Watching “Room” With PTSD

by Lisa Marie Basile

I’m at my office when the book finds its way to the discarded book pile near my desk —it’s Emma Donaghue’s Room. It’s the word “room” that gets me—that specific, painful indicator of constraint. I read the back of the book and think, “I could never.”

The premise is too awful, too real, like a well, and I’ve made a rule: Don’t watch, don’t read, and don’t think anything that triggers memories.

I’m not one for a trigger warning because I do know that confrontation must happen. I just don’t want it to. I go about life in the gray of stoic distraction that makes things so easy—a sterility that keeps me in a safe box. I have trauma-induced PTSD, and I don’t feel strong enough to think about closed spaces, and that’s that. I put the book back. 


After watching Brie Larson accept her Academy Award, my partner and I decide to watch a few of the winning films. We watch The Revenant and Spotlight, and I’ve set up a cool distance between me and the pain. And then we watch Room, and I let my morbid curiousity get in the way of what I know is true: I’m not strong enough.

It’s the 100-square-feet room that Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay) live in that plays a character more important than either of theirs, and one I know very well in my own way.

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In 10th grade piano class, I wrung my hands so hard my knuckles cracked. Out the window, as I sloppily practiced “Greensleeves,” I could see the YWCA, an old Victorian building with bars on the bottom windows. That was my house, my room.

To put it bluntly, my mother had used drugs and lost our little shitty apartment, so we moved in, mostly so she could keep us while she went through an intense rehabilitation program. We didn’t have family who wanted to help us, money, or anywhere else to go.

So when I’d run home after school, careful to not let a single person see me (lest I become the girl who lived in the homeless shelter), I’d run up the three flights to our allocated 60-square-foot room and sit on my bed. No television. Just a window.

It wasn’t my room, though; it was my whole house. My mother and brother lived in their with me, too. At night, when they slept on the bottom bunk, I could stretch my hand out and touch the ceiling up on the top. I could smell them below me. I could hear them. I don’t remember how I slept at all.

Outside the door, which I was always told to lock, abused women—women who were hiding from their rapist spouses, women who’d been hooked on heroine—hid in their tiny rooms, too.

I wasn’t kidnapped as an adult, but there was a sense that I was kidnapped as a child, and that my childhood was kidnapped from me. As though I could see the ghost of myself outside the YWCA.

I was surrounded by personal and actual hell; my neighbors were hurt women, women who not a week earlier were held against their will and beaten. That energy stays with me today, another sort of prison, where you may escape the place, but it won’t leave you.


Before we ever moved into the YWCA, I played outside, skinned my knees, got dark tans and bought chocolates for 5 cents at the deli. Simple.

One summer night, giddy from our pool games and sleepy in our long-dried bathing suits, we built a fort in my friend’s closet, closed in by the three sides of the wall, and the entrance, which had two giant stuffed bears. They were our lions, our moats, our protectors.

We slept foot to foot in our little fort, and in the night my friend’s stepfather came in and pushed the one bear over; I know because I was awake and struggling to stay asleep. I felt his hand on my back and neck—later I’d tell the cops I couldn’t remember if his hands were cold or hot, which they used against me—and saw his shadow over my friend (what was he doing to her?), saw him leaning there, penetrating our little castle, in the dark, fidgeting with her tiny body. What was he doing? Why wouldn’t he leave? I gently kicked at her body as if it say, wake up, wake up but she didn’t. She stirred. Maybe she let him do that to her because she was used to it.

In the morning, we went back to the pool. My mind raced with memories; all the times we played hide and seek, and all the times he’d pull me onto his lap in the dark. I was too young to understand the reality of the pedophile, but I knew whatever he was doing was wrong. When I asked my friend what happened, she said she’d prefer not to talk about it. She was 10. I talked about it to my mother instead.

When the courts took my friend and her sisters away from that house and placed them with their father, they all blamed me. Even their own mother said there was no way her children’s stepfather could have done it. They didn’t want to be uprooted, taken from their mother; they changed their schools and their friends. They lost everything. Then the guilt followed me, shackled me, as if it earned its a place, as if I were the one to blame.

And it stayed with me that sometimes you just give your body up and let someone have it; it occured to me that this maybe was normal, that there were just things you couldn’t control. That you never speak up.

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When Ma was being raped by her kidnapper, I couldn’t empathize directly, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t a shared experience running through all of us. As women.

The survivors I’ve met in my life have made a mark on me, especially those women at the YWCA and especially my friends, who were victimized by their own stepfather. That childhood interpretation of abuse (its normalcy, how it was all I saw) has stayed with me—that we’re all sort of trapped, running away, or trying to process our pain.

But somewhere, somehow, in the process of growing up, I forgot that many of us have the ability to leave the room we’re in.

Just as Ma struggled to tell her son that there was a real world — that trees and dogs and people were real and beautiful and good — and just as Ma was filled with black hate and anger, it’s a struggle to tell yourself that there is an outside-of-the-box.

When the movie ended, I couldn’t help but see that little room at the YWCA: I could see its gold, heavy doorknob, the bathroom that had a rusty tub, the women whose babies would never sleep because they were born addicted to crack. I could see my brother losing his childhood in that room with me. I could see the branches outside the window. I could hear my mother trying so hard to keep us from slipping into the sort of childhood depression that leaves behind an empty adult behind.

I also think of how Ma endured questions of her intentions, as if she’d chosen to be kidnapped, raped and mentally tortured by the effects of imprisonment and isolation. Women are constantly asked to explain themselves—the why, the how. We’re always somehow blamed.

The sense of guilt, shame and punishment are as thick as blood, running through the condition of who we are, but it doesn’t have to be.

When Jack walked into the room after he’d escaped, he, as only a child would, personified the space: goodbye plant, goodbye skylight, he murmured, in ritual, as if the place were a friend or a family member that had raised him. But as Ma stands there, struggling to conjure sentiment, Jack says, it’s not Room if the door is open.

For a long time after watching, I struggled to understand that. Or maybe I did understand it but didn’t want to.

I realize now that it’s the very protective box I’ve kept myself inside of that has made everything so dangerous. It’s a new kind of prison, holding on to the hate and darkness, letting the memories lead or define me. I can’t help but think that this is the case for all women.

I don’t need to avoid the painful, because I already have the power to say, “I’m free.” I know this because all the closed spaces, all the locked doors, all the abuse is something I can choose to say goodbye to, especially in confronting it. I don’t have let it be at the altar of who I am.

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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