Monday, July 23, 2018

Challenging Toxic Trauma within the Field of Trauma Treatment

Diane, Self-Defense & Sex Ed, 2018 NWMAF Special Training
Allegations of employee mistreatment roil renowned Brookline Trauma Center
 Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a best-selling author on trauma whose research has attracted a worldwide following, has been fired from his job over allegations that he bullied and denigrated employees at his renowned Trauma Center.” Liz Kowalczyk, Boston Globe: March 7, 2018.

Reflection on this news from Empowerment Self-Defense Instructor Diane Long:
My studies with Bessel van der Kolk
I have studied with van der Kolk 3 times in person, once for a two-day workshop in the Twin Cities – Minneapolis-Saint Paul, once at an international conference and once in a 7-day intensive at Kripalu Yoga Center called "Recovering the Body's Natural Rhythms through Yoga and Play.” One of the reasons I chose Kripalu as a venue to study with him was that I thought the combination with yoga would help to offset his somewhat surly and reactive personal demeanor.

Gap between his written contributions to trauma and his teaching style
Even though van der Kolk has done a tremendous amount to increase the credibility of alternative approaches to treating trauma (e.g. Yoga, EMDR, Somatic Experiencing), I have thought of him as one of the least trauma-informed instructors I have worked with, in terms of his actual teaching. He was extremely chauvinistic - one of these guys that kind of makes you wrong whenever you ask a question. He reminded me of my father - absolutely brilliant, but socially prickly, insensitive, even hostile, especially if challenged in any way. He also clearly treated female assistants with less respect than the male ones. Sometimes it was subtle, but palpable.

One of my big issues at the Kripalu intensive was that he did not give any formal breaks during our training. So, if you wanted to pee, you would consistently have to miss a part of the presentation. It was oddly ironic for him to be teaching about trauma and reconnecting to body rhythms and yet fail to respect the body’s most basic biological needs. I pointed this out to him. 
 
Once, during a Power Point, he showed a piece of artwork by a child who had experienced severe abuse. The line drawing was graphic in nature, with phalluses aggressively dominating the screen. The use of the image served his point and it was valid for what he was talking about in terms of art therapy and common themes. However, he left the image on the screen (not deliberately, but unconsciously) while he moved on to talk about something else more positive in nature. I was pretty triggered and distracted as were many others I am sure, and it was hard to focus on what he was saying. At a lunch break, I pointed this oversight out to him (gently) and his response was something like, “Most of these people are therapists. It is good for them to be uncomfortable.” It was a classic defense pattern – a dismissive denial of any personal accountability, justification, and projection of blame. It was also sadly revelatory about his personal history. Even though he could acknowledge how some of his own trauma impacted his behavior, he could not integrate any critical feedback.

Experiences with Other Experts
I have worked with several other well-known men in the field who have this same pattern. Many years ago, I attended a training where an audience member asked a presenter not to tell the graphic story of a young boy’s death which she knew from his book. He suggested she “cover her ears,” and mimicked the action of covering his ears in a kind of infantilizing tone, and then launched into the story. A few years ago, I was asked not to return to an Advanced SE training where I was an assistant because I expressed anger and disappointment (though it was behind the scenes) when an instructor was unwilling to address concerns about the physical comfort of participants and questions about a lack of racial diversity in training. He was dismissive and not open to feedback in ways that were similar to van der Kolk. His dismissive nature was known, even expected and rationalized by those around him, and yet he is currently one of the most senior trainers in this particular modality for treating trauma.

What Happens When You Don’t Deal with Your Own Trauma
I wish I understood this piece of developmental trauma more so I could better respond when I am confronted with it. At van der Kolk’s intensive training, I questioned/challenged him about a few things like the ones I mentioned above. Women kept thanking me in the bathroom for speaking up. This seems to happen wherever I go. I speak up or ask for clarification with male authority figures (thanks largely to the confidence and skills I have gained through ESD) and women thank me in the bathroom. Again, this was familiar to me in terms of family dynamics. I was the one who was sent to ask my Dad for things like money, time or attention because he would tend to be less volatile with me. So, even though people with these patterns come off like real assholes, and it can feel uncomfortable, even unsafe to be around them, I have compassion for them, wondering what kind of childhood trauma contributed to these behaviors. I loved a man who was like this. Many of us probably did if we had fathers in our lives. It is so ironic and sad that some of the men in the field who have been the most visible in advocating and promoting effective trauma treatment have often not dealt with their own traumas, which then get reproduced within families, within education and in the workplace.

Compassion, Accountability and Healing
Please don’t think that my compassion in any way excuses this type of behavior. Aggressive, demeaning behaviors should not ever be tolerated. At the same time, rejecting the people who exhibit these behaviors is tantamount to rejecting the shadow parts of our selves. These behaviors are rooted in deep, deep insecurity, experiences of childhood abuse and neglect and a lack of emotional resilience and empathy. These beliefs and behaviors are all defenses designed to protect against wounds that call desperately to be healed. We are all impacted. I feel urgency in finding ways to interrupt these cycles. I yearn for restorative models.

I have less and less patience for male "gurus" (or authority figures of any gender for that matter), who use power and privilege in ways that belittle people or perpetuate and reinforce authoritarian hierarchies or refuse to look at the effects of their own behavior. Being queer/genderqueer definitely helps me have some distance and perspective because I am not so directly invested in heteronormativity, which often includes justifying and rationalizing men’s bad behavior and emotional care-taking. At the same time, I have more compassion, almost strategically, because abusive behavior is so widespread.

Toxic Masculinity and Disdain for Vulnerability
I feel the effects of this kind of toxic masculinity, even in feminist martial arts community where there is sometimes a “no pain, no gain” attitude, where having needs, particularly emotional needs - for safety, comfort and belonging, - go unacknowledged, or are seen as a sign of weakness, and where injury, illness or disability are seen as being “less than” or burdensome. Sometimes, questioning a teacher’s beliefs or actions (directly or indirectly) is perceived as a threat to existing authority. Passivity, feeling helpless, or “being a victim” is still often judged, seen as shameful, and so we distance ourselves from the “the victim role.” This disdain for vulnerability can come through in our language and attitudes, sometimes unconsciously. It often manifests as a lack of compassionate holding for our own fears and feelings of inadequacy. These beliefs and behaviors affect the collective field. None of us is immune from the oppressive effects of emotional neglect. We are all wading through the same toxic sludge. 

I started a long letter to Bessel van der Kolk that I never finished and never sent. I actually wrote letters to all of these men that I never sent. I think it is time to start writing again…

Diane Long
Empowerment Self-Defense Instructor, Somatic Therapist
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Diane's comments were first published on the ESD Action Group Facebook Page.

Afterword:
I wrote this piece 4 months ago, just after news of van der Kolk’s firing, feeling validated and emboldened. I was still healing from the effects of being excluded from another trauma training for speaking up about a teacher’s dismissive behavior. I was still carrying a lot of shame. Even though I didn’t do anything wrong, I still blamed myself until a few weeks ago, thinking that if only I had managed my anger differently, if only I had asked for help, etc., things would have been different. I feel much more vulnerability when advocating for myself than when I am advocating for others. When I am harmed or injured or ill, my “go to” place is still the belief that I have done something wrong, that I am somehow to blame. This is one of the ways that victim-blaming is still at work in my life. When these kinds of things happen, it erodes my self-confidence. Blaming myself, though painful, is self-protective. It is easier to manage than the helplessness I feel around abuses of power. I tend to withdraw and it takes a while to recover.
I believe neglect has a similar dynamic. Neglect is a way to distance ourselves from pain but we also distance ourselves from ourselves. This erodes our ability to empathize. I am glad that more people are speaking out about these issues so that we can begin to heal.  




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