How To Heal Personal and Collective War Trauma

Patrick Dougherty awaits a helicopter at the end of his tour.

Image: Patrick Dougherty awaits a helicopter at the end of his tour in Vietnam.

I couldn’t talk about my war trauma until 1976, which was five years after I left Vietnam. This was four years before post-traumatic stress disorder was even formally recognized as a medical diagnosis. In 1979, I went to the Veterans Affairs for help. They told me I didn’t have enough war experience to warrant any support from them; that all my trauma actually came from my traumatic childhood, and had nothing to do with Vietnam. This is what they told just about every veteran back then.

Over the ensuing decades, I talked about my experience in several therapies, increasingly focused on one specific incident that didn’t seem to change: It always had the same charge, and the same anguished outcome.

The incident was that I’d nearly killed a mother and her infant while in a rage after barging into her home while searching a village. I brought this up in three long therapies: two with Jungian therapists; and one with a psychoanalyst, whom I saw four times a week.

With hindsight I can see that none of those therapies helped me feel less guilt, remorse, or anguish. They actually all left me feeling even worse — and more alone. It felt like I was doing something wrong, and that I couldn’t or wouldn’t let the incident go. My heart aches as I write this, remembering how I carried this pain in my heart and body for decades longer than I now know was necessary. I was ready to heal — in some ways pleading for help — but the help wasn’t available. I just learned to live with it, like so many veterans do.

And I didn’t even know how much this wound, this trauma, had stayed with me until 2017, when I started a year-long training focused on inter-generational and collective trauma with the spiritual teacher and group facilitator Thomas Hübl. I had sought out Hübl’s work to better understand how I carried the collective trauma of racism as a white liberal activist, so I could better support myself and other white people to face this trauma, and stop being part of the problem.

However, not a word about racism left my mouth during the initial five-day training in Israel, nor over the next year of Zoom meetings, because the work activated my war trauma from Vietnam. It was stunning to me to recognise how much of the trauma of war was still living in my body.

There were 150 of us in the room the first day of our training, from 39 countries: This was no American-centric group, and most participants were not subject to the filters, denial, and numbing affecting almost all of my friends, colleagues and clients back home — without our even knowing.

To this group, I was just another one of those men, those soldiers, those perpetrators part of an army that had invaded a much smaller country, and did many horrible things to its people, its social and political structures, and its natural environment. They saw us as having gone home as soon as we’d wanted to, leaving Vietnam with massive trauma, and never looking back.

And I couldn’t argue with their bigger picture assessment of what I’d taken part in. It left me feeling emotionally naked; stripped of all numbness, and the rationalizing and excuses provided by my nation. Nevertheless, I sensed that the other participants were glad I was there, glad that one of the men who’d taken part in doing such great harm was facing what he and his country had done.

Those initial five days, and the next year, were quite a roller-coaster for me as I faced many stark truths about my being a Marine in Vietnam, and having lived with my share of America’s collective numbness for nearly half a century. As all of us, from 39 countries, explored the personal, inter-generational and collective trauma we carried in our bodies, it became abundantly clear that most of us carried the trauma of war.


War as Collective Trauma

Five years ago, the term “collective trauma” was foreign to most of us, but today we know it all too well. From the pandemic and the protests after the murder of George Floyd, to the political violence and polarization gripping our county and many other places around the world, we’ve all been living with it, and in it.

And I would suspect that most of us who are therapists would admit that we didn’t do too well helping our clients with the impact of these collective traumas since we weren’t doing too well ourselves — often not even able to fully feel and acknowledge their impact on us.

Nevertheless, not only are we slowly learning how to work with current collective traumas, we’re also beginning to learn how to deal with past collective traumas that we’re still living with — mostly unconsciously. And we’re now appreciating the huge consequences of our turning away from what needed healing: from the collective traumas of racism; bigotry of all kinds; sexism and male violence against women, to the patriarchal and oppressive architecture of our cultures, that harms so many people.

And in the United States, one collective trauma that haunts us is barely recognised, because the victims are usually far away; and we turn away from those who took part in it; or send them off to get help behind closed doors, and that is the collective trauma of war.

War is a collective trauma that exists in possibly every culture in the world. Here in the U.S., most people have numbed themselves to our shared responsibility for what we as a country did in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan — and those are just some of the wars during my lifetime. Trauma, of course, doesn’t care if you’re the good guys or the bad guys; the attacker or attacked; the victor or vanquished. It shows up on each side of the brutal reality of war, in varying degrees, and for various reasons.

I was born a few years after the end of World War Two and was raised with the stories of our heroic victory over the Japanese and Germans, and the moral certainty that we had done right. The three wars I mentioned have not left us clearly the heroic victor, nor clearly in the right. More than 58,000 of our soldiers were killed in Vietnam. And we killed more than two million Vietnamese. But we have never collectively faced the fact of what we did there, and that we were defeated and quit the war.

Throw in the two recent wars and the trillions of dollars spent; the immense trauma that our service members have carried home; the many that died, and the many, many more Iraqis and Afghans who died, and those who carry trauma; and the destruction of their cities, homes and countryside, without our having any clear sense that we did the right thing. This also weighs heavily and unconsciously on our national psyche.


Collective Trauma Needs a Collective Response

Immediately after the training ended many of us continued to work with Hübl and our training group. We also held many peer-led groups, and took part in regular groups of three known as “triads” — immersing ourselves in a culture of exploring, through group work, how inter-generational and collective trauma lived in us, and impacted our lives. It was very exciting to begin to find ways to bring this work into our personal and professional lives, and communities, as we helped to create tools and develop protocols for this type of healing.

I processed many aspects of my war experience in these groups, but the specific issue of my nearly killing the Vietnamese woman and her infant wasn’t one of them. It was a couple of years later, when it finally came forward in my therapist consultation group made up of fellow Hübl students, that I finally understood why this trauma was still stuck in me.

The major method for exploring this terrain happens through group processes. What was clear to me then — and even more so now — is that collective trauma is too big for any one of us to face or manage alone. “I can’t, but we can,” is the axiom I draw on whenever I find myself in the realm of collective trauma, whether my own or others’.

There are some essential protocols that make these groups work. First, there is a shared intention to commit to the well-being of the group, as well as yourself, which is a subtle but profound shift in how most of us have ever experienced group work. This helps the group stay more regulated, because everyone feels a shared responsibility for the well-being and the emotional regulation of the group, instead of relying on a leader to hold the group together. This means everyone needs to make sure they stay regulated and don’t go too far into their individual or collective trauma and lose connection with the group.

Trauma is often compared to a process of fragmentation: An experience is so overwhelming to the nervous system and mind that an individual cannot hold a coherent somatic or visual memory of what happened. It’s as if the experience has shattered into many fragments. Then in therapy, those fragments can slowly come back together as a specific, or felt, memory. That process allows us to develop a coherent narrative of the traumatic memory — an essential step towards healing.

This metaphor holds true for collective trauma. When we collectively experience something overwhelming, such as war (even when we are warring in a faraway country); the murder of George Floyd; the pandemic; the climate crisis and so on, none of us individually can process it in real time, because it’s so overwhelming that it fragments in us, and in the collective consciousness. This is also true for past unprocessed collective traumas: They fragmented in the collective realm when they occurred, and we all still carry the fragments. Both past and present collective traumas affect our body and mind, but they can neither be fully felt, nor processed, by any individual alone.

In our groups, every member has agreed to process, as best they can, what comes up in their body when approaching the specific collective trauma that we’re working with. War; oppression of marginalized people; male violence to women, and many other collective traumas have affected people all over the world, and we all carry similar but culturally specific fragments of those traumas.

When each group member begins to experience emotional activation in relation to these collective traumas, they are not only processing their own trauma history, they are also processing a fragment of the collective trauma. And as this process deepens for each individual, the more the group can establish a coherent, shared sense of awareness of the collective wound.

What is fascinating to me in this work is that regardless of how remote the collective issue may seem to you, if you’re getting activated then it’s touching something personal in you, something that you carry in your body, something that is part of your human experience.

For instance, the murder of George Floyd — a mile from my home here in Minneapolis — was very disturbing, overwhelming and traumatic to me for many reasons. But it also had a huge impact on many of my friends and colleagues — not just in the U.S., but around the world. I joined several small groups in the days and weeks after the murder, and listened to many of my friends share what was stirring in them.

We named what was happening in our bodies; what images or memories were coming to us, and let ourselves feel whatever level of emotion we were willing to experience while in the presence of others. This could be as simple as just being present to the release of grief, anger, fear and so on. It could also be sharing feelings of being frozen, numb or dissociated.

Everyone had a chance to share, but was limited to between five and 15 minutes — depending on the group, the material, and their level of experience in this kind of work. The people listening are asked to be totally somatically and empathetically present, but to give no feedback. There is also an explicit commitment by everyone that if you get severely triggered it’s your responsibility to get support for that outside of the group process.

I’ve often marveled at how when all the intentions and agreements are in place, people feel quite free to share with great depth and vulnerability, knowing that others will be compassionately present without giving any commentary or feedback, although sometimes there are brief expressions of care and love.

Many things came up for people: their own experiences of witnessing violent injustices to others; maybe doing nothing in response, or in some way taking part in inflicting the injustice. Some talked about being on the receiving end themselves as members of marginalized groups. Sometimes they talked about what happened to their ancestors: traumas that happened generations ago, that they could identify in their body. Many felt a deep fear of violence whose origins they couldn’t identify, yet they felt its presence. Others spoke of numbness or shame.

What had felt very personal to me here in Minneapolis had touched unprocessed personal and collective trauma around the world. Every time someone shared their experience in these groups, it made it easier for me to feel and process the waves of traumatic stress in me, and helped me be more present to my loved ones, my clients and community.

Patrick Dougherty (left) during his deployment.

Patrick Dougherty (left) during his deployment.

I was a member of a group of therapists for over three years — 15 of us from nine countries in North America, the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Asia — who met every other Monday to explore the collective trauma living in us, and our clients. We brought cases where we were pretty sure collective trauma was an issue, aiming to support each other to work with it.

Thomas Hübl had developed a framework for integrating collective trauma, drawing on insights gained during deep meditation, and his experiences of facilitating large-group processes around the world. But it was up to us to do the work, and learn to attune precisely to what was emerging in us personally, and in a group. My friend Joachim facilitated our consultation groups with attentiveness and care, as we adapted the basic processes we had learned from Hübl, and then let our practice evolve.

A therapist would bring a case, and share a short overview to give us a sense of where we were headed. Then we would all relax into our bodies and listen. As a somatically based therapist, this came quite naturally for me, but even those who weren’t somatic therapists had done enough of Hübl’s meditations and group work to allow them to feel the sensations and energetic movements in their bodies.

The presenting therapist would then share the dynamics of their work with the client in much more detail, with as much description as possible of their somatic awareness, even if they felt nothing, or numbness, or were stuck in shame. This helped us to feel into what was happening for the therapist and their client, and in their collective field.


Always at War

One day a Jewish woman who lives in Israel asked to share one of her cases. She had been working with a veteran who had fought in two wars, and had let her know that he wanted to talk about something he had done. Since he had never told anybody, it was a huge weight he carried.

The therapist also shared briefly that she felt emotionally raw and overwhelmed when the veteran approached this issue — a feeling she often experienced when directly talking about war. War was such a way of life in Israel, and the trauma of it lived in her own family, and every family she knew had been impacted by war, and everyone carried war trauma. War was such a complex issue and it overwhelmed them all.

This therapist didn’t feel any specific feelings towards this man, a client whom she had seen for a couple of years, and liked. Her feeling of overwhelm was associated with being an Israeli Jew living in a country that felt like it was always at war, or on the brink of another war.

This gave us a sense of the terrain we were entering. My whole body felt as if a low voltage charge of electricity was running through it, and I was on high alert as to where this would lead.

Everyone knew I was a war veteran and had “done harm to a woman.” Those were the words I was using at that time and in this group. And I assumed they were thinking that this might be a little more activating for me than for the others.

But we all knew that everyone brings something important from their own personal, inter-generational and cultural histories, that live on in our bodies, and that add to the collective processing in the group. So I knew that everyone else would have their own family’s — or country’s — war trauma alive inside of them, so no-one would be overly focused on me, which was very liberating.

The woman did a beautiful job describing the specifics of who her client was, and what she imagined he needed, and how activated she felt when he talked about his war experience. Then she talked about how her family kept it all at a distance by never talking about it — even though it took up so much space in their lives. The grief, terror, rage, remorse and anguished uncertainty of not knowing what was right and what was wrong for their country, and their military, to do to protect them also lived in all of them.

The therapist said she could feel an echo of a deep sadness she could now identify that lived in her family — a sadness that kept her family members apart, rather than sharing their grief and sorrow and confusion together.


Cascade of Images

When she had finished, I was left feeling deeply moved by her description of what it was like for her and her family living in Israel. But my major somatic reaction came from feeling a strong identification with the veteran coming in to see this therapist. I was so electrified now that it was hard for me to think. I volunteered to share what came up for me first, since I knew I wouldn’t be able to hear anyone else given how activated I was.

As I tried to speak, tears ran down my face. My chest felt so constricted that I could hardly breathe, and my head felt almost like it could explode, and it swam with an overwhelming cascade of images and insights. I could feel and see what I wanted to say but the words wouldn’t quite form. What had become clear to me — what had come to me as I had tuned in to the veteran who had come to see my colleague — I knew was true for me, and possibly for him.

When I could finally speak, I choked out how incredibly alone I had felt as a veteran for decades in my own therapy, trying to talk about what I’d done in Vietnam, and how at this moment I could feel how I carried in my body what I had done, and I could feel how lonely and weary I was. I said I had tried — so hard — to bring this memory and this feeling into therapy, but it had never helped.

I wept a little here with deep sadness, feeling the long walk, nearly 50 years long, of being alone with what I had done. When I got that out, I stopped and took several breaths, knowing that what I had to say next was the major piece that had been missing the whole time.


Frozen for 50 Years

I could sense that saying these words would shatter a block to my healing, a block that had now become startlingly clear and radically obvious. I am pretty sure this came out almost as a whisper, since it was the most I could do. And I said: “Nobody let the woman into the room. Not once. They never even mentioned her.” And a brief wave of sobs flowed from my body.

It was such a stark and confusing picture. Me, in my therapies, telling the story, three times, of what I had done to a Vietnamese woman holding her infant child. And not once did any one of my therapists mention her, or acknowledge her humanity in any way I could remember. They stayed focused entirely on me. It was so clear to me now what had happened — or hadn’t happened — in my therapies. And how that had added to my feeling of being so alone.

I felt such relief at arriving at this understanding, and letting some of my grief and remorse flow through me. And it also left me feeling very raw, since I could now feel the humanity of the Vietnamese woman, something that had been frozen in trauma for nearly 50 years. Now she was real: the woman who I had terrified with my rage while pointing my rifle at her chest, and not knowing if she and her child would be alive in the next second. She felt real for the first time since I’d walked out of her home half a century earlier.

That all took maybe 10 minutes. I knew, as everyone did, that my experience was no more important or valid than their experiences. We all knew that the more people share what comes up for them in any collective realm, the more fragments of the specific collective trauma are in the room and being processed. There were brief and very kind comments in response to what I had shared, then we moved on to the next person to share.

A woman from Germany said she felt energized and excited, in a way, to hear what the Israeli veteran would bring into therapy. She shared that, as a German woman, she felt such a deadness in her family, and the German culture, and in the men, stemming from World War Two.

And this deadness, or frozenness, had to do with what the invading German armies did all across Europe and Russia, and also what had been done to the German armies in their defeat, and what the Russians had done to the civilians as they swept through Germany at the end of the war — and of course the Holocaust. This wasn’t a happy excitement, she clarified, but an excitement of feeling some emerging possibilities of what might be possible for her home country.

Another German, a man, said he felt a very acute aloneness and sorrow in him, and could easily connect it to his silent and sad war veteran grandfather. From listening to the Israeli woman share about herself and her family’s war trauma, and from my sharing of the aloneness of what I’d carried through my life, he shared with tears in his eyes that he felt a loving urge to go and sit with his (long deceased) grandfather and tell him he understood why he hadn’t spoken, and that he wanted to just sit with him and love him.


Below the Surface

A Colombian woman shared that she felt a strong constriction in her chest and abdomen, and that she could relate to the overwhelming emotions, and that she also had a lot of numbness about the war in her own country. She also felt the inner conflict the Israeli therapist felt about what, and who, is right and wrong in war.

There had been war in her country for many years, and both the government army and the guerrillas had done so much harm to the people living in rural areas, especially the women. All she saw was the horrible trauma suffered by the people she worked with, who were often the direct victims of war. She felt both confused and relieved to feel into her own numbness to the collective trauma of war. She said she felt very close to the Israeli woman.

A man from South Africa said he could feel fear, even panic, in his body at the idea of talking about what was not talked about in his country, because people lived with such a powerful tension over the unhealed wounds of apartheid. There had been such horrible injustices and brutality towards Black people, and members of minority groups, and so little healing had happened when apartheid ended. And all of that simmered right below the surface. It was part of life in South Africa, part of what everyone carried, and he was sure every client carried it, yet it had rarely been brought up in therapy.

A woman from England went last and shared that she was experiencing a feeling of numbness, as if she was filled with Styrofoam. Trying to imagine a veteran coming into her office, she immediately became numb, since in her country nobody talks about — let alone feels — anything about the harm England had done in its wars, and throughout the colonial period. Listening to all of us, she had felt warmth in her belly from the authentic humanity in our group.

When we had all shared, the Israeli woman looked visibly more relaxed and softer. She said she felt so grateful for how the group had helped her to lessen the feeling of overwhelm, and feel more alive and present in her body by talking about war from so many angles, and with a deep and vulnerable humanity. She could now feel the way forward, which suddenly seemed so obvious and accessible.

She said: “What he needs, I can see, is just for me to stay in relationship with him. That I don’t have to see him, and what he did, through all the overwhelming filters I have. But I can see him through the filter of who he is as a man, and my client, and I as a woman, and his therapist.” Then she laughed and said: “At this moment that seems like it will be so easy to do.” And we all laughed, because we knew that things can seem so simple at times in a consultation group, but in person it can be so much more complicated.

Patrick Dougherty
Patrick Dougherty in Vietnam in 1971.


What Happened to my Therapists?

I certainly don’t know for sure what was going on in the minds of my therapists, and why they were unable to help me in dealing with the harm I had done to the Vietnamese woman. But in the last few years, I have come to believe that I do know something of what happened to them, as my understanding of the impact of unprocessed collective trauma on individuals has grown.

This impression was only reinforced a few weeks ago, as I worked on my second draft of this article, and I painfully recalled a Vietnam veteran I’d once worked with. I realised that I’d done the same thing to him that my therapists had done to me: I hadn’t helped him to deal with the harm he’d done to a captured North Vietnamese soldier.

About 20 years ago, this veteran had come to see me over the harm his war trauma had been causing to his marriage. He had been drafted into the Army and had been very upset at the time because he was very much opposed to the war, and hadn’t felt himself to be a soldier. But to war he went. While in Vietnam, his platoon had captured a North Vietnamese soldier.

They had to take turns guarding this man, whose hands were always tied together, and who was also tied to an American soldier, or a tree, at night. Someone started to inflict a humiliating and degrading act on this captured soldier, which others could see — apart from the company lieutenant and the platoon sergeant.

That quickly became something everyone who guarded the enemy soldier was expected to do. It wasn’t said, but everyone knew this was part of belonging to the platoon. (This is common in war, that you do things that are immoral because everyone else does, and it just doesn’t seem bad when you’re doing it.)

My client had felt horrible for doing this, knowing even at the time it was very wrong, but had felt strong peer pressure, and complied. But he was also honest and admitted that there was a little thrill in it. When he finished telling his story, he said he felt greatly relieved to have told me: his therapist and fellow veteran.

But as I sit here writing this, I feel pained that I never commented on the Vietnamese soldier — that it never occurred to me. I just felt bad for my client who had grown up in a violent home; was drafted and felt strongly that the war was wrong; had taken part in this violence, and felt remorse. And he was a good man. I imagine my therapists also felt similarly about me: I was a good guy; grew up in violence; had done harm in a morally questionable war, and felt remorse for my actions.

I have this image of my own therapies — all three of them — that the woman I nearly killed was always in the waiting room; that I had always brought her along hoping for help to get her into the room with me, so I could fully face what I had done. And to understand that this man had a North Vietnamese soldier sitting out in my waiting room; someone who had followed him for over 30 years; and I didn’t know it, and couldn’t feel it, pains me. I don’t judge myself for not understanding and doing more, but I am pained.


The Harm We Did

Even as a veteran with my own trauma of having done harm, I couldn’t feel the humanity of the soldier he had harmed; just as I believe that my therapists couldn’t feel the humanity of the woman I had harmed; and just as the American public can’t feel the humanity of the Vietnamese people who we have so greatly harmed.

My therapists, like me, were born into a cultural numbness around war, and had lived in that numbness their entire lives. The numbness — that I believe was in their bodies and psyches — also meant that they couldn’t feel me; attune to me; and respond in an emotionally empathetic manner around this issue, like they had been able to do for every other trauma I had talked about.

And even though I had been in war, seen the harm, and taken part in it, when I came back, I came back to a culture that had nothing but numbness for the harm we had done to the Vietnamese people, a numbness that — no doubt at the time — I had been relieved to find.

Again, in hindsight, I can see that my experience in all of those therapies was that talking about what I did in Vietnam left me feeling more alone with my war experience, and even more disconnected from my caring therapists. I always believed that the feeling of separation and aloneness must be me, and caused by the trauma of what I did in that home in Vietnam. I didn’t know they had left.

I didn’t emotionally leave my client like my therapists’ left me since I was able to ask him to tell me what happened, and what he did. I had room to hear his horrible story of war because of my own experiences in war. But I couldn’t feel what my client couldn’t feel — and what I believe my therapists couldn’t feel, and what the American public can’t feel — and that is the humanity of the people we waged war upon, and the harm we did to them.

My client told me he felt very relieved to finally tell the story, and I am glad for that. I imagine that he’s happy and content with the therapy that he did with me. But I now know that something in him is still frozen, still numb, because the man he abused is still not human for him, and that comes at a cost.

During our training, most of us therapists — with the possible exception of social workers — have acquired a major impediment to meeting our clients in our shared humanity. We have learned to separate ourselves with the “medical model,” or the need for “healthy boundaries,” or other seemingly logical reasons, believing our role as citizens should be left at our office doors.

That form of denial is quickly crumbling, as shown by the impacts of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, and other forms of social unrest. For most of us, there were (and still are) many days when our personal experience as a citizen feels immediate and primary, and our role as a therapist feels secondary.

We walk into our offices in whatever turmoil we’re feeling from the collective traumas alive in us, and in our communities, and then we have to be a therapist to our clients, dealing with the problems that brought them into therapy, along with whatever activation they’re carrying from the same collective traumas we’re experiencing. And I think most of us would admit that we’ve not always handled that messiness very well.

Specifically to the trauma of war, and the issue of citizen-therapists, my therapists, who were all older than I was, were tax-paying citizens when I was in Vietnam. I believe that they hadn’t been able to fully feel and face the fact that they had helped pay for the gun I used, and my bullets and uniform. Neither had they been able to face the fact that they had helped pay for every war and military operation we have been involved in, up to and including the time when I was their client.

And they couldn’t let themselves feel that the freedom many of us experience, the safety we enjoy in our communities, in part, comes from us waging war around the world. All of this helped them keep the Vietnamese woman, and me, at a distance.


Moral Wound

I had committed an immoral act in what — at the time, and certainly all these years later — felt and still feels to me like an immoral war. They had avoided that, and were focused on me and my trauma. Besides not helping me heal, they had left me carrying the weight of a moral wound that I believe should have been shared.

If they had been aware of their role as citizens, and their share of the responsibility for our wars, regardless of how they felt about Vietnam, they probably wouldn’t have gone numb. They might have been able to feel their own pain at what we’d done in that war, while staying open and caring for me. They might have been able to say something like: “I feel so bad for you, given all you have gone through in your life, and the impact that this has had on you, and then to have done such harm to that woman and mother, I can understand why that has been so hard to walk with.”

That sentence probably would have changed my life. I would have felt their care for me, and their pain for the pain I carried, and also their pain for the woman and mother, who was a victim of my rage and aggression, and of America’s war.

And it would have totally rocked my world if they would have been a bit more relational and vulnerable, and inserted into that statement somewhere, something like: “It certainly pains me what we Americans did in Vietnam.” But in my view, these therapists, like most of us practicing, were not aware of the share of collective trauma they carried, how they felt about it, and how it impacted their clients.

I am also aware that our therapist group, which had evolved out of our work with Thomas Hübl, had offered me something that isn’t available in individual therapy. (See Part II). I had the support of trusted peers who were also committed to processing their own personal, inter-generational and collective trauma connected to war. The group was safe and big enough to allow the collective trauma of war to come forward, in a way that isn’t always possible when working one-on-one.

Patrick Dougherty, before deploying to Vietnam.
Patrick Dougherty, before deploying to Vietnam.


Facing What I Had Done, Finally

I sat with this new understanding of what had happened in my therapy — or hadn’t happened — without knowing where to go with it, for many months. The whole gestalt of this trauma had shifted, and I could feel the possibility of healing was now present. I trusted that the path would make itself known as it had in so many ways before — that something would show up.

As a therapist, when a client comes in to see me and has done something wrong and harmful to another, I always look for ways to help them make amends, whatever that entails. I try and practice this myself of course. About a decade ago, I spent a year studying apology, repair, remorse and atonement, while wrestling with what I — and we Americans — had done in Vietnam. But I’d now realized that I ‘done nothing to address the harm I’d caused to the Vietnamese woman.

One of the places I do a lot of my inner work these days — especially with my ancestors, and the trauma that has flowed downstream from them into me — is in my meditation. All of us who work with Thomas Hübl have an embodied meditation practice. I feel very resourced in this sacred realm, both by my sense of connection to the Divine, and from calling upon loving ancestors to support me while doing this deep work.

It is also a place where I have learned to use what Jungians call “active imagination.” This technique — developed by Carl Jung — has been adapted in many different ways, and for many different purposes. Mostly it is used to get out of the box of the conscious mind, and to tap into the instincts, symbols and archetypes in the collective unconscious. In common with many, and Jung himself, I believe that this approach can help us tap into spiritual realms.


Inviting the Woman in

After several months, maybe even a year, I started to meditate on what I should do to heal the wound of my violence toward this Vietnamese mother and her child. I would light my candles, sit on my cushion, close my eyes and go into that quiet space and sit with the intention to pursue the healing, and be in curiosity about what might unfold.

One morning, it occurred to me that I could invite the woman into my meditation, as I had learned to do with my ancestors, and talk with her. This idea felt both dramatic and profound: I could, on my own, while deeply resourced, invite this woman into a conversation.

It then came to me that we could have a dialogue like they do in restorative justice — a community-based practice where a crime victim is brought together with the offender, to seek some resolution in a relational manner. The offender has a chance to hear the impact that they’ve had on the victim, and apologize to them. After 50 years of feeling frozen, it seemed radical that something so simple might be available to me.

During meditation, I invited the woman in, and imagined her sitting on a cushion a few feet in front of me. I asked her to please, if she would want to, let me know what had happened to her that day when I’d barged in and threatened her and her child’s life. I told her that I really wanted to know what had happened to her then, and in the aftermath of that incident.

I imagined her telling me how horrible it was to see my terrifying, rageful face, and my gun raised and pointed directly at her chest, directly at where she held her baby, and to know there was nothing she could do to protect them. I could have sobbed, but held back as I tried to listen. She was very mad, even incredulous, that I had done that. She said more, but since I could barely imagine this woman’s life, no words came to me — only the emotional charge of her fury, which I sat with until she was finished.

Once again, a part of me could have sobbed at what felt like such a humane process: She and I could be in the same room, and I would have a chance to hear the impact of my actions. I could then do the obvious: offer a sincere apology — something that neither myself, nor my therapists, had ever thought to consider.

But I didn’t let myself sob at that point, since I was really trying to imagine this happening in real time with her, and I needed to make the apology without losing myself in my own grief. I wanted to be present to whatever she wanted to tell me.

So I apologized, a heart-aching and remorseful apology that took a few minutes. Tears occasionally rolled down my cheeks, but I kept control of myself. I said I was sorry for barging into her home; for going into a rage because she had looked at me in a way that had offended me; that I had threatened her and her child, and nearly killed them. And I said I was really sorry for how horrible it had been to make her feel so powerless to protect her baby. My heart was aching terribly, but I still didn’t succumb to the sobs that were so close to escaping my control.


‘Make you Human’

Then, in what felt like a moment of grace, a thought popped into my mind: Part of the restorative justice process can involve the victim hearing the offender say something about how they came to do what they did, if the victim is interested, and capable of receiving this. And I immediately imagined the woman saying: “Tell me how you could possibly do something like that. Tell me so I can understand better what you did, since it would also help me to make you human.”

By then, I was sobbing. To imagine, even in my own creative imagination, that she might want to know something about my humanity, when some part of me had felt like a monster for all of those 50 years, moved me beyond words. By telling me about the impact that my actions had had on her, she had become human to me. But imagining that she actually might want to know about my side of the experience moved the whole incident beyond the brutal and stark trauma of war, and opened up the possibility of a healing beyond anything I could have imagined.

So I told her not a lot, but enough, about how I had grown up in a violent, hate-filled family; how the Marines took that violence and shaped it into a fighting soldier; how I had learned the Vietnamese were our enemy, and less human than us. And I told her about an incident that had happened 36 hours before I walked into her home, when I had sat in a field in the dark of the night, certain that North Vietnamese soldiers were crawling toward our position, and sure I was going to die. I told her about my resultant fear, self-pity and rage. Then I apologized again. It ended with her saying: “I am glad you told me. I am still so mad, so very mad, but now you are more than that terrifying, rageful face with a gun pointed at me and my baby.”


The Last Necessary Piece of Healing

After sitting with the woman in my meditation, while it felt so deeply healing, I could still feel that there was something more that needed to happen. Something was unfinished. Over the next couple of weeks, it became clear to me: I needed to tell someone the whole truth of what had happened that day in her home. I had never shared the entire story with anyone, since it had been too painful and shameful to share more than the general details.

In an ideal world, if my therapists had seen what I needed, and had done enough of their own work to get past the numbness in their bodies over America’s role in Vietnam, then I might have been able to tell the whole, exact and honest story in one of their offices. That didn’t happen, but I’m so glad my body and my conscience let me know there was one last thing I needed to do so that I could let go of the weight of the pain and shame that I’d carried for 50 years.

I asked four good friends from my therapist group to help me. Two men friends, Joachim in Berlin, and Rasada in Johannesburg, and I had been meeting for biweekly triads for over three years. Their role in helping me on this journey of healing from the harm I had done was central to this process. I asked them to sit with me while I told them the whole story of what had happened that day. I also asked them not to lose track of the woman, or the harm I had done to her, while they stayed present to me with their care and love.

There was something important in my telling the story of exactly what I did that day. It was very emotional, but it wasn’t the anguish I usually experienced when telling any version of the story. Having reached a point where the woman felt more real and human, instead of frozen in my memory, it felt like something real was happening, in real time.

I also asked two women friends, Emma in Dublin and Louise in Auckland, to light candles on the day I sat with Joachim and Rasada and told the story. I asked Emma and Louise to sit with the Vietnamese woman, and to be present to the harm done to her by me, and by my country, and not to turn away from any of it, and to be with her and the injustice that had been done to her by a man. They said they would be glad to do that for her, and for me. At the end of that very emotional day something felt settled, or complete, or made right.


What I Hope Therapists Do

It is an exciting time to be a therapist, especially for those of us who work with trauma, as we learn more and more about how unprocessed inter-generational and collective trauma can hinder our clients’s healing. I do think that healing collective trauma is best done in groups, as I have described. But widespread access to those groups may be years away, and much can still happen in our offices.

Of course, for us to help our clients heal personal trauma that is also connected to unprocessed collective trauma, we have to know how collective trauma lives in our own bodies. We can do this if we are willing to shift the emphasis in our consultation groups, or start new groups, to focus on the deep and vulnerable work of following our somatic experiences in response to what we experience as citizens, and what gets activated in us by our clients. It is deep and vulnerable work, which fortunately always leads us to our own personal and inter-generational healing.

Doing this deep exploration not only make us better therapists, but also heals us personally, as family members, and as citizens. That is pretty exciting.

Posted on Resonant World blog 12/07/2023