The Secrets They Kept: The True Story of a Mercy Killing that Shocked a Town and Shamed a Family

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.

Not so Far From the Tree

I’ve just started reading Far From the Tree, by Andrew Solomon. My friend, Lisa, who will be a first time grandmother in the next few weeks, handed it over to me because it wasn’t the kind of bedtime story a soon-to-be grandmother should be reading. Solomon’s book is about parents coming to grips with their child’s deafness, dwarfism, gayness, schizophrenia, etc.  Lisa said every chapter seemed to have an interview with a mother who said, “all seemed fine . . . until the baby was born.”

Does the apple fall far from the tree?  I don’t believe it does. Perhaps it’s my experience in Family Constellation Therapy that tells me that family inheritance is social and subtle, not all genetic. Andrew Solomon is gay, and in the forward to the book, he says something that is quite astonishing to me. He writes that most parents of gays are straight, and sexual identity gets picked up in the exterior environment with which the child comes into contact. Wait, wait! Sexuality, like other character traits, is on a spectrum. Not all men and women are robust representatives of their sexual assignment. Many people who have what we might think of as latent homosexual tendencies, get married and have children.  Sex may not be a big part of the relationship, other than feeling a societal duty to procreate. The child, will, however, observe, and draw a sexual identity

So, it’s telling that the author would portray schizophrenia as a brain disease,and pooh pooh the environmental influence almost altogether. He has been indoctrinated in the E. Fuller Torrey approach that is so discredited by activists in the psychiatric rights community.  Who did he interview for the schizophrenia chapter? The misery crowd. Mainly elderly parents of middle aged children who appear not to have made any attempt to understand their children in the context of a greater truths. The book description poses the question: “All parenting turns on a crucial question: to what extent parents should accept their children for who they are, and to what extent they should help them become their best selves.” By and large, the parents and families is the schizophrenia chapter appear to have neither accepted nor encouraged.

Had these parents shown more empathy and understanding, perhaps these stories would be different. Many tossed out their children to the streets, or group homes. Some chose not to speak to their child for years. (This sounds like how homosexuals were treated in years past, and in many cultures today.) They term their own progeny “crazy” and describe all the awful things their child has done to them. Today, would a parent be so derogatory towards a gay son or daughter? No, in western cultures, at least, there has been a revolution in thought, understanding and acceptance of a deviation from the norm.

Shouldn’t Andrew Solomon, given his identification with being a gay person, have realized the irony of the schizophrenia chapter? His portrayal of schizophrenia as dismal and chronic, just reinforces how strongly lobby groups like the Treatment Advocacy Center and NAMI have influenced the public understanding of mental illness. The misery crowd has blocked the public’s ability to see the common ground between gay rights activists and mental health activists. People with mental health issues, marginalized as crazy by TAC like groups, will not be effective advocates for themselves.

I’m looking forward to rereading the schizophrenia chapter and doing further posts on this subject. The author has some interesting observations that I would like to tease out.


Tonight, Ian, Chris and I have an Family Constellation scheduled with Dr. Stern, focusing on my side of the family. This is the second time we have explored my side, so I’m getting the hint that there is still an emotional blockage to be resolved in order for Chris to move forward.

I’m bracing myself. These sessions are intense.

Excerpt from Family Constellation chapter of my memoir

Here is the chapter from my book where I attempt to show how Family Constellation Therapy worked in the context of our family situation. This chapter was probably the most difficult chapter to write. It has been through many edits because it’s important to explain how the therapy works as clearly and succinctly as possible. I’ve taken a few liberties, not many, with what actually happened, in order to make the chapter flow more smoothly. The names of the characters are fictitious. The entire book, save for the last chapter, is available, for the time being, at the authonomy website.


Dr. Thomas Szasz writes that there are two kinds of psychiatrists: the institutional ones, who bring the power of the state to bear on the individual through forced medications and coercion, and the contractual ones, who enter into a private, consensual contract with the patient. Ian and I had experienced the power of the institutional psychiatrist at CAMH, Belle-Idée, and the day program. We were eager to find a local, private doctor who would work with Chris in a more consensual arrangement.

It was perhaps a tall order, but I was hoping to find a psychiatrist who was willing to consult with Dr. Erika and who could do a few sessions of Family Constellation work with us. I was convinced Family Constellation Therapy was the missing link I had been seeking. I truly felt that if Chris were going to experience a breakthrough, then this therapy would make it happen. I took Dr. Klinghardt’s observations to heart, that schizophrenia was a manifestation of a magical belief system and had to be approached at the same intuitive level (four).

After pursuing numerous false leads, I learned that the head of the l’Espoir program, Dr. Rx, was the person to speak to who would probably know about Family Constellation Therapy. Dr. Rx? Had Dr. Rx been withholding information about the therapy from us the entire time Chris had been in the day program? What had we been doing for those twenty-two months in his program—paddling around in the shallow end of the pool for young people with psychosis? Or was Family Constellation Therapy, in his view, only reserved for old people with psychosis? The end result of my convoluted journey was humorously ironic. I had no intention of contacting Dr. Rx.

It was our old contact, Dr. Robert, who referred us to Dr. Maria Stern, a tri-lingual psychiatrist and Family Constellation therapist practicing in Geneva. I telephoned Dr. Stern and explained why I thought Family Constellation Therapy might help Chris. Dr. Stern listened very carefully to what I had to say and suggested that we schedule an initial appointment for the end of June.

On the morning of the appointment, Ian, Chris and I drove to Dr. Stern’s office, which was located on the first floor of a small residential building near the Hôpital Cantonal de Genève. We circled her street several times before we managed to find a parking spot. We rang her office door bell promptly at 8 a.m. and waited. We rang again. After what seemed like hours, not seconds, Dr. Stern unlocked the door and ushered us in. “Please come and sit down,” she said, steering us towards a loveseat and two chairs grouped around a small glass table in one corner of the room. From my vantage point on the loveseat, I looked out at the rest of the room, which was enormous and devoid of furnishings save for three large Oriental carpets on top of the parquet floor.

While Ian and Dr. Stern talked about where in future to find parking space closer to the office, I sized up Dr. Stern, who I guessed to be in her late forties. Excellent English, slight German accent. She wore no jewelry or make-up and was conservatively dressed in a pearl gray jacket and skirt and light-blue blouse. She seemed like a sincere person. I hoped she would also prove to be a good psychiatrist for Chris.

Dr. Stern wanted to make sure that not just Ian and me, but Chris, too, was willing to participate in the therapy and after more small talk with all of us, she spent several minutes focused on Chris, trying to get him to talk a little about himself. She often had to ask him to repeat what he’d said because he spoke so softly.

When Dr. Stern finished speaking with Chris, I surprised her by handing her a Family Constellation version of our family tree, starting with Chris and his brothers and working back four generations on both sides of the family, up to and including Ian’s and my grandparents. I’d included short descriptions of each ancestor, detailing what appeared to be the central disappointment or tragedy of their lives.

“My clients aren’t usually so well-prepared,” she said with a smile, promising to familiarize herself with our family history before our next appointment.

“Normally,” she explained, “I conduct my Family Constellation therapy in French on the weekends with several families at once. The participants act as stand-ins for the ancestors of other families present, and I introduce them to their roles and observe the interactions when they are in their roles. Since French is not your family’s first language, I’ll schedule an appointment during the week with just your family. Instead of having each of you play different roles within a family grouping, I’ll ask either you or Ian to place paper outlines of shoes on the floor to represent your particular group of ancestors.”

Ian and I stared at her. Shoes?

“Wait here,” said Dr. Stern, getting up and disappearing through a door into her inner office. She soon reappeared with a file folder and held up a piece of A4 paper labeled “CHILD” with the outlines of two tiny shoes that represented a young child.

“I’d best show you what I mean,” she said, walking to the center of the room, whereupon she quickly began placing the file’s contents on the floor. “This constellation represents the family of a man I saw last month. The man placed the shoeprints on the floor in the way I am showing you now. He put his father’s shoeprints here, and his mother’s shoeprints here. His grandmother was very interfering and you can see from her shoeprints that she is blocking the space between her son and his wife.”

Dr. Stern paused. “That’s all I’m going to say about this constellation. I think it’s enough to show you how we use shoes in this therapy.

“Let’s say that Ian chooses to do his side of the family,” she continued. “Ian will place the shoeprints on the floor and resume his seat and then I take over as the actor.” Dr. Stern took a couple of steps backward and stood on the paper representing the grandmother of the man she saw the previous month.

“The actor absorbs and reveals the hidden connections, issues and confusions of the family energy field. Whether I am acting or facilitating, I may sometimes interject to ask questions of myself or the actor about the spatial orientation and distancing of where the shoes are placed; when I am acting, I may simply move my body in a way that shows how I feel impacted by the energy of the other members of the ancestor family. “Eventually, we come to a resolution. I ask the person whose family constellation was acted out to take over from me and position the family members in their rightful places in the constellation. Having placed ourselves in the drama by observing or by acting, we can sense how and where the injustices or exclusions have occurred, and the family member symbolically changes the pattern of the family dynamics by physically moving the shoeprints into a more harmonious grouping. Healing can now happen because the energy of the constellation begins to flow naturally.”

Ian and I looked at each other and nodded. What Dr. Stern explained to us made sense. I pushed up my sleeve to check my watch. Two and a half hours had elapsed and it was time to go. Before we left her office, we booked two appointments for the whole family in the first week of July as Dr. Stern would be leaving for summer vacation almost immediately after.

On the morning of the first appointment, our family gathered in Dr. Stern’s therapy room at 8 o’clock. Ian and I deliberately shared only basic information in advance with Alex and Taylor about what the therapy entailed. I had insisted that they read the short descriptions of our family tree that I had given to Dr. Stern. I knew that they were not especially curious about their ancestors and were unhappy about the turmoil our family had gone through over Chris. They attended the appointment under duress.

“I’m quite busy and I don’t think I can make it to all the sessions,” Alex announced to Dr. Stern, in a tone of voice that implied, “Don’t bother trying to convince me otherwise.” Alex was friendly with Dr. Stern, even though he had already made up his mind that he wasn’t planning to stick around for future sessions, but Taylor was aloof and remained so throughout the session. Chris, as usual, was quiet. He spoke only when spoken to.

Chris was more knowledgeable about his ancestors than his brothers were because he had helped me construct our family tree over the course of the previous year. Finding the birth dates and deaths of our ancestors through family records and Internet searches and entering the information into a database gave him and me a new pastime and a chance to talk about what our ancestors’ lives may have been like.

Dr. Stern issued us a short set of instructions. “Decide which set of ancestors you would like the Constellation to be about. If it’s the maternal side then Rossa will put the shoes on the floor; if it’s the paternal side, then Ian will do it.”

Ian and I had agreed in advance of our meeting that Ian would start with his father’s side of the family. Ian’s parents went through an acrimonious divorce when Ian was a teenager and he is not close to either parent. He has a tense relationship with both his father and his mother. Ian feels that his father, Bill, has never acknowledged his part in the family breakup and should have apologized to his children for the misery they suffered.

Ian is named after his paternal grandfather. Ian John Forbes left Aberdeen, Scotland at the age of seventeen and arrived in Toronto just before the First World War broke. He joined a local regiment, whereupon he was shipped first to England then to France. His military records indicate that he was in hospital most of the time he was in France, suffering from pyrexia of unknown origin (PUO) or what was commonly called trench fever. A patient usually recovered from trench fever in less than a month, but in rare cases, the continuing after-effects of the fever included fatigue, anxiety, headache, neuralgia and depressed mood.

We knew very little about Ian’s grandfather other than that he spent the rest of his life after returning to Toronto as a semi-invalid, and an alcoholic as the years went by. His children were all born several years after the war ended. Ian John’s wife, Emma, was an English nurse, so there is a good possibility that she met her husband when he was a patient in her hospital. Bill (full name David William), rarely offers much information about his parents, even when we ask about them. Ian John’s children and grandchildren were always under the impression that his health troubles stemmed from being gassed during the war, but his military records revealed no further information.

Dr. Stern told Ian to be spontaneous in placing the shoe outlines on the floor. “The placement should be intuitive, not logical,” she explained. “Don’t think about it too much.”

Ian placed six pairs of shoes, for his grandparents, and their four children: Bill, and Bill’s twin sister, Bill’s older sister, and a firstborn child with the same first and middle name as Bill’s. “David William” died of leukemia at the age of three, before the rest of the siblings were born.

After Ian finished laying out the shoes, he sat down beside me on the loveseat. We waited nervously to see what would happen next.

Dr. Stern then began a mesmerizing narrative dance, stepping first into the shoes of Ian’s grandfather. She stood quietly, with her head bowed, her eyes looking down at, but not focused on, her shoes, and her arms hung limply by her side, as if she were a marionette loosely dangling from an invisible string. Her breathing caused her shoulders to rise ever so slightly and her stomach to expand and contract.

“Hmmph,” said Dr. Stern, inhaling a sharp intake of air through her nostrils while still keeping her head bowed. Her marionette shoulders shivered ever so slightly. There was complete silence in the room; all eyes were focused on Dr. Stern. After what seemed an eternity, she shook herself a little and began to speak. “I can see I have three lovely children,” the grandfather continued, but I am not close to them. I have a fine wife, but I can only see part of her from where I am standing. Where is my first born son, David William?” With her feet planted firmly, Dr. Stern rotated her body, her feet not moving, to gaze over her left shoulder.

“Oh, I see; there he is,” spoke the grandfather, in the voice of Dr. Stern. “He died young, didn’t he? I thought I had forgotten him. But you didn’t, did you, my dear,” he said softly to Emma. “You are standing by him.”

Ian and I had grabbed a couple of tissues from a large dispenser on the glass table and began wiping our eyes. As the drama progressed further, we wept more openly. We were heartbroken about how the grandfather’s ill health, death of his first born child, and personal demons had estranged him from Emma, Bill and his two daughters.

Dr. Stern wept, too. There were at least four dry eyes in the room. Taylor and Alex looked bored, occasionally exchanging suppressed smiles.

Every so often, Dr. Stern would glance sideways at Chris, to see how he was following the unfolding drama and to watch his reactions. Chris was too far into his protective shell to cry, but he was riveted by the drama. His eyes never strayed from Dr. Stern. He seemed to understand the dynamics of the constellation, and sense the burden carried by its family members.

Dr. Stern was finally finished with her acting role. “Ian,” she said, “let’s trade places. Now it’s your turn to stand in the shoes of each family member and to express any emotions or wishes you may have about where you would now like to place the shoes.” When Ian stood in his father’s shoes he realized he couldn’t see David William, his older brother, from where he was standing. Ian suggested that he should be included in the same line as the other three children. So, Ian moved David William, the almost forgotten child, next to his younger brother and namesake, Bill. Then Ian, standing in his grandfather’s shoes, expressed that he would like to feel closer to his wife, so he moved Emma’s shoes close to Ian John’s.

“How do you feel about the family?” Dr. Stern asked Ian, then each of us in turn.

Ian felt immensely sad, so did I, so did Chris. Taylor and Alex, still resistant to being involved in the therapy, mechanically stated that they felt a bit sad, too. I’m sure that what they said was true; it was hard not be affected by the energy in the room.

After three hours, we were all totally tired and grateful to leave.

“Now, just remember,” said Dr. Stern. “Don’t analyze what you have seen and done today and try not to speak to each other or to other people about it. Whatever comes out of these sessions will happen at an emotional level and will take time.”

Two days later we were back in Dr. Stern’s office, save for Alex who had suddenly discovered commitments he could not possibly break. All the pleading in the world got us nowhere.

“Alex is tough like that,” I remarked to Dr. Stern.

“Being tough is probably a good way to be,” she replied.

In reviewing the outcomes of the previous session with Dr. Stern, Ian and I agreed that we felt saddened but closer to Ian’s family on his father’s side. Chris, ever so slightly nodded his head in agreement.

This time, it was my turn. I chose my mother’s side of the family because of the impact that the early death of my grandmother had on my mother. My father lost his father when he was eight, so I could have started with his side of the family, but I knew that losing her mother when she was only four years old had a huge effect on my mother, Lily.

I remember meeting my grandfather, Kurt, on two occasions only—once when I was about three years old, and once when I was a teenager. Lily didn’t like Kurt, and so our family rarely saw him. Towards the end of her life, my mother told me that she’d felt her father blamed her for her mother’s death. My grandmother, Anna, died of scarlet fever, which she’d caught from Lily in 1924. While I was growing up what I heard from my mother was not that her father blamed her directly for her mother’s death, but that he penalized her by forcing her to quit high school, despite the fact that she was at the top of her class, and refused to buy her new clothes. In her teen years she also had to cope with his third wife, whom he divorced, and his marriage to his fourth wife, who was only slightly older than my mother.

I quickly laid out the shoe patterns for my grandparents, Anna and Kurt, my mother, Lily, and her older brother. I also included in the Constellation grandfather Kurt’s first wife, who was his second cousin. She died while still a teenager, leaving him a widower for the first time. Family Constellation therapists would say that her death enabled my grandmother to marry my grandfather, and that’s why she should be included in the family grouping.

The pattern was rather conventional ―grandmother and grandfather on the same linear path, shoes facing their children, but not spaced close together, children placed below and parallel to the parents, facing them, and the first wife behind my grandfather but far away.

Dr. Stern took her position as interpreter of personal dramas. She started by stepping into my mother’s shoes, and in a plaintive voice asked, “Where is my mother?” As Lily continued to speak, I acknowledged to myself that, as a child, I had never given much thought to the impact my grandmother’s death had on four-year-old Lily. To my way of thinking, she died — that was all — and I accepted her early death as just one of those things that so often happened to people of my parents’ generation. I knew it was a defining event for my mother, but I didn’t dwell on it when I was growing up. Today, in this room, the effect of my grandmother’s death would starkly reveal the impact on her immediate family. I sensed I was about to find out some disturbing truth that I had chosen to ignore until now. I felt cold, despite the warm summer air wafting in through the open window.

Next, Dr. Stern took the place of my grandfather. She hung her head and dropped her shoulders in the marionette position, and for a few minutes, she said nothing; then, slowly, horror seemed to pervade her body. She put her hands over her cheeks and shook her head in dismay while rocking slightly back and forth. She said nothing. She didn’t need to say anything. Our knowing about the death of his first wife and the death of his second wife who left him with two young children didn’t need an explanation.

As I watched Dr. Stern alternate between my grandfather, grandmother and his two wives, I thought despairingly about my mother. My mother was a kind and giving person, but she lived most of her life with three daughters who wouldn’t touch her unless they absolutely had to do it. I now began to wonder if there was more to our lack of physical affection than just the societal norms of the era when I was growing up. I remembered how my sisters and I also hated to play with dolls. I thought of an old black and white photograph of my sisters and me on Christmas Day, looking sullen, our faces dark as thunderclouds. My parents had bought us all kinds of dolls as Christmas presents ―Tiny Tears baby dolls and glamorous fashion dolls with frothy tulle skirts. These gifts would have thrilled lots of other girls, but not us. Not one of us at that age wanted to nurture. Of the three sisters, I am the only one of us today who has children. My sisters chose to remain childless.

Dr. Stern paused in her role playing. “I sense a chill in the room. It feels like death.” She pulled her light, cotton cardigan a little closer to her body. I reached for a tissue and wiped my eyes, suddenly recalling that there was another family member who died early, and that was Anna’s mother, Clara. Clara died when Anna was only ten. When I was three years old I almost died from a blood-related disorder. Family Constellation Therapy might say that I was trying to sacrifice myself to fulfill this particular family curse.

Random thoughts popped into my head as I watched the drama unfold.

Perhaps my sisters and I feared getting too close to my mother meant we risked early death, almost as if early death is something we could “catch” from her, and that’s why we refused to show her physical affection.

Have I unconsciously withheld affection from Chris because I feared that he would die, too? Did he withhold affection from me because he, too, sensed the contagion of death?

All those sleepless nights after he was born when he cried and cried because I had no breast milk. Chris was literally starving by being denied the most nurturing food of all.

This latest revelation about Chris made me feel sick with remorse.

During this Constellation, the same as in the first one, Dr. Stern again looked at Chris to gauge his reaction. Chris was still keenly following the drama without saying much.

Dr. Stern caught something in Chris’s reaction that she thought was important.

“I think I’ve got it!” she said at the end of the session. She turned to Chris and said, “You should not have to carry this burden any longer.” Without offering any explanation, she announced that the session was over. Each of us was left to find meaning in what we had witnessed, in our own way.

For the second time, we left Dr. Stern’s office, exhausted and deeply aware of the sacrifices that had been made by those who went before us. Again, abiding by Dr. Stern’s instructions, we did not discuss what took place in the room.

Chris’s illness had already taught me not to take parenting for granted. There are hidden and not so hidden dramas going on in all families despite parents loving their children and trying to do the best for them. Some especially sensitive children may fail to blossom—even though they are loved—if they sense a hidden undercurrent of tension which they will try to correct in their own way. Family Constellation Therapy taught me that to be a parent is to accept one’s part in a sacred journey, a journey that began generations before. As parents, we profoundly influence the lives of our children and our children’s children, for better and for worse.

By participating in the Family Constellation sessions, I believed that each member of our family, not only Chris, would undergo an energy transference that would positively affect any healing that needed to occur in the present. Healing the present generation would have a positive impact on future generations of our family tree.

In the meantime, we had to wait and let the magic happen.

Inside Mongolian shamanism

I’m quite excited about my current bedside reading, The Horse Boy: A Father’s Quest to Heal his Son, by Rupert Isaacson. It’s the story of a father helping his five year old son overcome autism by travelling to Mongolia to ride horses and undergo shamanic ceremonies. I’m only part way through the book at the moment, and hope to do a more in depth review later. The book explains that shamanism was the ancient religion of Mongols until the Soviets tried to stamp it out. Following the break-up of the Soviet empire in the 1990s, shamanism has been slowly making a comeback. Today there is even an association of Mongol shamans. In fact, the word shaman is a Siberian word meaning “to see in the dark,” referring to people who experience other realities.

What is especially gripping about this book is the in-depth documentation of what Isaacson, his wife and son experienced in Siberian and Mongolian healing ceremonies. I have written elsewhere in this blog about Olga Kharatidi’s book, The Master of Lucid Dreams, about her journey to the shamans of Uzbekistan to heal trauma, but the healing ceremony was not as well explained as in the Isaacson book.

The thought that so-called mental illness is a gift, if properly embraced and chanelled, is not especially new in Western circles, but Isaacson’s contribution is to anecdotally document how a specific problem (autism) can treated by aboriginal practices. The way these problems are viewed is similar to the Family Constellations that Chris and I went through. There is an ancestor element (a family curse) that needs atonement. Bert Hellinger, who popularized Family Constellations, drew on his work with the Zulus in Africa.

Several shamans questioned whether Isaacson’s wife had an immediate female ancestor with a strange mind. (She did.) Instead of saying, “mentally ill” they wondered if she had an ancestor who was “like a shaman.” The wife’s grandmother became bipolar after the death of her eight year old son and was institutionalized towards the end of her life. The shamans referred to her as “like a shaman” because some shamans have mental problems before they start their training. The shamans see this as a sign that these people are destined to be shamans. 

Isaacson thought about the shamanic healers he had come into contact with over the years in his career as a journalist. They were odd, often spoke in riddles and were “away with the fairies.” Isaacson notes, however, that it was interesting that they all had integral roles in their communities, rather than being marginalized as so often happens in industrialized societies.

The self-help community writes a good deal about how to treat people in their spiritual crisis, relying on shamanic beliefs, but here is an actual documented shamanic practice that makes fascinating reading. The family goes through the rituals meted out by nine shamans, who ask them to do some rather bizarre things like wash their more intimate parts with vodka, have vodka and curdled milk spat on their faces by the shamans, and be whipped (including the son).

At the end of the nine shaman ceremony, the son, who enjoyed it all immensely, walked over to a small Mongolian boy and declared him his “friend.” His first friend ever. Perhaps seeing what his parents were willing to go through for him and accept on his behalf was part of this breakthrough.

The shaman ceremony reminds me of the breakthroughs that Chris had after the assemblage point shift and the Family Constellation. Within ten minutes of finishing the AP shift, he immediately started walking taller and the color flooded back into his pale facial skin. About three months after the Family Constellation Therapy, he began to be sociable with people. These results can be achieved rather quickly with shamanic ceremonies. Ritualistic ceremonies are essential rights of passage that have been largely forgotten by the people and too often denigrated and ignored by science.

Another constellation

Ian and I underwent a Family Constellation on Thursday morning with Dr. Stern, just the three of us, no Chris involved. The premise of this Constellation was Chris’s early childhood and in utero period, what Ian and I were like at that stage, our feelings surrounding the pregnancy, etc. Dr. Stern already had “the dirt” on us since I had provided her early on with a family tree on both Ian’s and my sides of the family. She knows where all our skeletons are hanging.

For those not familiar with our Family Constellation Work, you can read about what it is and a Constellation that we did earlier, here and here.

Before we began the Constellation, we discussed the fact that I actually heard the pregnancy happen (yes, it was a “ping” sound) but after that I felt nothing more from Chris for ten months. It was like he froze. We discussed how Ian and I felt like we weren’t ready for parenthood. It took us a few weeks to welcome the idea, not without prior feelings of apprehension. Chris didn’t seem to want to be born, given the fact he was twenty-seven days past due (born in early January instead of early December) and frozen almost the entire time. We discussed Chris being as good as gold in childhood, never wanting to draw attention to himself, never stepping out of line to risk incurring our anger. There are other things that we discussed that had a bearing on the Family Constellation, which I feel are a bit too private to post.

Then it gets complicated, complicated in ways that emotional bonds in families are complicated. Dr. Stern took over and Ian and I drew straws as to who would place the shoes on the floor. I was the one and I quickly, without thinking, dropped the papers with the shoe outlines of Ian, me and baby Chris on the floor in the middle of the room. Ian noticed that I had put Chris on the other side of me, as if I was shielding him from his father. I was, in the sense that I often felt that Ian’s concern with safety issues was getting in the way of healthy childhood exploration. I noticed that the gap between Ian’s and my place on the floor was rather large. Ian’s shoes were pointed out, away from us. This intuitively made sense because Ian was focused on his career during the early years. Successfully married people grow together over the years. At the beginning,you are still finding your way.

Dr. Stern stepped into everybody’s shoes and expressed the emotions that she picked up from her own intuition, knowledge of our family, and the way in which the shoes were placed on the floor. She remarked that she couldn’t see Chris from Ian’s position on the floor. When she stepped into my shoes, she also noticed that she couldn’t see Chris behind her. When she stepped into Chris’s shoes, she felt that nobody saw her/him. Chris was blocked from seeing the world ahead of him. Why was this? she asked.

If you are interested in a Family Constellation and willing to suspend disbelief, this therapy is for you. Ian and I were intent on Dr. Stern’s message and joined in the speculation. It became apparent from the Constellation that we were protecting Chris, but from what? Dr. Stern then had an “idea” and shuffled through the file of our long dead family members and produced the shoes of my father’s older brother, who died, unnamed,in 1908, having lived from Dec. 9th to Dec. 11th. What was Chris’s due date, again? Dr. Stern asked. December 10th, I answered. I placed my great uncle’s tiny prints on the floor in front of me. That struck me as the more logical place to have put Chris. That was my quick intuitive response, and the unconscious mind knows best. Here was the dead baby looming large in front of us, in direct sight of me, Ian, and Chris. Yet, I never gave this unnamed baby a thought when I was growing up.

Dr. Stern then had another idea. She hauled out Ian’s father’s older brother, who died in 1926 around the age of four of leukemia. Ian’s father carried the identical name of his brother, as if he was the replacement for the dead brother. Ian placed the dead great uncle behind him.

Dr. Stern, through her acting out this particular Constellation, was hinting that early childhood separation of first born sons was a shadow that loomed over both sides of the family. Ian and I unconsciously passed a fear of early separation to Chris. In essence, Chris assumed the victims’ roles and assumed their spectral presence, perhaps staying close to home to fulfill our unmet needs. I reminded Dr. Stern that Chris has had a ghostly quality to him from childhood. He was pale and unobtrusive. He can (and still does) somewhat miraculously appear in a room, as if he had materialized out of thin air.

Dr. Stern then moved Chris’s footprints to the front and off to the side, where he could see his father, mother and great, great uncles. She stood in his shoes and looked at the Constellation for a long time, then slowly shook herself, noticing that her left arm was beginning to feel less heavy and mechanical. The left side of the body, she said, represents the mother. Her right arm (the father’s side) slowly started returning to life again. I feel quite good, I feel like I can make a new beginning, she announced. I am not very down-to-earth, though, she continued. I am lighter than that. If I do something with my life, what would it be? Ian and I waited patiently for her answer. She appeared perplexed. It wouldn’t be a businessman or a gardener, she felt sure about that. That is too earthbound for me. No, I am, more like a . . . . Well, I can’t quite put what I want to say in words, but it is almost like being a stewardess in an airplane, having a light touch in asking the passengers how I can be of help.

Family Constellation therapy doesn’t assume that there is one defining event that shapes families’ intergenerational emotional lives. There are many events that have a transgenerational impact. It is clear to me the goal of every Family Constellation session is to bring unity to the family members, both dead and alive. Dr. Stern didn’t leave us wondering. She closed the session on a note of hope. She literally stood in Chris’s shoes and said “I am going to be okay.” Ian and I will then go away relieved, with a burden lifted. We will not be passing on our worries to Chris, because these worries have been lifted. Chris, himself, will sense this.

We are following Dr. Dietrich Klinghardt’s advice. After a Family Constellation you walk away from it, you do not analyze it, and you wait for the magic to happen

Getting there sooner rather than later

Another reason why I like the book, The Alcoholism and Addiction Cure by Chris Prentiss is because he maintains that if you want to get to the bottom of your problems, the multiple therapy approach is best and it works faster. Many people can go for years seeing the same therapist and never become well or else not well enough. This may be because they are undergoing the wrong therapy or perhaps because they do not have a good rapport with the therapist.

Since the goal for everyone should be to resolve their problems as quickly as possible, people should be free to pick and choose their therapy and their therapist, and use several different therapy approaches. People should be free to choose but in reality they are not, as I have found trying to ask Chris’s doctors for the use of other therapies while he was under their care. Just because psychiatry is slowly opening the door to acknowledging the value of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for schizophrenia doesn’t mean that CBT should be the only therapy employed. CBT may not work for you.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be slow going, so I have introduced Chris to Family Constellation Therapy, sound therapy including the Tomatis Method, and Emotional Freedom Technique. I am of the strong opinion that schizophrenia needs to be solved at the intuitive level. You literally have to become a different emotional being inside your body in order for your sense of self to develop.

You wait for the magic to happen

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.

Take this burden

Two days later we were back for our second Family Constellation, save for Alex who had suddenly discovered commitments he could not possibly break. All the pleading in the world got us nowhere. Alex is tough like that. Dr. Stern understood and reflected that it is a good way to be, to be tough. In reviewing the outcomes of the previous session, Ian and I agreed that we felt closer to the reality of our ancestors’ lives. Chris seemed to politely agree.

This time, it was my turn and I placed the outlines of the shoes on the floor without thinking too much about where to place them. My parents, my sisters, and my mother’s mother, father, and brother became shoes on the floor. Dr. Stern took up her position as interpreter of personal dramas. She started out slowly, but horror gradually pervaded her body as she recounted, from the point of view of my grandfather, his wife’s premature death from scarlet fever transmitted by my mother, who was four years old at the time. Dr. Stern put her hands over her cheeks and shook her head in dismay while rocking slightly back and forth. The presence of my grandfather was also there in the room, in abject despair over the unfortunate turn of events in his life.

Ian and I cried harder into the tissues provided by Dr. Stern and wiped our eyes. We were caught up in the drama. Dr. Stern, also quite tearful, looked up at Chris from time to time to gauge his responses. Chris, once again, was keenly following the action without saying much. Taylor, slumped in his chair in the corner of the room, was out and out bored, verging on sullen.

As I looked at the patterns on the floor, my mind began to wander. I was acutely aware of the injustices my mother had experienced, beginning with her mother’s death. This particular family injustice began earlier than that, however. My great grandmother died when my grandmother was very young, just as my grandmother left my mother prematurely.

I never knew my maternal grandfather, having met him once when I was about three years old and once more when I was in my early teens. His fourth wife was slightly younger than my mother. They lived many miles away, but the lack of communication was not due to the driving distance between us. My mother, who was not given to saying unkind things about people, did not speak much about him. Her mother’s death left her estranged from my grandfather, who she felt blamed her for her mother’s death.

Dr. Stern paused to observe sadly that there was a pervading sense of death and chill in the room. Perhaps there was. The atmosphere was changed. Dr. Stern caught something in Chris’s reaction that she felt was important. At the end of the session, she said she thought she had it, and she turned to Chris and said that he should no longer have to carry this burden. He could begin to live. We left that day, totally exhausted but rejoicing in the family members who had gone before and we forgave them and them us. Harmony was created where before there had been disharmony caused by death.

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes

Dr. Stern was a tall, elegant woman with upswept blond hair and precise, German-accented English. She appeared to be in her late forties. Because of our particular circumstances, she conducted the Family Constellation with only our family members present. Normally, other participants or “actors” stand in for your relatives and interact in a dramatic interpretation. Instead of “actors” standing in for the family members Dr. Stern improvised by drawing the outlines of shoes on papers to represent the individual family members (a left and right shoe per paper). Chris, Alex, Taylor, Ian and I sat in chairs in a corner of the large office, wondering what would happen next.

We began with Ian’s paternal grandfather’s story. Dr. Stern asked Ian to put the shoes of the grandfather, grandmother, Ian’s father, his father’s older brother who died before Ian’s father was born, and his father’s two sisters on the floor.She asked him to do it spontaneously and not to think too much where the shoes should be placed.

Dr. Stern then literally stood in the shoes of each of the individuals and spoke for them, letting her voice rise and fall, speaking angrily or softly, or clenching her hands if she felt so moved. She gave voice to each of them, based on her intuition from reading the paragraphs I had given her. She was Ian’s Scottish grandfather emigrating to a new land, only to be sent back to the old world to fight a trench war, then returning to a strange land as an invalid, a convalescent beginning a family life. His firstborn son, carried away by death. Ian and I wept openly for father and first born son, who we did not know in life but felt a bond to in the present. Taylor and Alex looked bored, occasionally exchanging suppressed smiles.

Every so often, Dr. Stern would glance sideways at Chris, to see how he followed the unfolding drama and to see what his reactions were. Chris was attentive and interested. After three long hours, we were all grateful to leave.