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AAJA Defined

Behind The Story: Stephanie Foo on writing “What My Bones Know” and coping with C-PTSD

What a journalist’s struggle with complex trauma taught her about the nuances of the Asian American experience

By Sofia Koyama, Digital Engagement Coordinator

After a storied career as a journalist and audio producer for shows like “This American Life,” Stephanie Foo chose to bare what had happened in actuality: struggles with work and relationships, trying various forms of therapy and a fight with a beast born from the abuse she experienced growing up. In “What My Bones Know,” an unflinching and enlightening memoir that debuted this week, Stephanie brings to light the reality of complex trauma with breathtaking vulnerability and a kick of humor.

AAJA Defined had the opportunity to talk with Stephanie about the challenges and catharsis of memoir writing and what the Asian American community can take away from her story.

SOFIA KOYAMA (she/her): I want to start with discussing the process of writing this book, which not only follows your journey of learning to live with trauma, but also illuminates complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), a condition that until recently has been under-researched and under-diagnosed. How did you organize the structure of this book and intertwine the reporting with your personal experiences? Did you envision its skeleton from the start or did it emerge as you wrote and revised?

STEPHANIE FOO (she/her): I studied the structure of Esmé Weijun Wang’s “The Collected Schizophrenias” before I started writing. I so admired how well-organized the book is, its fluid mix of storytelling and science. I used that book as somewhat of a model. I had my research organized by ideas — dissociation, brain science, physical implications, intergenerational trauma — and I started writing based off of those themes, combining my research with the feelings and realizations doing the research elicited in me. The result ended up reading more as a collection of essays, so my editor encouraged me to make it feel more like a memoir by rearranging everything to follow the true chronological order of my healing journey. It worked, and gave the book a nice narrative flow.

SOFIA: Most of your journalism background is in radio producing, such as for “This American Life,” or other podcasts; but your writing has been featured in publications from Vox to The New York Times as well. What was it like transitioning from audio journalism, and journalism overall, to memoir writing?

STEPHANIE: I’ll say this for Mom: She forced me to write journals every week from when I was six years old, and it did form a valuable habit. I’ve always written pretty prolifically, whether it was fanfiction or diary entries. I was a literature major in college, interned at magazines and saw myself eventually writing for Rolling Stone.

I transitioned to audio when I was 22, but still, writing is a huge part of that job. Every audio piece starts off as a script. And a good script paints vibrant, visual scenes and caps each of those off with a deeper idea. That combination of scenes and ideas works in audio. It works in film screenplays. Turns out, it works in book form, too.

There was another similarity: In audio journalism, you rely on your tape — you write around very specific source material. In this book, I relied on the source material of my lifetime’s worth of journals.

If there was a real challenge, it was trying to understand the pacing of something so long. With an audio story, I always listen to a draft while taking a walk. I can feel the places where the story gets boring or confusing, when I need to speed up or add tension. It’s harder to feel out those spots with a piece of work that takes hours and hours to get through, so I relied a lot on my editors’ and early readers’ intuitions.

SOFIA: As you lived through these events, at what point did you see the possibility of documenting it in a book? Did you land on a memoir from the start, or did you entertain other mediums such as audio?

STEPHANIE: It was always going to be a book. To be honest, by the time I quit my job at “This American Life,” I was so burnt out on audio that I wanted to scream every time I opened up Pro Tools. Audio is also an extremely collaborative process, and I think entrusting something so personal to a team of people was intimidating to me. Even though I’d never written a book before, for some wild reason it felt safer and more free in its independence. It also felt decisively missing from the literary zeitgeist, a gaping hole that I thought I could fill.

Every audio piece starts off as a script. And a good script paints vibrant, visual scenes and caps each of those off with a deeper idea. That combination of scenes and ideas works in audio. It works in film screenplays. Turns out, it works in book form, too.

SOFIA: Shifting focus to your story, you refer to your C-PTSD by a few different names in your book — “the dread,” “the beast,” among others — and you also note how powerful it can be to distance oneself from what they’re struggling with, instead of viewing it as an immutable aspect of their character. It reminded me of a Buzzfeed story from years ago in which the writer and artist compared her depression to “having a bad dog.” You also tackle heavy topics with a scathing humor that had me laughing aloud. Was writing this book a cathartic process for you, and what’s your view on the relationship between healing and expression, creative or otherwise?

STEPHANIE: I actually needed to separate the work of creative expression from the work of catharsis for the first time in my life. I made so much work over the years, creating massive amounts of radio content, drawing comics and producing videos and podcasts on the side — and because that work made me successful, I believed it healed me. But as I wrote in the book, workaholism turned out not to be my salvation — it was a symptom.

When I was healing, I focused on achieving catharsis from therapy, mindfulness and relationships. That forced me to be present in the process without trying to find interesting anecdotes and arcs. Any writing I was doing at the time was stream-of-consciousness, without an audience in mind. It wasn’t until I felt like I was in a pretty healthy place that I sat down to write the book itself, and that felt less like catharsis and more like plain old work. I think that comes across positively in the book. My voice sounds like a person who has healed, rather than as someone who is using this project to heal: there’s more hope, more perspective, more authenticity.

I will say that the reporting work of going back to my hometown of San Jose and trying to ascertain the scope of the generational trauma in my community … that was very cathartic in that it really validated my childhood and made me feel far less alone.

SOFIA: Yes! It struck me how validation hits differently depending on who it’s coming from. You were worried you “misremembered [your] community’s trauma” until a former high school classmate confirmed that there was abuse happening that white teachers could not see. What was it like receiving validation from within the Asian American community?

STEPHANIE: For a long time I felt a weird paradox about growing up in a really Asian community, because abuse was both totally normalized by the other children in my community but completely invisible to anyone in positions of authority who could provide real support. My peers weren’t going to validate what I was going through as “abuse,” because we had dismissed beatings and emotional neglect as cultural. And my teachers weren’t going to validate it because they liked the image they had of us being good kids who really wanted to get A-pluses — again, because it was a cultural value.

I actually needed to separate the work of creative expression from the work of catharsis for the first time in my life … because that work made me successful, I believed it healed me. But workaholism turned out not to be my salvation — it was a symptom.

SOFIA: That’s so true, and the Asian American experience is weird in that — this isn’t universal across Asian communities, of course — we’ll joke about how our parents will call us to dinner in lieu of an apology, or how families will notice our weight but not our depression. We’ll memeify our experiences, and though it’s done in the name of reclaiming the ways we’ve been othered, are we shooting ourselves in the foot by reducing our cultures to racial tropes?

STEPHANIE: I think it’s important at some level to accept cultural differences. As a Cantonese person, we’re always yelling at each other. So, hollering at each other day long, that isn’t trauma, that’s just our culture. But when you start to dismiss real feelings, needs and nuance, and start to paint over it with a wide “it’s just our culture” brush, you have a slippery slope where suddenly kids who are being burned by cigarette butts think that’s normal. You have kids who are having psychotic breaks, who are not getting help and are just being sent to extra Kumon.

In order to combat that, we need to collectively acknowledge trauma in the Asian community as real. That’s really nuanced and there’s a million ways to do that, but here are just a couple small things to start with:

First, we shouldn’t shame each other for being traumatized. No, “Whatever, my mom hit me too, you don’t see me whining about it.” We have to listen and validate each other, instead of dismissing these traumas as being cultural.

Second, I think we need to talk to our parents about their trauma. I just expounded on one of the stories in my book for “Snap Judgment” about how impactful it was for a young Vietnamese person to learn about their mom’s trauma during the Vietnam War. Talking about trauma tremendously improved their ability to communicate and trust one another. Before, Mimi’s mother neurotically policed everything they did. But when Mimi realized their mom had lost so many people in the Vietnam War, they could acknowledge, “Hey, I know where your fear is coming from, because of your history. But I’m going to need you to back off and trust me today, because I am safe.”

Third, I think we have to separate the notion that because our parents suffered and sacrificed in order to build better lives for us, they’re entitled to behave however they want. We can have nuanced relationships with our family where we appreciate that sacrifice but still draw healthy boundaries.

And lastly, we need to keep fighting against the model minority myth. American society needs to understand that Asian people deserve to take up space, to use resources, to struggle.

SOFIA: The pandemic also illuminated all the ways capitalism has failed working class people, especially minorities, and left them on a spectrum of hurt that ranges from burnout to literally dying. All of these conditions existed before, and you call them out throughout your book, but COVID has made them impossible to ignore and has the audacity to frame this as an individual issue. How can we possibly push back against the programming of society and fight against systems that are impossible to escape?

STEPHANIE: Look, obviously none of us individually are empowered to demolish capitalist power structures or end wars. But for me, seeing those structures for what they are — and seeing my own helplessness within them — has actually been really helpful in healing from trauma because it separates pain from suffering.

We need to keep fighting against the model minority myth. American society needs to understand that Asian people deserve to take up space, to use resources, to struggle.

Pain is the legitimate grief we feel over hard things. And suffering is the self-blame and hatred we pile on ourselves afterward, for even feeling the pain. For example: I used to have an abusive boss, and I overworked and self-loathed constantly to try and earn his respect. Then I realized that because of larger power structures, including unconscious bias, I had no control over how he perceived me.

That knowledge allowed me to say: Okay, I had an abusive boss. I feel the pain. But his anger had nothing to do with me. It had everything to do with him and his commitment to those toxic power structures. I don’t feel the suffering.

When knowledge about power structures frees us from self-blame, we then have the freedom to think about what we do have control over. I focused on taking care of myself, engaging in things that bring me joy, volunteering in communities where I have a real impact — writing this book, instead of churning out stories about things I didn’t care about.

Capitalism may control your bank account. But it doesn’t need to control the way you see yourself.

SOFIA: Finally, I want to ask about the title! One of the lines that has stayed with me is a simple one: “My body remembers.” Similarly, “What My Bones Know” not only points out the way trauma affects both one’s mental and physical health, but is also a nod to intergenerational trauma. Both of these critical topics seem to have only recently gained mainstream attention, discourse and legitimacy. Why did you decide on this title?

STEPHANIE: I was stuck on what to call this book, so I asked my writing group if any phrase had stuck out to them from the sections I’d let them read. One of the members, Nina Zipkin, suggested “What My Bones Know,” and I realized I’d highlighted it as a possible title a couple of months earlier. I’d originally shied away from it because I worried it was too similar to “The Body Keeps The Score,” but then I thought… it conveys so many of the themes of this book, it conjures an image — screw it. Let’s do it.

Stephanie Foo is the author of “What My Bones Know: A Memoir Of Healing From Complex Trauma,” the first literary memoir to tackle the science and psychology of complex PTSD. Previously, she was a producer at “This American Life” and helped create “Snap Judgment.” She’s also had work in The New York Times, Vox, 99% Invisible and Reply All. Follow her on Twitter. Be sure to follow AAJA Defined as we continue to chat with AAPI journalists and share their stories.

Sofia Koyama is the Digital Engagement Coordinator with AAJA. She is based in Brooklyn. Find her on Twitter.

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AAJA Defined showcases the lives and journeys of AAPI media professionals (and allies) shaping global narratives about Asian Pacific America and redefining journalism in inclusive, expansive, and visionary ways. Produced by the Asian American Journalists Association, est. 1981.

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