The International Trauma Conference, Part 1: Shakespeare
Some notes on what I learned in a chock-a-block weekend
Two years ago, near the start of the pandemic, I attended my first conference of the Trauma Research Foundation. This year, they held it in person for the first time since 2019, but also had vast virtual attendance, including me. The conference this year was lousy with luminaries of the trauma field: Bessel van der Kolk, widely known for his book The Body Keeps the Score, runs the TRF and (somewhat belligerantly) emcees the conference, and speakers included Richard Schwartz of Internal Family Systems fame; Janina Fisher, the great trauma therapist; Rachel Yehuda, the psychedelics researcher; Ruth Lanius, psychiatrist and neurological researcher; the esteemed Judy Herman, who pioneered the very idea of developmental trauma back in the day; Bandy Lee, who defied Donald Trump’s fitness for office back in 2016 and was nearly ruined for it; James Gilligan, the great prison psychitrist and writer of the Violence series; and my current heroine and therapist I want to be when I grow up, Esther Perel.
Besides all this wealth directly in the field, the program also included ex-Alvin Ailey dancer and creator of Afro-Flow Yoga, Leslie Salmon-Jones; education director of Shakespeare & Company Kevin Coleman, who shared the incredible value of that company’s Fall Festival program for high school kids; and Stefan Wollfert and Dawn Stern of De-Cruit, a non-profit that uses Shakespeare to help veterans work through trauma.
There was much, much more, but I couldn’t attend all of it. Still, I wanted to just put some highlights here of the most dazzling learnings and experiences I had at this fantastic event. Below, then, is part one: my particular interest in the intersection between trauma and theatre.
Wednesday was Shakespeare day
Shakespeare & Co’s Fall Festival, and Kevin Coleman
The documentary isn’t out yet, but this five-minute trailer is a good preview of this amazing program that brings kids from many social strata out of their shells. Coleman is an electrifying and earnest speaker, and while much of the footage from the upcoming doc brought me to tears, it was notable that even talking about some of the impacts on kids that Coleman had seen over the years choked him up as well.
I did some theatre with kids years ago, and while I never felt called to theatre education as a profession, Coleman made me want to run away and help run this program. Watching kids come to life when introduced to Shakespeare in an embodied, feeling, and living way is clearly something Coleman never tires of, and I’m not sure I would, either. Here’s just a small taste of what this experience gives to kids who previously didn’t feel seen or heard, or wanted to drop out of school, or thought they’d never have a place to express what they felt.
James Gilligan on violence
“People are willing to sacrifice their bodies if it will save their souls,” says psychiatrist James Gilligan of most of the men he has met who are in prison for murder. Gilligan worked with the most violent offenders in the prison system for decades, and found that Shakespeare spoke more eloquently on the topic than modern psychology has ever managed. His newest book is called Holding A Mirror Up To Nature: Shame, Guilt, and Violence in Shakespeare, and I’m here for it. Meanwhile, various Shakespeare in prisons programs have introduced violent offenders to what Gilligan calls “a complete and complex language” for expressing their extreme feelings. While I’m at it, here’s another link, to the classic This American Life episode, “Act V,” which follows one prison’s production of Hamlet.
Born in 1935, Gilligan has worked tirelessly through some of the most tumultuous times in history, with some of the most challenging populations of humans, and has tried to answer the question: how do we prevent this kind of violence? The common thread he’s found, through both his clinical experience and now through Shakespeare’s work, is shame and humiliation—which is not enough in itself to provoke such extreme measures, but is nearly always present where there is murder.
Another piece of his presentation that impressed me: in the Q&A period, someone asked about the role of patriarchy, racism, and other intersectional concerns in the study of violence, and Gilligan said, “Well, let’s start with the American Psychological Association.” After the big rueful audience laugh died down, he went on a tear about the way psychiatry treats suicidal behavior as an illness but homicidal behavior as too evil to deserve treatment. “They see suicide largely as a white problem, and homicide largely as a Black problem. And most psychiatrists are white.”
Stefan Wolfert and Dawn Stern from De-Cruit
Speaking of neglected populations, this phenomenal couple—both actors, not psych professionals—use Shakespeare to work with traumatized veterans. An ex-Army infantry officer and medic himself, Wolfert became an actor after seeing Richard III, and has been helping veterans transition from military service to civilian life for a few decades now. His wife and partner, Dawn Stern, co-runs the program, called De-Cruit, and it’s both incredible and incredibly simple.
Using the body, breath, Shakespeare’s words, and the veterans’ own stories, the process helps veterans move through the anguish of what they’ve experienced while being witnessed. Like the kids in Shakespeare & Co’s program, the vets learn to speak what they feel, and feel through the words with their bodies, so they can begin to recover from where they were frozen in time.
At the end of the day on Wednesday, Stephan and Dawn presented the new play they have in development, Make Thick My Blood, which is a 45-minute, two-person, movement-driven adaptation of Macbeth. If you’ve ever seen or experienced the way trauma can lock a person in physical and emotional loops that make it near-impossible to make different choices, this version of the Scottish play will make a lot of sense to you.
I often think of the line, “I am in blood / Stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er.” This is a story about a man who doesn’t know it’s even possible to turn back and recover from the awful things he’s seen and done, who believes the only choice is to continue ever deeper into violence. Going back to Gilligan’s work, he’s right: our society has very few options for recovery, forgiveness, repentance, reintegration. Only further destruction, and ceaseless punishment.
In 2009, I had the opportunity to direct The Winter’s Tale, a late play of Shakespeare’s. In it, a king, seized by jealousy and rage, makes some terrible choices that result in the death of his son, and then, seemingly, of his wife and infant daughter. But unlike the earlier tragedies, this play takes a turn mid-stride, allows time to pass and magic to work, and in the end, through repentance, patience, and healing, the king’s queen and daughter are restored to him. I don’t know exactly what draws me to this most mysterious of the Bard’s plays, but I believe it’s something to do with the work Wolfert is doing: restoring people’s humanity to them after unimaginable loss, horror, and moral injury.
In the coming weeks, I plan to share some of my other takeaways from the trauma conference: frontiers in neuroscience, relational healing and what Esther Perel calls “erotic recovery.” That is, if I haven’t run away and joined the