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 little 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 the terror. Yet that terror,  not manageable alone, is put far aside someplace else (in another “room”) in order not to feel it. How does therapy slowly give words to wordless terror for those severely traumatized?

Terror in ROOM

Terror is at the center of trauma. You go numb. Submerge your feelings, make the terror “go away.” Mind over matter, Ma says. But we can’t be taken in by numbness. We must know that the terror exists, buried inside. Otherwise, how can we possibly understand the deep distrust of life and people that persists for a long time, until help is found?

Watching ROOM, we’re taken into the terrifying world of trauma. We live it every step of the way with Joy Newsome (now called Ma) (Brie Larson) and 5-year-old, Jack (Jacob Tremblay). Jack, a baby born of rape and captivity, reminds Ma that life still exists. And, so does the possibility of love. Yet, hope is hard to come by.

Jack is the voice of ROOM, but it’s Joy’s story. The one she can’t tell. Jack’s birth and ongoing presence “save” 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. Yet, hope is fragile for someone raped and terrorized repeatedly, with no way out.

Terror gets inside. It lives there. All too real if you don’t go numb. The only way to live through the terror of trauma is to say that trauma can’t be happening. To detach and “go away inside.”

Managing Trauma

Jack asks Ma: “Is bad tooth hurting?” And, Ma replies, “Mind over matter.” “If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter,” answers Jack. “Bad tooth” is a symbol. It speaks for what hurts, and overwhelms, a reality that can’t be felt. To cope with trauma, you can’t “know” what’s happening. What is real 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. It’s herself. Ma can’t think about reality. If she does, she knows how trapped she is. She knows how much she’s lost outside of ROOM.

So, Ma is terrified when what’s outside begins to enter ROOM, in the form of a little mouse. Not only will it eat up their meager supplies, but this mouse 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.

What Is Real?

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 tells Jack about reality. About what is real and what is not. She now thinks about what is outside the locked door of ROOM. But also what’s inside that locked door of her mind.

“Remember how Alice wasn’t always in Wonderland? I wasn’t always in Room. My name 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.” Jack thinks Ma is tricking him. But 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. No more waiting. Yet, a plan of escape means opening up all the feelings that “mind over matter” can’t really avoid. Terror comes, but there is more.

Anger & A Young Girl Too Nice

Feelings threaten to flood in. One of those feelings is anger. Yet, anger’s very difficult to feel. Feeling anger is dangerous when it comes to Old Nick. Plus, Joy learned her mom’s (Joan Allen) lesson well: “Be nice.” Nice. But when she’s nice to a man who says his dog is sick, it ruins her life. That man is Old Nick. Joy’s furious with her mom. Fury brings courage.

After Ma hatches a successful plan of escape with brave Jack to the rescue, Joy’s anger IS directed at her mom. Unfortunately, though, mom doesn’t understand. She never could take Joy’s anger and she can’t listen. Mom isn’t helpful. Joy needs her anger. Mom, though, gets passive-aggressive and retaliates by yelling: “You’re not the only one whose life was destroyed. Is that what you think?” Indeed it’s true, hers was. When Joy answers, “Yes” she’s not selfish. The after-effects of her trauma must be seen for what they are. The victim needs an empathic focus on her. And, Joy has many good reasons for her anger.

Joy’s angry, too, with her dad (William H. Macy). How can a dad be so self-absorbed to refuse to recognize, even look at Jack? Sure, he reminds dad of the sexual violation that produced his grandchild. Yet, he’s blind to Jack as the delightful little boy he is and the love Joy has for her child. Plus, Jack saved Joy. Even worse, dad communicates shame and rejection. That’s the last thing Joy needs.

Trauma forces itself into its victim. Joy’s dad and later the TV Talk Show Hostess (Wendy Crewson) push Joy’s feelings and fears into her mind too fast and too insensitively. They force it into her, all that’s disturbing, just as brutally as Old Nick.

Suicide Risk

Joy’s invaded with 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. Shame and fear of “badness” are the worst feelings for a sexual abuse victim, like Joy. Plus, everywhere, someone waits to violate, use her, and trap her. Enter Talk Show Hostess.

Her questions are thoughtless and intrusive. The question of whether Joy considered asking her captor to take newborn Jack to a hospital to free him takes the prize. Joy hears this as an accusation that she’s a “bad” mother. The question also misses the truth. Joy’s 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.

How does she escape? Suicide is often believed 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.” Yes, that’s true, Jack. All those alien feelings. Joy needs help. She’s filled with the feelings she blocked out in “mind over matter” Now she doesn’t know what to do with them and can’t hold them on her own. A safe space must be created, and not alone, for these feelings to be heard, worked out, and understood. Good therapy offers this space.


Secrets live inside every traumatized person. They hide there. Threatened by abusers like Old Nick, not to tell. Will anyone find them where they hide, terrified? Does anyone want to hear? Trusting that someone might be sensitive and not cruel is an ordeal. Hope is fragile and easily lost. Trust is expected to be broken.

That’s why detachment was the only choice. Watching, from outside. That other-self. The one besieged by feeling and terrified of being hurt. I have learned in working with trauma that I must feel and I must know before my patient can. Intellectual distance loses the essence of trauma. I can’t stay too far away from that traumatized self, the one waiting to be found.

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

I wait patiently. Listen for what doesn’t yet have words. While waiting, I stay present and hold the feelings you 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 you, who’ve been traumatized, can come with me to the memories and the feelings. When you can, this time you aren’t alone.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.