Jen Soriano • Photo by Naomi Ishisaka

With many vivid, deserving praises from award-winning notable authors, educators and community leaders, I asked myself, What more can be said of Jen Soriano’s debut memoir, Nervous: Essays on Heritage & Healing? That was graciously answered after interviewing Ms. Soriano who revealed pivot points in her healing journey, where she is today and how she looks at the future hers and ours in light of the troubled waters of division and calamity that currently beset us.

Through the book, I was taken along Jen’s lifelong battle with incapacitating and many times, unbearable pain from scoliosis and a compressed neck and sacrum. Yet the cause (and thus illusive “cure”) of her pain was unknown then. So she spent the early decades of her life “learning to live with it” . . . until she didn’t any longer.

When asked how this turn came about, she described her inner transformation from the Fil-Am social justice communities and movements she joined after moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. During this period of identity and political awakening when she learned about American Imperialism and the colonization of the Philippines, her vulnerability and search for the purpose of her pain which nearly drove her to suicide was met instead by a safety net of fellow activists that brought her to seek the wider wisdom behind her pain.

First, Jen Soriano’s memoir is a book worth reading because she interweaves, through her individual healing journey from life-long pain, confusion & frustration, to the historical, socio-political, cultural and economic roots of them. Reflecting on her experiences, memories, thoughts and understandings “spoken” by her pain-filled body over decades, she unearthed transgenerational, unresolved and societal traumas that co-created them and now, shares them with us.

Connecting her individual personal experience as a Filipino American to her debilitating chronic pain is the thoroughfare she traveled, yet the journey carved deep layers of both pathos and transcendence. One striking example is the story of her grandparents. As a young girl, her grandmother, Lola Simeon, told of her grandfather, Lolo Juan, who was arrested, imprisoned, tortured and died during the WWII Japanese Occupation of the Philippines. His body was never recovered. Yet, in 2020, Jen found herself on the bathroom floor, unable to speak:

“I was face down on the floor, torso trembling, my head shaking uncontrollably. Suddenly, words began to pour out of my mouth like water from a broken dam. ‘I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it.”

I repeated this over and over while pounding my fists on the floorboards. The repetitive phrase, the tears, the sudden despair not only overwhelmed me, they were me; they were my mind, my body, my memories but not my own.

Jen cried and wailed all night until she fell asleep with exhaustion and remained fatigued for days afterwards. But this time, “my body knew that the episode I reenacted was not one that I had ever experienced myself.” Then drawing on her voluminous knowledge of medical, clinical and social science research, Jen cites the work of Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, whose research allowed Jen to extend her healing journey to the roots of trauma beyond her own life.

Brave Heart’s framework of historical trauma and unresolved generational grief – whether from enslavement, colonization or war clarifies that only when we face this reality can transgenerational trauma begin to heal. As she concludes: “Unresolved grief is a legacy of colonization and war. Over time it can wear at the soul like uncontained floodwaters can erode earth, long after the end of the storm.”

Then connecting the dots illuminating the “history” that lived in her Filipino body, she leads us to look beyond the past: “Colonialism erased our ability to grieve. We can tend to stay silent about mental health and all that we have lost. But what if Filipino communities opened our throats and storied back, which means telling stories into a void of experiences that colonialism has erased?”

Gems of clarity and truth learned through pain are replete throughout (including over 250 annotations and references). She uncovers, un-layers, and then unfolds the many petals of her individual and our collective pains. Among them, Jen elucidates:

● The biological aspects of generational and psychological suffering, including early childhood emotional neglect and unresolved trauma, manifest in our minds and bodies to create a “post-traumatic nervous system” which is both adaptive and disruptive.

● The push and pull factors of migrating from a former American colony, like the Philippines, to America, come with psychological costs of upward mobility and colonial mentality due to toxic fears of survival, language and cultural adaptation and harmful environment stress.

● And most importantly, how community building and the use of music, cultural practices, social rituals and complementary therapies can reset the nervous system to a baseline of greater well-being and guided one’s journey and understanding of chronic pain and illness caused by unresolved trauma.

● (If you want an easy-to-read map of this process, just follow the chapter titles: Neurogenesis, Neural Pruning, Neuroregulation, Neuroplasticity and Neural Mimicry.)

When we met, I asked Jen how she came to write such a deeply personal narrative that seamlessly integrate historical, socio-cultural issues with healing perspectives generally outside mainstream Western medicine. She said: “So much of the structures that we live in are designed to disconnect disconnect people from each other, disconnect parts of ourselves from each other, disconnect mind, body & spirit.  . . . Just the project of connecting the dots and bringing together fragments is a lot of what my healing journey is like and was behind the urge to write this book.”

. . . When you think about it, the source of so much of our pain is the immaterial, social issues that people have about safety. *Why does someone pull out of a gun and shoot someone because they pulled into the wrong driveway. Not because they stubbed their toe and was feeling cranky. People are carrying around some deep emotional wounds and it effects behavior in ways not always bad. Not everyone who is wounded is going to be violent. But it does effect people more in a society where people are isolated and left alone with these wounds.

She also related how very hard it was, before. “It took a lot of different therapies for me to heal; repeated visits to complementary healers. No more “one doctor, one pill” – such a break from Western medicine.  It was a constant engagement to figure out what would help. Lots of trial and error.” Having just returned from an out-of-town trip, she then said: “Normally, I would be in bed afterwards for a week!  Now I’m in bed for just part of a day,” laughing happily. “I’ve had to learn to take care of myself, to rest, to heal – instead of going “full on” all the time.”

Looking past her book and into the future, especially encouraged by her son and the upcoming generation, Jen foresees “A path forward to a trauma-wise future. Trauma as an indicator of how much we pay attention in our society to the fabric of care, and how we are organized around people’s holistic well-being, which includes, and I think, should include, emotional and spiritual well-being. This lifts the whole paradigm of well-being on its head.”

*On April 18, 2023, a 20-year-old white New York woman was killed after she and three others accidentally turned into the wrong driveway. Realizing their mistake, they were leaving when the homeowner fired two shots from his porch. This shooting happened just days after a 16 year-old Black teenager in Missouri was shot twice through an unopened door by the homeowner after the boy rang the doorbell by mistake.

Jen Soriano will be in conversation with Sasha LaPointe on September 12 at 7 p.m. at Third Place Books Seward Park. More information here. She will also appear in conversation with Angela Garbes on October 1 at Wing Luke Museum. 

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