I was invited by the Editorial Board of Inside Out to write an article called ’Rwanda: an Angry Country’, based on my experience over the past four years training Rwanda’s trauma counsellors to work with survivors of the 1994 Genocide. However, as I thought about the article, it became clear to me that the whole issue of anger in society and the therapeutic response to such anger has implications for us here in Ireland just as much as it has in post-genocide Rwanda.
Three Recent Experiences
A hot, sultry day in a classroom in Kigali, Rwanda. My colleague Rosemary Liddy and I have spent two days facilitating the trainee counsellors to explore necessary changes in the way the Project is managed. We have been at an impasse for hours. My temper is frayed, and in the end I lose it. deliver a few ill-considered remarks, and storm out. The Rwandans laugh and laugh. When things calm down, we ask them why they had laughed. “Because Rwandans never get angry,” they said. “Until they have a machete in their hands,” replied Rosemary.
A counselling session in New Day Counselling Centre, Dublin. A deeply distressed client with whom I have worked for eighteen months discloses sexual abuse in childhood. She recounts years of vicious, violent assaults. Finally things fall into place for me: her current painful, chaotic life now makes sense. I experience deep sadness, but also a rage that she should have undergone such torture.
Late night TV, idly flicking channels. A story is breaking on Sky News: another shooting spree in an American school. Fifteen people are dead. President Clinton holds a Press Conference. Will he now consider pushing for changes in US gun laws’? No. His first response : “We must send in Bereavement Counsellors to help the families.”
What is the connection here? In all the situations the common theme is anger: individual anger, societal anger, and how anger manifests itself in our interpersonal and social relationships. Over the years, I have learned to accept that anger is a normal, valid human emotion, and to see that our task is to differentiate between positive expressions of righteous anger and the dark place where anger is dissociated, twisted, distorted and projected outwards in the abuse and maiming of others. It has become increasingly clear to me that the work of psychotherapy is situated right on the front line where destructive anger and its victims meet society’s need to deny responsibility for the existence of such powers of destruction.
I believe the roots of destructive anger lie in the impotent rage of the victim, be it the child who is abused, the ethnic group who have been discriminated against, the human being who is disempowered, excluded and alienated. As a therapist, I have always believed that by facilitating the victims to acknowledge their rage, to accept it as a valid response to their experience and to learn to express it in non-destructive ways. I am involved in breaking a cycle of destruction and abuse. Be it with an individual client here in Ireland, or with groups of genocide victims in Rwanda. I held firmly to the notion that regardless of the nature of the traumatic experience, individuals could heal themselves and in so doing effect a profound transformation on the society in which they live.
Now I am not so sure. President Clinton’s perception that sending in a team of Bereavement Counsellors to work with the survivors and families at Columbine High School was an adequate response to such mayhem chilled me to the bone. Visiting Rwanda every few months and meeting the clients of the trauma counsellors has shaken me. Can women who watched their husbands and children being cut to pieces in front of them and who survived only by submission to repeated rape over weeks and months ever be the same again? Equally, the clients I meet every day at work have undergone decades of physical and sexual abuse, poverty and despair. While the process of psychotherapy may help individuals to come to terms in some way with their trauma, can it really facilitate them to transcend their experiences?
I think a dangerous myth has grown up around psychotherapy, which is that it can be a panacea for all forms of traumatic experience. This engenders the belief that if people are provided with counselling or psychotherapy, then they will not be permanently damaged by the experience. The next step in this line of logic is that the experience itself is not so important, because it can be healed, because people can get over it. Watching the Kossovan refugees streaming over the borders of their country reduces me to tears of impotent rage. I visited the refugee camps on the Bosnian border back in 1992, 1993, and 1994. In the West we wrung our hands and watched it happen. Western governments pumped huge amounts of money into sponsoring people like me to provide trauma counsellor training. Hundreds of Bosnian and Croatian counsellors continue to work with victims of that episode of the Yugoslav war. But now it is happening all over again. Send in the counsellors.
I am left with some uncomfortable questions. Societies all over the world are affected by expressions of destructive anger. We seem incapable of facing this problem head on, and of putting resources into tackling the roots of this anger : the ongoing victimisation of individuals and groups. We find explanations for each episode: tribal rivalry in Rwanda? – nothing to do with us in the “civilised” West. Mass slaughter in the Balkans? – all down to one mad Serb. Childhood abuse in Dublin? – obviously an isolated dysfunctional family. And over and over again, lives are torn apart and destroyed.
What can psychotherapists do in the face of such suffering? I have to say that there are times when I feel like a triage doctor in a battle zone. Meeting people each day who have been exposed to obscene levels of abuse and trauma, it has become obvious to me that people are never all right after such experiences. It is never possible to be the same again when the thin curtain which hides the destructive force of anger in soeiety is stripped aside and one is subject to its violent onslaught. Sometimes I feel as if I am up to my shoulders in a bloodbath. Of course one can stitch up some of the wounds. Of course not every one dies from the trauma. But rather than hold out the hope of complete recovery, perhaps all we can do is metaphorically assist the victim to learn to live with a limp.
At base, I am left wondering if the contemporary belief in the efficacy of psychotherapy in the face of severe psychological trauma does not enable the destruction to continue. By subscribing to the fallacy that somehow psychotherapy can facilitate the person to turn back the clock and recover who they used to be when we know this is not possible, are we perhaps not colluding with the agents of destruction who can then continue to wreak their havoc?
Maeve Lewis is a Director of New Day Counselling Centre in Dublin and a practising psychotherapist.