ROOM: How Does Therapy Find Words For Wordless Trauma?

Director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Emma Donoghue’s film, ROOM, takes us directly into the emotional experience of trauma. As the film opens, we hear a young boy’s voice introducing us to a girl named Ma. Kidnapped, stolen from her life, and kept in ROOM for seven years, Ma lives in a world as incomprehensible as Alice’s in Alice in Wonderland. Those victimized by trauma know its terror. Yet that terror,  not manageable alone, is put far aside someplace else in order not to feel it. What kind of help do those who’ve been severely traumatized need to slowly give words to terror?


Terror is a central part of trauma. The numbness that submerges every trauma victim’s feelings can blunt the obvious signs of terror. It’s critical we know terror does exist buried inside. Otherwise, we won’t understand the deep distrust in life and people that persists for a long time until help is found.

Watching ROOM, we’re taken into the terrifying world of trauma, living it every step of the way with Joy Newsome (now called Ma) (Brie Larson) and 5-year-old, Jack (Jacob Tremblay). Jack is a baby born of rape and captivity. He’s a reminder that life still exists; and so does the possibility of love.

ROOM is told in the voice of Jack, but it’s Joy’s story. Jack’s birth is what saves Joy again and again: “Before I came you watched TV all day and cried and cried. Then I zoomed through the skylight from heaven … you cut the cord and said, ‘Hello, Jack.’” With that hello, Joy was no longer alone. Hope is fragile, though, in someone raped and terrorized repeatedly with no way out.

Terror gets inside. It lives there. It’s all too real. Yet, at the same time, it must not be known. The only way to live through the terror of trauma is to say the trauma can’t be happening.

Managing Trauma – What Is Real?

When Jack asks: “Is bad tooth hurting?” Ma replies, “Mind over matter.” “If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter,” answers Jack. “Bad tooth” is a symbol for overwhelming feelings and an immediate reality that can’t be handled. To cope with trauma, what is happening must be denied. What is real, then, becomes confused.

Ma protects Jack for a long time, constructing an alternate reality with inanimate friends in ROOM. There’s Sink, TV, Wardrobe, Chair, to name a few. But, it isn’t just Jack Ma protects. Ma tries not to think about reality either. If she does, she knows how trapped she is. She knows how much she’s lost outside of ROOM.

When what is outside enters ROOM in the form of a mouse, Ma is terrified.  Not only will it eat up their meager supplies, it reminds her of an outside she can’t reach. In that outside world are a mom and a dad and a house with a backyard and hammock – a life that was stolen from her.

Ma reads Jack a passage from Alice In Wonderland: “Nothing seemed impossible.  There seemed to be no use in waiting by the little door.” A door to hope re-opens. She begins to tell Jack about reality – about what is real and what is not. She must now think about what is outside not only the locked door of ROOM, but inside the door she’s locked in her mind.

“Remember how Alice wasn’t always in Wonderland? I wasn’t always in Room. I was Joy Newsome. I lived in a house. Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) stole me and locked me in his garden shed. Shed is Room.  Only Old Nick knows the code.” Jack yells: “You’re lying. I want a different story.” Just as Jack thinks Ma is tricking him, Ma’s been tricked too and that’s why reality and everyone in it can no longer be trusted.

It’s a turning point for Joy. Yet, constructing a plan of escape means opening up all the feelings that “mind over matter” can’t successfully avoid. There is terror, but there is more.

Anger – A Young Girl Too Nice

Anger is one of the most important and often difficult feelings to access. This is especially true for a girl who’s spent her life being “nice;” nice because her mom (Joan Allen) told her always to be nice. But when she’s nice to a man who says his dog is sick, it ruins her life. That man is Old Nick. She’s furious with her mom.

After she’s freed and at home, Joy’s irritability and anger are directed at her mother. Her mom doesn’t understand, can’t take her anger, and can’t listen. This is not helpful to Joy. And, when her mother retaliates by yelling: “You’re not the only one whose life was destroyed. Is that what you think?” Joy answers, “Yes.” It’s true. Joy’s not being selfish or self absorbed. She’s overwhelmed with the after effects of her trauma.  She also has good reason for her anger.

Joy’s angry, too, with her dad (William H. Macy). He refuses to even look at Jack, reminded of the sexual violation that produced him. Unable to see Jack as the little boy he is and the love Joy has for her child, Joy’s dad communicates shame and rejection. That is the last thing Joy needs.

In the way trauma forces itself into its victim, Joy’s dad and later the TV Talk Show Hostess (Wendy Crewson) push into Joy’s mind everything disturbing about her trauma (just as brutally as Old Nick). They impose the worries, self-doubts, and unanswerable thoughts Joy has no way of sorting out alone. Their singular agendas evoke feelings in Joy she can’t yet bear to feel.

Risk Of Suicide

Shame and the fear of “badness” are the worst feelings for any sexual abuse victim. The Talk Show Hostess’ questions are without exception thoughtless and intrusive. Yet, the question of whether Joy considered asking her captor to take newborn Jack to a hospital to free him is most insensitive. Joy easily hears this question as an accusation that she’s a “bad” mother. The question also misses the truth that her love and care for Jack saved her. This interviewer’s ignorance of the effects of trauma pushes Joy over the edge into an attempted suicide.

Suicide is often believed (by those who think about it or attempt it) to be the only way to stop overwhelming feelings. When anger is confusing, judged, or not heard for its validity (as Joy’s mom couldn’t), guilt and anxiety about directly expressing anger takes over. Anger, then, is turned against the self. In its extreme form, self-inflicted anger can lead to suicide. So can the implosion of other too intense feelings.

As Jack put it: “The aliens came down, crash, and broke her.” Joy needs help with all her alien feelings. She is filled with feelings she doesn’t know what to do with and can’t hold on her own. The focus, for as long as necessary, must be to create a safe space for these feelings to be worked out and understood. This is especially true in therapy.


Every traumatized person lives with these questions: will anyone find me (hidden inside)? Does anyone want to hear? Trusting someone to be sensitive and not cruel is an ordeal for those who have been violated and abused. Hope is fragile and easily lost. Trust is expected to be broken.

Trauma victims have no other option but detachment; watching, from outside, that other self – the one besieged by feeling and terrified of being hurt. I have learned in working with trauma that, even before my patient can, I must feel and I must know. Intellectual distance loses the essence of trauma. I can’t stay too far away from that traumatized self, waiting to be found.

Those who experience trauma can only find words little by little. It takes a long time to slowly approach the traumatic experience. Just as Ma and Jack go back to ROOM in their own time, trauma must be re-visited only when they are ready. Never should trauma be named too quickly.

I wait patiently. I listen for what doesn’t yet have words. While waiting, I stay present and hold the feelings my patient can’t. It’s a delicate balance. Knowing, yet not intruding like the Talk Show Hostess; being enough outside to see, enough inside to know – until those who’ve been traumatized can come with me to the memories and the feelings. When they can, this time they aren’t alone.

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