Reflecting on our recent Bruce Wine Memorial Conference, a non-clinician attendee recalled feeling “dread” as she drove to the event. “I was prepared to find a quiet corner and disappear as silently as I had arrived. Entering a packed theater of accomplished psychiatrists and psychotherapists, I was greeted by a caring and comfortable environment and was able to focus on my reason for attending – further understanding of the lifelong effects of early childhood ‘asteroid strikes.'”
The program included Red Well Theater Group’s dramatic reading of Amy Herzog’s The Great God Pan, dyadic and large group work, and comments by Christine Courtois, PhD. The play portrays a young man facing one of those “asteroid strikes” in the form of a revelation that he may have been sexually molested in youth, and opens windows into some of the possible repercussions the abuse and secrecy/implicit knowing had on his family and relationships. The play and discussions together explored complex issues of trauma and memory processes, the impact of childhood sexual abuse on adult intimate relationships, the destabilizing effects of family secrets, and the complex impact of truth-seeking.
Robert Schulte, MSW, Founding Director of Red Well Theater Group (RWTG), expertly guided the performance. The group’s actors are also therapists who are united by a love of theater and a commitment to group psychotherapy training. The cast of The Great God Pan included Kavita Avula, PhD, Connor Dale, LPC, John Dluhy, MD, Mary Dluhy, MSW, Liz Marsh, MSW, Yavar Moghimi, MD, Rosemary Segalla, PhD and Rob Williams, MSW. Music by Tom Teasley added yet another, non-verbal, dimension.
Immediately after the play reading, audience members had the opportunity to spend 15 minutes discussing their reactions with a neighbor. Then, after a brief break, Christine Courtois, PhD offered insightful commentary about the difficulties of working with individuals who have had traumatic experiences like the one depicted in the play. The conference concluded with a large group discussion facilitated by Joyce Lowenstein, PhD. An attendee remarked, “the opportunity for two-person and whole group discussion helped to bring further understanding of how traumatic experience relates to memory and relationships. It also showed the immense responsibility of the therapist in finding the delicate balance between jogging memory and suggesting ideas beyond what might have been real.”
Perhaps there is some comfort, and there is certainly good practice, in sharing awareness of the serious and delicate considerations involved in trauma work. It is never easy. One clinician commented on feeling that the afternoon was a “clarion call for us to continue our work with renewed empathy and energy… The program design so amplified the effects, I am still filled with singing echoes.”
This year’s conference was characterized by many of the values Bruce Wine embodied and modeled: intellectual curiosity and honesty, collaboration and co-creation of relationships, striving to perform our craft with excellence, and maintaining a warm ambiance for learning. Joyce Lowenstein introduced the day and MaryAnn Dubner, PhD offered a touching personal tribute to Bruce, recalling her friendship and professional collaboration with him.
Bob Schulte summed the experience up nicely, “Our work at RWTG is premised on group principles, and our joint collaboration with you to present the 3rd Bruce Wine Memorial Conference honors those principles… Bruce would have been delighted.”
Upon returning from our Open Session presentation at the 2014 American Group Psychotherapy Association Annual Meeting, the actors were scheduled to begin reflective writing about the process of preparing their roles for The Great God Pan. Looking back, I remember when I originally introduced the task to the actors they were decidedly cool to the idea. I initially accepted that reaction as normative for actor types who prefer the spoken, rather than the written, word. But their collective ambivalence continued, with no postings submitted for the blog by the agreed upon timeline. Hmm…
In the spring issue of the AGPA Group Circle Newsletter I wrote an article about our creative process, stating that a “unique feature of the rehearsal process is the inevitability that the drama will get under our skin—and inside our hearts and minds and even our souls. We unconsciously start feeling, thinking and relating to each other in ways that resemble the characters and their torment.”
Bion & Basic Assumptions
The triangle is a meaningful metaphor in psychology and group work, especially with trauma survivors. One noteworthy concept, useful for our examining the dramatic action and characters of The Great God Pan, is the drama triangle.The DT was made popular 40 years ago by noted psychiatrist Stephen Karman who specialized in Transactional Analysis. His drama triangle conceptualizes what he believed were universal victim/perpetrator/rescuer dynamics operating within and between human beings. Damsel-in-distress, villain & hero is a popular interpersonal translation of this concept.
In her book, The Body Remembers, trauma specialist Babette Rothschild, MSW states “the consequences of trauma … vary greatly depending on the age of the victim, the nature of the trauma, the response to the trauma, and the support to the victim in the aftermath… [Victims] may alternate periods of over-activity with periods of exhaustion as their bodies suffer the effects of traumatic hyper-arousal of the ANS [autonomic nervous system]. Reminders of the trauma they suffered may appear suddenly, causing instant panic. They become fearful, not only of the trauma itself, but also of their own reactions to the trauma. The body’s signals that once provided essential information become dangerous” (p. 13, 14). The mind may or may not be capable of conscious memory of trauma’s origins. But the body remembers.
Good fortune seems to follow our project. I received an email in December from Tom Teasley, a professional musician, composer and sound healer with an international following. We had the good fortune to collaborate with Tom during our presentation of Off the Map at AGPA in 2008. Tom’s interpretive style of creating and using music for both theatrical and healing purposes is ready made for our projects. So when Tom reached out in hopes of collaborating again, it felt as if the gods themselves had intervened on our behalf. Tom will join our rehearsals and accompany our play reading of The Great God Pan with an original musical interpretation in Boston.You can hear a sampling of Tom’s musical genius, by clicking here.
The Process Begins…
Last year at AGPA we presented Becky Shaw by Gina Gionfriddo. This Pulitzer Prize-nominated comedy explores the self-protective strategies of keeping secrets to save face, telling lies to protect others, and justifying fraud for personal gain —think ‘paranoid/schizoid position’. The audience discussion, however, let us know that while the performances were felt to be compelling, and the play fascinating and funny, too many questions remained.
The playwright’s sometimes-facile approach to early traumatic loss (foremost the unexplained death of Max’s mother and the unrevealed true nature of the relationship between Max’s and Suzanna’s parents) and a too-tidy resolution of unconscious enactments (foremost the sexual encounter between Max and Suzanna) did not satisfy the sophisticated audience of psychotherapists. Their ‘something is still not right here’ reactions matched my own directorial sense that something more sinister and trauma-based was actually driving the action of the play. My impression at the end of the play was a sense of mystery that fell somewhere between ‘Chekhovian fog’ and comedic expediency.
The reading will be followed by a formal discussant response, an audience discussion and an actor debriefing segment to allow attendees an opportunity to explore their experience of the play and discuss clinical issues relevant to their practice of group therapy.