Review of Awakened by Darkness, by Kendra Crossen Burroughs

This amazing work by Paul Levy has become one of my favorite books. I always enjoy a book that goes into depth, with excellence, on a subject of interest to me. I know that many people shy away from “fat books” (this one is over 550 pages), but Awakened by Darkness is well worth the investment of attention and time for anyone interested in or affected by trauma and its effects.

People familiar with physical violence or sexual abuse recognize that the mental/emotional aftereffects can be more painful than the actual external incidents that came and went—the internal experience and the impact of crazy-making behavior on the part of the abuser as well as friends, family, and therapists. Paul navigates the endless labyrinths of this experience, gazing into every hall of mirrors with an extraordinary gift for putting the wordless into words. The book becomes relevant to all types of trauma, not just emotional abuse by a parent, because of commonalities in the consequences.

I first came into Paul’s contact around 1990 when he was managing a Jungian bookstore in New York and he had called Shambhala Publications, where I was then the managing editor. We have continued a correspondence, by mail and then email, over the years, without meeting in person. Paul would show me his articles, and I remember often telling him that although he described the soul-destroying emotional abuse by his father with an extreme vocabulary, as a reader I felt frustrated because he did not seem to offer specific examples of what his father actually did. Now at last in this book it is all laid out, in all its crystal clarity and ambiguity. I can see that at the time I made that hurtful critique he was still struggling to find the words and the voice to express all that he had experienced and was continuing to discover about this phenomenon.

A big achievement of the book is the way Paul demonstrates why he calls his father’s abuse a confrontation with archetypal evil. As an editor, I had thought that some of his early writings appeared very exaggerated, in a way that might make readers skeptical. I totally believed what Paul said about his experiences, but as an editor I did not think he sufficiently justified his extreme characterization of his father in some of those early pieces. When I told this to Paul, he seemed hurt, so the discussion went no further. Now that I have read Awakened by Darkness, I understand, not only about his experience of his father, but why he was hurt by friends’ inability to relate to what he was expressing. With this book, I feel, he has succeeded in exploring and verbalizing the entire experience from multiple angles.

There are times when you, as the reader, start to wonder if maybe Paul really is “crazy”—but then he immediately surprises you with the most astute meta-cognitive comments, humorous honesty, and profound spiritual insights. All of it—both the sanity and the craziness—is part of the total picture.

One of the potentially “questionable” aspects of the story is the extent to which Paul went to communicate his perceptions to a psychiatrist whom he no longer sees. He describes how she, perhaps unwittingly, participated in the constellation of abuse, and he persisted in wanting her to acknowledge his experience of that. Of course she never answered his letters on the topic. It makes you feel as if he is being unrealistic in writing these letters, naively being puzzled about her lack of response. Why doesn’t he just write it off as “it is what it is” and move forward?

My mother used to say that the sign of an approaching offense by a seeming friend is the words “Why don’t you just…” Those words betray a disappointing lack of empathy and compassion (Empathy has been defined as the ability to recognize the fact that someone is suffering; compassion is the desire that they be freed from suffering and brought to happiness.) Reading this book is a good measure of the extent of our own judgmental assumptions about someone else, even when we ourselves share a history of abuse. Paul’s process, as embodied in his highly creative act of writing, is not a rational moving forward, as anyone who lives with trauma knows. It is climbing a spiral staircase, partly in shadow and partly in light, the path continually turning back on itself, with new manifestations and re-traumatizations, new realizations, and new resolutions, then getting lost and found again at a new level.

The example of psychiatric abuse is just one of the uniquely shaped pieces of an intricately interconnected jigsaw puzzle that is Paul’s story. The variations in the mental territory over which the book travels—hallucinations and dreams, mental breakdown, screaming emotions, honest self-reflection, funny quips, a masterful knowledge of archetypal psychology and myth, keen observations of family dynamics, enlightened awakenings—kept me reading it compulsively. It’s a suspenseful mystery tale in which a seeker wanders through the twists and turns of changing landscapes of the soul in quest of wholeness, healing, and liberation.

In planning a review, I had originally taken pages and pages of notes and marked many striking passages, but then found that I could not easily encompass it all in a short piece. So I will close with the classic ending of a fourth-grade book report (from the age to which parts of this book regressed me): If you want to know more, read the book!

Kendra Crossen Burroughs is a professional book editor who served for many years as a manuscript editor and managing editor for Shambhala Publications.