Stephanie Foo

“Actually, I’m Not Grateful”: A Conversation with Stephanie Foo


After graduating from college, Stephanie Foo created a podcast called Get Me On This American Life. In an effort to make this dream come true, she borrowed radio equipment and hitchhiked to the world’s largest pornography conference in Texas to find stories. She interned, then became a producer of the radio show Snap Judgement. In 2014, Foo landed her dream job at This American Life—where she remained as a producer for five years and, in the process, won an Emmy. She was a 2019–2020 Rosalynn Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism and has published essays in the New York Times and New York Magazine.

In February 2022, Foo released her memoir, What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma (Ballantine Books). It’s the story of her real self, a woman functioning with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), a condition that can develop over the years following prolonged abuse. Foo’s memoir told the story of childhood trauma, parental abandonment, and the way her past continued to threaten her health, relationships, and career. Finding limited resources to help her, Foo set out to heal herself and map her experiences onto the scarce literature about C-PTSD.

We met via Zoom, where we spoke about the paperback release of her book (now a New York Times bestseller), how writing for the page is different from writing for the ear, why childhood trauma is often excused by traditionalists, and what she would tell her younger self if she had the chance.


The Rumpus: What about journalism appealed to you?

Stephanie Foo: Journalism brought me out of my box, forced me to talk to others. I could have these social interactions that are scripted in a safe way. Everybody knew what their role was. I appreciate it made me a more curious, open person. Brought logic to the chaos. I could bring order to other people’s stories even if I couldn’t bring order to my own. It was satisfying and fun and made it easy to completely throw myself into it and dissociate from other things like trauma.
Rumpus: So after years of telling other people’s stories on This American Life and elsewhere, why did you decide to tell your own?

Foo: Every time I was able to showcase somebody’s story, one that represented a larger group of people, there was always a great response from our audience. I found myself as a potential representative of a larger group, which had no representative. There wasn’t a first-person story about Complex Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, so I thought, “I know how to do this.”

Rumpus: Writing is different from radio, of course, but exactly how different?

Foo: Writing a book is so much more relaxed than making a podcast or a radio show. There’s so much more time to consider the topic, do research, and go over many drafts to shape it into what I think is ultimately my voice rather than chaotically panic and put something out every week.

Rumpus: I read your powerful New York Times Mother’s Day piece. How have you evolved as a writer?

Foo: I think I was always a writer. However, I just didn’t let myself think of myself as one because I hadn’t published much since college. Even though radio producing is just writing—it’s the exact same thing except you read it out loud—I shouldn’t have needed the validation of the book or the New York Times article. It certainly helped, since I don’t have an MFA or anything. I didn’t know if my writing, after so many years of being written for the ear, translated to the page anymore.
When I was writing for radio, especially at This American Life, it wasn’t really my voice. It was my voice through the lens of an entire room of between three and ten people shaping my voice into the ideal of what it could be. But this book was mine, which was both intimidating and fun and freeing.

Rumpus: What kind of book did you set out to write?

Foo: I read a lot of memoirs and science-y books written by clinicians and experts, which I found to be lacking because they didn’t show the healing process. Meanwhile, a lot of trauma memoirs are just descriptions of all the horrible experiences that have happened for like 290 pages, and then in the last thirty, the person gets better. Everything is okay. I thought, “No, I’m sure that journey was a lot more arduous.” I wanted to learn from their journey. It was the same in the clinician books, as well, a long exploration of all the negative effects of C-PTSD on people’s brains and then a very small section in the back about what would actually heal.

My goal was to write a book that would be a resource, to show you’re not alone in what you’re going through, to normalize a lot of the feelings. I provided the basic science and psychology behind complex PTSD, so people can know what they’re up against. I hoped to educate them and provide a lot of the resources I found helpful. I aspired to show it is very much possible to get better. This book would be a roadmap for other people who didn’t know where they might go. I wanted the book to provide hope because I didn’t have it when I was diagnosed. Sometimes trauma memoirs can be so difficult to read, and if there is hope, it’s just a little at the end.

My desire was for the book to come from an optimistic place because having C-PTSD is painful enough. I didn’t want to make the process of reading the book agonizing throughout the whole thing. It was very important to me that only the first fifty pages detailed my abuse.

I wanted it to be the book I wished I’d had when I was first diagnosed, which I feel would have made my healing journey so much shorter.

Rumpus: Why do you think your healing would have been briefer if you had a book like yours when you were diagnosed with C-PTSD?

Foo: I would have felt so much less shame and despair. Mental illness is so pathologized. It’s so isolating. C-PTSD is not in the DSM, and it’s a relatively new diagnosis. I think there is societal prejudice around PTSD. The history of PTSD has been focused on soldiers, men at war. I think there’s a lot of sexism, a sort of racism within. That, and an underappreciation for childhood trauma and its lifelong effects. It’s been normalized. Judith Herman writes a lot about the lasting trauma in people who have experienced sexual assault. This is not to shit on survivors of war, which is very real and terrible, but trauma is much wider. I feel like it’s taken society a long time to catch up to that understanding.

Rumpus: Was it healing to write the book, and was it difficult to write the traumatic scenes?

Foo: Different authors have different processes. For some, writing heals. It was important for me to have the healing come before the writing in order to locate that optimism. There was a lot of casual writing that happened during the healing process, but I didn’t take the organization and the real writing seriously until I felt like I had gone through a year and a half of a very intensive healing journey. And I felt like I was in a really good place, so this made the writing easier. I was able to have a lot of empathy and generosity toward myself at those times instead of feeling the self-loathing I’d felt earlier.

The first fifty pages were the most difficult to write, and I wrote those many, many times. I just had to practice a lot of self-care. Those were tough to relive. I think my dissociation protected me. Dissociation helped me to force out what I could, then go play video games for the rest of the afternoon.

Rumpus: Did your feelings about your parents change over the course of writing the book?

Foo: I don’t know. It hasn’t brought forgiveness, if that’s what you’re wondering. It hasn’t made me less disappointed or angry. I think the healing process, if anything, made me angrier at them because it made me realize what I deserved as a child. Learning to treat myself with kindness has taught me that what I received was criminal and unacceptable. So yeah, I don’t think it’s made me forgive them. I hold them accountable for what they have done.

However, their cultural context was important—they had a lot of their own unresolved and untreated trauma—but instead of making me less angry at them, writing the book made me angrier at some of the societal forces that contributed to my parents’ situation. I’m just sharing and spreading that rage around.

It’s also made me angrier at our health care system in the United States and how it really doesn’t serve. It’s made for white, privileged, educated people. There is just such a distinct lack of culturally responsive care. People like my parents could have gotten the help that they needed if that care was more accessible.

Rumpus: What has been the response from people who have read this book?

Foo: It’s overwhelmingly positive. The book has received over 11,000 five-star Goodreads reviews. I receive a dozen messages a day, for the past year, from people saying, “You’ve changed my life, you saved my life, you’re giving me hope, you make me feel less alone. . . .” It’s exactly what I set out to do with the memoir. The fact that it worked is a great relief and a great honor. I feel very proud, and I hope this opens the door for more narratives like mine. A lot of people have told me my book has inspired them to write. I hope to see those books joining mine out in the world.

Rumpus: How does it feel that therapists and educators have started using your book as a tool?

Foo: It’s so affirming! It’s wonderful to know I’ve had this impact because I have so many complaints against therapists, not therapists in general, but against some of the ways therapists practice and the mental health care system. I just want it to be easier for those who come after me.

Rumpus: Did you feel pressure about representing the Asian American community?

Foo: Yes. I was charting new territory by writing about domestic violence and child abuse in the Asian American community. It’s sort of hinted at but excused in The Joy Luck Club, but the story is always Asian American parents can be difficult, but you must be grateful to them because they have provided so much. I was writing something edgy and dangerous, saying, “Actually, I’m not grateful. This wasn’t unacceptable. This was abuse.” We need to talk about abuse.

Rumpus: Is it strange that trauma has also driven you to become the writer you are?

Foo: Sometimes I feel I have this success because of my PTSD. It informed my drive. Literally, I wouldn’t have written this book if I didn’t have PTSD. I would trade not having so much success for being happier. I would rather have been loved than not have had to write this book.

Rumpus: About healing, how would you describe your current state?

Foo: I am healing. I have done a lot of healing. I wouldn’t say I’m done, but it’s much better than it was before.

Rumpus: What would you recommend to someone who is in a survival mode or being abused?

Foo: I think what I would tell my younger self is this: “You need to know you deserve love. You deserve better. And go chase that love. Run as fast as you can away from those who aren’t going to give it to you. Run as fast as you can toward anyone who knows you deserve love, even though it’s scary and you’re going to be skeptical of them. Run toward the love.”



Author photo by Bryan Derballa

Yvonne Liu is a Los Angeles-based writer who has published in the New York Times, Salon, Newsweek, NBC News, elsewhere. Over 1.5 million people read her HuffPost essay on why she kept her adoption a secret for over 60 years. She writes about mental health, childhood trauma, adoption, and Asian American experiences. Yvonne writes to help the voiceless. As an abandoned Hong Kong newborn who languished in an orphanage, she was voiceless. As a daughter of an adoptive mother with a severe mental illness and a violent father, she found herself voiceless. The NYT Modern Love podcast featured Yvonne. Readers of her work and listeners worldwide said they cried, but also found hope in Yvonne’s journey. She is writing a memoir to encourage others who experienced trauma. Yvonne is a Tin House Workshop and VONA alum. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram at @yvonneliuwriter. More from this author →