Psychiatrist James Gordon: How we begin to heal America's collective trauma

James Gordon has worked with traumatized societies in Africa and Eastern Europe. America is having that moment now

By Chauncey DeVega
February 17, 2021 10:55AM (UTC)
main article image
President Donald Trump at the White House, Oct. 24, 2019. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Age of Trump and its ongoing aftermath have caused a collective state of PTSD among the American people. Trump's attempted coup and the Capitol attack on Jan. 6 have exacerbated the trauma. Trump's second impeachment and second acquittal by Senate Republicans — despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt — has retraumatized many Americans who hoped or believed that the election of Joe Biden would bring relief from continued abuse by Trump and his followers.

Members of Congress were themselves traumatized by the lethal Jan. 6 attack by Trump's mob. The second impeachment trial reactivated their pain.

Advertisement:

Joe Biden and many leading Democrats keep preaching the need for "unity" and "bipartisanship." Democrats seem constitutionally unwilling or unable to admit that the Republican Party and broader right wing view them as an existential enemy.

Of course, there is also the ongoing national trauma of hundreds of thousands of deaths from the coronavirus pandemic and the economic destruction caused by the Trump regime's willful sabotage of relief efforts.

America is broken in many ways, and there seems to be no true closure or real healing in sight. To borrow from novelist Chinua Achebe, suffering and trouble have shown up on America's doorstep and taken up residence inside. That trouble and suffering show no signs of leaving any time soon.

Advertisement:

What steps can be taken to begin healing America's collective state of pain, trauma and suffering?

To approach that enormous question, I reached out to Dr. James Gordon, one of the world's leading experts on how to heal population-wide psychological trauma. Gordon has worked in such war-torn regions of the world as the Balkans, Africa and the Middle East. He is a psychiatrist, a former National Institute of Mental Health researcher and a clinical professor at Georgetown Medical School. He chaired the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Dr. Gordon is also the founder and executive director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine.

Gordon and his work have been featured in such leading news outlets and programs as "60 Minutes," the New York Times and the Washington Post. His most recent book is "Transforming Trauma: The Path to Hope and Healing."

Advertisement:

In this conversation, Gordon explained that Joe Biden represents a calm and reasonable approach to leadership, and that such energy offers an important first step for healing from the chaos and pain caused by the Trump regime. He also cautioned that we need a collective effort to understand how the pain and anxiety of this moment is present in all of us: in Trump's followers who attacked the Capitol as well as in those Americans who oppose Trump's movement.

Gordon also said he has been in communication with members of Congress about the process of healing from the pain and trauma caused by Trump's coup attack, and about the challenges they face in terms of justice, accountability and healing, given the possibility that Republican members may have aided and abetted the deadly events of Jan. 6.

Advertisement:

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The United States is experiencing trauma on a society-wide level. Donald Trump may no longer be president, but he remains a public menace. There was a second impeachment. Right-wing extremism and related violence will be a threat for a long time to come. There is structural violence. There is the pandemic and all its devastation. There are deep and long-standing problems with social inequality and injustice in the nation more generally. As a society, how can we better manage all this pain and trauma?

These are public crises, but they are impacting us personally. That is why it is so important that President Biden is a soothing voice of sanity. Whether one agrees with Biden or not, he is not trying to rile people up. That is very helpful. This creates a feeling of calm and a more realistic perspective on events. Yes, the situation in the country is serious, even grave. But there are things we can do to take positive steps, and those steps are going to be somewhat different for different people. We have to understand that.

Advertisement:

We also have to understand that everybody is impacted by what is going on in the country — including those people who stormed the Capitol. Their rage and difficulty in seeing any kind of alternative perspective are symptoms of trauma and ongoing stress too. The country is experiencing nationwide trauma since last year with the pandemic and other consequences. We are seeing anxiety, depression and suicide rates going up, particularly among young people.

One of the reasons why it is important to be talking with other people — including those people with whom one disagrees — is just to understand that we are all in this together. At the same time that we're in this together, we also need to take care of ourselves. We need to come into balance so we can best deal with this difficult situation. That is the type of work that I have done with whole populations that had been traumatized during wars, after wars, after hurricanes and earthquakes, and in the midst of opioid epidemics and after school shootings.

What do we do in a country where there are tens of millions of people who look at Donald Trump and his antisocial behavior as a role model and example? Trump has given his followers permission for the worst kinds of behavior. How do we even go about the work of confronting and healing our collective trauma given these facts?

Advertisement:

For example, what Joe Biden is doing is setting another kind of example. We tend to embrace leaders who embody characteristics that for one reason or another resonate with us. Unfortunately, we do not also look at those leaders' characteristics as objectively as we should. We tend to either embrace them or shun them. Both such responses are limited. People who simply embrace Trump and the alternative reality that he presents have shut themselves off from other possibilities for reasons that likely vary from person to person.

Some people I have spoken with embrace Trump's reality because in their minds it is good for their business. They may not like his rudeness, crudeness, misogyny and racism, but what is most important to them is their business and survival.

The people who follow Trump feel they have been neglected. They feel that they are not cared for by the "elites" and by the government. They feel mistrustful. They feel badly treated. They see someone who, at least in what he has to say, seems to represent somebody who cares about them. They do not ask themselves or research if he really cares about them. They dismiss other kinds of behavior from Trump that are anathema to them.

Other people love that behavior. Trump's sticking it to the people who they believe are sticking it to them — whatever that means. That could be people with fancy educations who lives on the coasts. Other races or other ethnicities, who they feel are trying to take things away from people like them. Trump promised to defend them against those forces that they feel are oppressive or insulting or demeaning to them in some way or other.

Advertisement:

We need a profound change of mind. That can happen when there is an alternative offered which feels equally compelling and satisfying. That is the public challenge the Biden administration is facing. I believe that Joe Biden is doing his best to say, "I care about you. I'm not one of those people who has contempt. I'm not somebody who thinks you're a 'deplorable.' I'm somebody who cares about you, and here are actions that show it." This is going to be a slow process here in America. It is not going to happen overnight.

For people who hated Trump and thought he was totally worthless and beneath contempt, it is crucial for us to try to understand that there are in fact people who have a religious devotion to Trump. Many of the white evangelicals genuinely believe and see him as a King Cyrus figure or a Nebuchadnezzar figure. People sincerely believe that. Those who disagree are not going to argue them out of that belief.

This is their reality. There are evangelicals who believe that modern events in various ways recapitulate Biblical events. If we who are outside of that community are going to talk with them, we need to understand that we cannot just dismiss them or say that they are crazy.

When I look at Trump and his followers, I see people I want nothing to do with. They have shown themselves to be an existential threat to multiracial democracy and nonwhite people. Biden wants "unity" and "coming together" with them. I and many others reject the very premise of coming together with people who want to hurt us, and who have shown themselves to be part of a treasonous movement. What does healing look like then?

Advertisement:

That's a significant problem. I'll tell you where I come from. I'm interested in healing the whole community, whether it's a local small community or the whole national community. What I have found helpful, in similar situations where people feel each other as existential threats, is to create a program to teach people skills for self-care and to help them create support groups for themselves. We open the training up to everyone.

For example, right after the war in Kosovo we began to work both separately and jointly with the Serbs and the Albanians. A few weeks earlier, they were literally killing each other. What happens as they come together in the training sessions is that they want to have nothing to do with each other. They sit apart from each other. But they are in a small group and they're mixed together.  The first group drew pictures. Three of them where you draw yourself, yourself with your biggest problem, and yourself with your problem solved. The amazing thing to these people was that the pictures of the biggest problem were almost identical, except the identities were reversed.

They'd look at these drawings and they see how similar the drawings are, and that gives them a point of connection: "You're as scared of me as I am of you. There's just as much anger that you have for me as I have for you." As the groups go on, the points of connection increase, and the sharing too — which at first is skimpy because they don't trust each other. They eventually begin to see the humanity of each other and that can be the basis for some kind of connection.

America needs a truth and reconciliation committee or similar process to have some accountability and then perhaps healing from the crimes and other harm committed by the Trump regime and its allies. What would such a process look like?

Advertisement:

First of all, Desmond Tutu is a friend, he's on the advisory board of my Center for Mind-Body Medicine, and he's a great teacher to me. I've been talking with people in Congress who are asking the same question that you're asking, and who don't know how they're going to go about creating such a process. They are saying, "How am I going to forgive and have a working relationship, and maybe even a personal relationship, with people who at least gave tacit approval to these people who rioted and threatened my life?"

These congresspeople are saying they don't know how to do that right now," and I say, "The answer will come as you deal with your own issues, your own rage, and your own sense of betrayal. As you come into physiological balance, as you share your experience with people with whom you can share your experience. I don't know what the answer is going to be."

I do not know if there's going to be a truth and reconciliation commission such as what took place in South Africa. Such societies — I am doing similar work in Sudan — have a tradition where there are different ways of coming to a reconciliation, ways of going to family or a community you have wronged, and apologizing and giving something to them. We do not have that here in America.

How do you counsel Democrats to sit across from someone who wished them harm? If I was one of the Democrats I would want any Republican who aided and abetted the attackers in any way to be expelled from Congress and face criminal and civil punishments. How can there be forgiveness without accountability? How can we have healing without consequences?

They're not mutually exclusive. With Congress, the public part of that accountability, the institutional part, is calling the alleged participants to account. It is saying, "You did this. We should censure you." That's fine. As far as any kind of forgiveness, one has to see how that evolves, and if it does. I don't think they're mutually exclusive. I do not know what they're going to say to the other people in Congress. For my part, I'm happy to help them with the healing process, insofar as I can.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVegaFOLLOW chaunceydevegaLIKE Chauncey DeVega


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Capitol Riot Donald Trump Editor's Picks Interview James Gordon Mental Health Psychology Ptsd Trauma