Book Review: Healing the Past -
 Janet E. Sahafi


Published Poolbeg Press 1997


A remarkable development in Irish bookshops is the amount of shelf space 
now given to categories variously called ‘Positive Living’, ‘Popular Psychology’,
 Self-help’ or ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’. Did it all start when Norman Vincent Peale
 shook the reading public awake with The Power of Positive Thinking? If the
 sophisticates are inclined to smile at that now it is worth noting that that book alone 
has sold more than two million copies and continues to be reprinted.

I read recently that there are now more alternative therapists in the UK than there
 are GPs. People are searching for alternative ways of healing both physical and
 emotional wounds. Sahafi explores the healing process in the first chapter of
 Healing The Past. She suggests it is like what happens to a clam when it is 
invaded by a piece of grit. ‘The clam’s soft insides mysteriously begin to organise 
a defence against this violation, sealing it off from further invasion’. It is an easy
 step from this to explain our own defence mechanisms when attacked.

Many of the Stories (fictionalised case-histories) offer help to individuals attacked 
or intimidated by others. But the writer warns against the negativity of the victim 
role and quotes Kubler-Ross: ‘The only way to overcome negativity is to not to 
curse the darkness or the Hitlers, but to look at the Hitler inside of ourself. The
 only way to bring healing to the world is to heal ourselves.’

The central chapters tell how Sahafi uses psychodrama to heal people whose early 
childhood experiences are still affecting the way they relate to family members
 today. The stories are ‘fabricated’ to protect the individuals who took part. Sahafi
 also describes her own struggles through addiction, illness, divorce and poverty
 and this makes the book compelling reading; there is no sense of talking down to 
the uninitiated from any high moral ground. Each chapter begins with the writer’s
 own experience of fighting with father or hating one’s mother, being jealous of a 
sister or wrestling with God.

The final chapters tackle the difficult subjects of acceptance and forgiveness. The 
concepts are not treated in an abstract way but explained in stories with simple
 dialogue. The language throughout is up beat and it took me a little while to get 
used to the pep-talk style: ‘Let go of the sand-bags, kids’. I am sure this works
 much better when you hear it in a workshop or retreat setting than it reads on the page.

I am not familiar with psychodrama so I was glad that the writer explains in the
 Prologue some of the terms used in the process like protagonist and auxiliary. It 
would help if she included here definitions of other technical terms like ‘surplus reality’ ‘and ‘option method technique‘ which crop up later on. The lay reader will 
not need to know the theory to hear the message but students and trainees might 
appreciate some background.

When I was finishing this book it happened that I had to look up some address in 
the ICP Register (Guide to Psychotherapy in Ireland). I read again the introduction 
to Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy which describes the difference, noted
 by Yalom, between the American and European approach to the nature of the 
person. In Europe ‘the existential position focused on human limitations and the 
tragic dimension of existence’. In contrast the human potential movement of North
 America was ‘bathed in a Zeitgeist of expansiveness, optimism, limitless horizons
 and pragmatism.’ Healing the Past clearly belongs to the American school of
 optimism based on the author’s faith in a loving God. Her courage and enthusiasm 
bring to mind the pioneering spirit that opened frontiers in that new Continent.

Paula Loughlin