Recovery 9-1-1

Creating Security in a World of Terror

By Edward Schmookler


My wife, Barbara, and children, Ben, Jill, Matthew, and Emily, who are my teachers in all things, and who accepted times of loss of my presence as I received this book and its foundations.

My brother, Andrew Schmookler, who, through his epic book, Parable of the Tribe, created out of years of fierce dedication, revealed to me the huge scope of the damage done by the power relations between nations.

My dear friend and colleague, Anna Fisher, who forged with me many of the concepts of this book, and who especially taught me the importance of safety and resources

My friend and colleague, Anngwyn St. Just, who awakened me to the reality of abuse.

Peter Levine, who grounded my trauma work in the body.

All of my trauma clients, whose courage, honesty, and profound commitment to their healing taught me most of what I know about trauma.

To my kind friends who have reviewed my book and made suggestions for its improvement.



John's boots move heavily up the stairs to his apartment in New York City. He slowly removes his Fire Department jacket, putting it on a hook by the door. It has been a long day. His face is grave and drawn. His thick hands slowly open a beer. He sits down at an old painted wooden table in the kitchen and stares blankly. At the moment, he is not thinking of anything in particular, but his chest weighs heavy as memories of friends' voices, now gone, echo in his mind.

Far away, Ahmed slowly draws vague circles in the dust. Near him stands his thirteen-year-old son. Other children play nearby, in this refugee camp, not far from Khandahar, Afghanistan. Ahmed thinks of his father and his daughter, dead in the bombing, just weeks ago. He worries. What future will his son have? His thin hands continue to draw absently in the dust.

In Ohio, Mary and David pray over the evening meal. A candle on the mantle burns and lights a picture of Joanne, their daughter. A woman in her early twenties, she has a beautiful smile, now lost forever -- suddenly gone, in New York's fallen towers. Her co-worker, Karen, called early this evening, just to say hello. She had made it out, but, she says, she hasn't been able to move on; she doesn't know how. Lately, she has been afraid to go out of the house; she doesn't know why.

We have suffered a sudden and great loss, whose extent we probably do not yet know. Our shared trauma threatens to spread - a shockwave moving out across the world and forward in time, how far we have not yet established. If we understand trauma, we may be able to limit the extent of our suffering. This book is meant to support that process.

Is this Book for You?

This book may be for you if, after September 11, 2001:

This book is not for you if:


This book is about trauma. It can therefore bring up sensations, feelings, and thoughts of traumatic experience for you, the reader. My goal is not to re-traumatize but to help heal trauma. I have avoided creating graphic detail of traumatic events to reduce the degree and likelihood of re-triggering of traumatic experiences you may have had. But the book may bring up difficult material. If so, please write, talk to a friend or therapist, or use tools presented in this book to move out of any traumatic states before going further with the book. Don't proceed without taking care of yourself; if you get overwhelmed, stop and wait until you are ready to continue.

The Design of this Book

The first need in recovering from trauma is to re-establish some degree of inner and outer security. To do begin healing at any level, we must first accomplish two tasks, discussed in the first two chapters.

Reconnect with one's inner resources, the sources we each have to overcome life's obstacles.

Re-establish safety. It is difficult to proceed with recovery until we are safe.

Once we have regained enough of our inner and outer life, we may proceed to deepen our healing. How far we go in our healing depends in part on how deeply we are wounded and on how much the current trauma is a reflection or result of longer-term, deeper patterns. Deeper healing requires a deeper approach. The remainder of the book moves progressively further toward the core of our being, where the impact of the trauma is greater and the possibilities of healing are more profound.

The simplest level of trauma is basic trauma. The impact of his level is biological, and the tools for healing are biological as well. All trauma has the features of basic trauma.

The next level of trauma is interpersonal trauma. This level, trauma at the hands of another person, has all the features of basic trauma but in addition to biological impact, the wounding is especially to our relationships to other people and to our complex human feelings.

Trauma doesn't just deepen, it can also spread. It can go from person to person, almost like a contamination, and it can also go from time to time, repeating itself throughout a person's life. This kind of trauma, repetitive trauma, has all the features of basic trauma, and it usually involves interpersonal trauma, but it has its own features. Its impact is greater, and the resources it requires for its healing are also greater. Much of our collective human experience has involved repetitive trauma, and many of our finest virtues have developed in response.

A more troubling level of trauma is that which happens in the formation of children and of nations, developmental trauma. This level has all the features of basic trauma, interpersonal trauma, and is usually repetitive. It has the special quality, though, of hurting the very shape of a person or nation. It comes about as a result of abusive power relationships.

Finally, the deepest level of impact and of healing is the spiritual level. All trauma can be heart-breaking, but some is intended to be so. This level hurts the spirit and requires the Spirit for healing.

Cauldron of Trauma and Recovery

This book will weave understanding of individual and collective levels of trauma. I am aware that this dual intention may have the unfortunate consequence of trying to ride two horses at once and succeeding therefore at neither. There is a tension between trying to serve both individual and collective levels of healing. As a therapist-author, I want to bring what I understand to help people to heal on an individual level from the traumatic events of September 11, 2001. I also want to support collective healing by urging changes in our collective behavior. These goals -- helping individuals heal and arguing for collective change - can work against each other. I generally don't argue politics with my clients; it would be annoying and inappropriate. Normally, in my practice, I work with individuals who feel isolated and alone in their trauma. But collective trauma is different. We each must heal individually and yet, at the same time, there can be no complete healing so long as the collective sources of trauma remain unaddressed. In the long run, we cannot heal alone. Events such as those on September 11 teach that we are all in this together. Even so, we cannot ignore the individual paying attention only to collective change: overlooking the individual is part of what permits collective trauma to occur and persist. In this book, I will therefore attempt to support the individual in his or her healing and at the same time try to unearth the sources of our collective suffering. To help the individual, I will draw on my experience as a therapist specializing in trauma. To deal with our collective historical and social patterns, I will draw on my education but unfortunately not my expertise. While I have consulted with people throughout the world on collective trauma, I am not an expert in history or social theory or warfare. I hope that despite my limitations my efforts will allow the reader to see our collective challenge from the standpoint of the understanding of trauma and that experts in these fields may benefit from this perspective.

We will go together into progressively deeper levels of exploring the impact of trauma and the resources of recovery. At the same time, we will also move to progressively higher vantage points in order to take in more and more expansive views of collective, historical experience -- always with a focus on the present moment. My hope in this process is to support both individual healing from these horrific events and also to point a way toward a reduction of future collective trauma, so that we can move together toward global healing.

Chapter One - Discovering Resources

"I want my life back"

Trauma can take us away from ourselves and from each other. It can cut us off from ourselves and from our deepest resources; it can tear us away from other people. But it doesn't have to be that way. Trauma can also create an opportunity for us to find what is most valuable in ourselves and in one another.

In September, 2001, I had my own lesson about trauma and resources. Just as the world began to drown in a wave of grief, a personal loss was also beginning for me. On September 15, 2001, my brother, Andy, called me. He had heard from my mother that they had found the reason for the shortness of breath that had been making her life more and more difficult for over a year now. She had lung cancer. On October 15, 2001, 1 PM, a beautiful, sunny autumn day in a small town in Virginia, red, yellow, orange leaves quiver in the wind. Andy, and I sit in a doctor's office, waiting to see whether a doctor will be able to help my mother's increasing and frightening inability to breathe.

While we wait, two sweet looking, older women are talking about the flu shots they are waiting to get.

"I don't know where the flu shots are coming from. I hope they're coming from America."

"You have to be afraid of everything these days, I guess. Anthrax, I thought that was just animals that get it."

"Well, whoever it is that's doing it, I hope they find them and string them up."

"Hanging's too good for them. They ought to suffer awhile first."

The trauma of the World Trade Center and Pentagon tragedy has left them shaken, uncertain, and angry. Their sudden loss has shaken them out of their familiar world, leaving them feeling exposed. They have gone through trauma, a sudden, overwhelming event. Trauma can plunge us into realms of grief, horror, and danger, cracking open the shell of our lives, blocking access to many of our inner resources, and leaving us feeling disoriented and lost. It can move us into turbulent and unfamiliar waters and whirlpools of unexpected feelings, filling us with fear, anxiety, panic, grief, rage, hatred, and revenge. It can awaken deep survival instincts that take over and fixate us on danger and enemies.

I have become familiar with the impact of trauma by working for over two decades with people who have gone through traumatic experiences that have changed them and their experience of the world. One, robbed at gunpoint, tells me he is shaken, insecure, angry, and embarrassed at how he has changed. He feels he's not himself anymore. Since the robbery, the world seems too terrifying, and he just wants to stay home.

He says, "I want my life back. When can I get my life back the way it was before?"

I tell him that what I have learned from men and women who have gone through terrible life-changing experiences.

"Life does not go back to what it was like before. But, even though it is hard now and will be hard for some time, eventually you can go forward to more than you had before all this happened."

Web of Grief and Hope

We all have powerful inner resources for dealing with life. When people experience traumatic shock, they often lose access to these resources. To recover from trauma, people often need to regain access to their strengths, and usually they discover ones they didn't even know they had until they were called forth by the trauma. My clients come into therapy frozen in fear, rage, and grief. By thawing out and releasing these intense, traumatic feelings, they emerge stronger, safer, and with a deeper connection to life. They learn that healing comes from within.

The terrorist assault on America was traumatic. Our world is profoundly changed, overtaken by evil and uncertainty. But as Americans, we have a heritage of meeting challenges. We were frontiers-people and immigrants, confronting difficulties and dangers. Through courage and resourcefulness, we survived and built our nation. We have gotten through worse than this.

The resources we need are those that heal the impact of trauma. Trauma robs us of a sense of safety, violates us, takes away our usual sense of control, and cuts us off from our hearts, our bodies, our vitality, our spirit, our contact with the world and our connection with each other.

Much of this book will be devoted to showing how to let our built-in instincts make us safer and stronger. But we will also go deeper: we all have resources that go beyond focus on danger and enemies. When we only focus on conquering danger and eliminating evil, we lose touch with aspects of ourselves that can bring about the deepest healing. Trauma cuts us off from access to our core. Thus, another dimension in trauma healing is to draw upon presence, compassion, understanding, presence, and empathy --- resources that live inside and outside each one of us.

Presence is necessary because trauma can take us away from the here and now, so that we lose touch with ourselves in the present moment and live instead in memories of what happened and in fear of what will happen. By becoming present to ourselves in each moment and to what is going on within ourselves, we can come back to who we are.

Compassion, understanding, and empathy are necessary because people in the midst of cruel experience have lost trust and belief in life as safe and good. I believe the most important help I can give my clients is my understanding and compassion. When people feel understood they are more able to let go of the past and move on. If bring presence and compassionate awareness and empathy toward ourselves, then we will not need to remain frozen in trauma. We may then also remember the world as something other than dangerous and evil. We will still see evil but we may also discover more goodness than we previously even knew.

In September, 2001, we experienced wanton destruction of life. Our grief was enormous. Lives affected are a web of grief that reaches out from each victim to touch all those related by blood or friendship. The schoolteacher who will never touch the lives of her pupils again, the mother who will not tuck in her children again, the husband whose wife will ache for years for someone who can share the joys of her children again, the little boy who waits for his father to return, the mother and father who sit desolate at the dining room table with only the picture of their daughter to hold the place of one who once breathed joy into their lives -- these losses are all personal.

But it is not just the web of contact, relationship, and acquaintance that spread the grief; it is through our identification with those how have been stricken, that the wave of grief washes over us all, even including those in other countries. Any one of us could have been in the building that stood so tall and came down in a sudden and impossible meltdown. The solidity of what we have known to be secure, struck down and bringing lives to an end in a way that none of us imagined possible. We see ourselves in those who are lost or in those who lost others.

But we also witnessed life-giving heroism and overwhelming support. We heard of the passengers on Flight 93, who were willing to give their lives to save countless others. We saw rescue workers, faces grimy with soot, driven past fatigue by hope of finding just one more person alive in the wreckage. Times of trauma often reveal depths of cruelty in people and in life, but they can also reveal an unexpected core of goodness and mercy that live at the heart of life. We saw planes hitting buildings and immense loss of life, but we also saw tireless rescuers putting themselves in danger to save the lives of others. We saw people all over the world united with us in grief and support.

October 15, 2 PM, a cold, hard rain has effaced the sun, and the leaves shake in the wind. Inside, however, my mother has found help, a resource at a time of traumatic desperation. She found a doctor who was a plain person, but resourceful, caring, and who did what was needed. My mother - and we - did not need to remain stuck in pain. His kindness, presence, compassion, and intelligence let her breathe easily again.

Perhaps in the midst of lives torn open by trauma, we may discover the resources that will help us not only to recover but also to create a world led more by compassion than by terror.


Sit in a quiet place, undisturbed by distractions. Think about how your life has changed since September 11, 2001. How have you coped with the national emergency? What inside yourself have you drawn on for strength? Has this part of you gotten stronger? Have you lost touch with parts of yourself that normally would support you? Write down your deepest strengths. Let yourself become more aware of these strengths within you. Think of what you would need to do in order to let these strengths support you now. Think of what these resources would allow you to do at this time. What would you need to do to develop these strengths even more, so that you could be supported more deeply at this time of your life?

Chapter Two -- Regaining Safety

"I don't understand what I've become"

Psychological trauma may be defined as the sudden, overwhelming loss of safety. The woman who sits at home in fear, after a man came out of the shadows and changed her life forever; the Vietnam Vet, who lives alone in the woods, letting no one get close; the woman who sits at home and has all the groceries delivered - have all lost their feeling of safety.

When we Americans witnessed the sudden loss of life at the World Trade Center, we had a shock of unexpected realization of danger. When passenger planes brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center, our long experience of invulnerability to foreign attack on civilians came to a sudden end. We joined the billions of people on the globe painfully aware of the fragility of life on this planet.

When a traumatic event occurs, especially a powerful one, it can overwhelm the sense of safety for a long time. Sam, a client of mine was a heavy equipment operator who had witnessed a terrible accident in which another operator had been killed. Watching the accident shook him so badly that he couldn't drive anymore. Just watching another driver die was enough to blot out his sense of safety.

Sam was a big man, strong; he had big muscular hands. He'd been around on the streets, and he knew how to protect himself and his family. He was shocked to find himself reduced to tears. And he couldn't get along with his wife, or his young son anymore. He just wanted to hole up in his house and keep people at a distance, even those he loved.

"I don't understand what I've become. I used to get up in the morning, go to work, enjoy the day, come home happy to see my wife and kid. Now, I sometimes just feel like life isn't even worth living. I find myself not wanting to do anything. I tried going to work, last month, and I couldn't hack it. The boss doesn't have a clue about what I'm going through. He just wants to know when I'm coming back to work. He doesn't give a damn. I tell them I'm not up to it. The insurance adjuster seems to think I'm just faking it."

"Most people don't understand trauma," I responded. "Unless you've been there, you don't understand. People think you can get over things just by wanting to. "

"Sometimes I think that too. I just don't know what's become of my life. I don't understand myself how come I can't just move on."

"You will move on, as soon as you can. Right now, your experience has brought up feelings we need to understand better."

Sam needed to work with his sudden realization of vulnerability to death. To do this, his strength was his greatest asset. Even though trauma had driven him into a state of shock, disarray, and helplessness, nonetheless, it had not eroded his strength. Trauma had brought feelings of unaccustomed weakness, and that made him think he had lost his strength. I first acknowledged his sense of vulnerability and then helped him understand it as a normal reaction to an extraordinary event, not as weakness.

Slowly, through our work, he began to recover his feelings of safety. We worked together on his fears. He got the idea of working around heavy equipment as a repairman for awhile. This helped him to get over some of his fear that had come from the accident. Once in awhile, he would get back on the equipment and just sit there. He also went into family therapy to help restore some of the lost connection with his family. I worked with him to help him experience directly some of the fear that was now pervading his life. As he faced his experience of loss of safety directly, he lost some of his fear of fear. He also saw himself in a better light - not as a coward but just as a person with natural reactions. He came to understand that just witnessing someone else's life get extinguished in a moment had opened up deep feelings of vulnerability that he had previously no room for in himself, because he saw vulnerability and strength as incompatible.

Seeking Safety

The first order of business in dealing with trauma is always to re-establish safety. Sometimes this happens naturally. The battered wife finds a shelter; the robbery victim avoids places that remind him of the robbery; the survivor of an accident stops driving for awhile. Often establishing safety is difficult, because the danger is still present. For Americans finding safety has been difficult. Some of us have stopped flying, especially on trips that are optional. But that has only helped a little, because for many of us, September 11 was not just an isolated, single incident: it was an initiation into a world of unknown danger.

In the presence of danger recovery from trauma is hard to begin. One of my clients, victim of a robbery, had to watch the robbers brutally beat another employee. They told her they would kill her if she testified them, and she believed them. She would come into each session, shaking and crying with fear. She was ashamed of her fear and her tears, but she was determined to do the right thing and to testify. The ongoing danger kept her terror heightened. It made her path to normal life shaky and hard. But her courage brought her through. She faced her attackers in open court and kept herself and her family going.

Our experience now in America is like that of my client. Like her, many of us are willing to risk retaliation in order to find and stop the people who initiated this attack. We live with threats of further terrorism - conventional, biological, chemical, or nuclear attacks. We feel unsafe because unseen enemies can attack us with unknown weapons.

The government acted quickly and declared "a war on terrorism" with the intention of ending the menace. Getting rid of the perpetrators could increase our safety. But we may be subject to further assault, possible retaliation, and the ongoing loss of life of civilians and soldiers, including our own, abroad.

Terror, Horror, Helplessness

Unable to create certain safety against further assault, traumatic feelings can continue to flood us. When we contemplate the World Trade Center attack, experience the present Anthrax assaults, and anticipate the various scenarios of mass destruction, we are exposed to the difficult, traumatic emotions of terror, horror, and helplessness.

Part of healing from trauma is to begin to trust some of our deepest energies for survival. These energies often come in terrible disguise, such as the intolerable feelings of terror, horror, and, helplessness. These feelings seem intolerable, but understanding each of these emotions could help us use these survival energies wisely.

Terror is an important emotion, part of our survival equipment. It forces us to stop what ever we are doing and pay attention. It is an emergency override switch that makes sure we will seek the best possible option for our survival. We have the choices of fight, flight, and freeze, depending on what looks like our best strategy at the moment. We can strike out, run away, or freeze in terror.

Horror is another emotion often generated by trauma. When my truck driver client witnessed the accident to the other truck driver, he felt horror, as did most Americans when they saw the World Trade Center fall. Horror is another arresting emotion. It stops us cold. Horror tells us there is something horribly wrong. It makes us stop and take notice, and it makes us step back.

While terror and horror can both generate a great deal of energy allowing people to move quickly and with power to escape danger, helplessness prevents futile expenditure of useless energy. It generates conservation of energy, arising when the person in danger assesses the situation as one in which expenditure of energy would be wasted.

The Urgency of Trauma

We can chose how we want to respond to terror. We can allow our terror to amplify the urgency of trauma. Because immanent danger often requires immediate response, people who are in the midst of trauma often act without thorough consideration of all options. Sometimes that produces life-saving moves, because when the demands are urgent, reflection can be a luxury.

In the urgency of trauma, we have little tolerance for delay. We feel driven to move out of the extremely unpleasant feelings of terror, horror, or helplessness. When they have just suffered a trauma, clients often begin therapy agitated, wanting an immediate answer to their problems. They are impatient with themselves and with all the people around them.

At times of emergency, emergency measures are sometimes needed. When President Bush initially responded to the September 11 crisis and seemed disoriented and unsure, the public severely criticized him. When shortly later he stood before Congress appearing self-assured with a definite and pervasive plan for an all-out "war on terrorism," with a potentially unlimited set of targets and with unlimited duration, he received repeated standing ovations and support for almost everything he wanted. As if in panic, Congresspeople passed legislation without even reading some of it. [1]

Both the executive and legislative branches of government responded to the crisis by immediately drafting vast changes in policy and planning and setting in motion momentous military and political policy changes. This sudden and extreme change is an example of the urgency of trauma. In traumatic states, time becomes intensely accelerated. All situations seem immediately urgent, and action must be done now. This tendency has obvious survival value in the case of a threatened organism. It can, moreover, also be adaptive in the case of a national emergency: quick response can locate, isolate, and attack the danger.

A disadvantage of letting the urgency of trauma dictate the planning of a long-term strategy is that it can cut off higher functions, such as consideration of many alternatives, flexibility of response based on emerging and fluid situations, and opportunities for debate and dissent.

Only time will tell whether the rapid development of a military struggle that, according to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, could last the rest of our lives was a wise choice or whether it was the beginning of a nightmare that could have been avoided. Eliminating Bin Laden and the Al Quaeda network through the war in Afghanistan may remove some of the immediate cause of our current danger. But history shows that the elimination of specific people does not necessarily stop terrorism. Ireland and Israel have long histories of continued terrorism, despite and sometimes because of the perpetual attacks on specific terrorists. We may not have created security for ourselves through military and police action, unless we also address the underlying causes of terror.

When we consider how to proceed now, there are options in responding to trauma other than urgent, traumatic reactivity. Instinct can be used wisely, if mastered. We can let the stop, look, and listen messages that come from our instincts help us face our situation and to go beyond traumtic reactivity.

We can make conscious use of our built-in mechanisms of survival -- not to dwell in the emotions of terror, horror, and helplessness -- but to let their message create and sustain a sober and sustained inquiry and assessment of what will really make us safer.

In the next chapter, we will learn more about how instinct can protect us, and how we can transform overwhelming feeling into freedom.

Chapter Three -- Re-grounding in Instinct

Lizard Brain

We have evolved to survive.

September 11, 2001 -- Many die. But tens of thousands leave the twin towers and survive. When we need to flee, we escape, guided by instinct, our ground of safety in an emergency.

A lizard sits, basking in the sun. As I approach, it cocks its head so its left eye looks at me. It is poised to move, on full alert. One more step, and it skitters away.

A heard of zebras in the African Veldt stands grazing quietly. A twig snaps; several zebras stop eating, suddenly. A scent on the wind, and more stop, freeze, and wait. Their emergency instincts are on full alert. Adrenaline rushes, hearts pound, breath hastens, blood rushes to muscles in preparation for action. Suddenly, from behind the rock a lion bounds out. The zebras flee, running for their lives.

Our key to staying alive resides in the instincts transcribed into our "reptile brain.[2] It is the base of the brain that governs our autonomic nervous system. When the reptile brain screams, our more human functions are suspended. It is early in the morning in California, September 11, 2001. I have been awake since 4:30 AM, upset with a friend, and finally I get up, to send him an email. My wife says, "A plane has hit the World Trade Center." I stop, riveted to the television, watching as the second plane strikes. I am no longer aware of the problem with my friend. Instinct has taken over. The email is never sent.

Frozen Response

Survival instincts preserve us, but they can also be the ground of a perpetual nightmare. When these emergency responses get stuck, we can remain in trauma long after the traumatic event is over. Fight, flight, or freeze - these are the built-in options of instinctual action. When people can fight or flee, trauma can be over when it is over. But sometimes, the emergency responses do not end, leaving people stuck in traumatic reaction. When trauma terrorizes into immobility, we can lose our instinctual ground. Their reactions remain incompletely expressed. People want to flee but cannot, so they remain in constant fear; people want to fight but are unable, so they remain in perpetual rage.

The basic level of trauma is incomplete instinctual response. Once turned on, the mechanisms of survival do not turn off until they are somehow completed.

In her first therapy session Sara wept when she began to tell her story. She had been in a bomb scare, she said, and now she could not understand what was happening to her. She thought maybe she was going crazy. After all, nothing had really happened to her, and for a long time she had been "perfectly fine." What was wrong with her?

Nine months earlier, she was at her office, in a large building where she worked as a computer programmer. Someone had phoned in a bomb threat. She was at first told to leave the building immediately. After remaining outside, wondering what was going on, she was told to return to her office. Sara did not feel safe, but she was in shock and she herded numbly and obediently back into the building.

Once inside the building, she began to cry uncontrollably. She felt she was going to die, but she stayed, feeling paralyzed. After that day, she continued to work at her job, and to others she seemed fine. Inwardly, though, she felt she must be going crazy: she was nervous, jumpy, and irritable all the time, she couldn't sleep, she had nightmares, and she kept helplessly replaying the events of that day. She felt numb and unable to respond to the people around her, as if she didn't care about them anymore. She felt paralyzed, panicky if she went out into public. She felt detached and unreal, as if she were sleepwalking through life. At one point, because she was too dazed to notice, she nearly got hit by an oncoming car.

Sara's body had unfinished business. She was suffering from unresolved trauma. Because she listened to authorities, rather than to her own instincts, she was still waiting to escape from a building that she believed was about to explode and kill her.

PTSD - The Endless Emergency

Sara was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Even though "nothing" happened to Sara, she met the first criterion for PTSD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by the mental health community to diagnose psychological disorders. PTSD occurs only when people have experienced "exposure to an extreme traumatic stressor involving direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other threat to one's physical integrity; or witnessing an event that involves death, injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of another person, or learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death or injury experienced by a family member or other close associate. The person's response to the event must involve intense fear, helplessness, or horror."[3]

At the time of the bomb scare, Sara felt that she was about to die; she felt intense fear, helplessness, and horror. Similarly, people at the World Trade Center and Pentagon also certainly met this first criterion of PTSD. And most of us who watched the repeated playing of the events also met this criterion too.

When terror, horror, and helplessness become overwhelming, people are unable to complete their instinctual responses. PTSD then occurs, because the emergency responses do not end.

It is as if some part of the person has remained behind, outside of ordinary time and space, continuing to experience the trauma as if it were still happening. People with unresolved trauma try somehow to finish the trauma. They do this by reliving the trauma in many ways: through nightmares, flashbacks, recurring images of the trauma, and continued emotional and bodily reactions to things that remind them of the trauma.

For those whose trauma has not yet ended, the state of alarm persists, and daily life retains a sense of urgency, upset, distress, reactivity, and intensity. Their alarm system is always on. They are hyper-reactive -- anxious, aroused, and activated. They have difficulty falling or staying asleep, irritability, outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, hypervigilance, and an exaggerated startle response. Hyper-reactivity keeps people on alert for danger, so it can keep them alive.

But the cost of hyper-reactivity is that it can burn out the organism, exhausting its supply of energy. The body has automatic ways to keep from burning out from persistent, overwhelming reactions that function like the breakers in our house electrical systems. To avoid depletion, we constrict. In PTSD, people constrict by becoming emotionally numb, detached, unemotional, and unable to have normal feelings. They avoid experiencing anything that reminds them of the trauma, have an inability to recall parts of the trauma, lose interest in life, and have a sense of a foreshortened future. While constriction can keep people from depleting their resources, its cost can be great. At worst, contricted people become depressed and live half-lives. People with unresolved trauma can feel as if they are existing only as a shell of a person, with their insides hollowed out, without heart, without real sense of self, without an inner ground, the spark of life having long since been extinguished. They trudge on, watching life go by, waiting for it finally to be over.

As a group, after tragic, collective events, we often respond in a way similar to people with PTSD. We have collective symptoms of reliving the trauma, hyper-reactivity, and constriction.

Primarily through the news media, we relive the trauma by constantly replaying tragic events. After the Rodney King beating, we were subject to repeated showings for months of batons swinging down on Mr. King. For more than a month after the events of September 11, we viewed again and again the sight of airplanes striking buildings, rubble and grief.

Daily re-iterations in the media of each new case of anthrax, along with projections of all the possible threats that we might face, keep us all in a state of hyper-reactive fear. We are terrorized not only by the terrorists but also inadvertently by the media and government focus on present and future dangers. We become collectively infected by an artificial Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that keeps us in state of alarm and willing to support war.

Like Sara, we absorb so much of our shared traumatic experience that we may not even know we are being traumatized. After the initial shock of the events of September 11 have worn off, we, like Sara, may seem "all right" even to ourselves. Yet we can still carry within ourselves a sense of disturbance, of something not right which continues to impact us in a way just outside of our sight, like a shadow following us. We may feel an ongoing sadness at the loss of life that occurred in New York or in Afghanistan or in any further actions that are occurring in the world or are proposed. We may feel an excitement or a revulsion at the actions thousands of miles away, to which we are connected to a degree that would disturb us if we were too conscious of how connected we really are to the events that go on around us.

Perhaps witnessing war gives people a sense of empowerment, a feeling of fighting in proxy. To the extent that we can experience a vicarious enactment of aggression as we watch bombers and soldiers in battle, to that extent we may have a sense of relief from helplessness. But for many, the experience of the acts of terror and of the war on terrorism may be that of mute witness, in which they feel persistently helpless. Even the sights of warfare become fresh stimulus of traumatic experience. The vicarious experience of death and destruction either here or abroad continues to rush adrenaline into our bodies that finds no outlet, but keep us stuck in trauma.

Eventually, constriction may set in. Repeated scenes of bombings and attacks on distant nations and even loss of our own soldiers' lives may fail to move us, as we become numb to repetitive scenes of the violence of war and forget that behind the TV images is a loss of lives as precious as our own.


In trauma, people often lose connection to the body and its resources. Sometimes during trauma people actually feel as if they are leaving their bodies. The vulnerability of being a body in the present is often felt to be too dangerous and frightening. People experience themselves as going away, leaving their bodies. Only later, when it is safe, do people experience themselves returning to their bodies in contact with the ground. On September 21, 2001, I was walking with a friend, when suddenly I felt my feet and noticed the beauty of the trees around me. I realized that since the events of September 11, I had not really been here, in my body. I had left, into my mind, full of alarm and dread about what was happening and what was going to happen.

People in recovery from trauma usually need to return to the body and its resources. They can then reconnect with their instincts and allow their unfinished natural reactions to complete. Much of recovery is to begin again to trust in our own nature. While trauma may make us mistrust ourselves, the solution to trauma is within us. Sara's natural reaction was to flee the building; for this danger, flight was the obvious response. But because she was immobilized by terror and helplessness, she let the authorities override her natural reactions of fight or flight, which she now needed to restore. What was immobilized needed to move again, so that her nature could come back to life.

To recover the ground of the body's reactions, it is important to work through the body itself. Dr. Peter Levine has spent twenty years developing methods to help to unwind the coils of helplessness that wind around the body imprisoned by traumatic immobility. He has discovered that it is best to work on recovering instinctual response by tracking the sensations of the body, because sensations are the language of the reptile brain.

In Waking the Tiger, Levine states, "Traumatic symptoms... stem from the frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged; this residue remains trapped in our nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and spirits. The long-term, alarming, debilitating, and often bizarre symptoms of PTSD develop when we cannot complete the process of moving in, though and out of the "immobility" or "freezing" states. However, we can thaw by initiating and encouraging our innate drive to return to dynamic equilibrium... "[4] He goes on, "The reptilian brain... is the home of the instincts. The only way to consciously access our healing resources is through sensation and the felt sense. Sensation is the language of the reptilian brain."[5]

One of Sara's greatest strengths, which helped her the most in dealing with her trauma, was her open-minded, open-eyed curiosity and equanimity. She was interested in what was going on inside of her; she was curious. Even if she was overcome by fear, anger, or sadness, she was able to turn her inner eyes to look with detachment and interest at her inner self. It was a process of liberation and self-discovery. Here is how Sara worked:

I begin by asking, "What is happening?"

She responds, "It's the strangest thing, doctor. I feel so sad, and I don't know why."

"This sadness, where do you feel it?"

"I feel my chest. And I feel a lump in my throat."

"Just see what happens when you pay attention to the chest," I instruct.

She pauses. "I feel so...overwhelmed. I feel like I'm falling." She starts to appear pale.

I encourage her to stay with this. "Just stay with the sensation of falling."

Sara takes a deep breath, and shakes a bit, all over. "Now I feel my arms and feet are cold." These are some of the signs of increasing autonomic system constriction and fear."

"Just let your attention go to your feet. See what happens when you just pay attention." I bring her attention to her feet to help her to get grounded and to keep her energy from going upward into panic.

Sara responds, "I feel a little nauseous." She takes another breath, and shakes again. "Now I feel kind of shivery all over."

"Just stay with that and allow it to happen." Something has started to move and I am encouraging her to stay with that process. In response, Sara's neck starts a slight tremoring movement. I ask, "Do you notice the movement in your neck?"

She nods. "Just pay attention to that," I say. Little is needed than to continue to allow space for natural reactions to unfold. Sara now begins to shakes all over, forcefully.

After a pause, she takes deep breath. "I feel nauseous again."

Suddenly, Sara bursts out, "I feel so angry!" There is a long pause, followed by her taking a deep breath. She begins to cry. "I just can't understand why I listened to him, telling me to go back into the building! He didn't know what was best for me! I feel so stupid!"

"Come back to the feelings of anger."

"I have this solid feeling in the middle of my gut. Now that feels weak, and my arms and feet are cold again."

A new process is beginning, in response to her expressing anger. "Pay attention to the cold in your hands." The hands are for reaching out and striking. I turn attention now to them.

Sara takes a deep breath, and her hands form fists. "I am just so mad at myself! Why did I listen to him?"

Again I return to the original impulse, "Feel your hands. What do they want to do?"

"This is really strange, doctor, I just want to punch him in the face."

"Let yourself picture doing that and feel what it would feel like in your body to punch him in the face." The body needs to experience the completion of the original, suppressed impulse.

Sara: takes another deep breath, and shakes all over, another release of stored tension and energetic charge. There is a long pause.

"I don't ever want to let anybody make me betray myself again!"

Many of us, as we have learned to be civilized, have unlearned our connections to our deepest bodily-felt feelings. In this session, Sara, with a little encouragement, began to rediscover the feelings in her body. By re-rooting herself again in the ground of her own sensations, she began to lay the foundations of new power in her life. During that session, Sara had one of many experiences of re-grounding herself in her natural reactions of aggression and opposition. As we continued to work on re-grounding Sara in her own nature, gradually, she began to restore her ability to say "no" to people. She worked through fear of asserting herself and became more confident in her own abilities to take care of herself. She stopped listening to other people and she started listening to herself.

Sara did not go and actually punch the man who told her to stay in the building in the nose. She only needed to go through the imaginary experience of it. The nervous system does not require an actually acting out of aggression; it requires only the internal experience in order to have a sense of completion of the uncompleted act.

Sara, a deeply religious person, did not want to aggress against others, so that when she lashed out at others in her PTSD irritability, she was very disturbed. As she integrated her instinctually based anger, she was able recover power within herself and stop striking out at others uncontrollably. Instead she became firm and made decisions about her own life regardless of how others thought she should be. She transformed her irritability into self-assertion and her compliance into compassion. Since she knew her own suffering more deeply, she became able to help others who had been traumatized.

We have as a species moved a long way from our simple connection to nature. We evolved biologically and socially away from instinct. We developed higher level functions in our brains that can override instinct. And as we have evolved socially, we have moved further and further from simple nature. We moved from hunter-gatherer to agricultural to industrial to a post-industrial organization and function. We moved from the natural rhythms of chasing fresh game and eating fresh fruit to the slow plod of disciplined bodies yoked to the plough, waiting patiently for harvest. From there we went to bodies chained to machines stamping out parts to make things that could be found nowhere in nature, and our bodies became part of the great machine that drove our lives. Now we sit in front of televisions and computer screens, watching pictures and bits of life and data pass by. Each change in how we sustain ourselves has uprooted us more from our bodies' instinctual nature. As a result we have lost touch with the flow of nature, and when trauma occurs, we can get stuck and arrested from the flow that rivers and bloodstreams and instinctual actions embody.

We can use the opportunity of trauma to recover the lost resource of nature. Levine offers us this, "Trauma resolved is a great gift, returning us to the natural world of ebb and flow, harmony, love, and compassion... .I believe that we humans have the innate capacity to not only to heal ourselves, but our world, from the debilitating effects of trauma."[6]


If you wish to release some of whatever is left over for you from the experience of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attack or any other disturbing events involving the threat of terrorism or the war on terrorism, try this exercise. Read it first and then begin, modifying any part of it that does not work for you. You may wish to have someone you trust be with you or be available to you if you expect you may become overwhelmed.

Sit comfortably. Feel your body as it contacts the chair or couch you are sitting on. Allow your eyes to close. Become aware of your breath. Become aware of any sensations that are going on in your body. Do this gently for a few minutes, allowing yourself to settle into your body and your sensations.

Now let yourself remember some image or feeling that stands out for you related to the attack on the World Trade Center or Pentagon. At first, do not choose an image that is extremely charged or powerful for you. Choose one of low to medium intensity, so that you do not feel overwhelmed. Notice next what feelings and sensations occur in your body when you picture this image. Look for feelings of heat or cold, light or dark, tingling or prickling, rushes of fullness or spaces of emptiness, jerking or trembling. Let your attention gently go to these sensations and feelings, following them as they move and develop, or resting with them if they do not change. Do not try to influence them, interpret them, or stop them; just track them with an interested eye. These sensations are activities of your autonomic nervous system as it releases its leftover responses from the trauma.

If in the process of this sensation-tracking you notice that your body wants to do small movements, such as sighing, yawning, trembling, or jerking, allow them. If an impulse arises to do a large movement, such as running, hiding, striking, vomiting, yelling, just allow yourself to picture that movement and feel what it would feel like in your body to do that motion.

At some point you may feel some release, a greater state of relaxation, emerge. Stay with that experience and notice the sensations. You may notice greater light, lightness, solidity, or comfort. Allow these sensations to expand.

After some time, new sensations of discomfort may begin to arise, starting a new round. Decide whether you wish to continue, to stop, or to come back later and do more.

Each time you do this, you may allow images of greater intensity in and release more of the trauma that has become stuck in your nervous system. See if you feel more freedom each time.

When you are done with this exercise, see if your viewpoint and understanding of the world situation changes. Notice what you experience in your body when you consider the world situation. See whether resolving some of your own individual traumatic responses to the world situation changes how you now experience and understand the world. Does recovering your own natural responses change your view of current events?

Chapter Four - Reviving Feelings, Revising Relationships

Violation and Violence

In basic trauma -- an auto accident, a hurricane, an earthquake --restoration of instinct can restore life intact, and if restoring our connection to instinct were the only solution to the problem of trauma, resolution of trauma would be easier. We could just become healthy animals, fighting, fleeing, freezing as needed, and all would be healed.

But some trauma is personal. Suffering trauma at the hands of another person complicates trauma and its healing. When trauma comes from the actions of other people, we respond not just with instinctive sensation but with complex feelings. We are not lizards or zebras but humans.

In the effects of September 11 and its aftermath, we are suffering not just from basic trauma but also from interpersonal trauma. Some of our feelings are deeply connected to the instincts of flight or fight. People running from a falling building in New York or from American bombs in Afghanistan experience terror and panic that mobilizes escape. The rage of American citizens at the terrorists and of opposing soldiers at American military fuels the instinct to fight for survival and protection.

But many of our feelings about assault go beyond mere instinct. These feelings are more complex and relate to our sense of self and our connection to others. They involve our integrity as individuals and as a group. Interpersonal trauma makes us feel violated, betrayed, powerless, and helpless. Violence violates us, so we no longer feel intact. Invasion shatters our wholeness, and breaks the boundaries that surround and protect us.

The assault on the World Trade Center and Pentagon violated us. The assault by foreign enemies among us infiltrated and violated our boundaries, and we react with rage and a desire to rid ourselves of evil. We feel rage at the perpetrator; we want our power back; we want our lives back they way they were before. The administration has proposed that we seek out and remove any possible source of terror and rid the earth of evil.

One kind of interpersonal trauma I often encounter in my psychotherapy practice is rape. Judith began her first session with me quietly.

"I didn't even know if I wanted to see a man as a therapist, " she said, looking down. "A friend of mine recommended you,'s hard for me to be around men right now. Two months ago, I was raped.

"Since then, I haven't been able to function very well. My boyfriend doesn't understand. He blames me for what happened, and he doesn't come near me. Anyway, I don't really want him to. I feel like I'll never be the same. I feel horrible, and I don't trust anyone, especially men."

I asked her whether she would prefer to work with a woman and told her that I could refer her if she wished. She said she had seen a woman a few times, and that that had helped a lot, because the woman really understood how she felt. But she felt that if she could work with a man, she could overcome her fear of men more quickly.

One of the resources that can support recovery from interpersonal trauma is to rediscover one's own inner power. Judith was already doing that in being willing to work with me. I mentioned this to her and acknowledged her courage.

"Thanks. But I still don't trust you."

I responded, "Good. You don't know me; at this point, you shouldn't trust me. Trust needs to be earned."

She no longer trusted her boyfriend either. "He says the rape was my fault. If I hadn't been at the party in that bedroom, it wouldn't have happened. I should have known better than to be alone. Maybe he's right."

"Is that what you think?"

"I don't know. Maybe. It's harder to know what I think since the rape happened."

"Take your time. What do you really think? Was it your fault."

"No. I've been there lots of times, and nothing like this ever happened. Maybe I've just taken on John's opinions as my own. It's like he's taking over my mind the way the rapist took over my body. I can't let him do that."

Judith gradually regained her own power and her own mind. She had a fierce determination to reclaim her own life. The rape had given her a sense of loss of power, but it also awakened in her her strength of will. She learned whom she could trust, because she reconnected with herself. She overcame the violation and the pervasive feeling of helplessness that rape brings by rediscovering her own power.

In our experience of loss and violation in America, we feel a mixture of grief, helplessness, powerlessness, and rage. We feel the loss of all the innocent lives snuffed out in a few hours for what seems like no reason. We see the pointlessness, the cruelty, and many of us have wanted to recover our security and power and overcome the feeling of helplessness through revenge and war.

"I didn't matter"

I have worked for two decades with veterans of war and with the families of soldiers during the Gulf War. For many veterans the war never ends, and they never come home. War trauma can break connections to other people and instill feelings of mistrust, isolation, and betrayal.

Bob came to me initially with his wife. After the Vietnam War, he had come home and found it too hard to get close to anyone. It was hard just to come home from the war. People didn't understand what he had been through. He would just sit, brooding and clammed up. Life for him couldn't return to what it was like before the war. Rage and pain that remained left over inside him - that he did not understand and could find no release from -- would finally bring him to blow up, often at her. He shouted at her, called her names, and made her feel powerless like he did. His war trauma became her marital trauma. She loved him, but she wanted him to get help, or, she said, she would have to leave.

Bob didn't want to open up, but he didn't want to lose his wife either. We agreed that we could start working together, and he could open up or not; it was up to him. He had a lot of mistrust. Part of his mistrust was toward me: only another Veteran would understand what he had gone through. I acknowledged that this was true; that I could not know his experience, but that I was willing to listen and to learn.

Slowly Bob did get through his layer of disconnection from his own feelings, a layer that had been put in place during combat. During war, having feelings - of grief, of abandonment, of betrayal or anguish - are luxuries that one can often not afford. In combat, it is best to keep your head down and keep moving ahead, shutting down feelings in order to stay alive. The numbness demanded for battlefield survival had forced him to bury his feelings. But once he was in an arena where he could release his feelings, he began to let go of his habit of claming up.

Now, in the safety of my office, Bob slowly let himself feel the depth of how much his war experience had broken his connections with others. One of Bob's most powerful resources in recovering from his wartime trauma was that he was a feeling and sensitive man. Feelings are built into us related to ourselves and the world. When we lose access to feeling, we lose some access to our lives.

As his feelings emerged, some of the irritability that made his marriage so difficult began to fade. Soon it seemed that something wanted to push its way out of him. One day, quite unexpectedly, he started to shake and to cry.

"I woke up this morning thinking about my sergeant. He received a bad shrapnel wound to his leg and he was bleeding pretty bad. I threw him over my shoulder, I just picked him up and slung him on my back and... I just ran. There was a lot of fire around us, but I just ran, through the swamp. The chopper was waiting. I almost didn't make it, almost dropped him. I put him on board the chopper, and they went... I never saw him again." He burst out sobbing. "I loved that man. He would have done anything for us. He was... like a father."

After that session, more grief emerged -- about the friends in his unit who died in combat and about the loss of his youth. He had gone away full of innocence, and he came back utterly changed. His eyes had seen too much

One day, our therapy session was so vivid, it was as if I could smell the jungle in the therapy room. He told about how at the end of his tour in Vietnam, his leg took a piece of shrapnel, and he had to be airlifted out of a combat zone.

"I lay there on the ground. The medics were nowhere to be seen. It was wet. Next to me lay a man who took a hit in the guts -- it was bad. We were there for over an hour, and finally we heard the sound of the chopper. But when they finally came, they treated us like we were just meat. They didn't seem to care about us. We barely made it out before mortar fire hit our position."

In the next session he told me about how he had been put in an outpost to defend a position as a guard. While he was laying there awaiting an assault by the enemy, he saw what ammunition he had been given: a half-box of shells. "I knew I was just a body to them. They didn't even give me enough ammo to do my job right. And it didn't matter... I didn't matter."

The deepest experience of betrayal came out a few sessions later. He had to watch as one buddy after another died while they took and lost a single hill three times. He was enraged at the government that had sent him and his dead buddies out on a mission that could not be won.

Finally, when he had come back from Vietnam, he was walking through the airport and someone spit on the sidewalk in front of him, calling him "baby killer." Here he had gone and risked his life for his country, and this was the repayment!

Through all of this trauma, a chasm opened up separating bob from the rest of humanity. In the midst of interpersonal trauma a breach occurs, wherein all ties to humanity are severed. The experience is of complete aloneness and betrayal. Trust in others is broken.

Bob's embedded grief and rage that began in Vietnam had spread to his wife. Unhealed trauma spreads from one person to another like an epidemic.

Unless people resolve their traumatic pain and rage, or unless they are aware that they are in trauma and work against its re-enactment, they make each other feel the way they do. On September 10, 2001, Americans walked confidently in their streets and in their lives. By noon the next day, all that had changed. Osama Bin Laden had brought the trauma of his world into ours.

It is difficult to open up to understanding our enemy. When someone has hurt us deeply, we don't usually want to understand them; they don't deserve understanding. But we can't protect ourselves from something we don't understand. "Know thine enemy" is elementary wisdom of warfare. To understand Bin Laden and his followers is not to excuse or justify their acts. But by understanding the experience of Islamic fundamentalist, we can understand more about the epidemiology of trauma and know more about what we are up against.

Muslim fundamentalists are inflicting the horror they have for the incursions of modernity into the Arab world. Many Arabs have found their world changing through infiltration of cultural values that violate theirs. Fast food, fast women, fast money are felt to erode the integrity of life Allah has ordained. In addition, the Islamic world has experience two shocks of direct invasion into their world, one by the Soviet Union into Afghanistan, the other by the United States by invitation of the royal family into Saudi Arabia. Both of these events inflamed Bin Laden to declare a jihad against those who contaminated what he regarded as holy soil.[7]

These traumatic invasions and infiltrations evoked a rage that is now being inflicted upon us. Trauma spreads.


Rage has a purpose. It need not destroy. It can instead become the gateway into personal power. Judith, who had survived rape, moved more and more into her own personal power. Some of the rage that had come out of the rape gave her the power to deal with her boyfriend. She told me she had gone home and confronted him about blaming her for the rape. John just walked out on her, she said.

I asked her how she felt about that.

"I was really hurt. And angry. But if that was the kind of friend he was, I guess he wasn't much of a friend. I don't need that in my life."

She continued to rebuild her power. She dealt with a landlord, who was a petty tyrant. She also confronted her overbearing boss. He continued to dominate her, but she was now able to assert boundaries in her own life and remove herself from situations in which she was overpowered by others. She quit and found another job. As she learned to trust herself more, she became less afraid of others, because she knew she could take care of herself.

Interpersonal trauma in general and war in particular brings out profound resources in people: courage, endurance, deep bonding with friends, clear perception of what is real, and the ability to survive against odds.

The strength that war had brought out in Bob deepened, as he allowed himself to let go of his defenses against his own feelings. As the feelings of loss, betrayal, and broken connections became unearthed and expressed, Bob's life began slowly to transform. As he shared his deepest feelings with me, the chasm of mistrust and broken connections began to close. He got along better with his wife, he joined a Veteran's support group, the pain was less, and his life began to work better. Healing had begun.


What feelings have been most prominent for you since September 11, 2001? Have you gone through different stages of feeling? What feelings have been with you most lately?

Sit alone now and let yourself become aware of the feelings you have about the situation in the world. What happens when you let your attention go to your feelings and stay with them? Do they change and reveal more about your deepest feelings?

Do you feel alone with these feelings or connected to others through them? Have the events since September 11 made you feel more connected to others or less or both?

If your feelings of connection are stronger, do you have ways in your life of letting the connection work more deeply and show itself more? If you feel disconnected from others, is there something you would like to do to re-connect? Would you like to share this exercise with someone else?

Chapter Five - Ending War Trauma Cycles

Why Trauma Keeps Happening

Bob's wartime trauma and anguish was only one of tens of millions of people traumatized by war during the last century. War carved much of the shape of life during those years, and this pattern is now continuing. How can we understand the perpetuation of war? Is there a way out?

November 1, 2001 - The headlines read, "Bombing heaviest yet," and display large pictures of smoke and dust rising in wide columns. My first client that day says she has felt intense distress since the beginning of the bombing of Afghanistan. It brings up memories for her, she says, of the bombing of Baghdad and before that of Cambodia and the killing fields that followed. Underneath it all, it triggers the sense of despair she grew up with in a home with parents who were always violent with each another. It was so bad once, her father ended up in jail.

"I laid in bed, listening. My parents argued and fought. They both were drinking. I hated it, and it frightened me. I waited until I heard him threatening to hit her, and then I would rush out and try to stop them."

"That's a pretty heavy job for a child," I said. "What was the effect of having to provide safety for your whole family?"

"It left me feeling drained. I guess I grew up feeling pretty gloomy. I felt hopeless. That's how my father felt, that life was horrible, that nothing was possible except incessant conflict. When I see the war going on now, it makes me feel hopeless all over again."

Trauma that happens over and over creates feelings of hopelessness. Most of the clients I see are not dealing with just a single trauma. Their life stories contain not only repeated traumas in early childhood but also continued trauma lasting into adult life. As a young therapist I could not understand how it was that people continued to experience trauma again and again. Sometimes It just seemed to happen. But often this continuation of traumatic experience seemed to come from choices people made. I wondered, why didn't people learn?

Rape victims would get raped repeatedly; people chose to involve themselves again and again with others like the people who hurt them as children; people would work for dysfunctional organizations year after year, that in some essential ways remind them of their families.

What I have learned since then is that trauma specifically creates automatic behaviors that have a life of their own and are very hard to change. Trauma impacts how we act, how we feel and how we think, and without recovery this impact is permanent. The deep imprint of trauma seems to be nature's design. We survive best if we remember indelibly whatever we learn in trauma, because it is so deeply tied to survival. The zebra remembers the scent of the lion, the woman remembers the physical characteristic of that rapist, the soldier remembers the sound of incoming mortar fire.

This deep imprint of trauma can be protective. But the indelibility of traumatic events can also backfire. As philosopher George Santayana puts it, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Trauma generates a great deal of energy, which gets stored in our bodies, our emotions, and in our minds. If we do not integrate this energy through consciously remembering the trauma and dealing with the feelings that arise, the energy expresses itself instead in repeating the trauma again and again. We master traumatic experience either by dealing with it directly or by repeating and trying to deal with the same situation again and again.

Traumatic repetition happens also in the context of the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. When we live in a world that is consumed by trauma, we become increasingly convinced that nothing else is possible. We develop "learned helplessness"[8], in which we no longer try to do anything to change the circumstances, because no change seems possible.

Another basis for repeating traumatic patterns is that trauma impacts not only our instincts and our emotions but also our thinking. Trauma strips our thinking down to the basics: our survival. Traumatic thinking is intense, narrow, highly focussed, and oriented toward immediate danger. It is simple, stereotypic, and rigid. Traumatized people are hypervigilant, always on the lookout for any danger. Relationships are seen in terms of perpetrator and victim, friend or foe. Behavior based on traumatic thinking tends to be all-or-nothing, because the thinking is black-and-white. Either you are a friend or an enemy, with me or against me.

While this intense rigid focus can help people to survive during an emergency, in the long run it has serious drawbacks. People lose access to some of their most important mental resources: complex, differentiated thinking and the ability to see the big picture. Without the ability to see the larger pattern, people with a history of trauma often go from crisis to crisis, endlessly, repeating the same behavior over and over, going from one trauma to another, seemingly unable to learn from experience.

People with repetitive trauma learn how to live with trauma. When all we know is trauma, we tend to repeat it. We get caught up in a vortex of repeating trauma that seems to offer no other choices but those between one kind of trauma or another. Trauma seems to take on a life of its own, seeking us out and drawing us down into a spiral of destruction. The impact of repetitive trauma is devastating. Repetitive trauma has long-term effects different from simple PTSD. It brings about an alteration of consciousness, of feeling, and of identity which is persistent and pervasive. Feelings of helplessness, chronic anxiety, despair, sense of meaningless, chronic rage, and rejection of ourselves and others are symptoms of what Psychiatrist Judith Herman has called "Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," which comes from severe and repetitive trauma.

My client, Jeanine, came in brutalized by several relationships with men who had abused her, several rapes, and a car accident. She had persistent depression, anxiety, episodes of loss of identity, and a profound despair about the future of her life, which she kept at bay by fighting everyone around her. As a result of her fighting with everyone, she attracted a lot of aggression toward her, which kept her in a constant state of victimization. She attacked her husband, her friends, and, when we began, me.

Perhaps like Jeanine, the human race is in a pattern of repetitive trauma. We have learned to fight war. The world is a dangerous, so we have learned to be dangerous to protect ourselves. For millennia, we have learned and practiced the arts of war, and we have become increasingly good at it. Our capacity to defeat the enemy has been a great resource for the survival of the winners of war.

Aggressive elimination of sources of danger is one form of self-protection. What confronts us now is: how far shall we go in attacking other countries in order to make ourselves safe? How far is wise? Is further war the best way to achieve safety? To answer these questions, one element of what we must understand is the way that trauma spreads. As people who have grown up with millennia of war as the solution for international conflict, we have stopped thinking that anything else could solve problems.

If we stay in a traumatic response to recent attacks, we too may be in danger of remaining imprisoned in traumatic thinking, restricted to a narrow, reactive focus. We could miss the bigger picture, and thus in our attempts to make ourselves safe, we could perhaps - like other survivors of repetitive trauma - simply enable a pattern of endless trauma to continue.

Like Fire

If we bring understanding and hope into an arena traditionally ruled by darkness and despair, we may be able to change the patterns that have ruled us. People have incredible resources to deal with repetitive trauma. Where once I was surprised at how people repeated traumatic experience, now I am amazed at the resources people bring to deal with them. I have an Israeli friend, Arnina, who manages, somehow to maintain cheer, humor, and creativity in the midst of the repetitive terror and tensions in the Middle East. One of my clients, Susanne, has been through spousal abuse, multiple rapes, and some life-threatening illnesses. She is intensely creative. To deal with her traumas, she draws pictures, writes poetry, performs multi-media presentations - all to turn her trauma into human understanding that will benefit others.

Looking at our own, collective repetitive trauma is difficult, requiring special resources. A primary resources most of my clients with multiple trauma experiences share is that they are committed to finding out the truth. Their lives are living embodiments to the promise, "The truth shall set ye free." Traumatic reality is hard, and it makes people seek hard truths. Once people have been brought face to face with the pavement of life, they distinguish unerringly between truth and mere appearance.

Maggie came in one day angry with me. "I don't think you understood how I felt last session. I kept telling you that I was in despair and didn't like my life, and you kept trying to turn it into something else. You kept trying to make me feel that I didn't really feel that way."

At first, as I often am, I got defensive. "Well, I was just trying to reframe how you felt so that you wouldn't remain stuck in that feeling."

"You're not listening again. I feel terrible. I just want you to understand that. My life has been nothing but a series of horrible events, and it has left me exhausted, depressed, in despair, and not liking my life one bit!"

I still wouldn't give in. "You say your life has been nothing but a series of horrible events. What about your relationship with your children?"

"Why is it so hard for you to just hear how I feel?"

Finally, she got through to me. I stopped and thought for awhile, and I felt what was going on inside me. I couldn't tolerate her hopelessness and her sense of helplessness. I couldn't tolerate the level of despair I would feel if I let in her feelings.

"You're right. I just don't want to take in how serious and pervasive your suffering is."

Impartial understanding is difficult in a traumatic environment. In the midst of traumatic reaction, black and white, "for us or against us" thinking can prevent discussion of consequences, because it smacks of blaming the government when we need to believe in its ability to protect us. To point out that terrorism against the United States is the consequence of a long-term world historical engagement is not the same as justifying terrorism or ascribing to a notion that we "deserved it." The issue here, however, is not about placing blame or justifying evil, but of understanding the sources of terrorism, so that we can prevent it. As Philip C. Wilcox, Jr., who served for three years as the U.S. ambassador-at-large for counter-terrorism argues, "The most important deficiency in U.S. counter-terrorism policy has been the failure to address the root causes of terrorism," which would require "new departures in foreign policy." [9]

To create "new departures" clarity about our existing pattern is essential. What is the bigger picture? Trauma spreads like fire. At the beginning of the last century, ancient smoldering conflicts in the Balkans ignited the First World War, which led to events that culminated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which began a Cold War and the smaller wars of Vietnam and Afghanistan, which led to the burning of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, which led to the present war.


Viewing the larger picture can bring up feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, feelings that have accumulated in our collective and individual beings for a very long time. It is these feelings that have supported a view that incessant conflict can solve our problems. The purpose of a review of our past, collective patterns in this chapter and the next is not to intensify despair but to bring it to awareness to create room for new possibilities to emerge.

Bob's disillusionment was an echo of a cry of despair began eighty years earlier. In the beginning of the past century, the fire of trauma was kindled. What was expected to be a "short and jolly war" got bogged down in the trenches of gas and sorrow of World War I. Wilfred Owen, the British poet, wrote Dulce et Decorum Est [Sweet and Proper It Is], which contains strains of Bob's horror and dismay at the real impact and meaning of war:

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,...

To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

[It is sweet and proper to die for one's country.]

This despair spread to the defeated enemy. At the end of World War I, the allies' intent of utterly crushing the enemy so he would no longer be a threat backfired. Out of the ruins of World War I, a defeated, humiliated Germany, saddled with reparations payments that broke their economy, struggled with the wounds of war. The Germans too felt betrayed by their leaders, and sought in Hitler the answer to their defeat. He played to their feelings of humiliation, helplessness, and hopelessness by promising victory. Out of the gas of World War I came the gas of the concentration camps and World War II.

Americans were among those who stood against Hitler. Recently, during the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day, I watched a televised presentation of veterans of that historic moment. I was moved to tears as I watched these men, now in old age, telling about their experiences on the battlefield of that day, in which so many gave their lives. I felt a debt of gratitude toward these men that had suffered so that I could be still free and alive. As they told their stories, they recounted the time as if it were still happening, of so much fear and so much loss of life of their friends. The toll of that war was staggering. During World War II, approximately 61 million people died.

Out of the horrific wounding of World War II grew the Cold War. Weapons of mass destruction had been developed and used during the war, the two superpowers lived in terror of each other, kept in check only by the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. Paranoia and aggression developed in the core of Soviet leadership. The United States policy, based on fear of Soviet expansion, fearing another Hitler, attempted to contain the Soviet Union.

The Cold War was in some ways an extraordinary success. As a species, we managed to withstand the threat of nuclear suicide for forty years, avoiding an all-out war. Common sense prevailed over our patterns of destruction to moderate the damage of war. Moreover, the Soviet regime, which had brought death to twenty million of its own citizens in the gulag, ended.

But the cost of this victory was the deaths of many people who grew up in countries without power. Rather than fighting all-out, direct war, the superpowers fought "proxy wars" using smaller countries as pawns in a larger game of power. One was the war in Vietnam, another in Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan began when the United States started supporting counter-insurgents against a Soviet-backed communist regime in Afghanistan. The United States government intentionally took the risk of inviting the Soviets to invade Afghanistan, in order to bog them down in an equivalent of our Vietnam.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to President Carter, spoke in an interview with Le Nouvel Observateur, Paris, 15-21 January 1998, saying, "According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention."

The interviewer asked, " Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action. But perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into war and looked to provoke it?"

"It isn't quite that. We didn't push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would."

"When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn't believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don't regret anything today? "

"Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter. We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire."

"And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?"

"What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?"

The reporter then asks, "Some stirred-up Moslems? But it has been said and repeated Islamic fundamentalism represents a world menace today"

To which, Brzezinksi replies, "Nonsense!"[11]

The impact of our decision to risk Soviet invasion was not only the successful impairment of the Soviet Union, but also the demolition of Afghanistan, with the millions of deaths from war and starvation. Moreover, we set in motion destructive forces that have come back to impact us today. We, through the CIA acting through Pakistan helped to train the fighters to drive the Soviet Union out. One of the major fighters was Osama Bin Laden.

This is an instance of what Chalmers Johnson calls "blowback," a CIA term describing the "unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people."[12] In 1999, he predicted that terrorist actions against and within the United States was likely. "'Blowback' is shorthand for saying that a nation reaps what it sows, even if it does no fully know or understand what it has sown. Given its wealth and power, the United States will be a prime recipient in the foreseeable future of all the more expectable forms of blowback, particularly terrorist attacks against Americans in and out of the armed forces anywhere on earth, including within the United States."[13]

Specifically with respect to Bin Laden, he says that President Clinton, made erroneous attacks on a pharmaceutical company in Sudan and attacks on Afghanistan to get Bin Laden after his previous terrorist attacks. "In this way, future blowback possibilities are seeded into the world... " creating "a spiral of blowback and retaliation that is undoubtedly not yet at an end in the case of Bin Laden" (p. 10-11)


Kabul, Afhanistan -- New York City firefighter Joe Higgens storlled among hudnreds of poor Afghan children at an orphanage here yesterday, remembing his brother, a firefighter who was killed at the world Trade Center on Spt. 11, and the children he left fatherless.

"These kids are going through the same things that those kids at home are going through... Their poverty is worse, and they have gone through the extremes of war, but I don't think the hurt's any different."[14]

When reviewing the past century of violence and its present continuation, it is tempting to fall into exhaustion, anxiety, helplessness, despair, and condemnation of the human race and its penchant for perpetuation of hatred and destruction. However, helplessness, chronic anxiety, despair, sense of meaningless, chronic rage, and rejection of ourselves and others may themselves be understood as symptoms of our species-wide Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

According to trauma expert, Judith Herman, "Social judgment of chronically traumatized people... tends to be extremely harsh."[15] If we look at ourselves, not as separate, warring nations, but as a whole human race, perhaps we can begin to view ourselves and each other with compassion rather than condemnation, empathy rather than hatred, and understanding rather than revenge. We can see then that this pool of feelings of chronic anxiety, despair, helplessness, rage, and hatred is both the result and the cause of the wars that maintain our Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is this deep pool of traumatic feeling that the human race continues to draw from and add to.

Recovery from Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder involves waking up from the nightmare of helplessness and hopelessness. These underlying feelings have the hypnotic effect of generating the belief that because things have been this way they must always remain so. They generate a leaden oppression that weighs hope down, denying both human creativity and freedom.

Recovery for individuals with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is slow and difficult, requiring patience and compassion. Patience is necessary because repetitive trauma requires repetitive experience of safety. People who develop long-term strategies to deal with long-term and repetitive trauma need to let go of old strategies that have helped them survive and to take risks to learn new ones. Compassion is needed because repetitive trauma induces the experience of a hostile world, and caring is a healing surprise.

Working with Jeanine, the survivor of multiple traumas took a lot of consistent patience and compassion, which was rewarded by seeing her regain her sense of equilibrium. When she first began therapy, she attacked me often, complaining, criticizing, and insulting. I needed to set boundaries with her in order to make the relationship one which was sustainable for me, otherwise I would burn out and get resentful. After I did so, I then set about helping her to remove the mountain of accumulated life difficulty she had accumulated during her overwhelmed period of life. I helped to restore phone service, helped deal with creditors, helped her sort out painful friendships. The more I helped, the more she was able to begin to take over all these issues on her own. In time, her life began to settle into something more manageable and pleasurable. There were many setbacks.

But Jeanine was a survivor. She had, through a lifetime of dealing with hardship and trauma, learned profound lessons and developed fierce resources of survival. She knew how to sit with pain and still help others. She had developed unshakable determination to deal with difficulty, even when mired by depression. She knew how to face loss even when it was tearing her apart again and again. She now used these strengths to deal with one difficulty after another. She had to work through ways in which she aggravated relationships so that they retraumatized her. Soon the limits I set on her restored her ability to set limits on her own aggressive behavior. As this settled, her relationships became at first neutral and then gradually supportive and pleasurable.

Some of the basic stance needed to heal repetitive trauma might apply to the world situation. What would it be like to approach our situation with patience and compassion?

Patience might have prevented our current disaster. Patience has worked in the past with bringing terrorists to justice. Johnson describes it this way, "There are more effective -- and certainly less destructive -- ways of dealing with the threat of "terrorism" than instant military retaliation. In 1994, patient and firm negotiations finally resulted in the Sudan's turning over the terrorist known as Carlos to the French government for trial; and in September 1998, Libya finally agreed to surrender to a Dutch court the two men charged with bombing the Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. The latter agreement came about through a multilateral reliance on international law and an economic embargo of Libya and so avoided the spiral of blowback and retaliation."[16]

In the case of Bin Laden, negotiation was attempted, but without success. Why? The United States attempted to get the Taliban to surrender Bin Laden, up to just days before September 11. According to an article in the Washington Post, "Taliban representatives repeatedly suggested they would hand over bin Laden if their conditions were met, sources close to the discussion said.

"'We were not serious about the whole thing,' said Richard Hrair Dekmejian, an expert in Islamic fundamentalism...'There were missed opportunities.'"

"'We never heard what they were trying to say," said Milton Bearden a former CIA station chief who oversaw U.S. covert operations in Afghanistan in the 1980's. 'We had no common language. Ours was, "Give up bin Laden." They were saying, "Do something to help us give him up.'"

Instead of clarification and negotiation, the United States began a hard-nosed dialogue, sending "a stern message to Taliban deputy forcing minister Abdul Jalil: The United States henceforth would hold the Taliban responsible for any terrorist act by bin Laden." ("U.S., Taliban met repeatedly in recent years," by David Ottaway and Joe Stephens, in SF Chronicle, Monday, Oct 29, 2001. p. A2.]

What about compassion? Compassion means to "feel with." How we learn compassion may depend on who we think "we" are. If we are Americans only, then we shall be concerned only with the thousands who perished at the World Trade Center. But if "we" are also all the people on the planet, then shall we also be concerned about the innocent civilian victims of our own war on terrorism? Does the Afghan man in the refugee camp who lost a daughter and father to the United States bombs count as much as the parents in Ohio? Does the child without a hand from playing with an unexploded cluster bomb matter as much as a young woman who died in the Twin Towers? Do the hundreds of thousands who might starve in winter because we even began a war count as much as the thousands who died here from terrorism?

We have, of course, a dilemma, all of us here on earth saturated with repetitive war trauma. If we count the deaths of others as our own, how can we protect ourselves? If we do not overlook the "collateral damage," as the civilian deaths are called, in Somalia, the Philippines, Iraq, [add others], where the current administration is considering attacking in the war on terrorism, how can we be sure of being safe? Do the people of Iraq count too?

Perhaps if we view ourselves and each other with compassion and understanding, realizing that we are all suffering the same pain together, then the plague of trauma that overwhelmed the twentieth Century and is now spilling into this new century might find an end. If we do not understand that "their" pain is our pain, we may be forced to feel it because of blowback, and their pain will be ours. Unless we find another way to respond to trauma than to create more trauma, we may continue this cycle indefinitely, with terror and counter-terror engulfing us as it has Israel, Beirut, and Northern Ireland.

December 8, 2001 - NBC News interviews a former KGB agent to get advice on how to deal with terrorists. He said we have become our enemies, worse than them even, brutal assassins, like the KGB was. NBC treats him as an expert who knows. After hearing the interview, I find it astonishing that we are now listening to the KGB for advice.

We have evolved into warriors as a way of surviving. If we have learned to live with so much pain and ferocity and grief, we have a profound capacity to survive despite enormous obstacles. We can use this resource to find new ways to survive together.

The first and most important action to take in recovering from repetitive trauma is to stop the repetition as soon as possible. People who are chronically victimized need to stop creating or putting themselves in situations where they will be victimized again. Jeanine needed to stop antagonizing people and also making choices of being with people who would hurt her.

If the human race is to find its way out of the vortex of repetitive trauma that keeps drawing it into destruction, we need to develop clarity about the behavior pattern in which we are caught. The only way to stop repetitive trauma is to stop repeating it.


This exercise will be an opportunity to review ways in which chronic repetitive trauma has impacted your life. First look at your personal life and see if there have been repeated challenges to you that have traumatic dimensions. You may review this within your own mind or by writing it down. Review the time line of events that have been traumatic and see what shape they present in your mind. What are the common themes, patterns, or feelings that they have presented to you? What do you see has been their cumulative impact? What difficulties have they presented? What strengths have they developed in you?

Now look at the way that collective traumas have impacted, especially wars. Have you been in war or had people close to you who have been impacted by war? If so, what has been the impact? What strengths have these events developed in you?

When you look at the challenges that trauma, either private or collective, have created for you, do you view their impact with compassion? See what happens when you move more deeply into compassion for yourself and for others who share this impact or impact like it. Does that change how you experience yourself and others?

Chapter Six - Transforming Abusive Power Relations

War Zone

Understanding the repetitive nature of trauma is not sufficient for understanding the perpetuation of trauma. Wars are not just manifestations of trauma psychology. There is a structural substrate in which war is embedded, a matrix of international relationships out of which our collective pattern of destruction occurs. What is this matrix?

Abuse, the misuse of power, is transmitted from one generation to another. It becomes the basis of important parts of the structure of individuals and of nations and their relationships. The forced choice of either having power over others or having them overpower us then becomes an apparently inescapable reality governing all of life. My recognition of this pattern began in my therapy office, working with clients who grow up in abusive families. There I learned that physical, emotional, or sexual abuse often runs from one generation to another.

Most trauma I work with in my practice is in the form of childhood abuse. Such abuse is not only repetitive, it also impacts at a much deeper level, the level of development. In these cases, the impact of trauma is only part of the story, because abuse is a training ground for learning about oneself and relationships. What people often learn from chronic abuse is that life is about overpowering people and getting overpowered, using and being used, hurting and being hurt. The light that people come into this life with gets denied*? and replaced by assumptions of life as a grim ordeal.

"You can't imagine, " Marcy said to me in our of our early sessions, "what it was like in our family. It was a war zone."

She came from a large family. The siblings all fought, even as grown-ups. Her mother was weak, an alcoholic. Her father was a "rage-aholic," who would waken them all in the middle of the night, accuse them of petty crimes, and beat them without mercy. He also molested Marcy. He had learned this pattern from his own family, where his mother had been very cruel to him. She in turn learned it from her father, who had molested her.

Traumatic patterns learned in the family are profoundly rooted not only in the structure of the family but in the makeup of personalities formed in the crucible of abuse. Childhood trauma impacts people in a different way than adult trauma. Childhood trauma is developmental trauma. It is while the tree is still growing, that the limbs can become most easily deformed. People with Developmental Trauma suffer from more than PTSD; their personality structures have become altered - it is more than a condition, it becomes part of the being. As one of my clients put it, "Recovery from incest is like trying to remove egg from the batter after the cake is baked."

Because of her early training, as an adult, Marcy continued to experience her life as a war zone. On the outside of her personality was a shell of defensive rage. Her style, mimicking that of her father, was that the best defense was a good offense: always be hypervigilant, on the lookout for danger, and if you see anything threatening, strike first. It was a good style for survival in her family, as it is in many "war-zone" families. She learned to stay alert: if she did not show her readiness to attack, her siblings would beat on her until she did.

Trauma can be structured not only into families but also into nations through the suffering of each generation. I experienced this powerfully when, at the turn of the Millenium, the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, of which I am a member, was invited to perform in different locations in Israel. In between concerts, we visited tragic history. On March 24, 2000, we made two stops, one at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, the other at Daheisha, a Palestinian refugee center.

Yad Vashem combines beauty and horror. There are trees planted in the memory of those who helped the Jews escape from Nazi extermination. Inside in a darkened, quiet hall, evoking peace and grief, is an eternal flame in memoriam for those millions who died. Another part of the museum has old blown-up black and white photographs of the victims of Nazi persecution and extermination. The most difficult moment for me there was seeing a photograph of a teenage girl sitting naked outdoors about to be shot. The girl looked very much like one of my own daughters, Emily. There was another photograph of a different young woman, all skin and bones, a survivor of a concentration camp, now on a boat heading to Israel just after World War II, with hope for survival. Finally, when I went outside into the sunshine again, I saw three young women in green Israeli military uniforms, all carrying Uzis strapped to their backs. Horrifying powerlessness had turned in a few generations into self-protective, armed power.

I was glad to go to Daheisha, because a group of teenagers from that camp had come to the United States and performed as singers and dancers. They had performed in a dance troupe in which my daughter, Emily, also performed. When our group arrived, young, beautiful Arab children, all with glowing eyes and smiles, surrounded us. An American woman, who was helping the children there, told us these children were the fourth generation to live in this camp; what began as temporary relocation had become permanent internment. She told us stories of the brutal conditions in which these generations had lived, stories of large families forced to live in a single room, detentions, imprisonment, and death. Horror and helplessness had spread.


Systematic abuse thwarts normal development not only of relationships but also of the self. Abuse hinders peoples' ability to be separate and self-governing. As a very young child, Karen was molested by her father; this continued through her teen years until she left home. Karen's attention was focussed on her father; she experienced him as a very dangerous man, and she had to remain vigilant to stay alive. She had to do what he said and she had to make sure she watched his every move. Karen grew up not knowing herself and not valuing herself. Because she was molested at such a young age, she did not develop a sense of self separate from her father. She did what she was told, not what she wanted. She did not even know what she wanted. Inside of her was great sadness and deep, terrifying rage.

Karen's father, Marshall, was intensely narcissistic: he was unable to experience others except as an extension of himself. When Karen expressed any separateness or independence, he would beat her or molest her, turning her into an object under his control. His relationship to her was self-serving and exploitive. Marshall had himself developed in a crucible of exploitation. Marshall's mother was cruel and narcissistic. She believed that Marshall was supposed to serve her needs, and when he didn't, she would humiliate him. He grew up hating women and afraid of them. Evidence indicated that an uncle, his mother's brother, might also have molested him.

Injury to autonomy spreads routinely in families from one generation to another. It also happens routinely in relationships between nations. This occurs primarily through the extension of empire.

As a graduate student in history, I found something odd in the study. The dominance of one nation by another was the framework of almost all the history we studied, yet it was never specifically commented on. Perhaps it was a case of the empire's clothes. We were supposed as students to accept the simple fact that people run other peoples' lives.

That assumption began World War I. The Kaiser, jealous of the place in the sun that France had achieved through its empire, believed that Germany must have its own greatness, which was assumed to be power over other nations. His ministers believed that to have that, war was necessary. The Kaiser wanted to annihilate France. (Tuchman, Guns of August).

The Kaiser's belief in his right to dominate and destroy lives in order to serve his self-aggrandizement was a repetition of ancient history. During the century before, Napoleon had sought world conquest. In the centuries before that, England, France, Holland, Spain, and Portugal had set out to conquer and take what they could of the world's bounty through destruction and domination. Before that was the Roman Empire, before that the Greeks, the Persians, the Babylonians.

Throughout history, from the government to the family, those who wish to have power over others have intentionally created terror, horror, helplessness, and hopelessness in those whom they wish to control. It is precisely these emotions built into us by nature to ensure our survival that become the means and language of social control. From early times, rulers would use terror and horror as a way to subdue either their own populace or their enemies. When people feel these feelings chronically, they become helpless and hopeless and easy to subdue. These intentionally generated emotions are part of the means through which empire spread. Even within the family, until recently, it was considered appropriate for the parent to teach helplessness to their children as a way of maintaining discipline.[17] Even now, we see nations either using force or threatening its use in order to ensure compliance with the will of the stronger nations.

When self-government is thwarted, shame also arises. Domination inflicts humiliation. Whether in the family or in the society at large, when power is imposed on a human being, the person experiences shame and the sense of self suffers. People who have been repetitively told that they are of less value than others can have a wounding that is invisible and pervasive. Minorities within a society, colonialized people, and scapegoats within a family tend to grow up with a pain inside themselves about who they are.

Karen, the client molested by her father, felt shame at being sexually abused, as if somehow she had chosen the experience. Fred, a client who had been physically and verbally abused by his stepfather, grew up with a stinging sense of shame. His stepfather called him good-for-nothing. "You are so worthless," he would shout, "You deserve worse than this!" And he would beat him. Deep inside, Fred felt he did deserve the beatings. It took years of recovery before he believed otherwise.

Deep within humiliated, abused people a rage often smoulders. This rage is often too dangerous to arise in the presence of an overwhelming oppressor, so it often emerges later. Sometimes, as with Karen, it can come out during therapy. The further Karen's therapy went, the more her rage against her father came out, so intensely it frightened her -- the old fear of his punishment was coupled with the rage, so every time the rage emerged, so did panic. But as she let in the rage, when nothing bad happened, the more autonomous she grew. She realized she was not powerless, she could stand up to people who oppressed her. She started to overcome her shame. She realized she was not her father, she was separate from him. She was not at fault for her abuse, he was.

The regaining of autonomy by those who are oppressed occurs on national levels as well. Power projected into the world by conquering nations eventually causes uprising. Historian Patrick Brogan writes about the empires before 1945 that were "intended to permit the exploitation of brown, black and yellow peoples by white men."[18]

Subservience and second-class citizenship take their toll. Menial jobs, currying favor with the oppressor, living in fear of punishment, sometimes imprisonment, torture, and death -- all these build a reservoir of resentment, shame, grievance, and rage. A rickshaw driver in China, hauling an Englishman around Peiping, a waiter in Algeria standing by as Frenchmen discuss the "locals" with contempt, young women in sweatshops in Indonesia on subsistence wages making expensive shoes for Westerners, women in Korea used as "comfort girls" for Japanese soldiers, machiadores in factories in Mexico living in poverty working in factories to make goods to be consumed in the North - humiliation and oppression create an experience of suffering and injustice that longs for change.

Eventually, change happens. The United States of America itself arose as a resistance movement against colonial dominance, and so with other nations. Brogan writes, "The decline of empires was inevitable. It required merely that a relatively small class in any colony should ask itself why it should be governed by foreigners, and the advance of education produced that class everywhere. The empires were built by force: the British conquered India with the musket and Africa with the Gatling gun. Once modern weapons became freely available to rebels, who vastly outnumbered the colonial garrisons, the balance of force shifted and the empires were defeated."[19]

At times of war, and in matters of national security, seeing and telling the truth can be treason or seen at least as disloyalty; it is expected that we must all be united, in intention and in vision, with the government which is assumed to be identical in its interests to the interests of the governed. Especially in times of trauma, differentiation from leadership in matters of national security is strongly discouraged. When Barbara Lee stood as a lone opponent to the approval of the war on terrorism, she received death threats and was then excoriated in the media as a coward for using a bodyguard.

World War II let us see American military force as heroism. I grew up playing on ROTC tanks; war was pretty good. During the Cold War, we learned how America was helping other nations to be free. We gave "aid," military and economic to help the world. Almost all forward expression of power into the world was to keep other countries from the Communist menace and therefore to keep ourselves safe as well. Their interest was our interest. We were involved in protecting their freedom and American security.

The end of the Cold War no longer allows United States projection of military force to be justified as containment of someone else's empire. While some military spending has been justified along similar lines of self-protection and helping others in the war on drugs and fighting terrorism, increasingly, justification for United States military presence is on the basis of protection of economic abundance, which is now labeled as "security."

This is particularly true in the case of the relationship between military power and the geopolitics of oil. Motivation that in the beginning of the twentieth century was military has now become economic.

Both world wars were heavily impacted by the military importance of oil. During World War I, England had an edge over Germany, because its naval ships could go much faster than Germany's coal-fueled ships. Motor vehicles to carry troops and supplies also made such a difference that Lord Curzon, who was about to become British foreign secretary, said the Allies had "floated to victory on a wave of oil."[20]

In World War II , oil was a major factor in determining victory and defeat. The attack on Pearl Harbor came about as a result of their attempt to gain control over petroleum supplies of the Dutch East Indies. When the United States responded with an oil embargo on Japan, they, mistakenly, believed that war with the United States was inevitable and so assured their defeat by doing the only action which would bring the United States into the war, a surprise attack. Similarly, when the Germans were running low on the oil needed to press its military campaigns, they invaded Russia in part to get oil from Baku, now Azerbaijan -- the same region as the current war in Afghanistan. The Russian campaign ruined the German attempt at empire.

At the end of World War II, the United States government, impressed about the military importance of oil, made a special deal with Saudi Arabia, that we would defend them against Soviet attacks if we were to have access to their oil. An expert on warfare, Michael Clare, in Resource Wars, puts it, "Initially American moves in the Middle East were governed by classical military considerations: to prevent a hostile power from gaining control over a vital resource needed for the effective prosecution of war."[21]

This military motivation began its change to an economic one after 1973, when the Arab states punished Washington for its support of Israel by cutting back petroleum deliveries to the United States and quadrupled oil prices. After the resulting prolonged economic recession, "from this time on, oil was seen not only as an essential military commodity but also as a prerequisite for global economic stability... For the first time, senior officials began talking about using force to protect vital petroleum supplies in peacetime, to guarantee the health of the economy."[22]

In 1975, Henry Kissinger said that the United States was prepared to go to war over oil. In 1997, General J. H. Binford Peay III, commander in chief of the U.S.Central Command (CENTCOM), declared, "The unrestricted flow of petroleum resources from friendly Gulf states to refineries and processing facilities around the world drives the global economic engine."[23] We have, for better and worse, evolved into an economic system whose lifeblood is oil that flows through the arteries of machines upon which we have come to depend, and whose health depends on ever-increasing consumption. Intended to increase our comfort, we have come to work harder and harder with less and less leisure to keep it all working. One of the costs of doing business this way has been human blood. What began as military necessity has become a matter of economic survival. One of the impacts of our decision to support the Saudi regime against any who could impede the free flow of oil our way has become the direct utilization of United States military overt and covert forces to keep the Saudi regime safe from external and internal foes.

Making the Saudi regime safe from enemies has created new enemies who are now attacking us.

This extraordinary partnership has also produced a number of unintended consequences, and it is these effects that concern us here. To protect the Saudi regime against its external enemies, the United States has steadily expanded its military presence in the region, eventually deploying thousands of troops in the kingdom. Similarly, to protect the royal family against its internal enemies, US personnel have become deeply involved in the regime's internal security apparatus. At the same time, the vast and highly conspicuous accumulation of wealth by the royal family has alienated it from the larger Saudi population and led to charges of systemic corruption. In response, the regime has outlawed all forms of political debate in the kingdom (there is no parliament, no free speech, no political party, no right of assembly) and used its US-trained security forces to quash overt expressions of dissent. All these effects have generated covert opposition to the regime and occasional acts of violence--and it is from this underground milieu that Osama bin Laden has drawn his inspiration and many of his top lieutenants... Ever since the end of the Gulf War, he has focused his efforts on achieving two overarching goals: the expulsion of the American "infidels" from Saudi Arabia (the heart of the Muslim holy land) and the overthrow of the current Saudi regime and its replacement with one more attuned to his fundamentalist Islamic beliefs.

Both of these goals put bin Laden in direct conflict with the United States. It is this reality, more than any other, that explains the terrorist strikes on US military personnel and facilities in the Middle East, and key symbols of American power in New York and Washington.[24]

The two largest oil-producing areas outside of the United States are the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Basin. Until recently, the United States has increasingly occupied one area with military force. During Desert Storm, the war to keep Iraq, a state hostile to the United States from occupying Kuwait, which was cooperative with the United States, the United States brought military forces into Saudi Arabia.

Former U. S. Attorney General, Ramsey Clark, in The Fire This Time, details ways in which United States desire to control oil in the Middle East helped to generate wars between Iraq and Iran and finally led to the United States war against Iraq in 1991. He quotes the Pentagon as saying, "In the Middle East and Southwest Asia, our overall objective is to remain the predominant outside power in the region and preserve U.S. and Western access to the region's oil... "Of the current proposed attack on Iraq by the Bush administration, Michael Klare states, "The administration doesn't want oil to be part of the war discussion because it undercuts the reasoning that the rush to war is because of an immanent (Iraqi) military threat. If the real motives were made clear - that this is a grab for oil and an attempt to break the back of OPEC - it would make our motives look more predatory than exemplary."[25]

Since that time, the United States has steadily expanded its military presence in the region in order to deter any power from interfering with the flow of oil to us. According to Clare, "the very magnitude of the American military prsence -- along with Washington's periodic use of force -- has also provoked opposition to U.S. policies. This is especially evident in Saudi Arabia, where the growing deployment of Amercian troops has aroused fierce hostility from militant Islamic leaders who resent the presence of non-Muslims on their soil."[26]

Along with other factors, this creates a "recipe for recurring violence."[27] The same forces that drive successful movements of independence can produce terrorism under specific circumstances. When resistance is up against overwhelming force and cannot win, there is still an option to retain honor, that is, to overcome the shame of being dominated, by acts of resistance. Sometimes, when people are severely outgunned by those they consider oppressors, those who feel helpless enact their own outrage, horror, and terror to have some impact by creating terror in their enemies. These are the terorrists. Then the more the regimes they oppose strike out against them, the more oppressed the terrorists feel, the greater are their numbers. The cycle of terrorism/ counter-terrorism can then go on for decades, as it has in Ireland, Beirut, and Israel.


We are at a unique moment in history, where the decisions we make now could have impact that could last a long time. We are the most powerful nation in the world, and we have been attacked. We could protect ourselves by going to war against all who might threaten us, and in the process cause "collateral damage," civilian deaths - the kind of harm we abhor when it happens to us. That use of power is available to us. Or we could exercise the wisdom the allied nations did after World War II, when they enacted the Marshall Plan, building up those who had harmed us, to stop the cycle of endless violence.

In what kind of a world do we wish our children to grow up? The matrix of perpetual trauma is transgenerational: it passes from one generation to another, transmitted by structures of family and society. Many of my clients come to see me because they do not wish to have their children experience what they have, and they are afraid of transmitting the patterns unconsciously and helplessly on to them.

Marcy had originally come to me because she found herself treating her daughter the way her father treated her, because her own behavior was so aggressive. This changed through therapy. Because Marcy's style was built on the expectation of attack, the development of trust in our relationship gradually allowed her to drop her defensive rage and contact the feelings of terror and helplessness underneath. Marcy's wound was developmental; her father's abuse wounded the normal development of true autonomy. Her recovery was also developmental, and it required enormous courage and strength, which resided deep inside her, beneath the wounding. She had to confront terror and to go through a great deal of underlying, overwhelming rage and grief.

The strength she now began to draw upon was deeper than the apparent strength of her rigid, reactive, aggressive shell. This was essential strength, the strength we are born with, part of our nature.

"I have spent the past week so sad. I never realized I was sad. It's like the little girl inside me - I've been so afraid of her before - it's like she never had a chance to be sad before. She had to hide inside me, because she was afraid. I was afraid of my sadness, because I thought if I started to feel it, I would just drown in it, like there would be no end to it. I was afraid to cry. I'm not so worried about that now. I thought I was strong before, because I was so tough. Now that I'm letting go of being tough, I'm finding I'm strong enough to just be sad."

"You seem softer too," I said.

"Yeah, I used to hate that. I thought that if I was soft, people would take advantage of me. It's weird, isn't it? Softer is stronger."

As her true inner strength grew and became integrated into her personality, and as she allowed herself to feel the dreaded feelings of what she had always regarded as "weakness" underneath, she changed. As she softened, she was able to assert herself effectively in the world. No longer reactive, she saw people as they were. She learned to differentiate herself from her father - she was not him, and she did not need to be like him. With increasing consciousness came an increasing ability to govern herself and control over her own behavior. She also differentiated from her abusive family; she said no to them, and now could back it up.

Similarly, as a society we have the option of gaining control over our own the inherited structures that both support us and cause us and others harm. We may wish to question whether such structures are ones we wish our children and theirs to inherit, or whether we wish to create structures different from those of the past. The U.S. government's silent shift towards using war to protect economic rather than military interests and stealthy movement towards upholding oppressive regimes may abuse not only others but also finally ourselves. We may choose whether to support or oppose such policies.

Helplessness and hopelessness generate a despair that leave people believing that only violent assault can create redress for the wrongs they have suffered. In order to protect against terrorism we must as a nation reexamine the actions which create the breeding grounds for terrorist motivation. According to Johnson the author of Blowback, even after the end of the Cold War, the United States military forces have continued as before to train and support the military of other countries. They have acted against United States foreign policy and without congressional oversight. These military agencies, which had developed a life of their own, trained foreign governments in state terror. " In 1991, Congress inadvertently gave the military's special forces a green light to penetrate virtually every country on earth."[28] As a result, by 1998 we had missions in 110 countries where, according to a Department of Defense manual entitled Doctrine for Special Forces Operations, published by the Washington Post, the purpose of these operations is to train in "foreign internal defense (FID). The purpose of FID is, according to Chalmers, "meant to prepare foreign militaries for actions against their own populaces or rebel forces in their countries... FID amounts to little more than instruction in state terrorism."[29]

If we choose to continue to support a world in which "the strong do as they can, and the weak suffer what they must,"[30] we may create a world in which our children continue to suffer at the hands of those who have no power other than terrorism.


First review your own family structure. Look back over the generations of which you are aware and see whether you consider your family structure one in which the children are supported or abused or exploited or ignored. Is the story uniform or mixed? How were you treated in your family? How has the structure of relationships in your family impacted those in it? Can you see patterns over generations? See if you can see ways in which your family patterns have impacted you, both in terms of the resources they have given you and in the ways they have conditioned you in ways that distort your nature.

Now look at the ways in which the structure of the overall society has impacted your family. What economic class was your family in? Did that impact the adaptation of your family? What nationality is your family? Is the social structure of the nation from which your family comes in some ways similar to the way your family is structured?

Are you content with the imprint of your family's structure on your own ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, or are there ways you would you like to become freer from your family imprint?

How aware are you of how the United States impacts the rest of the world? Would you like to learn more? Are there actions you would like to take that would help to change how the United States acts in the world?


It is said that it is easier to whisper to the driver of the carriage than to stand in front of the horses shouting once their hooves are already thundering.

There is a hush following a great shock, before the marionettes of the mind can begin dancing again,

And in this stillness can perhaps
Be born a vision.

Neruda writes,

Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the
let's not speak in any language;
let's stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;...
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems to be dead in winter
and later proves to be alive.
Now I'll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
Perhaps the vision of our incomprehensible
Sorrow and pain
Can become our first glimpse
Of ourselves not at war.
The characters of my dreams
Tell me to expect
Nothing of them,
That they are the same
Old crew.
My son tells me on
The phone that where he lives,
Rumors abound that this
Is the prophesized beginning
Of world war three, and that
Only a miracle
Can stop it, and that we
Are that miracle.
In Israel at the turn of the Millenium
I walked along the Via Dolorosa --
Where Jesus walked on the way
To the crucifixion -- looking for signs
Of Him. All I saw
Was a poor Arab woman,
Suckling her hungry child.

Chapter Seven - Reconnecting to Our Spiritual Source

Core Connection

The greatest pain that comes from transgenerational trauma is to the heart, which I believe, only God can heal. In my work with profoundly wounded clients, the deepest wounding is spiritual, and so also is the deepest healing.

The drama of empire crushes the spirit. Like the children of families of transgenerational trauma, we are caught in a dark web of violence that seems to have no beginning and no end. We play helplessly in a mechanical drama of power in which the only roles available seem to be perpetrator or victim.

We have created the machinery that runs our world, but we are not machines ourselves; we are human. Just as we do not need to be driven by our instincts, nor by our tendency to repeat trauma, so also we do not need to driven by pre-existing patterns of empire which have shaped so much of the history of the world into which we have been born. But we are free to respond to these conditions as each of us chooses. Freedom is the gift of being human. Trauma and terrorism can impact us, but we can choose to respond to life not mechanically but from a deeper level within ourselves that goes beyond the battle for power.

There is a way of stepping outside the power struggle of the generations. The roles of perpetrator and victim are not who we fundamentally are. We have inside of each of us a core that connects us to all of life. Each of us has different ways of accessing this core connection. It can be through our experience of nature, a beautiful sunset, the ocean, a flower or its perfume. It can be through love -- the love of a lover, or of a mate, or of a child. It can be through beauty -- art, music, poetry, or drama. Or it can be through spiritual or religious experience. Each of these ways can connect us to deep aspects of ourselves, our inner lives, or life itself.

Access to this core can be lost through trauma. People born into situations structured to repeat trauma grow up with basic trust lost. Trauma damages whatever initial trust they experience. Thus, in the healing of trauma, the restoration of trust is essential. Part of this, in my practice, happens in the therapeutic relationship. Much more deeply is the development of spiritual connection. In addition to restoring access to our instincts, to our personal power, to our ability to separate and to see and tell the truth, we can also restore our connection to our Source, when it has been broken. Our lives can be restored when trauma has disconnected us from our core.

Back to Life

At the core of trauma is often a death layer. Trauma overwhelms the capacity of the organism to cope. As a result, parts shut down. Parts of the self give up living, because living becomes too much to bear. Inside then, there is a deadness, and people go on through life as a shell of who they once were. At the deepest level, when the traumatic impact has reached the spiritual level, there can be a kind of spiritual deadness, a loss of connection to the core.

The firmest way out of deadness is through it. In working with people in my practice, I find that as people pay attention to their experience, they come upon dead spots, areas of numbness, no experiencing, no feeling, no aliveness. As they pay attention to these areas, slowly numbness abates, experiencing and feeling return, and aliveness is restored. Life can return even to the core.

It was out of the repetitive trauma of empire that the great religions of the West were born. The Middle East is a crossroads between Africa, Asia, and Europe. It was therefore subject to repeated conquests and changing rulership. The hill at Meggido, the place at which Armageddon was predicted to take place, according to the book of Revelations, has 23 layers, one atop another of different conquests; at the top of this hill was the site of human sacrifice, the trademark of empire. In the midst of this conquest and suffering, the need to discover a Source of strength, meaning, and trust becomes most intense. In this crossroads of conquest and trauma, it is perhaps no accident that the vision arose of God as a man suffering death in anguish at the hands of empire and yet surviving and forgiving. According to the faith that emerged at the core of repeatedly crushed spirits, in the midst of the death that empire brings, Life can return.

In my practice, clients whose trust in life is torn from them by early abuse find ultimately that healing can best be based on the bedrock of Spirit and love. Many of us grow up thinking of spirit as a separate part of life or as a palliative for pain. For trauma survivors, spirit can be the lifeblood of recovery. John, a police officer whose car accident prevented him from continuing his work, went through mourning, resentment and rage at the loss of his carrier. He saw himself as having fought against the bad guys, and he was good at it; he was a "hot dog." One day, while trying to apprehend a fleeing suspect, he was shot and wounded so badly he could not continue to serve as a policeman. For a long time, he was enraged - at the shooter, at his spouse, at his former buddies, at the insurance company, at me, and at God. He was in a dark mood, because his life had lost its purpose. Slowly through our work, he began to become aware of the way he was conditioned in his family to be violent; violence ruled his early household and was the road to survival and honor. As he became aware of his early conditioning, its hold over him softened, and he saw more possibilities in life. He became aware of the presence of something outside him that was watching over him, preserving and guiding him. He soon moved into teaching adolescents. He had traversed a transformation of who he understood himself to be. Rather than chasing the bad guys he was now interested in helping kids to grow.

Robert was a Vietnam Vet. At first when I met him he was defiant and fully defended with a hard shell of pride. "I have met the Angel of Death and survived!" he announced in a meeting with Vietnam Vets. As we began to work together, things changed. He became aware of the way he had changed during his stay in Vietnam. He had experienced many things that unmoored who he thought himself to be - in a negative direction. He had seen and participated in events that had no place in his soul. Prior to coming to Vietnam, he was preparing to be a minister. The exposure to and participation in mass violence violated him in a way he could not let himself feel during and even after the combat. As he became aware of this, he felt intense guilt that he had suppressed underneath his bravado. He was not sure how to go on with that guilt. I suggested to him that he could ask for and receive forgiveness. He said he would do that. In a few weeks, his manner had changed. He had softened. He realized that he was in fact forgiven and he could now go on with his life. He reconnected with children he had not seen in a decade, and he volunteered to work with other Vets. Robert's wound was spiritual and so was the resource that healed him. His conscience was wounded in participating in war, and forgiveness brought a balm to his heart.

Each aspect of healing we have discussed, when fulfilled, allows the past to become past, so that people injured by trauma need not continue to suffer or to perpetuate trauma. Forgiveness too allows new life to begin. When people accept forgiveness for their past, the past can be released and the future can be chosen in freedom.

Healing that is supported by Spirit is, in my experience, the deepest healing. It takes a great deal of support and faith to do the arduous work of working through trauma. The feelings and sensations of trauma are intense; they were overwhelming at the time of trauma - that is why the experience was traumatic. To unearth these feelings and sensations and to stay with this task and to do the re-development demands a hope that somehow life could be different than before.

The task of healing at a spiritual level is far more profound and difficult for people abused as children in cults. Some cults are sadistic toward children and subject them to extremely severe abuse whose intent is to reduce trust in people and to destroy hope. There is a brainwashing intention and impact of such abuse. In such cases, it takes years of working through terror, rage, and extreme mistrust. For me, it is astonishing that even under such circumstances, people have a spirit which is so powerful as to overcome even such severe trauma and begin to develop trust, hope, and an openness to love. I consider these to be miracles of healing.

Kevin, for example, feared and hated people and God, as he had been conditioned to do by abuse. We worked for many years through incident after incident and through different parts of his personality -- each piece of rage and terror and grief. As we worked, his orientation toward life changed a bit at a time. As we worked slowly together through his healing, Kevin slowly learned to trust me.

Kevin's trust extended beyond our relationship and grew slowly. He developed friendships, at first only briefly, then over time, more enduringly. He explored romantic and sexual relationships, again tentatively at first and then with greater commitment.

His relationship to God changed along with his relationship to people. He hated God for letting him get abused. Over a long period of time, working through these feelings, he began to experience God as a support. He felt that God was giving him what his perpetrators took away - love, hope, and forgiveness. He began to surrender his feelings of hate. As he let love in, the love started to overflow toward others. He finally decided he needed to forgive those who had harmed him.

Just as spiritual assault can injure the heart, it can also awaken it. Pain tells us where our injury dwells. It draws our attention in for healing. When the pain is in our heart, we may let our attention go inward to our heart and hear its cry. If we fail to stop war, we can perhaps forgive ourselves and each other, understanding that chronic trauma is difficult to stop. And if we understand that it is our connection to others that has been wounded in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, then we need only to extend this connection to include those outside our own borders, including those who can be destroyed by our own aggression.

We can choose to awaken from the nightmare of traumatic thinking, feeling, acting and assumptions. We have a choice now to continue the old drama or begin to act in a new way. We are in a wonderful position to alter the patterns of history. America is in a special position: we are the ones attacked, and we are the most powerful nation in the world. We have a choice. We must take a stand against terrorism and protect ourselves. The question is how. If we continue with all-out military action against terrorists and all who harbor them, we may continue to spread the terror, horror, and helplessness that is the bedrock of perpetual trauma, and we may inadvertently create the very conditions we are trying to prevent. If, however, we moderate our approach, using reasonable restraint, and helping to improve the conditions that lead to terrorism, we can set an example for humanity to follow and create security out of a world of terror.


[1] McDermott, newshour, see palm pilot for date.

[2] Levine, p.87

[3] DSM IV

[4] Levine pp. 19-20

[5] ibid p.87

[6] Ibid., p. 21

[7] Benjamin Barber , Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World

[8] Seligman, Learned Helplessness

[9] New York Review of Books, cited in LA Weekly, Oct 26, 2001.


[12] Chalmers Johnson, Blowback, , p.8

[13] Ibid., p.223

[14] Kevin Sullivan, "New Yorkers bond with kids in Kabul," Washington Post. In SF Chronicle, December 22, 2001.

[15] Judith Herman, Healing and Recovery, p115.

[16] Johnson, op. cit., p. 11.

[17] Alice miller, For Your Own Good

[18] Brogan, Patrick, The Fighting Never Stopped

[19]. Ibid.

[20] Quoted in Clare, p. 30

[21] Clare, p. 32.

[22] Clare, op. cit., p. 32-3

[23] Quoted in Clare, op. cit., p. 34.

[24] The Nation, "The Geopolitics of War, Nov. 5, 2001

[25] Current History, March 2002, cited in Robert Collier, "Oil Firms wait as Iraq crisis unfolds," S.F. Chronicle, September 29, 2002, p.1.

[26] Clare, op. cit., p. 54

[27] Ibid.

[28] Johnson, Blowback, p. 72.

[29] Ibid., p. 73.

[30] Thucidides, Peloponesian Wars