In the last week of August, in the run-up to the impending broadcast of ‘Zomergasten’ (‘Summer Guests’, an interview programme since 1988), there was commotion around the core figure of the three-hour conversation. Three academics had a warning for the Dutch people, which led to lively discussions on social media. In the last episode of the season, the stepping-down presenter Janine Abbring would receive as a guest the world-famous psychiatrist, scientist and author Bessel van der Kolk (1943), a man with Dutch roots who has lived in the United States since the early 1960s and has created furore as a pioneer and expert in the field of trauma. He did this, among other things, through his roles as an adviser or expert witness to international investigations and trials, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after the end of apartheid and on the road to democracy. His acclaimed book ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ (translated into Dutch as ‘Traumasporen’, trauma traces) has as its core message that the intellectual brain is sometimes so overwhelmed by events that it uses the mechanism of dissociation as a survival strategy. The emotional charge of the experiences is deeply buried so that the one who endured the events can somehow continue with life. Conscious experience of the trauma would be too painful, too unbearable. However, the body has gone through all that toxic stress, and those experiences affect stress regulation, brain development, neurophysiology and thus the immune system, resulting in a range of potential social and health problems. The body carries everything with it: the body keeps the score. This view is clearly not yet universally accepted.
The three authors of the Volkskrant article (a professor, an emeritus professor and an associate professor) stated that Van der Kolk might be given room in the program “to spread incorrect and dangerous ideas” about repressed memories (de Volkskrant, 26th August 2022). They stated that he “makes a living popularising that idea” that traumatic memories are repressed and that many therapists who believe this are talking people into believing they went through all kinds of abuse and misery. They tell their patients that the physical and psychological symptoms they report to a psychiatrist “have arisen because they were once abused but the memory of it is hidden in their subconscious mind.” This approach would lead to “fake memories of abuse”. The client does not heal, but is “talked into a made-up traumatic past”, according to the article. The academics said they feared “disastrous consequences (…) for patients and their families”.
And then it is Sunday evening, August 28, and I’m going to sit down properly. I want to hear this man, because I know his work, which is in line with that of other big names in the field, and I am curious about what he will provide the Dutch public with in terms of knowledge, considerations and visual material.
It is impressive, and when I watch the broadcast a second time, I am even more moved. Here is a true expert speaking, a man humble in all his wisdom, who, with humility and self-reflection, tells the story of elements from his field and reveals aspects of his life, and who scrutinises both himself and patterns of interaction. The still ongoing ignorance, despite the extensive research, does not go unmentioned either. Already in the first few minutes he tells that PTSD was still defined in 1980 as a very rare phenomenon. “That says something about how blind we were to the misery in the world”, he concludes. Later in the broadcast, he fears that little has been learned from Harry Harlow’s studies with monkeys in the 1950s and 1960s, based on the work on attachment by John Bowlby, who was a good friend of Van der Kolk. According to him, there is still too little attention for the suffering that many people go through and at two-thirds of the interview he wonders with some fierceness in relation to the Volkskrant article: “Who are those people who are so afraid of the reality about which I speak? Who are these people who don’t want to see how many children are being abused? Who are those people who cannot listen to what is going on in other people’s lives?”
Up to these critical questions, he has mainly been very mild and contemplative and shows film fragments that demonstrate how much the mutual relationships between people are coloured and marked by their life stories. With his first fragment, from the American television series Ted Lasso, he illustrates how important it is that people within groups and teams can tell the truth of their personal history in a safe way, in a secure setting. That history helps to explain why they sometimes behave rudely, lash out at others or build a wall around themselves, for example because their authoritarian father never allowed them to be weak. If attention is paid to this, says Van der Kolk, then people can use their idiosyncrasies for the greater whole and do not have to use them in a negative way against themselves and each other. When vulnerability becomes a virtue instead of a weakness, you can reflect on your own behaviour and learn to behave differently where necessary. However, you need the support of your social environment for that, because loneliness, he later says, is the most important aspect of trauma: “We are members of tribes, we belong together. We have to belong to someone, we have to have a home, especially as children, and if children do not find that protection at home with their parents, then they are alone in the world and then they have to find some kind of adaptation. A child usually says, “This is happening because I’m a bad person.” What arises is a lifelong sense of ‘there’s something wrong with me, or they would never have done this to me’. Not being seen is the most difficult thing for a child. The feeling that everyone is acting as if nothing is wrong, that the interests of the adults are more important than what happens to the child, that those adults cannot find the courage to bring things up: that is the real trauma. The child has no choice, no other reality, no other possibilities and therefore blames themselves for bad events. That leads to deep loneliness: ‘I am different, I don’t belong here, I can’t be here, I am a bad person, I deserve what happens to me.’ Such a belief becomes a major problem as you get older. Such trauma carries on for generations.”
He uses all kinds of fragments to show and explain how traumatic experiences become fixed in the body, how they keep coming back via different sensory perceptions, associated with deep emotions. People get stuck in that event as if it were happening today, instead of the event being experienced as something from the past that no longer poses any danger. That is why, he says, talking alone is often not enough, and sometimes it is just impossible because it triggers too much pain. That is why he has done more experimental research than anyone else into all kinds of body-oriented therapies and why he has also been cautiously enthusiastic about the results that can be achieved with psychedelics for some time now: “Under the influence of them, people can sometimes finally find words for themselves and their story and above all, they experience compassion for what they have experienced. Humans are meaning-making creatures; as a therapist you don’t have to put anything into them. Listening attentively and not judging is enough. When there are people who offer you a safe setting for your story, psychedelics can be extremely helpful. You then see other dimensions of your own life and of yourself.” In line with that, at another moment: “People usually do not want to remember bad things at all and that is why it is very difficult to talk people into things. By really feeling in your body what things have done to you and are doing now, you can learn to see and do things differently. You can learn to let go of the role and the beliefs you grew up with. If you cannot tell your own truth, it all gets stuck in your body and your heart will break. Then you will break other people’s hearts with your anger and bitterness. Connection is indispensable for us as humans.”
There is so much more worth mentioning. We therefore sincerely recommend watching the replay of the broadcast, so that everyone can decide for themselves about Bessel van der Kolk’s vision: is it ‘dangerous’ or urgently needed? You can watch (in Dutch) for a few more weeks via this link.
At least one question has remained unanswered: what would Van der Kolk, led by Ted Lasso, have thrown into the barrel as a sacrifice to exorcise the evil spirits…?! 😉