Words Make You More: Bibliotherapy and the Healing Power of Literature

by David Chrisinger

The commander’s words relieve their stricken hearts:
‘My comrades, hardly strangers to pain before now,
we all have weathered worse. Some god will grant us
an end to this as well [. . .] Call up your courage again. Dismiss your grief and fear.
A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this. [. . .]’
Brave words.
Sick with mounting cares he assumes a look of hope
and keeps his anguish buried in his heart.

The first book veteran Liam Corley read when he returned from Afghanistan was Virgil’s The Aeneid. 

“Truly a character worthy of contemplation by an American veteran,” Corley writes, “pious Aeneas embodies the nobility and brutality that became Rome. Virgil’s mournful epic of empire depicts Aeneas as a man whose gods were not worthy of him.”


Reading The Aeneid satisfied Corley’s thirst for understanding the changes he went through while in Afghanistan and served as a compass to the changes he experienced upon his return.

“Virgil’s art sustained hope that what was transpiring inside could one day be expressed,” Corley continued.

When one reads Virgil’s words closely, it’s not surprising that they resonated so clearly with Corley.

The lines quoted above come from Aeneas’s speech to his men after they had survived a horrible storm. He delivered the speech once he and his men had collapsed “into grief and trembling weakness.”


The speech struck Corley as a “particularly cogent expression” of the gap between “brave words” that must be said and unspeakable grief concealed beneath the surface.

Ultimately, according to Corley, “By composing himself before his comrades, Aeneas portrays the power of words to make us more than what we are, a gift that may console us — in part — for what we have become.”

“Since 2006,” writes Iraq War veteran Travis Martin, “I have undergone regular sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy and psychiatric treatment at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA provides me with techniques and medications that help take the edge off of my PTSD symptoms; their speech and pathology clinics have helped me deal with cognitive problems; and the compensation checks and educational stipends certainly make life less stressful.”

Still, Martin says, “my path to assimilation and healing did not begin until I began studying literature from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and wrote about what I experienced in war.”

This is how Martin came to learn about the restorative power of bibliotherapy, an expressive therapy that uses an individual’s relationship to the content of literature and other written works as a way heal from trauma.

Bibliotherapy has not only been shown to be effective in the treatment of depression, but the results have been shown to be long-lasting.

“As advocates of bibliotherapy point out,” writes Deborah Dysart-Gale, “the restorative and healing value of literature was known to Plato, the Romans and Benjamin Rush; spiritually and emotionally edifying literature has long provided readers with comfort and guidance.”

“Bibliotherapy has been identified,” she continues, “as an important area of medical research for several practical reasons as well: it is a form of alternative or traditional medicine; it has the potential to help patients who might not otherwise receive therapy.”

“I know firsthand,” writes Martin, “what it is like to have lingering, military-related illnesses surface after entering the classroom. However, I continue to gain strength through exploring these problems in literature and through writing about what I experienced.”

More specifically: “I have learned skills and methods for making sense of my wartime experience through narration. More importantly, I have learned ways to share my growth with the veterans around me. In this way, my journey has come full circle.”

Many veterans have difficulty understanding the emotions they feel after coming home from war. They may also have trouble interpreting their experiences. This trouble can be exacerbated by our society’s tendency to place value upon ignoring, repressing, and even lying about our emotions.

On top of all of that, pathological processes and psychological responses to trauma may impede veterans’ ability to remember.

By studying history and reading literature, however, veterans can learn to put their experiences into context, which greatly increases their chances for success — and growth — in life after war.