The Vietnam War brought to widespread public attention the concept of collective trauma, rallying a unique coalition of political and clinical efforts, with the result that Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD) came to be included in the canon of psychiatric diagnosis (first included in the DSM-III in 1980) and legitimized as a part of social and political awareness ever since. The fact that the new diagnostic category was seen as threatening to supporters of the war demonstrates how the personal experience of Veterans’ trauma came to be linked to the political anxieties of the times. The establishment of the PTSD diagnosis acknowledged the toxicity of trauma and provided a framework for the soldier’s humanity to rebound from the horrors of war.
Today PTSD is codified in the Diagnostic Symptoms Manual (DSM-V) and yet the acknowledgement of the function and causes of trauma in our society continues to evoke social and political anxieties. If we deny suffering, we are not obligated to alleviate it. If we judge perpetrators of violence morally, we do not have to acknowledge that they too are victims.
Bulletproof Therapist is a clarion call for peace making through trauma-informed practice, for social justice, and healing. Subtitled My Clinical Adventures in Inner-City Boston, Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine, it is a narrative of reportage and healing drawn from my clinical work in three disparate places that have faced intractable pain and conflict. Because the healing relationships that mark this story have a universal application, they conjure a distilled wisdom that can dramatically reshape how we interpret violence and achieve resolution.
People think I’m a lawyer but I’m not: I’m a trauma therapist. And yet I have found that therapy and advocacy need to go hand in hand. At least with the people I serve: adolescents and their families in inner-city Boston where law-enforcement officials and policy makers too often dismiss mental-health professionals and social workers as a bunch of “hug-a-thugs” and bleeding hearts. One impact goal of my life’s work is that officials will read my book and come to understand, as my friend Milton did: “I guess psychology is like God, he’s there even if you don’t believe in him…”
I would like the school Principal, who knows on paper that one out of every three black men in America will spend some time in prison, to think about how that plays out in the lives of his or her students. My hope is that the Guidance Counselor, who knows on paper that the school’s neighborhood has the highest homicide rate in the city will find, through personal stories of trauma-informed therapy, ways to address the culture of violence in daily work with students.
Changing the narrative, the story people tell about young black and Latino men and women, is the impact I would like my book to have. I would like to extricate policy makers from the confines of supposed evidenced-based theories to focus their vision on practice-based evidence; the essential knowledge mined from real-time, up-close experiences with the individuals affected by those policies. Our communities are in urgent need of new narratives. The Super Predator theory turned out to be a myth, the Broken Windows theory of policing has proven badly flawed; and yet the policies initiated in response to these once-popular theories remain in place. These theories are the funnel sending generations of young people into the School-to-Prison Pipeline, sowing the seeds of mass incarceration.
Preparing a young person for court, I say: “Listen: Guilty, Not Guilty – I’m not a judge, I’m not a jury. But what I can tell you is that when you walk in that courtroom, the judge is going to look at you, and then at your charge sheet. He’s going to have a story in his head about who you are. That story of who you are is going to determine what happens to you in court, what the judge decides.”
The impact of my book? Perhaps the judge’s ruling won’t be exclusively informed by the Broken Windows theory of criminal justice. Maybe the judge won’t see a Super Predator but rather a scared teenager. The judge will see those defendants less as a social menace and more as children in need of services. I would like my writing to help Juvenile Justice, Child Welfare Services, Youth Development and school program staff to become trauma-informed, to understand the underlying stories of trauma that are the launch points for the predicaments of their clients’ crises. A goal of my work is to change law and policy by informing hearts and minds. The judge in a juvenile case should be moved, by a detailed awareness of the impacts of social trauma, to call to task our deficient child-serving system, and to mitigate the second wave of institutional trauma represented by an under-informed provider system.
Another impact of my book will be on a popular audience of ordinary readers. After reading my work, when someone encounters a story in a newspaper about the murder of a young black man in our inner cities, their first response won’t be to ask “Was he in a gang?”
In 2012, I needed a break from the strains of daily advocacy work and so I traveled to Israel with eleven ex-paramilitary Protestant “Loyalist” leaders from Belfast, Northern Ireland (Their loyalty was to Great Britain). In preparation for that trip I watched a documentary (The Loyalists) by BBC journalist Peter Taylor about these paramilitary groups, in which Taylor interviewed ex-combatant Billy Mitchell about his role in the Troubles.
“Someone didn’t fly over Northern Ireland and drop some sort of loony gas; and suddenly people woke up one morning as killers. We didn’t go to bed one night as ordinary family men and wake up as killers. Conditions were created in this country whereby people have done things they shouldn’t have done.”
I paused the video and did a little dance of gratitude: “These are the words I’d been searching for!”
The first thing Senator George Mitchell and his negotiation team did at the start of the Good Friday Peace Talks in Belfast was to review all the prior attempts at peace making in Northern Ireland. They knew what hadn’t worked in the past and were determined to avoid those pitfalls.
The biggest obstacle had been Prior de-commissioning – the requirement that the parties would have to give up their guns in advance before coming to the negotiating table. British Secretary to Northern Ireland at the time Mo Mowlam pointed out “…you know people don’t trust each other so they still need their guns…” The negotiating team decided on a process of Parallel decommissioning. Mowlam said: “Many of us would like to make progress a lot quicker…But we have to bear in mind there are people around the table who have had relatives and friends killed. You don’t forget that.”
In the face of horror, inner-city violence, and acts of terror, people often ask rhetorical questions: How could this happen? How could someone do something so terrible? But the more productive questions often are social science and therapy-informed: What are the conditions in which people do things they shouldn’t do? What are the policies and procedures that maintain and exacerbate those conditions? In what way am I complicit, or at least capable of contributing to positive change? These are the questions I hope my reader will ask.
George Mitchell told me, in an interview last summer: “…Both sides had very deep, deeply-held …senses of victimization, and when you believe that you have been victimized it can effectively liberate you from restraints that you may otherwise feel. It enables you to rationalize and justify actions that you might not otherwise have taken. Both [sides] felt deeply victimized and deeply mistrustful.”
It struck me that, for Mowlam and Mitchell, the primary focus on finding solutions dissuaded them from moralizing. They dismissed useless adages like “we don’t negotiate with terrorists,” because of course in a war-like situation, those fighting the war were the ones who needed to negotiate, to make peace. While there are already numerous excellent books, studies, and reports about the Good Friday Peace Negotiations, there are none looking at the negotiations through a trauma lens. I believe that the section of my book about Northern Ireland, and my journey with the ex-paramilitary leaders, will guide the reader to see that a trauma-informed approach to peace-building is an optimal strategy.
When I lived in Israel (1976-1995) I’d hitchhike to Peace Now demonstrations in Tel-Aviv. Inevitably the Israeli driver would ask where I was going and when I told him he would say: “Peace Now? They are well-spoilers. They are knives in the back of our nation.”
I often recounted such conversation to friends who shared my political sympathies, but one friend in particular showed me no pity.
“Doesn’t it feel great to be right?” she said.
“Oh,” I said, ashamed, “I get it.”
She said; “It’s not that you aren’t right… But where does that get you?”
What do I want the social and political impact of my book to be? I hope to inform lay readers, and to strengthen the will of therapists and front-line workers in their conviction that our greatest tool is our ability to understand behavior as a symbolic form of communication. When people act out against societal norms, and against their own best interest, they are communicating that some need is not being met. How do we decipher those needs? How can we interpret and transcend trauma? I hope that my book will provide some answers.
My stories unfold at the intersection of three remarkable conflict zones, and they teach opportunities for positive social and political change. I hope my reader will learn from my work with my clients (and faster than I did!) that “being right” does not forge peace treaties. Being strategic and well-informed does.
 Haley SA. When the Patient Reports Atrocities: Specific Treatment Considerations of the Vietnam Veteran. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1974;30(2):191-196.