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Collective Resonance in Maximum Security
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The Role of Art, Myth, and Ritual in a Violent World

by Juliet Bruce, Ph.D.

In a trembling southern drawl, the woman read a story she had just written about her daughter’s death to the small group clustered in the corner of the top floor conference room. The others listened intently – gathered within a deep, profoundly alive silence that I have come to know well in the 10 years I have been facilitating healing arts groups. She wept as she told of her inability to move on with her life. She read her story to a group of trauma counselors from around the country who were attending a national conference focused on the mental health needs of a post-9/11 world. They had gathered before breakfast for a special healing story workshop. From their language, regional accents, and obliquely stated opinions about Washington’s multiracial culture, the participants reflected not only the diversity but also the antagonisms and distrust that are currently tearing our country apart. Yet in that moment they were totally one as she spoke, nodding slightly, their glistening eyes reflecting her pain.

Across the street, the Washington Monument loomed like a great mast. The wooden barriers circling it, erected in the days after 9/11, were invisible from up here, as were the police checkpoints below on 15th Street next to the White House. Here, it was quiet, light-filled, and safe – a sanctuary from the political struggles of the fall of 2004 -- a place for individual and collective healing.

Communitas. This is the word anthropologist Victor Turner gave to the spiritual resonance that occurred among initiates in ancient and indigenous rites of passage. And this is what happened in this small group, as it has happened in hundreds of groups I’ve facilitated since first discovering it while running a prison writing group. It means collective resonance – profound spiritual rapport. Many of the world’s great cultures have cultivated this experience in their sacred rites. Buddha called it karuna – empathy so deep that one’s heart vibrates with the suffering of another. To the Greeks, it was eros, the generative force. We moderns call it compassion. Yet, in spite of our country’s history of inclusion and generosity, it seems now to be the one quality that Americans are most in danger of losing. “The American soul is hard, isolated, stoic, and a killer. It has yet to melt,” wrote the novelist D.H. Lawrence during his travels across our land. It is the quality we must reclaim if we are to survive as a nation and planet.

Moments of collective resonance are what I now work for – small instances of communitas that can transform the violence that makes all of us prisoners in our culture, and that, I’m convinced, hold the seed of a new and more authentic American culture – still invisible, but ready to sprout through whatever cracks we can make in the crusty “bring it on” posture we’ve adopted both at home and abroad.

I am a short story writer and director of a nonprofit that uses the arts to support personal and social healing. From my own experience and that of many others, I have come to believe that creativity is a spiritual process and that we can use it to transform our own lives and to become channels of peace in our broken land. Therefore, my aim is not to treat illness or solve problems, but to support the flow of Spirit through individual and community life. I simply show people how to reframe crisis and difficulty into artistic metaphor so that they can see hidden dynamics and possibilities in their experience. In my groups, we ask not how to fix pain but what artists ask as they stand in front of a canvas, sit down at a piano or computer, and gaze at a block of stone: wants to emerge and how can I express it?

My approach emerged naturally from a creative writing group with violent, mentally ill male prisoners 10 years ago. Most of these men had been cycling back and forth through the revolving door for 20 to 30 years. Every time they gained a measure of freedom, they fell back into the same compulsive antisocial and violent behavior that had landed them in jail in the first place. This is because in reality they were in stasis. The corrections and mental health systems only perpetuated the feelings of powerlessness and humiliation that are the roots of violence. How could they ever “re-form,” I asked myself. The answer, of course, was that they couldn’t. The entire system was perpetuating the heart of America’s darkness – slavery.

A writer who used ancient myths as the basis of my own stories, I was steeped in myth and knew its healing power in my own life. Although I entered the unit as an intern in a poetry therapy certification program, I quickly realized that I didn’t fit in with the paradigm being taught. I left the training program and changed the healing paradigm to one that I couldn’t name, but that I now understand to be an aesthetic and spiritual one that instinctively replicated ancient wisdom practices.

First, I told the men that as far as I was concerned, we were collaborators. Words like “pathology,” “addiction,” and “crime” would not enter this special place we were creating together. Everyone had something valuable to say and would be heard. I brought creative skills and they brought the content. They, not I, were each other’s healers. Then I told them about the hero’s journey. The great mythologist Joseph Campbell found that all cultures shared a common myth of transformation, which he called “the hero’s journey.” This myth is echoed in every great story, from novels and films to inspired lives. In this myth, a crisis calls an ordinary person away from home to reclaim the Grail, a valued item that’s been stolen or a magic elixir that will heal a problem that exists in the person’s life and the life of his or her people. The traveler has to undergo a series of dreadful tests and ordeals, meet terrifying demons, face death, and ask for and receive supernatural help. Eventually, with all the skills, strength, and wisdom gained from the journey, the hero claims the prize and brings it home to the people.

The men totally got it. It reframed incarceration into a road of trials, addiction into a demon, and recovery, sanity, and freedom into the Grail that they could claim some day. It gave them a new way to look at themselves and it gave them hope. They began to call the group their “church” and their membership in the group a “covenant.”

Within only a month, the men came alive. The group grew from 6 to 10, and then to 20. Over the next nine months produced poetry, essays, spirituals, a play, a monthly newsletter, and at the end they gave a semi-public reading. Through continual crisis and chaos on the ward, including suicide attempts, relapses, fights, shakedowns, and the unrelenting cruelty of a system that existed to crush the spirit, the group held together. Collectively and individually, they became less symptomatic, more verbal, and hopeful. At the same time, making art together taught them how to make responsible choices, express themselves in nonviolent language, and collaborate in a creative rather than destructive bonding. The hero’s journey myth appeared to offer a passage out of the endless cycle of recovery and relapse. As a result of their progress in the group, 16 of the men were transferred into medium security.

As remarkable as the individual progress among the men was, the change in the atmosphere of the whole ward was equally amazing. At the beginning, the ward was permeated with fear. There was a sense that something violent could happen at any moment. The staff treated the men with total contempt and they treated me with outright hostility. By the end of the group, staff and residents worked together to put on the public reading, scouring the walls side by side. Campbell observed that churches and ancient shrines were built at “places where someone transcended crisis and broke through to see the face of God.” The group had that sacred and even miraculous quality.

What surprised me most during my time in Ward 10 was the resonance I felt with those men. Educator and music therapist Molly Scott describes resonance as the vibrations between similar things that amplify the qualities they share. Hit a tuning fork against a wood desk and nothing happens. Hit it with another tuning fork and they both send out music. This is what happened in Ward 10. Beneath the differences, the men and I were deeply alike. They talked in stories and images, as I do, rather than in conventional explanatory and "objective" language. We shared a common drive toward adventure and living outside the rules of conventional social norms. We thrived on challenge. We were more at home with heroic fantasy than mundane ordinary life. Was this maladustment or psychosis? Or was it a sign of vitality? According to our common cultural norms, we were misfits. We shared the common wound of marginalization.

Although the externals of my life were diametrically opposed to theirs, someone deep inside me felt at home with them. I understood them at a profound, non-rational, soul level. To me, some of the sicker men's schizophrenic "word salad" was a draft of a poem -- a "word collage" -- and their paranoid delusions were vibrant metaphors for the very real hostility that permeated their environment. I held dialogues with their voices as I would with characters in a story. I laughed at their humor and marveled at the eloquence with which they described their criminal exploits. We were fellow warriors against a system of rules and traditions without soul or animating spirit. I would leave the hospital each Wednesday exuberant, positively dancing my way to the parking lot, feeling that I had experienced a real connection with other people -- even intimacy -- that transcended gender, race, class, and morality.

Because of that rapport, because Creative Process – not I -- was the facilitator and guide that opened psychic doors to all of us, that grim day room became a place of transcendence and transformation. The men and I exchanged qualities: I gave them self-expression, dignity, and hope; they helped me reclaim parts of myself lost in the struggle to fit in with the culture into which I was born but could not flourish.

As a result, I gained courage to change my life inside and out; I am not the same woman I was before I entered that ward. If I went in as somewhat of an adventuress, I emerged as someone who wanted to become a healer. At one point I had a dream in which my white skin cracked and fell off like an eggshell, revealing one of the men at the core – smiling, powerful, radiant. Shamans traditionally undergo psychic death and personal disintegration on their way to gaining their powers. Perhaps this experience was something like that for me.

I went on to work with other populations – teen moms, people with HIV/AIDS, cancer survivors, homeless, drug addicts, people suffering from depression, and recently, people who lost a loved one on 9/11 or are feeling its impact in job loss or heightened anxiety about the uncertain future. I added other media, usually collaborating with other artists to mix drum circles, visual arts, singing, dance, and theater improvisation with writing, always within the mythic paradigm. It never fails: people arrive in my groups as victims of circumstance and leave as creators of their own realities. Even more significant – especially in these violent times – they leave feeling part of a larger collective reality. It’s not teaching the craft of fiction, but using the hero’s journey myth and ritual that make my groups transformational and spiritual experiences. The power of the myth lies not in the external adventure, but in the internal rite of passage the hero undertakes. Symbolically, the demons reflect internal conflicts, traumas, and self-sabotaging habits, and the gods represent personal internal strengths and resilience. Used as a healing paradigm, the hero’s journey gives people a way to make meaning out of suffering by metaphorically entering the landscape of pain, squarely facing the hard facts of life, and discovering the hidden gift. In the process, they learn that trauma doesn’t have to be an end, that it can be a threshold to a new and more vibrant life. Thinking of the groups as collaborative rites of passage rather than artmaking or therapy helps to facilitate a metaphorical death and rebirth experience. Traditional initiation ceremonies took place in a clearing in the bush or a cave – always at the margin between the society of humans and the territory of the gods. Initiates usually wore only a strip of clothing or even went nude – a state that St. Francis called “spiritual denudation.” It means that the old ego has died and a new self is ready to be born. I create threshold space through music, suspending all judgment, welcoming every voice, and by responding from my own truth – as an artist rather than an expert. More importantly, I enter the group as a fellow human being on my own hero’s journey, with as much to learn from the participants as they have to learn from me.

Alternating between group and individual expression echoes the collective dream landscape of the ancient rites, so that hidden dimensions of life can surface and new connections can be made. The sharing and witnessing of each other’s writing functions in a way similar to ceremonial sacrifice: as catharsis and restoration. Anthropologist Turner observed that after the sacrifice there was a noticeable change in the mood of the initiates – a peacefulness came over them; they radiated a sense of fellowship and lightness, as if something toxic had been discharged. There was a sense of a “We” in which Self and Other were dissolved. The group was flooded with awe. Campbell called this feeling “the rapture in sheer experience. Ego dissolved, there is nothing in the net but life, which is everywhere, and forever.” This is what I think may be the hidden gift of 9/11: We have, as a people, been called to the landscape of trauma, to initiation, to vulnerability and communitas.. Isn’t it interesting that “wound” and “blessing” have their root in the same French word, blessure? To me this means that through sharing our wounds, we meet on the ground of our shared humanity and bless one another.

Storyteller Michael Meade says that when you feel lost and don’t know what to do, stand in the dark holding all the options, contradictions, and complexities, and wait. The authentic path will emerge if you just stand still.

We have come to a dark crossroad in our nation’s life; we’re endangered by enemies who threaten to attack from without and divide from within. Art, myth, and ritual give us a place to stand together, where we don’t have to concern ourselves with who’s winning and who’s losing, with who’s with us or against us, a place where we can create communitas.

The woman from the south who read her story? She said later, “With all my schooling, my church, my grief work, today is the first day that I’ve known for sure that I can go on and make something good from my daughter’s death.” She’s now building an arts-for-healing nonprofit based on her religious faith. I count her as my fellow traveler on a new American journey.

(Link to Profile for Juliet Bruce)

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