In Let the Tornado Come, a poet reflects on her traumatic childhood as she struggles to find a solution to crippling panic attacks.
Chin’s memoir switches back and forth in time in lyrical prose. The first thread in her tapestry of remembrances is the distant past. Her childhood was, to put it simply, extremely upsetting. She suffered violent child abuse at the hands of her father, a manipulative man who tricked Chin into telling a judge in a divorce trial that her mother hit her so he could win custody of Chin and her younger sister. Chin’s father told her that she could live a better life with him, and Chin, trusting and hoping that her father would reform and shower her with love, believed him. This was, of course, a lie that Chin’s father fabricated to win one over on his ex-wife.
Chin soon came to regret her mistake as her father lapsed back into neglectful, abusive habits and demoralizing parenting. Unfortunately, her mother never forgave her for telling the judge she was a bad mother and punished Chin for the rest of her life, including when Chin came to her for help as a runaway and a sex worker. Instead of truly helping, her mother committed her to a teen psych ward, a home for troubled girls, and even filed charges against her.
The second and third story lines are set in the recent past. The book opens with a description of Chin riding her beloved horse, the temperamental, fickle, breathtaking Claret. The importance of horses in this memoir is not immediately clear, but we eventually see that Chin feels a deep, healing connection to horses and equestrianism.
The third thread takes place before the most recent horse-riding passages. Here we see Chin, who feels pressure to be a model wife at her doctor husband’s gala events and dinners, struggle with debilitating panic attacks. After learning that the attacks are not, as she so desperately believed, the product of a heart condition, Chin embarks on a quest to find a solution. She recounts her attempts at using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), exposure therapy, breathing exercises, and more.
Toward the end of the memoir, the three threads — Chin’s traumatic childhood, her struggle with panic attacks, and her equestrian life — all come together. We see that much of Chin’s present-day anxiety is rooted in her childhood, and that horses are a therapeutic outlet that help her recover from anxiety and heal from her past.
The complex construction of the memoir could have failed in lesser hands than those of Chin, a poet, writing instructor, and mentor to troubled teen girls. At first, it can be hard to follow how the three strands are all related, but their ultimate synthesis is remarkably effective. Seeing how Chin’s past affects her in adulthood is like solving a mystery — one that shows how trauma, when it is suppressed and absorbed deep into the mind, can have lasting, crippling repercussions years later. (One of Chin’s diagnoses is PTSD, along with panic disorder.)
Perhaps the most compelling passages in the book show Chin’s experience with equestrian therapy. She was especially drawn to Claret, she writes, a horse others feared for his unpredictability and untamed behavior. Yet Chin found a deep connection to Claret and found that his behavior, like hers, was rooted in pain. Chin draws these connections between her trauma and that of her horse in a subtle and effective way. Eventually, both find some form of peace and stability with each other.
Chin’s prose is lush and meditative, and she uses a restrained, detached voice as she recounts her pain and trauma, seemingly without judgment or bitterness toward the many people who have hurt her. Indeed, her memoir might seem disturbing for some readers who have experienced sexual trauma or child abuse. Yet although her descriptions of the past are gritty and unsparing, they are not self-indulgent or emotionally manipulative for the reader.
There is one aspect of the storytelling that readers might struggle with. Throughout her journey with panic attacks, Chin sometimes ends chapters with a breakthrough of some kind. Reading these passages, one might think that Chin has conquered her anxiety — only to find, in the next chapter, that Chin’s progress was short lived, the epiphany not in fact a cure.
This might be frustrating for those who want a clear, linear understanding of Chin’s release from panic, yet one of the themes of the book — one that many people who suffer from a mental illness will recognize — is that healing from psychological distress is not a story with a clear-cut plot. During recovery from a deep-buried trauma, there are red herrings, setbacks, and just as much pain as healing.
Chin’s memoir is emotionally complex and harrowing. It is vivid and visceral. But especially for those who also struggle with the lingering effects of past trauma and pain, it is ultimately uplifting.
Let the Tornado Come: A Memoir
Simon & Schuster, June 2014
Hardcover, 336 pages