Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald: Childhood Trauma & Adult Pain


In her recent novel Adult Onset, Ann-Marie MacDonald provides an amazingly sensitive account of a grown woman coming to terms with her own childhood trauma. As most of us, the heroine doesn’t want to believe she was abused. It is only through the pain in her body that she is finally forced to recognize that her mother abused her physically and emotionally, while her father, wanting everything to be nice, stood by, pretending nothing was happening.

Mary Rose, the lesbian heroine of the story, suffers from bone cysts. In her middle years, she discovers bone cysts are often caused by repeated trauma: not, as her mother always told her from her “badness coming out.” She is faced with disturbing memories of her mother yelling, “I’ll teach you!” and “Is that what you want?” as she beats her.

Those of us who suffer childhood trauma will recognize Mary Rose’s signs and symptoms.

  • “And why is it surprising that truth makes its way out through the body like a vine invading from within? What you mistook for sinews now revealed as sprouts from a seed swallowed long ago, creeping, pushing, straining toward the light, ensnaking arteries, choking heart and lungs; vines disguised as veins, forcing blindly our, I’m going to smash you.”(Page 348)
  • Pills distance the phantom pain to the point that “someone is feeling the pain, but not me.”
  • “I feel I’m making this up,” says Mary Rose.
  • All of it happened, none of it happened, it is still happening.
  • Mary Rose begins to remember her mother breaking her arm. “I’m afraid that it’s true. And I’m afraid that it isn’t.”
  • Why did no one get help for the child with the sore arm? Delaying treatment for a child’s injuries is a sign of possible abuse, Mary Rose reads online.

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