I heard whispers among colleagues and the next week, I tried to ignore the disquieting feelings, hoping the news was more rumor than fact. The Boston Globe reported that Bessel van der Kolk, a best-selling author whose research on post-traumatic stress disorder has attracted a worldwide following, was fired from his job at the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute he founded 35 years ago over allegations that he bullied and denigrated employees.
Bessel is a trail blazer. Before others, he insisted that we understand human suffering in the context of the impact of traumatic events. I have attended dozens of his workshops and trainings. I, like many in my field, frequently quote him in my writings and presentations. He has shaped our contemporary understanding about trauma. He blurbed my book.
Though the allegations leading to the dismissal are unconfirmed, the impact is considerable. When a trusted person in power betrays or is accused of betraying trust, there are ripples for individuals, their families, and organizations. The complexities for me, and for victims who are injured or betrayed by someone they believed in, are profound.
I know both sides of this equation—too well. I study the process of betrayal trauma. I am the founder and director of Womencare Counseling and Training Center. For the last 15 years, as co-creator of the Trauma Consultation Program, I’ve trained practitioners throughout the Chicago area in the treatment of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorders.
I specialize in repairing the relational impact from trauma on survivors who have been abused, neglected or betrayed by a trusted person or caretaker. I’ve seen the inner workings of the impact of betrayal trauma in hundreds of patients—and now I am seeing them in myself.
Bessel did not betray me, but I—and many others in my position—feel distress. When I first read the news report in The Boston Globe, I was filled with dread. I had nightmares. I experienced an emotional whiplash.
When someone you care about hurts you or hurts others there is a pull to loyalty, to silence. There is a resistance to acknowledge the dangerous or damaging parts of those we love and admire and to hold them accountable.
On the other hand, there can be a move to see those who injure as all bad. Both strategies are damaging. There is grief in facing betrayal. Hearts are broken. Beliefs about trust shatter. Intense and contradictory feelings are evoked. Anger and disappointment pair with a strong desire to find a way to sustain the connection. Often the choices for victims are painful: be silent and maintain a relationship you treasure or tell the truth and risk loss of the relationship and even retaliation and further injury.
Either way, the cost is enormous.
We are in the midst of a moment—a movement—that profoundly challenges decades of silencing, yet we are unprepared to mediate the damage and to create new paradigms of accountability, respect, and repair. It’s dizzying, and there is much to unpack—both individually and as a culture.
Bessel’s dismissal has tragic repercussions beyond the Trauma Center, including a five-million-dollar grant that van der Kolk and his collaborators applied for to study childhood trauma, now rendered unfundable because of his removal.
Dr. Martin Tiecher, an investigator on the grant, explained that this is a loss for thousands of children who would benefit from this program.
But at the same time that I feel the loss involved in Bessel’s removal, I am thankful when prestige and power are not privileged over the right of women to work in environments where they feel safe and respected.
For too long, institutions have turned the other way. Abuse has been ignored. The powerful have been protected, and when transgressions, unhealthy relationships and corrupt dynamics are allowed to fester, they cause irreparable harm.
There was a lot at stake when the Justice Resource Institute, where the Trauma Center is housed, fired its founder.
Their commitment to accountability, even if it turns out to be faulty, matters in this important #Metoo moment. Voices that were muted are being heard.
And what will become of Bessel? As Katie J. M. Baker smartly writes in last Sunday’s New York Times, what do we do with “these men”?
I traveled to South Africa with Bessel in 1998 as part of a delegation to study Post-Traumatic Stress. We spoke to clinicians and teachers in South Africa about the impact of post-traumatic stress after apartheid.
We stood in a church in Capetown and witnessed Nelson Mandela initiate the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to heal the wounds of the past as they made a historic move towards justice and freedom. We witnessed a leader and a community’s commitment to bear witness to the unimaginable harm caused by the years of Apartheid and the faith in repair and healing. We were both in awe.
Desmond Tutu explained, “Our understanding is far more restorative – not so much to punish as to redress or restore a balance that has been knocked askew.”
Imagine if we could create healthy cultures in organizations where all voices are heard, where transgressions and abuse of power are identified, and where the injured are silenced no more—and where restorative justice can transpire.
Imagine real accountability and the offering of meaningful amends. I believe that we, as a culture, need to look beyond the binary of good and evil and of victim and perpetrator.
In a different model of relationships and of interpersonal ethics, transgressions would be identified, opportunities to make meaningful repair and restitution would be encouraged.
Institutions would actively promote a climate of respect.
Healing, the opposite of trauma, would be possible. Laurie Kahn, MA, LCPC, MFA
Director, Womencare Counseling and Training Center