An intriguing quote in this book puts the secrets of the Levin family tragedy in perspective:
“Secrets are like stars. They blaze inside the heart and ultimately could be explosive. But there are two types of secrets. Small secrets, like small stars, will eventually burn out. With time and space they lose their importance and simply vanish. No harm done. But big secrets, like massive stars, with time and constant fear grow stronger, creating a gravitational pull that eventually . . . When they get so big, they become a black hole.” (Jennifer Jabalay).
A true story, The Secrets They Kept reminds me very much of the family secrets that author Robertson Davies so brilliantly exploited in his novels like Fifth Business and What’s Bred in the Bone.
The central question in this book is what could possibly motivate a man to kill his own daughter? Sixteen year old Sally Levin had recently been diagnosed as schizophrenic, and about to be institutionalized. Sam, her father, told the court that he wanted to relieve her suffering and she had begged him to do it. Sam’s granddaughter, Suzanne Handler, leaves no stone unturned considering plausible answers where very little family history is available. Her aim in writing the book is to give Sally her rightful place in the family and to expose the consequences of the stigma surrounding mental illness. What I see when I read this book is all that and more. This is a family psychodrama acted out over multiple generations. At the end of the book, the author writes about how hidden secrets estranged her from her mother (Sam’s daughter), reminding me of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s observation, “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”
My review of this book draws on shamanistic beliefs that form the basis of Family Constellation Therapy popularized by ex-Jesuit priest Bert Hellinger. My family participated in Family Constellation Therapy that was precipitated by a diagnosis of schizophrenia in my son.
The Hellinger Institute of Northern California website explains that “A Family Constellation is a three-dimensional group process that has the power to shift generations of suffering and unhappiness. Bert Hellinger, the founder of this work, who studied and treated families for more than 50 years, observed that many of us unconsciously “take on” destructive familial patterns of anxiety, depression, anger, guilt, aloneness, alcoholism and even illness as a way of “belonging” in our families. Bonded by a deep love, a child will often sacrifice his own best interests in a vain attempt to ease the suffering of a parent or other family member. Family Constellations allow us to break these patterns so that we can live healthier, happier, more fulfilled lives. In a moment of insight, a new life course can be set in motion. The results can be life-changing.”
From a Family Constellation Therapy perspective, there are probably two or more tragedies in the Levin family history, one buried in the history before the family immigrated to America, and the one at hand. We suspect this because of Sally’s status as a black sheep and her diagnosis of schizophrenia. Sally embodied something about the Levins that they feared about themselves. She was their mirror.
Author Suzanne Handler has stunned me by fearlessly and compassionately shining a light on her own grandfather and his immediate family in order to bring respect and honor to her long dead and forgotten aunt Sally. She leads the way in showing others how compassion and forgiveness are important in even the most awful circumstances. She’s done what Family Constellation Therapy would advise her to do for the sake of her own healing and for those of her children and her children’s children. She brings Sally to life through this book, she erects a new gravestone bearing the proper spelling of Sally’s name, and she forgives her grandfather.
Amongst other things, this book is a truelife crime story so I’ll put my own thoughts on the table as to what may have motivated Sam Levin to kill his daughter on August 16, 1937.
It is not axiomatic that all parents love their children equally or at all. Some parents have favorites and some have scapegoats. From what little we know about Sally, it appears that Sally was the one who never quite fit in with the family of seven who lived a cramped existence in a two bedroom house. Her break with reality may have been the final straw for an already stressed family. Anyone who has lived with a family member who is actively psychotic knows how high tensions can run. The psychotic person is alternately feared, criticized and ridiculed by other family members who haven’t a clue how to help their relative. Or, in trying to be compassionate, families often project worry and instill learned helplessness in their loved one. (There are books and courses available today that teach people how to diffuse the stress and uplift the person, but this kind of knowledge was little known then and only somewhat better known today.)
This (purely speculative) abuse may also have been a longstanding pattern in the Levin household when it came to Sally who was strikingly different from the others, being two shades darker in complexion. Her family called her “Blackie,” underscoring her noticeable difference. Was she the family black sheep or the family “scapegoat”? Shouldn’t at least her mother (Sam’s wife) have protected her? Surely she must have known something of Sam’s plans that day, or at least have had some sort of inkling. Protection is often too big a burden to ask of siblings, who are rivals for their parents’ affections. When the deed was done, the family members rallied round their father and perhaps took a vow of silence to not divulge to anyone that Sally was anything other than a beloved sibling. Their shame would have been too great.
Regarding Sam’s wife, I thought immediately of the Mrs. Dempster character in Davie’s book, Fifth Business. Both were alike in that the townsfolk said they were never right in the head. Mrs. Dempster wandered off one day and took a tumble with a tramp down by the river, to the lasting shame and horror of her pastor husband. Perhaps Sally Levin’s complexion gave rise to suspicions on Sam’s part that she was not his biological daughter and he treated her accordingly, despite his professed love for her.
What is a scapegoat? In Family Constellation Therapy a scapegoat is someone on the receiving end of a subconscious family process spanning multiple generations. Like the Biblical animal scapegoat, one family member, as a form of atonement, takes the brunt of the collective sins of the community/family and then is forcefully driven away from them. The family honor is thereby restored and the family can point to the scapegoat as the strange one who is not like them.
If one believes that there is some truth to the intergenerational scapegoat theory, then Sam was sacrificing one child for the good of the many. He was unconsciously carrying out his duty to his ancestors, while problematically creating a new burden for future generations of the family.
Did Sam Levin really intend to kill himself along with Sally? I doubt it. It was Sally’s idea for him to join her in death, not his. He needed to live to support the rest of his family. He was a dutiful husband, son, and father. His suicide note cleverly introduced the idea that he was insane himself, and destined to go the local insane asylum if he didn’t kill himself first. His suicide note says nothing about loving his daughter, nor anything about his daughter, for that matter, other than signing her name at the bottom. He was sane when he killed her. Not even temporarily insane. And yet, I can also imagine him fearing he was becoming temporarily insane because of stress. I’ve almost been there myself. The label of schizophrenia was enough to push me into a spiraling psychedelic anxiety that if not checked, could have made me temporarily insane. There is nothing I can tell from the story that leads me to believe that Sam loved his daughter, although the investigators came to the conclusion by interviewing relatives and church leaders (all people who would want to protect Sam) that “the defendant was so obsessed with the love for his child that he himself would lay down his life with her.” Except . . . he didn’t lay down his life for her. This is a psychic anomaly. It seems that he visited her grave many years later, and that shows a certain amount of contrition and respect for her, but love for Sally may not have been the case while she was alive.
There is another interpretation of Sally’s outcast status that comes from Family Constellation Therapy which shows how Sally herself was perhaps sacrificing herself for someone in a previous generation of the Levin family who was denied their right to belong to the family, through an untimely death, a murder, prison or some other form of estrangement. The Levin parents were immigrants from the pogroms of the Ukraine whose known family history was lost along the way. Sally chose to offer herself in atonement for some long forgotten exclusion. She was intuitive to the suffering in the Levin household. She was their mirror.
According to Dr. Dietrich Klinghardt, schizophrenia often has its roots at the fourth (intuitive) level of healing because schizophrenics are particularly sensitive to these familial exclusions or injustices and will act out the role of victim. Dr. Klinghardt maintains that if schizophrenia is not cured at the physical level (level 1), it is usually because the issues lie in the realm of intuition (level 4). According to the Family Constellation theory, the root of schizophrenia is almost always found three or four generations removed from the present. The current family environment isn’t directly responsible for the origins of the schizophrenia, but the family is implicated because of the way its members might unconsciously deal in the present with the aftermath of the family event from the past.
On a non-Family Constellation note, I’m of the opinion that it is the original diagnosis of schizophrenia that is a recipe for disaster because it causes people to lose all hope. Sally might well have lived had her doctors not painted such a bleak scenario of her future. This non-medical diagnosis of schizophrenia (there are no biomarkers) and similar mental illness labels should be dropped in favor of empathic treatment of people, not treatment of labels masquerading as diseases.
I highly recommend this book because it shows us how the author explores and attempts to resolve the ominous burdens of her family history.
I first got interested in the trauma theory of schizophrenia when I learned about neurologist Dr. Dietrich Klinghard’s pyramid of healing. Briefly stated, “schizophrenia” is located Level 4 of the pyramid, the level of intuition, dreams, trance, meditative states, out-of-body experiences, and the collective unconscious. Dr. Klinghart believes that healing that takes place at this level has a trickle down effect on the lower levels, where impaired physical health expresses itself.
If Dr. Klinghardt is on to something, then there is no pressing need right now for Chris to consult an immunologist about his immune system, as I wondered about in my last post. Since Chris has undergone several trauma clearing therapies and is boosting his immune system now with plant power (2nd level), a good strategy might be to continue to wait and hope for the trickle down health benefits. These surely don’t happen overnight. I have seen some small evidence that points to his immune system beginning to send the right signals to his body. This strategy also had the added allure of not bringing in medical doctors to to further complicate our lives.
When you finish a Family Constellation, according to Dr. Dietrich Klinghardt, you walk away from it, you do not analyze it, and you wait for the magic to happen.
The magic was still to come for Chris. That would happen several months later. In the meantime, I decided that our household needed to become more of an Asian household, in the sense of honoring our ancestors. Through my mother’s cousin, I located an old photograph of my maternal grandmother and grandfather, the first time I had seen them together, and put it in a silver frame in a place of honor, along with other old black and white photos of various ancestors.
Our family vacation that summer continued the theme of honoring our relatives. We visited a number of battlefields and war cemeteries in France. At Vimy, I learned where I could write for Ian’s grandfather’s war record, and followed up on that when we got home. At Arras, in northern France, I bought a pot of artificial flowers wrapped in cellophane. We drove on into Belgium where we stopped in Adegem to seek out the grave of my father’s cousin, who was killed at the age of 20 securing the supply route between Bruges and Antwerp after the D-Day landing. We left the flowers at the gravesite. Chris lingered at the grave, clearly moved by something.
We returned home tired and drained. The vacation was unfestive, but necessary in the larger scheme of things.
For the Family Constellation I booked three three-hour appointments for the whole family, spanning a little over one week in July 2006, as Dr. Stern was leaving on vacation shortly after that. I had done all the groundwork by creating a family tree, starting with Chris, Alex, and Taylor and working back four generations on both sides of the family, up to and including Ian’s and my grandparents. I wrote a short paragraph for Dr. Stern on what I knew about the lives of each of our ancestors, focusing on the disappointments or tragedies of the individuals. Where I felt I did not have enough information, I asked other members of my family for help.
I had faith that Family Constellation Therapy was the missing link for which I had been searching. I truly felt that if magic was going to happen for Chris, then this therapy would make it happen. I took Dr. Klinghardt’s and others observations to heart, that schizophrenia was a manifestation of a magical belief system. This belief system may come in part from beliefs that have been passed from generation to generation within the family. This belief system could also be thought of as the family energy field. The traumas of the present generation merely reflect the beliefs of the previous generations. In the specific context of schizophrenia, it is thought that the person with schizophrenia is particularly susceptible to feeling an ancestral burden.
In Family Constellation Therapy it is helpful to know the broad picture of the members of the family tree going back four or five generations: who died young and/or tragically; who might have benefited at someone else’s expense; who stepped aside so that others could join the family (e.g. a previous husband or wife,) who went to prison; who was the black sheep, and so on. Include as family members all known miscarriages, stillbirths, abortions, and first wives or husbands. This is no time to be shy or to try to hide the truth. An experienced psychiatrist will sense if something in the constellation is hidden.
Ian’s and my family tree included paternal uncles who died early, one two days after birth in 1903 or 1908 and one who died at the age of three in 1924. I was struck by the fact that my father’s brother was buried in the family plot along with his parents who died years later, but he was unnamed and one of the dates on his grave appeared to be wrong. According to the gravestone, he was either five years old or two days old when he died. We knew it to be two days, so one of the numbers on the gravestone was wrong or else just eroded over time. In Family Constellation terms, not naming a baby and having the wrong death date on the gravestone denies the baby his rightful place in the family memory. On Ian’s side of the family, Ian’s father was given the same name as an older brother who died, as if the older brother was replaced by the younger one. What impact, I wondered, would that have on the family energy field?
My father’s father died when my father was eight years old. Ian’s paternal grandfather fought in World War I and came home with injuries, later developing an alcoholism that left a mark on the family. Ian’s maternal grandparents were divorced, which precipitated a flood of divorces in the generations that followed.
My maternal grandmother died in 1923 when my mother was four. She was my grandfather’s second wife, so I included the first wife (who ceded her position to my grandmother by dying) in the tree as well.
The past impinging on the present is an observation that is not new (ask any writer), but to me, who never gave it much thought in the context of my own family, it was breaking new territory. Looked at from the perspective of the dashed plans and hopes of previous generations, the feeling of sadness was overwhelming.
In the final weeks of Chris’s attendance at the day program, I began in earnest to look for a psychiatrist who practiced Family Constellation Therapy. Given the special circumstances of our geographical location, it took a while to find that person. After a number of months, I found Dr. Maria Stern, a trilingual psychotherapist with a practice in our city.
Family Constellation Therapy and shamanic healing operate at level 4 of the healing pyramid. Dr. Dietrich Klinghardt speaks of level 4 as the intuitive level, the realm of dreams, trance, meditative states, out-of-body experiences, and the collective unconscious. Level 5, the peak of the healing pyramid, is the spiritual level, the realm of your personal relationship with a higher power, call it God, if you will. No shaman or doctor of priest can help you at level five. Healing at this level is up to you.
Family Constellation Therapy, also know as Systemic Family Therapy, was developed by German psychotherapist Bert Hellinger. It is based on the premise that all members of a family, living and dead, have the right to their place in the family tree. If someone is denied this right to belong through an untimely death, imprisonment, or perhaps being the family “black sheep” another family member will (usually unknowingly and often generations later) exclude him or herself as an act of atonement for the injustice.
Bert Hellinger writes that many of us unconsciously “take on” destructive familial patterns of guilt, pain, anxiety, depression, alcoholism, and even illness as a way of belonging or being loyal to our families. Bonded by a deep love, a child will often sacrifice his own best interests in a vain attempt to ease the suffering or solve the “unfinished business” of another family member. As Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung famously observed, “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”
According to Dr. Klinghardt, schizophrenia often has its roots at the fourth level of healing because schizophrenics are particularly sensitive to these familial exclusions or injustices and will act out the role of victim. Dr. Klinghardt maintains that if schizophrenia is not cured at the physical level (level 1), it is usually because the issues lie at level 4. According to the Family Constellation theory, the root of the issue is almost always found three or four generations removed from the present. The parents and current family environment aren’t directly responsible for the origins of the schizophrenia, but they are implicated because of the way the parent might unconsciously deal in the present with the aftermath of the family event from the past. I see this as yet another example of how an energy imbalance might be expressed within the family.
What is particularly compelling about Family Constellation Therapy is that it can put to rest so-called family curses or stop recurring patterns of illness or destructiveness from being passed from generation to generation.
Before and after our visit to the shaman, Chris attended a daily outpatient program for young people with mental health problems. He was an enigma to the staff. During our monthly meetings with his doctor, it was difficult to convince him to lower Chris’s medications because Chris’s “clinical” presentation was so poor. Chris was fairly happy and moderately talkative at home, but assumed the role of a mental patient at the program.
My exasperation sometimes spilled over. “Chris, can’t you just fake it for once?” I would complain. “Dr. ‘L’ holds the keys to the insane asylum. You need his blessing to get him off my back and agree to lower the medications. He is GO. You have to pass GO to collect the two hundred dollars. Get it?”
No, Chris didn’t get it. He appeared not to be able to fake his way out of whatever it was that was keeping him labeled “hopeless” at the program. Dr. ‘L’ told us in our next meeting that the staff were instructed to treat Chris especially gently. He obviously considered Chris a “nut case,” although he didn’t use that word. Instead, he said that he and the other doctors thought Chris was very bright, but they just didn’t know what the problem was. He pointed out that Chris had difficulty using scissors to cut paper during art therapy. “But, you know,” said Dr. ‘L’ earnestly, “we are amazed he is very good in acting class.”
I realized that I didn’t care any more what kind of clinical impression Chris gave. Maybe the clinic was the problem, I thought. True, it didn’t look good not to be able to cut paper, but then why was Chris able to do these things and more at home? He could quite dexterously handle tools to help fix things around the house. Maybe there was something wrong with having to perform for others at a clinic, to be judged by those around you, and to be compared to an apple when you are an orange, or maybe even a grape. Whatever the clinic was doing, it wasn’t doing it for me or for Chris. I had seen enough by then to realize that inside an institution was possibly the last place anyone would get well.
I had internalized some messages that now guided my thinking. Message number one (from Dr. Hoffer): Nobody who relies on drugs alone will ever get well. Message number two (from Dr. Klinghardt): The root of schizophrenia is often found at the fourth (intuitive) level of healing; if the problem doesn’t clear with therapies aimed at the first (physical) level, look to level four.
Dr. ‘L’ suggested that we read Waiting for Godot, as Chris reminded him of that play. It was easy enough to see why—the meaninglessness, indecisiveness, and inertness in the play mirrored Chris’s existence. Thereafter, for a brief period, Ian and I enlivened our lives, which had become confined to our couch, our television, and a nightly bottle of red wine, with a little play acting. We certainly appreciated where Dr. ‘L’ was coming from on this one. Ian assigned everybody roles. Taylor was Pozzo; Chris was Vladimir; Ian, Estragon; and I was the narrator. Chris read his part like a seasoned professional. He stepped outside of himself for once. His face took on an enthusiasm and a flourish. The play was the thing for him.
After spending several evenings on Waiting for Godot, we switched to poetry readings. Each of us read a favorite poem. Chris, in a clear and confident voice, with evident feeling and from memory, immediately volunteered this poem by Robert Frost:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
(Fire and Ice by Robert Frost)
I recognize this poem as a very appealing to a schizophrenic sensibility. Fire/ice, love/hate. Ambivalence and death with a dollop of guilt thrown in.
We had informally approached Level 4 through our play reading and poetry. I saw the positive effect this had on Chris. More of this approach was needed to appeal to what was going on in his mind. We had done all we could at the base level of vitamins and electromagnetic interventions. We had yet to approach level 4 formally through therapy.
The state-of-the art research that I mentioned in my last post links many disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, autism, etc. to wheat and gluten intolerances. Chris’s doctor determined that he suffers from candidiasis, a systemic overgrowth of the yeastlike fungus Candida albicans. This fungus is normally found in the intestines, but an overpopulation can occur due to a number of factors, among them weakened immunity, poor digestion, a diet high in foods that tend to foster yeast, or the use of antibiotics, which kill off essential helpful bacteria that aid in maintaining the proper balance of flora in the intestines.
Candidiasis can be a lifelong problem. It interferes with digestion and nutrient absorption, which in turn affects physical and mental health. Nutritional deficiencies further contribute to intestinal dysfunction and candidiasis. The two produce a negative feedback loop toward deteriorating mental health. Eventually the brain itself becomes overwhelmed by yeast. Various combinations of vitamins and minerals are prescribed in addition to restricting or eliminating wheat, gluten and dairy products from the diet. In addition to the wheat/gluten/dairy intolerance another widely implicated factor in schizophrenia is excess copper.
Some people have been known to recover quickly from schizophrenia by taking just supplements and changing their diet. A lot of people do not. Dr. Dietrich Klinghart, a German physician who with practices in Germany and in the United States, maintains that if schizophrenia is not cured at the physical level (level I – vitamins, herbs, nutrition, etc.) the problem most likely resides at level IV of the healing pyramid. Level IV is the intuitive level of dreams, trance, meditative states, out-of-body experiences, and the collective unconscious. Dr. Klinghardt’s five levels of healing form a healing pyramid, with the upper levels exerting a trickle-down effect on your state of physical and mental health. Healing cannot take place at a lower level if there is an unresolved issue at a higher level.
Having worked with many of the therapies discussed in Dr. Klinghardt’s healing pyramid I am mindful that all the good work that vitamin and diet support can accomplish can be overruled by the mind. Until the mind is ready, the body will not follow. I have seen this recently in Chris. He was doing really well, he was no longer on medications, he was taking vitamin supplements and he was adhering to a recommended diet. We were all in shock when he started to become unravelled. His mind, I am convinced, put the brakes on further progress. He was becoming a victim of his own success. Heartened by his progress up up until then, my husband and I had begun to encourage him to go back to university full time, to develop himself further as a musician, to think in terms of possibilities. He panicked. Psychosis was his escape hatch.
Why he panicked is goes to the heart of the matter. Getting to the essence of cause is where schizophrenia begins to get really, really interesting. The trip is a long one.