Traumatic Childhood, Creative Adult

Halle Berry said she recalls being terrified that her violent father, who physically abused her mother, would turn on her.

“I think I’ve spent my adult life dealing with the sense of low self-esteem that sort of implanted in me. Somehow I felt not worthy.”

She explained, “Before I’m ‘Halle Berry,’ I’m little Halle…a little girl growing in this environment that damaged me…I’ve spent my adult life trying to really heal from that.”

From my article The Alchemy of Art: Creative Expression and Healing.


Her comments are very meaningful to me: My fundamentalist Christian mother on several occasions became angry, even enraged over something I said, or the tone of voice I was using, that violated her standards.

At least once, she whipped me with a belt, and a more than once “washed my mouth out with soap” as she put it: jamming a bar of soap in my mouth, while demanding something to the effect, “Don’t every say that again.”

I am not writing about this to condemn her, or take away from all the years of loving care and support she and my dad provided – but that was abusive punishment, and as with many people, it has had enduring impacts on my self esteem.

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Most people experience some degree of trauma or abuse in life, but it may have a particularly strong impact on children, and on creative and highly sensitive people.

These experiences can range from combat, rape, assault, sexual abuse, car accidents, natural disasters and other events, to “ongoing emotional abuse or neglect, experiences of shame, humiliation, being left out, bullied or ridiculed or feeling not cared for, to growing up gay in a homophobic culture.”

Those quotes  are by clinical psychologist Kathleen Young in her post What is Trauma?

Many people are drawn to creative expression as part of their way to heal from trauma, and regain self esteem and emotional control.

“My life has had many painful journeys and heartbreaks…many of which I draw on for my work.”

Charlize Theron

Read more of her quotes in article:

Creative People, Trauma and Mental Health

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J. K. Rowling says, “I came from a difficult family. My mother was very ill, and it wasn’t the easiest.”

When Rowling was fifteen, her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She has said her father frightened her. “I did not have an easy relationship with my father… We’ve not had any communication for about nine years.”

[From Mugglemarch – J. K. Rowling writes a realist novel for adults, by Ian Parker, The New Yorker, October 1, 2012.]

Ashley Judd (a Phi Beta Kappa grad, by the way) became a “hypervigilant child” – “raising herself under unpredictable circumstances, becoming lonely, depressed, isolated—all feelings she kept under wraps for years,” according to an article.

In her New York Times bestselling memoir All That Is Bitter & Sweet, she reveals being sexually abused.

From my post Developing creativity: hypervigilance and highly sensitive people.


Actor Zooey Deschanel suffered from being bullied in school.

So did actor Lily Cole (who has achieved the academic honor of a Double First in History of Art from Cambridge University). She has commented:

“I was bullied because I have red hair, although actually, I think I was bullied because some kids bully sensitive children. I was of the type who gets bullied rather than the one who does the bullying, which I’m glad about. I’d rather be that than a bully…

“Any form of bullying should be stamped on because children are so fragile and it affects them. It’s horrible.”

– See more in article: Lily Cole and gifted kids being bullied.

Viola Davis was tormented as a kid because of her skin color.

“I have stories of being spit on…third grade was the worst because every day after school I would wait at the door and the bell would ring.

“And as soon as the bell rang I ran as fast as I could from the front door to my house, which was at least a mile away, because I would have eight to nine boys with sticks, bricks, anything they could find, who were ready to kill me.” [Vogue mag.]

She has also talked about suffering from years of low self-esteem and shyness.

In high school, Lady Gaga was bullied, even thrown into a trash can.

She said, “I was called really horrible, profane names very loudly in front of huge crowds of people, and my schoolwork suffered at one point. I didn’t want to go to class.

“And I was a straight-A student, so there was a certain point in my high school years where I just couldn’t even focus on class because I was so embarrassed all the time. I was so ashamed of who I was.”

The scars don’t go away, she says. “To this day, some of my closest friends say, ‘Gaga, you know, everything’s great. You’re a singer; your dreams have come true.’ But, still, when certain things are said to you over and over again as you’re growing up, it stays with you and you wonder if they’re true.”

[From article: Born to Not Get Bullied, By Nicholas D. Kristof, NY Times Feb 29, 2012.]

She formed the Born This Way Foundation with her mother Cynthia Germanotta, to “empower kids and nurture a more congenial environment in and out of schools.”

Taylor SwiftTaylor Swift recalls her experiences with another kind of bullying:

“Junior high was actually sort of hard because I got dumped by this group of popular girls. They didn’t think I was cool or pretty enough, so they stopped talking to me…

“The kids at school thought it was weird that I liked country [music]. They’d make fun of me.”

[‘But in ninth grade when she moved from her hometown in Pennsylvania to Nashville and scored a record deal. A year into her career, Swift returned to perform in the place where earlier she’d been mocked – and saw the girls who made her feel so badly about herself.]

“They showed up, wearing my T-shirts and asking me to sign their CDs,” says Swift. “It was bittersweet, because it made me realize that they didn’t remember being mean to me and that I needed to forget about it, too.”

Besides, she says, “Really, if I hadn’t come home from school miserable every day, maybe I wouldn’t have been so motivated to write songs. I should probably thank them!”

From Taylor Swift Suffered Bullying in School By Lesley Messer, People mag. 01/27/2009.

In another article she commented:

“I thought that when you grew up, when you weren’t in school anymore, you wouldn’t have to deal with bullies anymore,” she said. “I guess I thought that meanness was something that we outgrow. Well, when I grew up, I realized that meanness is part of the human condition.

“And it’s part of something you’re gonna have to deal with the rest of your lives. No matter where you live or what you do, there’s always gonna be someone being mean to you — someone who says something about you that’s not true or talks behind your back or doesn’t invite you to something you really wanted to be invited to.

“And I think one thing that I’ve learned when I realized that is that it’s not so much about wishing away mean people — because they tend to be the kind of people you can’t change — so I think it’s better to focus on what you can change. Which is how you react to it. And if you can, possibly make a mental note that you’ll never ever make someone else feel the way they make you feel.”

From Taylor Swift’s Back-to-School Advice on Bullying by Alison Bonaguro.

[Photo from]

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Andrea AshworthAs a child, Andrea Ashworth and her sisters suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse from two stepfathers. Her memoir recounts her experiences.

She went on to become one of the youngest research Fellows at Oxford University, where she earned her doctorate.

In our interview, she talked about how writing her memoir Once in a House on Fire was “a real sanity-saving exercise” and a way to deal with her past, and then be able to move on to writing fiction.

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Jonathan Safran FoerJonathan Safran Foer: ‘A colourful and yet sensitive child, Foer attended Georgetown Day School, where he was injured at the age of eight in a classroom chemical accident.

The accident resulted in “something like a nervous breakdown drawn out over about three years,” which left him wanting nothing but to be “outside his own skin.” ‘

– From Biography on his site

Photo also used in post: Dealing with self sabotage: Getting beyond impostor feelings.

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Angelina Jolie “suffered episodes of suicidal depression throughout her teens and early twenties. She felt isolated at Beverly Hills High School among the children of some of the area’s affluent families, as her mother survived on a more modest income, and she was teased by other students, who targeted her for being extremely thin and for wearing glasses and braces.” [Wikipedia]

The effects of trauma

Jolie “found it difficult to emotionally connect with other people, and as a result she started to self-harm, later commenting, “I collected knives and always had certain things around. For some reason, the ritual of having cut myself and feeling the pain, maybe feeling alive, feeling some kind of release, it was somehow therapeutic to me.” [Also Wikipedia]

Of course. people respond to experiencing trauma in various ways, not just cutting or substance abuse.

In her article Understanding the Effects of Trauma: Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Lynn Margolies, Ph.D. writes, “The essential psychological effect of trauma is a shattering of innocence. Trauma creates a loss of faith that there is any safety, predictability, or meaning in the world, or any safe place in which to retreat.

“Hyperarousal is when the traumatized person’s physiology is in high gear, having been assaulted by the psychological impact of what happened and not able to reset. The symptoms of hyperarousal include: difficulty sleeping and concentrating, being easily startled, irritability, anger, agitation, panic, and hypervigilance (being hyper-alert to danger).”

More artists and trauma

Some forms of trauma are long-term circumstances, rather than specific events.

Musician of The Black Eyed Peas often went hungry as a child. He had to leave home at 5 a.m. every day because he went to a school in a ”better” area of Los Angeles than where his family lived and that meant he often missed meals. [From various news stories.]

James Dean was very close to his mother, but she died of cancer when he was nine. He developed an intimate relationship with his pastor, beginning in high school, and reportedly once told Elizabeth Taylor that he was sexually abused by a minister two years after his mother’s death. [Wikipedia]

Shia Labeouf started acting at age 12 to support his mother when his heroin-addicted father abandoned the family. LaBeouf has said he was subjected to verbal and mental abuse by his father, who once pointed a gun at him during a Vietnam War flashback.

Labeouf commented in an interview, “I’d say, through the pain, [my father] has given me more than my mother. Life without pain isn’t real at all.” He also said, “I don’t like the gray. I like hot or cold, black or white.”

He drinks heavily, perhaps as self-medication: “I never drink for the taste. I drink to get bombed. And when I let my hair down, I really let it down. All the way to a jail cell, usually.”

[The Sunday Times 02 September 2012, via The Week magazine.]

The photo is from the movie “Lawless.”

His costar Mia Wasikowska [in photo] was so distressed by his “aggressive method acting and drinking” that she called her attorney in an attempt to leave the film, according to a Fox News story.

The tortured artist

His statement “Life without pain isn’t real at all” sounds like Labeouf may be buying into the ‘tortured artist” mythology, an ancient and enduring notion that art depends on suffering, and artists are likely to be fraught with suffering and dark emotions, and even need their pain to create.

But a number of artists realize that is just wrong. In his appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Colin Farrell said he is finding that he is more creative being sober and happy.

“I was terrified that whatever my capacity was as an actor would disappear when I got sober,” he admitted. “I ascribed to the notion that to express yourself as an artist, you have to live in perpetual pain. And that’s nonsense.”

From my post: Pain and suffering and developing creativity.

Sexual abuse of child actors

Former child star Corey Feldman, now 40, was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and has warned about abuse of child actors. “I can tell you that the No. 1 problem in Hollywood was and is and always will be pedophilia,” Feldman told ABC’s Nightline.

“That’s the biggest problem for children in this industry… It’s the big secret.” … “This has been going on for a very long time,” concurs former “Little House on the Prairie” star Alison Arngrim. “It was the gossip back in the ‘80s. People said, ‘Oh yeah, the Coreys, everyone’s had them.’ People talked about it like it was not a big deal.” Arngrim, 49, was  referring to Feldman and his co-star in “The Lost Boys,” Corey Haim, who died in March 2010 after years of drug abuse.

[From article Recent Charges of Sexual Abuse of Children in Hollywood Just Tip of Iceberg, Experts Say – By Meagan Murphy, Dec 05, 2011.]

[The BizParentz Foundation is one organization that supports young actors and advocates for protective legislation.]

Dealing with trauma

See many more quotes, plus resources to deal with trauma and get past pain to be more creative, in the article:

Creative People, Trauma and Mental Health

Also see:

Emotional Health Resources: Programs, books, articles and sites to improve your emotional balance and wellbeing for a better creative life.

Emotional Health Resources


One reason this is such a long post is because the topic is so meaningful to me personally.

Is it for you? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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Originally posted 2012-09-29 12:21:12.


  1. Great article Douglas. Halle’s statement about somehow not feeling worthy really resonated,(that pervasive, longstanding sense that your losses or negative life situations do not warrant grief, are not intense or important enough to grieve over. That your suffering was/is not legitimate.). And the ability of trauma to render life meaningless is, I imagine, what also often creates a sense of hopelessness-to my mind, the worst feeling imaginable. No meaning, no hope.

    For myself, the difficult task of finding and creating meaning has been aided by my creative pursuits. Symbolic representation helps to reintegrate feelings, identity, meaning as well as communicate to others the experience and effects of trauma that are normally to painful and shameful to speak of directly.

  2. This was one of the most informative, well written articles I have read on this subject. Hats off to you, your work is amazing. Thank you.

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