.San Jose in Stephanie Foo’s ‘What My Bones Know’

A daughter of East San Jose shares her journey toward healing

Earlier this year, Stephanie Foo wrote the best San Jose book of 2022, What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma.

Born in Malaysia, Foo grew up in East San Jose before landing an ideal journalism career as an NPR producer in New York.

Yet even with a successful life in the works before she was halfway through her 20s, all was not well. Still traumatized from physical abuse and other problems from a severely dysfunctional family, Foo was diagnosed with complex PTSD, a condition unfamiliar to her, as there was not much literature about it, compared to traditional PTSD. After years of panic attacks, feelings of being unsafe and a dark sense of unworthiness, she learned that C-PTSD just might explain it all.

As a result, Foo became driven to commence a healing journey, which brought her back to East San Jose, where she conducted interviews in the community to ascertain the nature of her trauma and figure out where it came from. What My Bones Know then unfolds as a deeply personal book, combining a journalist’s investigation into her own past with a variety of scientific studies to back it up. She needed to reassess her miserable memories of growing up in San Jose, a town that scarred her so badly that she spent years severing herself from all her former acquaintances.

“I treated everyone from San Jose like that box of VHS tapes I hid at the top of my closet—part of a past I didn’t want to touch,” she wrote.

The healing process required her to relearn her childhood, the family secrets, the violence, the lies and the deception. She needed to fact-check her abuse and compare it with others in the community. She didn’t know if she was projecting her own horrible experiences onto other children for fear of being alone, or if she was unfairly judging the community as a whole. All of this needed to be sorted out if she was ever going to heal.

“So this is why I am back,” she wrote. “I want to know whether my trauma is personal or communal. I want to know the truth so I can fully understand my community of origin. To understand how place shaped me.”

San Jose then appears in several portions of the book, illuminating a dimension of the city that many people probably don’t know about. We see drastic effects of immigrant trauma on the community and especially how trauma can be inherited through generations.

While growing up, Foo experienced East San Jose as a suburb of immigrant parents, none of whom were born here, and all of whom burdened their kids with massive stress by forcing them to overachieve. Success in life was equated with leaving San Jose as soon as possible and attending a high-profile university somewhere else. Many peoples’ parents were refugees or had dark histories back home they refused to talk about. And everyone was afraid to ask their parents what was going on. Even worse, both of Foo’s parents eventually abandoned her after years of physical and emotional abuse.

Since we get explicit passages detailing the violence Foo suffered at the hands of her parents, she offers a spoiler before the book even starts, warning her fellow complex PTSD darlings who might get triggered by what’s inside: “Part I of this book might be tough for you, though I ask that you at least give it a shot,” she writes, before declaring outright that the book has a happy ending.

And it does. Foo eventually finds her life partner and gets married.

But as part of her personal journey, she describes experiences with a variety of therapists. In one case, a therapist allows her to record their sessions, transcribe the audio and then dump the text file into Google Docs so both of them can simultaneously go through the results and add comments. These passages are the most enlightening in the book. Any traumatized journalist with G-Docs experience will be cheering at this point.

In the end, Foo concludes that we shouldn’t expect to ever truly “heal” from trauma. Instead, we just learn to develop a better relationship with it.

Gary Singh
Gary Singhhttps://www.garysingh.info/
Gary Singh’s byline has appeared over 1500 times, including newspaper columns, travel essays, art and music criticism, profiles, business journalism, lifestyle articles, poetry and short fiction. He is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press) and was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. An anthology of his Metro columns, Silicon Alleys, was published in 2020.

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