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Famous trauma therapist fired over allegedly traumatizing his staff

Beth Greenfield
Senior Editor

A renowned researcher, advocate, and psychiatrist in the field of trauma and abuse has been fired from the therapy center he founded 35 years ago, following allegations that he bullied his colleagues.

Bessel van der Kolk, author of the New York Times-bestselling The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, a PTSD bible for both sufferers and clinicians, was fired from the Trauma Center in Brookline, Mass., in January, reports the Boston Globe. His ouster followed that of the center’s executive director, Joseph Spinazzola, over alleged mistreatment of female coworkers.

“No one is denying the impact that Bessel has had on the world,’’ noted Andy Pond, president of the Trauma Center’s parent organization, Justice Institute, in an email to employees, according to the Globe. “But a professional workplace has rules, and no amount of talent or skill excuses violations of those rules.’’

Pond further told the Globe that van der Kolk, “a part-time employee for 16 hours per week, violated the code of conduct by creating a hostile work environment. His behavior could be characterized as bullying and making employees feel denigrated and uncomfortable.” He also spoke with Yahoo Lifestyle via email regarding the allegations, and said he could not discuss whether the behavior was sexist in nature.

“The employees who came forward want us to keep these kinds of details private. Women do make up the majority of the workforce at JRI and elsewhere in these kinds of settings,” Pond, who has known van der Kolk for 13 years and “admired his work,” tells Yahoo Lifestyle, adding that he was “surprised and saddened” by the allegations.

Regarding how the situation might impact the field of trauma work, Pond says this: “While I am a social worker and manager, and would not characterize myself as an expert in trauma, I do have a broad understanding of the work. The world is much more informed about the impact of trauma, and the ways we can prevent it, or mitigate its effects. Back when Bessel started, that was not the case. But today, there are many researchers, thinkers, and treatment professionals who will carry on the work. It is a mature field, and is not reliant on any one person.  At my agency and others, the principles of treating victims of trauma are woven into nearly everything we do.  I am confident that the work will continue, stronger than ever, here and elsewhere.”

As to why even this field, with its deep understanding of psychology and abuse and healing, is not immune to society’s ongoing #MeToo moment, he says, “I think the answer is simple:  No field is immune. But one reason I took such strong action is that I have a strong belief that any agency committed to social justice has to hold its employees to a high standard.  In this case, there was no external pressure—we heard from the people affected, and acted ourselves to improve the workplace.”

Van der Kolk was traveling on Friday and not available for comment, according to his assistant. The Globe noted that he has filed a lawsuit against the Justice Resource Institute, accusing its leaders of violating his employment contract.

While various trauma-therapy colleagues of van der Kolk’s did not respond to requests for comment from Yahoo Lifestyle, some expressed a range of feelings about the situation — from shock and dismay to unsurprised relief — on social media platforms, including Twitter:

On various Facebook posts and groups, therapists who say they had trained or attended conferences with van der Kolk shared that they had found his behavior to be “arrogant,” “condescending,” and “dismissive.” One noted, “I never discussed it with anyone, especially colleagues, because I figured, ‘Who would believe me? He’s practically a god!’”

Wrote another, “I’m now hearing many other clinicians speak out about how he has been like this FOR YEARS,” and another, “I knew him personally. This reaffirms what my gut told me 25 years ago. Sad.”

One trauma psychotherapist spoke anonymously to Yahoo Lifestyle about how she’s been affected by both the official report and by hearing colleagues speak about not being surprised.

“He’s a symbol of so many of the things we have to externalize in therapy. The whole thing is strangely validating despite being darkly disappointing,” she says. “In general, as someone socialized as a woman, who’s queer and a survivor, and who came from a working-class background, I have learned to blame myself for other people’s bad behavior. Especially when they are in power. Or I fall prey to thinking that there’s something wrong with me when people abuse their power and privilege.” If the allegations prove true about van der Kolk’s behavior, she says, he would have likely gotten away with it for a while “because people thought they wouldn’t be believable if they said anything against him. Or people thought they took something the wrong way when their experience and gut told them something else.”

While it’s disheartening and even shocking to learn that someone who has dedicated his life to helping others heal from abuses and traumas could ever possibly engage in destructive behaviors, there’s actually no logical reason to be surprised — especially when taking into account the number of abusers, particularly sexual abusers, who are trusted and revered gurus, priests, professors, and, of course, parents, abusing their own children.

“Bullying occurs at all levels. I do not know him personally, but I do know that bullying and doing brilliant work are not mutually exclusive,” Connecticut-based psychologist Barbara Greenberg tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We would be foolish to think otherwise at this point in time. Bullying occurs in ever strata of society, and the brilliant among us are not immune from engaging in that sort of problematic behavior. I like everyone else who has been informed by his work am saddened to hear about this.”

Van der Kolk, 74, was born in the Netherlands during the German occupation, and his father was imprisoned in a Nazi work camp. He is considered a pioneer and an icon for his early work with veterans suffering from PTSD, and his book, The Body Keeps the Score — translated into 19 languages praised as a “tour de force,” “a watershed book,” “essential reading,” “brilliant,” and “a masterpiece” by top researchers and clinicians in their field — delves into deep discussions of how trauma effects brain development and attachments, and out-of-the-box treatments including yoga, EMDR, and neurofeedback.

“This book is the fruit of thirty years of trying to understand how people deal with, survive, and heal from traumatic experiences,” van der Kolk writes in the acknowledgments of his book. “Thirty years of clinical work with traumatized men, women and children; innumerable discussions with colleagues and students, and participation in the evolving science about how mind, brain, and body deal with, and recover from, overwhelming experiences.” He goes on to thank his Trauma Center colleagues and students, as well as his patients, noting, “you were my true textbook — and the affirmation of the life force, which drives us human beings to create a meaningful life, regardless of the obstacles we encounter.”

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