A Scene about Family, Trauma and Neurobiology

img19I just finished a rewrite for a scene in that takes place midway through the rising action of the book. As generally happens, re-writes are challenging, but the fun kind of challenging that makes me feel alive.

My process for rewrites has been to do my best on a scene, then read it to a colleague. This particular writer is one whom I trust to tell me if something doesn’t work. He has an uncanny way of pointing out disparities, unclarities, lacks, bumps, contradictions and many other quirks in a way that inspires me to go right away to fix them.

In this case, he questioned, as he often does, the baseline motivations of the character.

I’m including a link to the story within this entry. Briefly summarized though, a main character is unexpectedly reunited with a family member. The character is generally centered, enlightened, zen…a mystic for whom spirituality is of core importance. Generally, he is the one to bring calm into a chaotic situation. However in this scene, he encounters a family member, a cousin, who in childhood, caused him a great deal of trauma. Faced with his visage, the character lapses into a manner of behavior marked by fear, insecurity and tremendous shame.

This scene was a delight for me because I was able to incorporate elements of science fiction as well as real life neurobiology.

One of my favorite textbooks to assign is The Developing Mind by Daniel Siegel. In Siegel’s work, he explores how mind, brain and relationships work to shape each other. Reading his book was seriously life changing for me, as I was given an intensely practical framework for understanding what happens in my brain in regards to emotion, relationships, attachment and trauma.

One of Siegel’s maxims is, “The neurons that fire together, wire together.” Every time we have a sensory experience, neural connections are created. If that experience is repeated(especially habitually), the neural connection is reinforced. If that experience is emotion laden(especially in the case of trauma), that connection is reinforced.

Family-of-origin relationships are sensory experiences that encompass multiple systems. Essentially, we develop a complex set of neural patterns based on our relationships with our family of origin.

Many of us grow up, individuate and move away from our family of origin and develop all new neural patterns that represent all new values, habits, ways of living, likes and dislikes. We may in fact exceed the overall mental and emotional health of our family of origin. What is interesting, though, is how, when we physically return to our family of origin, we often feel like we’re kids again, falling into the same old patterns, even if we swore off those patterns years ago.

This is because those old neural patterns for our families are getting reactivated. The experience is particularly strong if there was trauma with the family.

Significant time and effort is spent in therapy to learn to overcome and navigate said family-of-origin patterns. In real life, the experience can be gruesome, the work rigorous, and the results quite rewarding, if not bittersweet.

In literature, this creates a delightful opportunity to pull out an unexpected facet of an otherwise immaculate character. The goal is for the character to go through the scene and gain depth, texture and be much more interesting.

That’s my goal in this scene. I’d be curious to hear feedback about it.



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