Friday, August 3, 2012

The Bed Woman and Foster Care

The Side-by-Side Community Circle is a weekly free dinner and support group in Boston. An African American woman asked for a Constellation to help with her 21 year-old twin daughters. One is emotionally close, but lives 800 miles away. The other one lives nearby; she treats her mother with disdain. 

Eighteen years ago, the mother was arrested on drug charges. A social worker from the State Department of Family Services recommended the daughters be placed in foster care. This case worker promised after 6-12 months, if the mother successfully completed treatment, the children would be returned. The mother met these conditions. However, her daughters remained in foster care for 15 years. The mother made numerous requests and filings to terminate DFS control, all unsuccessful. In the eyes of the State, the stigma of being a teen mother, drug addict and convicted felon made her permanently unfit to care for her children. The girls were shuttled between several foster homes. They reported being abused. The twin who is estranged calls one foster mother her “real” mother. 

Crying as she spoke, the mother said her heart is bursting with love, guilt and unbearable pain. She asked us for a Constellation to melt the barriers that keep her distanced from her children. The Constellation began with the female line – daughters, mother and grandmother. Each felt the pattern of ill-will, loneliness, and disconnection. The mother recalled family lore that a great-grandmother from slavery days was a bed-woman for a plantation owner. This was a slave who provided on-demand sexual relations for the Master. When she became pregnant and gave birth, the child was given to field hands, making the baby an orphan with neither mother nor father. 

Putting in a representative for this ancestral mother and her child energized the women. I added a representative for the Master, his white wife and their son. Filling in the white great-grandchildren to the present generation, the descendants of the Master, wife and bed-woman formed two parallel lines, one black, the other white. They were related by common ancestry, but opposed in their lives and experiences. 

It became suddenly clear that we were diagramming both the extended family and the foster care system itself. Not necessarily factually, but culturally, the children of the Master and his wife became the judges, legislators, and social workers who determined the mothers descended from the bed-woman were unfit. The African American descendants suffered from profound alienation and loneliness which expressed itself in the inebriation of heroin and alcohol, teen pregnancies, abusive parenting and persistent poverty. 

The bed-woman’s children, while biologically mixed-race, were seen by all as black. The universal acceptance of this biologically false reality fuels the social insanity that is part of the foster care system. The irresolvable conflict between the inherited (genetic) consciousness that remembers the truth and the personal consciousness that denies it binds the barrier between daughters and mothers. 

This particular mother, and her mother and grandmother, had partnered with older men of higher caste who related to them as cold and distant figures of male authority. This suggested that the bed-woman’s child’s yearning for her inaccessible father remained active for many generations. 

The Constellation’s last step was to put in representatives for Mother Africa and Father Europe. 21st Century American culture is born from this primal kidnapping and rape. American society, from the extreme poverty of broken urban landscapes to the elite wealth of suburban golf courses are owned, built and populated by the children of this archetype couple. In slow silence, the representatives discovered healing movements. They suggested new possibilities for closeness and acceptance between the mother and her twin daughters. 

After the Constellation, we sat again in a circle and completed a round of personal reflections. What was most remarkable was many circle members shared painful and rarely spoken histories with foster care. These included parents whose children were put in state care, those who had been raised in foster homes, former foster parents, and a social worker who had managed cases. One after another they spoke of the pain of their experiences. This Constellation touched a deep and hidden place. We left inspired, sobered and nourished, perfectly fitting for the Community Circle.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Psychology of Trauma Symposium Herrenalb, Germany

I presented a workshop with author Alexandra Senfft at the Psychology of Trauma Symposium in Germany. 

A man asked to look at his aggression in a Constellation. Born in 1958, he works as an addiction counselor. He told us aggression festered in him and burst through in destructive outbursts.  Relationships and intimacy were difficult to sustain. At his job, he felt himself absorbing the negativity of the men he counseled.

His mother (b. 1919) was the illicit daughter of a 21 year-old German house servant and her employer, a wealthy, married German Jewish merchant. When this family maid became pregnant, the father denied paternity and fired her. The young woman was rejected by her parents out of shame. When the baby was born, she was given to an orphanage and lived there more than a year until the father paid a sum of money which enabled her mother to take her. 

The girl grew up unaware of her Jewish heritage. She only learned she was the daughter of a Jew after the War started when she was assigned to manage a girls’ organization (BDM) within the Hitler Youth. Under the Nazi racial purity laws, she had to produce her original birth certificate. Seeing it for the first time was like receiving a death sentence. If her bosses knew, she would immediately be arrested and deported to a Concentration Camp.

Her first response was an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Then, she wrote a pleading letter to her mother’s brother, Rudi Graber, who held high rank in Joseph Goebbels’ Propoganda Ministry and wrote speeches for Hitler.  

Rudi Graber saved his niece’s life by directing Baldur von Schirach to intervene and change her assignment to a nursery in Finland. With false birth papers and the protection of high ranking Nazis, she survived the War.

Near the end of the war, when Germany’s defeat appeared certain, Rudi Graber volunteered for combat on the Eastern Front. As expected, this suicidal decision resulted in his dying in battle.

The client’s mother had died in 2007. To the end, she felt bitterness towards Jews and Judaism. He described her as a complex woman, sometimes good humored and other times melancholy about the circumstances of her paternity, birth and upbringing. Like his mother and grandmother, he often struggled with dark emotions. His Jewish relatives escaped from Germany and moved to the US in the 1920s. His mother had made some attempts to contact them which were rebuffed.

Recounting this story in front the group brought tears to his eyes and those of many others. He had done much therapy of over the years, including his first Constellation more than 20 years ago. He felt the deadly conflict between Jews and Germans rage inside of him. These therapeutic interventions had not relieved his internal state of war. 

Perhaps this setting, with the support of Alexandra Senfft, the granddaughter of a hanged Nazi war criminal and me, son of a Jewish-American Army soldier, could touch the hearts he carried in his heart: Who among them dared to forgive? 

There may be no heroes in this story, but were there instances of heroism?  Our minds naturally accept some and reject others. This Constellation brought forth complex ambiguity. The uncle, Rudi Graber, who wrote speeches to justify the murderous persecution of Jews, saved his niece’s life. The wealthy grandfather, who was a victim of hateful discrimination, left his daughter in an orphanage to protect his reputation.  

I asked the client to begin with a representative for his grandfather and grandmother. Immediately, these two could be seen as existing in two separate worlds. The divide was not only between the worlds of Germans and Jews, but also males and females, and culture and creation.  
Because this workshop was held in a professional setting with a societal theme, I expanded the Constellation so it was about more than one client and one family. Gradually, the Constellation space filled with many elements.  The Jewish grandfather was joined by his wife, sons, Rabbi, and Moses to symbolize the cohesive force of Jewish tradition.  The grandmother stood with her brother and elements representing the Fatherland and German culture.  
The client’s mother remained alone in a no-woman’s-land. Her mother and German family rejected her for being the product of an illicit affair.  Her father denied her very existence. Her representative reported feeling filled with shame, anger, and despair.

I asked the client to stand in the Constellation with his mother and a representative for Aggression. Surrounded by the external elements of their tragic story, they stood in the still point where powerlessness and rage converged.  

With the representatives invited to move with their truths, the healing movement came spontaneously and unexpectedly from a surprising source. The mother's half-brother, the legitimate son of the wealthy merchant and wife, opened her heart to the child of his father’s affair. The actual man has been dead for many years, so his movement does not represent family facts and may actually contradict them.  Instead, this was understood as an expression of compassion and acceptance towards a sister who did nothing to create the circumstances of her birth.  

This simple gesture of acceptance by the Jewish brother allowed the client’s mother to move towards her own mother. The human heart is surrounded by gates that protectively close from the experience of trauma.  The closed-heartedness created by severe trauma can seem irreversible and persist for decades, even be passed on to children and grandchildren.  

The irony of this quality of closed-heartedness is it can be utterly irresistible to change and yet it can change in an instant. This is the potent effect experienced so often in Constellations.  

The Jewish son’s movement released the tension of closed-heartedness in the system, opening the floodgates of open-hearted love, compassion, and acceptance.  Even so, these movements are tempered by the limitations of culture and creation.  For example, when the representative for Moses opened his arms to the client’s mother, her response was, “Where was your acceptance when it would have done me good?”  Similarly, the Nazi uncle’s act of heroism was tempered by his crimes.

The client commented afterward that the Constellation lifted an immense burden off him.  He felt an inner happiness that was quite new and unfamiliar.  Some weeks after, he wrote me:

"I found a deep peace and harmony inside. I saw a clear answer to my struggles with "German culture," and "Intellectual behavior." They were represented in the Constellation as the energy of my cold grandmother and the Nazis. I felt empathy for my grandmother, her being alone as a young pregnant mother, denied and lied to by the Jewish family and rejected by her own mother and father. She was so alone. And my mother was the victim of her hurt and hate - because my mother always reminded her of the trauma of sexual violence, what my Jewish grandfather did to my grandmother. I am very thankful that I found a place for deep sadness and contrasting energies in my life."