Art Beats Trauma: A Tribute to Tom Petty



Fans at Tom Petty’s July 2017 show in Boston raise their phones to call him back for an encore.

Thomas Earl Petty was born in Gainesville on Oct. 20, 1950, the son of an alcoholic insurance salesman who beat him relentlessly from the time he was 5. His body, he later said, was covered in welts….He escaped the pain of his family life through watching television and then through music.

                                                                                    -The Washington Post, 10/3/17

Like all good American girls (raised on promises)[1], I liked Tom Petty for a long time. He wrote great tunes and had sexy blond hair. But I started to love him after I learned what he’d endure as a kid. And I now hold him up as a prime example of the power of art to conquer trauma. Or at least to serve as a mighty shield against it.

Tom Petty, soulful American rock star, died at age 66 from a sudden heart attack on Oct. 2. Or, to put it more baldly, he died of a broken heart. But he may not have lived with one, at least not all the time. He seemed to have built a rich life despite his childhood wounds. He did everything we hope for trauma survivors: he functioned in the world, he helped others, and, based on all published evidence, he loved many and was loved by many more. He survived and thrived.

Would he have flown so high (without wings)[2] if he hadn’t found a creative outlet? No one can know for sure, but he certainly seemed to display signs of posttraumatic growth, which is a jargon term for what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And he seemed to have bounded many of the steps required for trauma survival.

The big shots of the trauma therapy world have figured out that simply recounting a horrible event, even to a therapist, usually isn’t enough. Instead, the survivor has to learn to calm himself down so he’s not totally freaked out when talking about what happened to him. Then he can process the trauma. Talking’s ok, but writing or singing or playing it out – anything that lets the one-time victim tell the story his way – makes it the survivor’s story, not the abuser’s. Finally, making meaning of the experience by using it to help others allows the survivor to step into the future. Finding social networks and building competence shows that he’s leaving the past where it belongs.

If we look at the Petty case, we see a man who played guitar (calming), bundled his pain in poetic lyrics (narrative processing) and sent those songs into the world to give peace to others in pain and joy to anyone with respectable taste in music (finding meaning). His band, The Heartbreakers, was his social network. His 15 gold records, 28 top ten Billboard hits, three Grammy awards and membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are proof of astounding competence.

But you don’t need me or a trauma expert to make this argument. Petty said it himself during an interview with a rock journalist.

“Music is probably the only real magic I have encountered in my life. It’s pure and real…it moves and heals.” Music, he said, was his “safe place” during that traumatic childhood.

One of my hopes in segueing from a working writer to a social worker is to fuse those careers together by helping people use creativity to heal trauma. Specifically, I want to design creative writing programs for adolescents and parents involved in the child welfare system. I believe that using writing (or music or painting) can not only soothe and heal trauma, but also prevent it. Common sense and research tell us that most abusive and neglectful parents aren’t vicious animals – they’re just traumatized kids in grown up bodies. Art can help them break the trauma cycle before or after they’ve become parents.

I’ve been learning about trauma therapy, working on a grant proposal that includes evidence that writing can heal, and trying to figure out who might want to help me. I’m compiling lists of potential supporters to approach for knowledge (existing arts organizations) or money (charitable foundations), but I’ve also got a short list of big-hearted, deep-pocketed writers who I think would see the value of healing through words. I don’t know any of them, but I’m in the dreaming business, so why not at least keep a list? One of those writers just happened to play guitar. Now I have to cross off his name.

But even if I can’t hit up Tom Petty for funding, I can turn to his songs as evidence that art can shrink pain. That lesson lives on in so many of his defiant lyrics. Like this one:

“You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.”[3]

Would that every trauma survivor grow to be that fierce.


[1] “Well she was an American girl, raised on promises. She couldn’t help thinking that there was a little more to life somewhere else.” Tom Petty, 1977

[2] “I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings. Coming down is the hardest thing.” Tom Petty, 1991

[3] I Won’t Back Down, 1989

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