A Cooking Student In Paris

For Barbara Chester, Joe Breck and Mr. H.

One of the men turned to the window curtained in lace and said it reminded him of home. I thought at the time that I didn’t know that the Vietnamese liked lace. How little I knew. I thought maybe what reminded him of his home was the plants, the office had several large tropical plants, but he corrected me, no, it was the lace.

The study was a project Barbara and I had dreamed up. We wanted to know if EMDR would help people who had been in the camps, some for extended periods . We recruited men and one woman who were held in re-education camps for up to 12 years. We had a translator, a Rolfer and a doctor. Barbara was a psychologist. The whole trial did not take us more than several months to put together. I assume Barbara wrote up the experience, but I did not see the final article. I am not even sure where to look for it at this point. Barbara moved to Alaska just a few years after this study and we lost touch.

It was 1996 in Tucson. We had asked Lorraine, who worked with refugee resettlement if she knew of any Vietnamese refugees who were struggling with the after affects of being in the camps. A cohort of men and one woman showed up. The woman was the daughter of one of the men. She had not been in the camps but her life, like all the families, had been upended by their father’s, husband’s, or son’s internment. 

My office was on a busy street in Tucson, an old house that I had converted to an office, homey and perfect for the experience. Somehow the word experience seems gentler than experiment or study. Still, we wanted to know if EMDR and body work, as well as the therapy Barbara offered, would work to help this group.

I had been trained in EMDR in 1993 and was confident that we could do no harm and perhaps help. I explained to the group waiting in the back-counseling room what the process entailed. The protocol was explained in English and Vietnamese. and as I didn’t speak Vietnamese, I could only hope the translator was accurate.

The volunteers explained to me that the nightmares and the fear were constant. Rationally they knew that they were ten thousand miles away from their torturers, but that has never stopped anyone from fear.

I had met Barbara through a long series of connections who referred me to her because of a book I was writing. The book was about the connections between political and family violence, trauma that was inflicted under the guise of family discipline or norms or for political reasons, to bring the rebels , dissidents, or children to heal. Barbara had worked with political violence and torture for many years. She had been instrumental in starting a center in Minneapolis, The Center for Victims of Torture, that assisted people who had sought refuge in the United States from countries all over the world. She was a pro in her area. I worked with victims of family violence and had done so for eighteen years. We spent many hours talking about the interconnections between the two kinds of violence. I credit her for an education about what people faced who had met cruelty for political reasons. Not that there is ever a reason good enough to torture anyone. 

The body worker was a man I knew from several workshops in Holotropic Breathwork and who was a friend. Joe was wise and kind and very skilled in assisting people who were in pain. Torture inflicts not just short-term pain, but the body stores the experience and it often continues to tell the story of the betrayal for many years. He was very aware of this and was able to coax the body to release the pain. We were betting that many of these men had significant physical pain as well as emotional pain. We hoped was that Joe could skillfully convince the body into letting the pain go.

My strongest memory of these people was the presence of their anxiety. It was palpable, evident in the air around them. One of the men who volunteered first was an older man, in his early seventies with an upright and robust body and presence. He did not appear anxious. I will call him Mr. H. He told me that he had been Ho Chi Minh’s roommate when they both lived in Paris as students. I believe they were studying cooking. He also told me that he was a practicing Buddhist and had been his entire life. Despite his practice and beliefs, he confided that he was deeply troubled due to an emotion that he considered alien and inappropriate. He hated. The man he hated had been his guard in the camp. This man had inflicted all manner of torture and punishment on Mr. H. What Mr. H. told me was that what disturbed him was not the torture but the fact that he could not rid himself of his hatred for this jailer. Hating was not something his world view allowed. Mr. H. had been a general in the South Vietnamese Army and for this reason the jailer had inflicted what was most humiliating and painful. It was ideological revenge. Mr. H. wanted to stop hating this man.

We had started the session with a discussion of his background. Thus the information that he had personally known Ho Chi Minh, was revealed. The target of the EMDR was easy, Mr. H.’s hatred and the jailer’s face. Very quickly Mr. H. moved into the experience. I used a visual method of bilateral stimulation. This was long before audio and tactile stimulation had been made into an easy machine that did the work for the clinician. Working in this way was a bit like hand laundering, the dark ages of EMDR. The session went very quickly. The result, according to Mr. H. was that he had seen the jailer’s face erased, like chalk on a blackboard. He reported that he felt nothing when he attempted to pull up the man’s image. All those years of meditation made this an easy process. So easy, I was surprised. I doubted it could be that easy, but this was before I took Buddhism seriously and before I had ten thousand hours of practice under my belt. Mr. H. beamed, he was delighted and thanked me. His going first was permission for his cohort, after all once a general, always a leader. The rest of the men then volunteered to try.

I think of Mr. H. now and then, and recall his dislike of hating, his desire to be free of this unseemly emotion and the entanglement it represented. He wanted to be free of the camps and to do so he had to be free of hating his jailer. This is not a new sentiment but on him it was a natural fit and a lesson for me. There would be cause for me to hate and to remember Mr. H. and his desire to be free of this.

I have never forgotten him, his stature, his bearing, and his desire to be free.

I don’t know what the outcome of this was for these people, which I realize is unsatisfying. We had no money to follow-up, to study these people further, our wish was to do a very simple study and to assist if we could. My life rushed on and I entered Graduate School about a year afterward. Barbara went on to Alaska where she died of cancer several years later. She died too soon, but she had helped many, so perhaps she had done her work. I am still doing mine.

I suspect the physician I interviewed knew of this study; and knew that his compatriots were in our program. The Vietnamese community in Tucson is small. For anyone who had been in the camps there are numerous connections to others who lived through the same experience. I hope that the physician sought help. There were many clinicians in Tucson who eventually learned how to do EMDR. In 1996 it was very new, but it is now considered routine practice, so perhaps he reached help. I hope so.

It is possible he even talked with Mr. H. who told him of this crazy method and the erasure of the guard, and the lace curtains which reminded the men of Viet Nam but in a good way.

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