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Writing Short Stories About Women with Complex Trauma

“These women, teetering on the edge of sanity and lunacy, mirror the wreckage of their brutal histories. They shed light on the absurdity, the tragedy, and the resiliency of all women plagued by complex trauma.” ~ “Women on the Edge,” by Sheri Heller

It wasn’t until 1992 that Dr. Judith Herman coined the term complex trauma in her seminal book, “Trauma & Recovery.” I was deeply immersed in a healing process, inclusive of traditional therapy, 12-step fellowships, consciousness raising workshops, bodywork, spiritual outlets, and creative exploration.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was desperately trying to cobble together a comprehensive treatment plan that would address the traumas and resultant developmental disasters incurred from a history steeped in chronic child abuse. Discovering a ‘label’ that embodied my suffering and offered a blueprint for recovery was life changing personally and professionally. It informed my direction as a psychotherapist and elucidated my intuitive impulse to reclaim disowned parts of me that were sacrificed for the sake of survival.

The arts sustained me, but writing was a particularly potent form of creative expression in my life. Crafting stories that conveyed my plight, and the plights of women I encountered in my work and through my recovery process, brought beauty to the ugliness. It also assisted with concretizing a cohesive narrative that incorporated the darkest facets of life and the human condition.

As my life became stable and gravitated towards more joyful proclivities, I veered away from regurgitating trauma. Yet somehow I was led back through the co-authoring of a play about four at-risk teenage girls and through fictionalized tales presented in “Women on the Edge.” I suppose I needed to revisit the ‘darkness’ and search for what Carl Jung referred to as the ‘Gold in the excrement.’

Plumbing the depths with a more formidable Self, allowed me to resurrect and assimilate the shadow parts of me embodied in each of these women. It helped me to bring to the light of consciousness the extreme despair and rage that too often remains denied and hidden in women who are born into unthinkable circumstances.

Assessing the Emotional Horror

Honestly characterizing the lives of these women involved writing scenes of incest, rape, suicide, and murder. Accessing the emotional horror associated with these violent events in a way that realistically portrayed the range of emotions and responses comprising victimization, called for pacing and a modicum of healthy distance.

Ironically, when writing the Cassandra Complex, a story inspired by my personal struggles with my schizophrenic, character disordered mother I was considerably more challenged to stay the course, than when writing about the sexualized homicidal rage of Lorelei in Femme Fatale. That it was a personal conveyance of a more cryptic form of traumatic abuse contributed to the activation and my difficulties with finding the right words to convey what felt inexplicable. Periodically, I found myself taking breaks so as to manage the flashbacks infiltrating my limbic system.

The visceral reactions ignited by writing about these women shed light on the surreal spectrum of trauma that informed each of their worldviews. The more blatant forms of violence were no more or less severe than the invisible toll of emotional torment. In the story Milicent Crane, her history of sterility and neglect prompts her to cope by isolating with romantic fantasies, influenced by great works of Russian literature.

Ultimately her submersion in this delusional world informed her suicide. Milicent’s traumatic loneliness is in many ways no less severe than the brutal cult abuse endured by Lorelei or the rape inflicted on Tabitha by her father.

Stepping back to appreciate the lives of Tabitha, Cassandra, Lorelei, Milicent and Sarah reinforced my understanding of how their seemingly preposterous and unhinged choices were an inevitable consequence of all they embodied and all they endured. Writing their stories affirmed for me that the agony of suffering either pulls us towards our lower impulses or leads us towards acceptance and compassion.

Allowing myself the license to elaborate on their grim and life-affirming choices, without assigning blame or judgment ,was freeing.  It reminded me that our deepest humanity can only be realized if we are willing to recognize our collective susceptibility to the brutality of human evil. Therein resides the Gold in the excrement.


Writing Short Stories About Women with Complex Trauma

Rev Sheri Heller, LCSW

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW, is a seasoned NYC psychotherapist with 25+ years experience in the addiction and mental health fields. Sheri is also an interfaith minister and playwright, and the founder of The Sistah Tribe - Phoenix Project, a therapeutic theater event for at-risk women and girls in the public sector of NYC. For more information, visit


APA Reference
Heller, R. (2019). Writing Short Stories About Women with Complex Trauma. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 24 Apr 2019
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 24 Apr 2019
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