When I think of Silken Laumann, I picture a stunningly powerful woman who rowed her way to an Olympic gold medal. In her autobiography Unsinkable, Silken tells why she was able to ignore pain and push past obstacles that would have stopped another athlete. What was behind her fierce competitive edge? Surprisingly, she credits the pain and shame of childhood trauma with giving her the ability to ignore pain and push past any obstacles coming between her and winning.
Laumann was born to postwar German immigrant parents. Her mother’s destructive, critical nature and narcissistic coldness traumatized Silken. Attempting to survive her mother’s shaming and negativity, she learned to dissociate. By age 16, cutting herself with a razor provided an outlet for her unbearable pain. In an attempt to control her environment, she became anorexic. She obsessed over her athletic body.
Does all of this sound familiar? It’s the pattern of normal human development to abnormal circumstances. As so many of us who are survivors of childhood trauma, she was pressured to view her family as ideal. The need to comply with the family myth was as damaging as the actual abuse. Having her reality negated made her crazy all over again, she says.
Reading her story and appreciating her intelligence and honesty, I felt very warm toward her. I’m so glad her story has a happy ending. She got the good professional help she needed in order to come to terms with her overwhelming childhood. She makes it clear that knowing the truth about her childhood provided the road to sanity and to the healthy life she now shares with her husband, Patch, as together, they parent his children and hers.
Silken Laumann with Sylvia Fraser, Unsinkable: My Untold Story, Harper Collins Publishers Ltd., 2014.