MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Maplewood author Lisa Sturm’s debut novel, “Echoed in My Bones,” will echo through your mind long after you finish reading it. Drawing from her years of experience as a psychotherapist in Irvington, Elizabeth and Plainfield, and now with a practice in Springfield, Sturm deftly captures the lives and emotions of her three main characters.
“Echoed in My Bones” follows Lakisha White, a black woman from Newark who, at age 16, gives her twin infant daughters up for adoption. The catch: one daughter, Jasmine, looks black like her mother, but the other, Tessa, looks white, with blond hair and pale skin. Tessa is quickly adopted into a middle class white family in Maplewood, while Jasmine spends her childhood in foster care in Irvington. Despite living in neighboring towns, these two girls live vastly different lives. All three women are thrown back together when Lakisha’s son is diagnosed with cancer and he needs a blood marrow donor to save his life.
This novel was an experience. It was both enjoyable and deeply thought-provoking, aptly exploring issues such as sexual assault, racial inequality and how a person re-forms after being shattered. “Echoed in My Bones” evokes a visceral reaction in the reader, due both to its themes and masterful writing. Sturm gives life to each character, making them fully formed and complex people. By the end, the reader feels as if they know these characters and is deeply invested in their lives. All in all, “Echoed in My Bones” was a beautiful novel.
“‘Echoed in My Bones’ was inspired by my work as an inner-city psychotherapist,” Sturm told the News-Record. “After receiving my master’s degree in social work, my first position was at a community counseling center in Irvington. There I was assigned to treat all the women and teenage girls who walked through our doors. Most of my patients had experienced some form of sexual or physical abuse, violence or other trauma. Some of them ran out of money by month’s end, and so they quietly skipped meals, missed medical appointments and went without necessary medications.
“I heard about sad and horrific events, but I also saw pockets of resilience and glimmers of hope,” she continued. “I found the deep-seated faith that so many of them expressed inspiring. I’ve often used writing as a way of processing experiences, and years later, when my thoughts still drifted back to the girls and women I met in Irvington, I began writing fictional accounts of the stories they’d shared. As I struggled to make sense of the stark differences between my patients’ lives and my own, as well as our shared values and dreams for ourselves and our families, this book was born.”
While “Echoed in My Bones” is a work of fiction, each word was borne of truth. Sturm worked in Irvington for close to two years, then did in-home therapy mostly with adolescent girls in Elizabeth and Plainfield, some of whom were in foster care. She is now in private practice in Springfield, treating adults and teens, with a specialty in couples counseling.
“The plots and themes in the novel completely echo the stories that I’ve heard, as well as my own life experiences,” Sturm said. “There is nothing in the book that is not based on true events told to me or, regarding Tessa, my own observations and experiences.”
This novel tackles a lot of harrowing subjects — never shying away. One of its greatest strengths is that it fully follows through on these subjects. Sturm shows how an assault that occurs one night can change every subsequent night for the rest of your life, how it shapes you as a person and how it alters your worldview.
“As a clinical social worker, I’ve treated many patients who’ve experienced terrible things like sexual abuse and assault, racial inequality and discrimination, and most every form of trauma and abandonment,” Sturm said. “Writing about these issues actually helped me to process everything I’d heard, as well as make peace with some of my own difficult childhood experiences. Since I felt a certain kinship with these girls and women, giving voice to their suffering proved to be healing for me.”
In her quest to do justice to each character and the truths they represent, Sturm found in the writing process that she needed to approach each character differently.
“I will say that Lakisha was the easiest to write,” Sturm said. “Lakisha came to my mind as a complete character with an intricate backstory, much of which was eventually edited out of the final version of the book. Still, I knew what was in her heart and mind at every turn. Tessa was born out of my own experiences and those of my family members, but I still had to ensure her uniqueness, give her story some weight and allow her opportunities to grow. Jasmine was the most challenging. Like many of the teens I’ve treated, it took a long time for her to open up to me, and often I’d guess what she might be thinking or feeling at any given moment, only to completely rewrite it later on. Jasmine was the character who occasionally woke me at night. I wanted so much for her to have a chance at a good life.”
And Sturm is working hard to ensure that girls like Jasmine do have that chance. She has partnered with a woman named Tasha Moore on a program designed to help teens learn about personal safety. Moore did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
“Tasha Moore grew up in Orange and Newark and is a survivor of many forms of trauma including childhood sexual abuse,” Sturm said. “The current working title is SAFE ZONE. We hope to help teens consider what they can do to stay safe and how to respond to any abuse/trauma that may have already occurred. We plan to use brief readings from the novel and Tasha’s personal stories to illustrate how situations might unfold, and then encourage thoughtful discussion.
“Research has shown that if an adolescent has just one trusted adult in their life, their chances of a full recovery from trauma or abuse are greatly improved,” she continued. “Therefore, our primary goal is to encourage attendees to think about the adults they have in their lives, and in whom they might confide. Malika Berry, a school social worker in Orange and the founder of Berry’s Butterflies, will be advising us on the program. Berry’s Butterflies is a wonderful after-school mentoring and empowerment program that services middle and high school girls in the Orange School District. We will also consult with other experts in the field and hope to bring the program to area teen/adolescent groups sometime early next year.”
Berry is thrilled to be expanding the reach of Berry’s Butterflies by advising Sturm and Moore on their project.
“Berry’s Butterflies is my life. The theme of the program is, ‘where a caterpillar becomes her true self,’” Berry told the News-Record. “It is a female mentoring program that I started eight years ago. The program’s main focus is working with the young women on self-confidence and self-worth.
“My purpose for creating this group goes back to my childhood, how lost I felt as a young girl. When I had my own daughter, who is now 18, I decided to move forward with creating a premier group that would give young girls a voice,” she continued. “Since meeting Lisa she has been so kind and supportive. She has wanted to know more about working with females and upon releasing her book she has been generous and has donated proceeds from her book to my group.”
Sturm, who encourages others to become involved, noted that donations to Berry’s Butterflies can be sent to Orange Preparatory Academy, 400 Central Avenue, Orange, NJ 07050; as well as donations to organizations like Girls: Live, Love, Laugh at www.girlslivelovelaugh.org; Butterfly Dreamz at www.butterflydreamz.org; and Sadie Nash at www.SadieNash.org.
She also encourages individuals to reach out to her at LisaSturm@verizon.net if they know of a group that could benefit from Sturm and Moore’s presentation. Though SAFE ZONE is beginning with at-risk youth, it will eventually branch out into the general community. Even if you don’t know of a group of adolescents who would benefit from this presentation, you can donate books to other groups by visiting https://www.gofundme.com/f/safe-zone-book-campaign.
Ultimately, “Echoed in My Bones” is about changing lives: the changing lives of the main characters as they come to terms with the tragedies of their pasts, and changing lives in our communities.
“The most important thing to me is that readers enjoy the story and hopefully feel it was both entertaining and meaningful. Beyond that, I’d be thrilled if they’re left thinking about not just what divides us, but also those things that bind us together — things like love, hope, family and faith in the possibility of a better future,” Sturm said. “As I was writing this book, an elderly patient who was in her last weeks of life charged me to ‘bring more love into the world.’ If this book in any way motivates people to find more compassion for one another, perhaps I will have honored that request.”