In the past year alone, sales of his books have exceeded those of the Bible.

It may seem counterintuitive that readers are so eager to inhale uncomfortable books that leave them sobbing and heartbroken. But reading about trauma is appealing for a variety of reasons, one of which is that it helps us learn about the full range of events that make up a life. “It gives you insight into different experiences,” says Torres-Mackie. “As humans, we are inherently fascinated by each other.” In this case, that eagerness could stem from a desire to connect with people we know who have experienced trauma, or from good old-fashioned voyeurism.

There is so much violence against women in the United States that it is natural for readers to seek it out in fiction, some experts say. Forty-one percent of women have experienced sexual violence, physical abuse and/or stalking by a partner, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The themes of her books, while obviously dramatized and created for our entertainment, are largely inspired by what is really going on in this world,” says Willow Goldfarb, a Fort Lauderdale-based licensed mental health counselor. Florida, at Thriveworks, a consulting firm with locations across the United States It ends with us, she points out, there is intense drama and jealousy between Lily and Ryle. Their relationship is also complex: even though Ryle’s violence is objectively unacceptable, he has a tormented but loving side that makes Lily, and some readers, wish they could rehabilitate him. “I think a lot of women can connect with that – trying to save those men who we think can be brought back to the brink of their own abuse and torture,” she says. Goldfarb is right: In a TikTok video, a reader commented, “Am I the only one who wants to fix Ryle so badly?

Readers who have experienced domestic violence or other trauma often appreciate seeing themselves reflected in a script, says Juli Fraga, a psychologist in private practice in San Francisco. Such a representation can help them feel less isolated and temper the feeling of being “other”. “They are looking for themselves in history,” says Fraga. “Hearing that someone’s experiences were similar to yours, or even worse than yours, can help you feel less alone, even if it’s just in a fictional book.”

Others might look to the books as a way to protect their own safety and prevention strategies. A reader might watch for the warning signs before Ryle pushes Lily down the stairs, cataloging her behavior before and after. Torres-Mackie explains the thought process: “If by reading these kinds of stories I can understand this traumatic experience, even if it’s fiction, maybe I can prevent my own pain,” she says. “There can be a sense of self-protection and learning from the traumatic experiences of others.”

Hoover’s popularity speaks to a cultural shift that has occurred over the past two decades, says Alexandra Cromer, Virginia-based licensed professional counselor at Thriveworks. “You weren’t talking about trauma 50 years ago,” she says. “You sucked it up and moved on.” Now, with each new generation, that changes. “There’s been a lot more awareness and compassion towards trauma stories, so there’s more space for people to learn more about this stuff.”

Mental health implications

Reading about trauma could certainly have mental health effects, experts agree. But – and here are a therapist’s two favorite words – it depends. An individual reader’s past experiences, emotional well-being, and other personal factors will determine the impact a book has on them.

It’s important to consider why someone is consuming this content, says Torres-Mackie. It could be the pursuit of catharsis – the healthy release of previously repressed emotions associated with traumatic events. “It can be very difficult to feel difficult emotions,” she says. “But if you can experience them through someone else, like a character in one of those books, it allows you to feel your own dark feelings.”

Especially for trauma survivors who still have a lot of healing to do, however, the material could trigger flashbacks, unpredictable emotions, physical symptoms like headaches, or even post-traumatic stress disorder. Reading about difficult topics, like physical abuse, activates our mirror neurons — brain cells that are likely the neurological basis of empathy and influence how we experience another person’s emotions or actions. “These neurons can get fired up, and that’s why these things give you that rush of adrenaline or excitement,” says Torres-Mackie. “You feel like you’re in the story yourself.”

Torres-Mackie advises watching your reaction to reading material closely: you should consume it, rather than letting it consume you. If you’re starting to feel hyper-vigilant and unsafe in the world, or if you’re having nightmares about the book, it’s probably a good idea to stop reading. Torres-Mackie offers a guiding question: “Does this fill you up or exhaust you? »

Ideally, readers will be familiar with novels like It ends with us and It starts with us for what they are: entertainment, says Goldfarb. She considers herself a Hoover fan and doesn’t feel like she’s been hurt by the hardware. “But I’m also a person who overcame his own trauma and went through his own therapy,” she says.

The publishing industry could do a better job of sharing resources for readers who might be affected by sensitive content, she adds. “In each book, there could be a little leaflet or a disclaimer, like, ‘This is not healthy or normal. This is for entertainment purposes,'” she suggests, along with contact details for a mental health organization such as the Mental Health and Addiction Services Administration or the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Readers can also look for trigger warnings for books, including on websites like didthedogdie.com, and these should be included on the cover or in another prominent place, Goldfarb says. This would give readers a clear idea of ​​whether they would come across any themes that would be healthier for them to avoid. “Take care of yourself and tune into your body when you read these things,” she says. “If you’re upset about this in a way that doesn’t go away with a cup of tea and a hug, tell someone. And let’s push for more trigger warnings about these major themes in books, so we can protect each other while still having a good time reading.

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