March 28, 2023

Esther Perel and Jack Saul – Breaking Intergenerational Trauma

In this conversation from the 2021 Collective Trauma Summit, Thomas, Esther Perel, and Jack Saul dig deep into their stories of working with trauma survivors and discuss how creativity, eroticism, and creating new narratives can affect trauma healing, intimate relationships, and the impacts of intergenerational trauma.

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“New experiences change the meaning of the past.”

- Esther Perel

Guest Information

Esther Perel

Psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author Esther Perel, LMFT is recognized as one of today’s most insightful and original voices on modern relationships. Fluent in nine languages, Esther has helmed a therapy practice in New York City for the past 35 years, currently serves on the faculty of The International Trauma Studies Program, and acts as an organizational consultant for Fortune 500 companies around the world. Her celebrated TED Talks have garnered more than 30 million views and her bestselling books Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs have become global phenomena, translated into nearly 30 languages. Esther is also the host of the popular podcasts Where Should We Begin? and How’s Work?

Learn more at estherperel.com

Jack Saul

Jack Saul Ph.D. is the founding director of the International Trauma Studies Program (ITSP) a research and training institute based in New York City. He has served on the faculties of New York University School of Medicine – Department of Psychiatry, the New School for Social Research, Clinical Psychology Program, and Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health. As a psychologist and family therapist, he has created a number of programs both in NYC and abroad for populations that have endured disaster, war, torture, and political violence. His book Collective Trauma, Collective Healing, documenting his experience, was published by Routledge in 2013. Dr. Saul also helmed a public arts and conversation project entitled "Moral Injuries of War" about the need to have a national public reckoning in the United States about our war-making and war culture.

Learn more at jacksaul.org

Notes & Resources

In this episode, Thomas Hübl, Esther Perel, and Jack Saul discuss:

  • Eroticism as a feeling of aliveness, vibrancy, and life force, and how that acts as an antidote to death
  • How trauma “unmakes” the world and how creativity can help re-make it
  • The imagination as a path to freedom in situations of confinement
  • How healing from trauma is about connecting to the unknown

Episode Transcript

Thomas Hübl: Welcome, again, to the Collective Trauma Summit. My name is Thomas Hübl. I’m the convener of the Summit, and I am truly excited to sit here with an amazing couple. And I honor you both very much. I’m sitting here with Esther Perel and Dr. Jack Saul. So, most welcome and thank you for joining us. I’m really excited that we can have this conversation together. So, a very warm welcome here.

Esther Perel: Thank you.

Jack Saul: Thank you.

Thomas: And maybe at the beginning, looking at the work that you both do, it’s not immediately obvious how your external expression is connected to the same conversation, maybe, but we will explore it together. And I wanted to start with both of you, and I will hand it first to you, Esther, when you look at … The Summit deals with trauma, intergenerational trauma and collective trauma, and I know that that’s part of your own personal history, but also very much part of your both work. And when we look at how does that affect intimacy, closeness, how does it affect relational consciousness, how does it affect our taboos in our relationship? Maybe we start there and then we will expand outwards to more collective aspects of trauma.

Esther: I can start on the personal as well as on the professional. When people have experienced trauma, when the world has become unsafe, when there is an expectation that they will either be abandoned or intruded upon, neglected or violated, there is an expectation that often enters our relational awareness, which is that we expect danger, we expect betrayal, we expect harm within relationships. And we often, actually, find ourselves in new, current intimate relationships that evoke these fears, these expectations. But they are also evoked because we often then set it up in such a way that we reproduce that which we expect that we don’t want to expect, but don’t know how not to expect. That would be one. Survivors, in general, feel vulnerable and feel confused about what is safe, and therefore it may be difficult to trust others, but at the same time, they didn’t set it up in such a way. The loop of the dynamic in the couple or in the family sets it up in such a way that it reinforces the evidence, it becomes a confirmation bias. And that is a lot of the work that I do in working with couples who bring experiences, particularly of intergenerational trauma.

Thomas: And so, that’s the bias that you spoke about, the confirmation bias, I think it’s an important word. I want to park it for a moment and come back to it later. Jack, is there something that you want to add to how we find trauma in the innermost circle of our experience as couples and families?

Jack: Well, no, I don’t have much more to add to what Esther just said. I work as an artist, a painter, and I also use other forms of art, like theater and audio installation, in my work with survivors. And a number of years ago, when I was painting and working with torture survivors, and survivors of political trauma, I didn’t realize that their experience was starting to seep in to the work that I was doing artistically. And this was a very important lesson I learned. I was already interested in the way we carry trauma in our bodies. This was many years ago I’d been very interested in this issue, but never made the connection personally, for me. And I was doing these interviews with torture survivors at Bellevue Hospital, at a program that I had started in the late ‘90s. And some of the stories started to seep into my paintings because actually one of the paintings is right behind me there. And I got to this impasse in the work that I was doing, and I couldn’t go any further. I thought that I was using this as a way of dealing with my own vicarious trauma in working with these patients, but it was reaching a wall and I didn’t know what this was about.

And a friend of mine, an artist, a political artist, came into the studio one day and said, “I’m looking at all these ambiguous narrative paintings that you’re doing, where is your story in this?” And I thought about, wow, I had had a conversation with my grandfather 15 years before about his having survived a pogrom in Kishinev in 1903. And so my friend Mayor said … And my grandfather wrote me letters about that experience, the experience he had as a child in that pogrom, it was a massacre in his village. And Mayor said, “Just go find your grandfather’s letters and hold them.” And when I went and did that, and just found the letters, the whole story of my grandfather’s experience hit me in this emotional way. I’d been working with these survivors, but not realizing that the undercurrent of the work, emotionally, I was carrying from my grandfather’s story. And what he had conveyed not only in his letters but also in just the family dynamics and communication patterns.

And I didn’t realize that his grandfather had actually been killed at one of the Passover Seders. It then just threw a whole way of looking at my family life into a new light. And it gave me a really powerful way of then connecting with the survivors of the political violence that I was currently working with. And I go back to that experience of how we carry these intergenerational experiences in our body. We may not know of them, but there is the possibility of finding the stories to put these bodily experiences in context.

Thomas: So, what I hear is also that your work deepened in the moment you deeped into your own relation to your own intergenerational heritage, in a way. So that’s very powerful, and I’m sure right now many people are listening that are also doing some work, either therapeutic work or social impact work, so I think for many of us the work can deepen when we start to address that in ourselves. And then, when you listen to Jack, Esther, in your own family history, your family was also affected by the Holocaust—a massive collective trauma—how did that affect your work and how did you, by yourself, turn part of that around into your gift? Like Jack shared with us right now.

Esther: I am the child of two sole survivors of the Holocaust. So, both my parents lost their entire families, spent an average of five years in labor camps. For many years, I thought that my focus on this experience had to do with loss; with never having grandparents, never having family, with domestic disruption that they both had experienced in their lives, et cetera. But the real moment of revelation, and of course how I carried it, what does it mean to be a child of survivors? What is the second generation? How much is my own … How my fears, my sense of dread, my way of being in the world, and all of those things affected by it, you can’t know me without knowing that part of me, it’s very clear. But in terms of how it affected our work, I was writing Mating in Captivity, which was a book that explored the dilemmas of desire in modern love, and used sexuality in order to understand the challenges and the complexities of modern relationships. And at one point I asked Jack, I said, “When you work with your torture survivors, how do you know when they come back? How do you know that they’re reconnecting with life? What are the signs? They could just be walking dead. But what does it mean, the difference between surviving and reviving? Between not being dead and being alive?” And we started talking about when people are once again able to be creative, because creativity, by definition, is an active engagement with the unknown.

You have to have a modicum of safety to be able to take the risk of plunging into that mystery of the creative: playfulness, initiatives, basically going out into the world again. And I remember saying to him, “That is so interesting,” because in my community, in Antwerp, where I grew up, I often felt that there was a certain tension between families of my friends. I grew up in a community that was all Holocaust survivors, so I kind of had an anthropological field trip. And I remember feeling that there were homes that were morbid, homes where people were not dead but there was a sense of you can’t experience pleasure, because to experience pleasure or joy, you have to have some un-self-unconsciousness. You have to be able to not be vigilant. You can’t be in dread and experience joy at the same time.

And other families who were basically experiencing the “erotic,” as I began to call it—the feeling of aliveness, of vibrancy, of life-force as an antidote to death. Some people experienced the world as dangerous, and so they were tethered to the ground, it was unsafe, you can’t trust anybody, and the second generation experienced the same thing. If they felt pleasure, they could instantly feel guilt, because they felt they were not on guard, and on guard was the only way that you could prevent danger. And that reality of how do you maintain a sense of aliveness, what is radiance and vibrancy in that moment? What is tragic optimism and how does sexuality tie itself into that? That really became the essence of my work, that actually—if one really reads it totally—I don’t so much write about sexuality, I write about eroticsm; what makes people stay alive.

Thomas: That’s so beautiful.

Esther: And that is the experience of my parents. What made them stay alive for years in the camps, day after day? What gave them the desire to continue to go on, to still find beauty, to fall in love in the camps, to have all the experiences that the human spirit will garner in order to face adversity and maintain a sense of humanity in the face of dehumanization?

Thomas: Wow, that’s very strong. Maybe you can both comment on—because I think that’s also very important for many listeners—what is it actually that in such extreme situations makes us stay alive? What would you say are a few elements of that resourcing power that make us stay alive? Maybe you can both comment on that.

Jack: I’m thinking what Esther was saying about creativity, one simple way of looking at trauma is that it’s about unmaking the world, destroying the world. I think the famous writer, Elaine Scarry, in The Body in Pain, spoke about this unmaking of the world. And the antidote to that unmaking and destruction is making; is creating something where something may not have existed before and where it basically allows one to tap into one’s agency again, and one’s
imagination. And I think these are really powerful aspects of eros that we both find very important in our work with survivors in different contexts. And we’ll talk more about that, why we see this engagement with creativity as such an important part of the process of healing, of repair, of moving on and rebuilding lives after one’s been through these really horrible experiences.

Esther: Yes, I would say two things. Freedom in confinement comes to our imagination. It’s true when you do yoga, it’s true when you are in a camp, it’s true when you’re in a miserable relationship. It’s the mind, it’s the ability to imagine yourself different, elsewhere, connected to others that will make you want to wake up in the morning. So, that instantly connects to … And every report of people who have been in solitary confinement re-emphasizes this as well. But that imagination is often an imagination that is a connective imagination, it connects us to nature, it connects us to freedom, it connects us to people. So, I would say that it is the fantasy of relationships, of connection, of the people we miss, of the people we imagine thinking about us, as I am thinking about you, are you thinking about me as well now? And even though we don’t know that we are thinking about each other, we are both maintaining hope because of that. And that definitely was something that happened this year, during this pandemic year, very much. So, the fundamental of what keeps us alive is relational; to the self and to other.

Jack: I would like to add something that I was thinking of as Esther was speaking. And that is an experience that I had in doing a human rights documentation of Tibetans who had been imprisoned and tortured. And I remember speaking with a Tibetan Lama, who had been in prison for a number of years. And he was out now and in India. And he basically said to me, “A sign that you are really severely traumatized is when you lose the ability to have compassion for the torturer, when you lose the connection to the humanity in the other, including the perpetrator, then you will lose the connection to the humanity in yourself.” So for the Tibetans, one of the main ways of practicing healing and dealing with trauma is to practice that, developing one’s compassion for others, and in particular, others who may have harmed one. So, I’ve seen this in a number of different survivors who were able to come back from very severe circumstances in that way of being able to maintain a connection to humanity, humanity in others and oneself, which… they go hand in hand.

Thomas: What’s the moment of the unexpected in the creative act and how does this relate to trauma? We touched it already a bit, but how does this relate to, also, trauma healing? To be able to give oneself to that moment where creativity can really be restarted in a trust in the unpredictable moment. And the other one is, maybe we can also talk a little bit about the transition of … we speak a lot about the individual consciousness, but something that’s arising more and more is the relationality that we are living as, that we are always in relation, always relational. And maybe we can speak a little bit about this, seeing human beings as separate objects that live on the planet or that we are all the time in a relational state.

Esther: I think that it’s interesting, Jack wrote the book on collective trauma and collective healing about 10 years ago, when there was no mentioning of collective trauma. We’ve been doing work in groups and understand that processing grief and experiences of witnessing, and experiences of sharing the burdens, and experiences of reconnecting with life is mostly done in conjunction with the office—the clinical consulting room—that these are collective experiences.
As a child of survivors, I can tell you I’m part of a community where most parents never went to therapy and had plenty of stuff to work on. They did it naturally by creating collective experiences. They had gatherings of the people who were born in the same town, gatherings of people who came out of the same camps and they didn’t sit in groups for chats, they didn’t have chat groups, they just came together. And the very act of coming together made them all know that they shared this experience, and they didn’t have to talk about it. But from that place, they could talk about life, about rebuilding, about planting trees, about naming buildings by the names of the dates.

They had multitude of rituals that enabled them to give meaning to what they had experienced and give themselves permission to have a new life again. And I think of that a lot in my work with couples and with families—we are both systemically trained psychotherapists. So, in that sense, the notion that we are relational is a given, the fact that today we can connect it with neuroscience, and brain, and nervous systems, and all of that is just further fodder for something that sociologically, and anthropologically we have known forever.

What I think goes into the meeting with the unknown is this: trust, Rachel Botsman says, is an active engagement with the unknown. If you have to know all the time, you’re not trusting. So, by definition, trauma constricts, trauma contracts, it doesn’t allow me to be touched without jumping, my body recoils, my patterns are about repetition and narrowly, so I can control it all. So, it’s a loosening up on every level, the dynamic, the interpersonal, the conversation, the communication, the body, everything. And that loosening up is an encounter with new, something that I cannot know where it’s gonna go. If I touch, if I allow myself the pleasure of my hands to be touched, what will happen once it reaches my elbow? And God forbid, what do I know about what’s going to happen when it reaches my shoulder? So, it’s very much in the physicality. Trauma is expressed in the physicality, but not just inside our bodies. I look at it sexually because I think that it is a very rich language. So, tell me how you were loved, in the broad sense of the word, and I will tell you how you make love.

Thomas: Beautiful. Beautiful.

Esther: Which is not the same as tell me how you were loved and I will tell you how you love. It’s about how that experience translates in the physicality of your body, how you experience the physical connection. It translates the emotional story that is behind, they’re one and the same.

Thomas: Beautiful.

Jack: I think that the connection to the unknown is most often a relational experience. I think that in many forms of therapy that we’ve seen, if you ever work with children and you see that if they’ve been through a traumatic experience, they will engage in a kind of repetitive play where they play the scene over and over again. And what enables a child to develop that narrative from this static, constricted narrative is a therapist or someone else sitting down to play with them and adding elements to the play that add a new angle to the story. And then the child considers that new angle and then begins to consider other things that they’ve left out of their story.

And the process of healing begins like that. I do a lot of work with narrative, in the narrative therapy world, where so much of that work is about helping people open up the conversation; open up, letting these stories breathe so that they move from the static to dynamic stories of the past, of the difficulties that people have had. I think it’s really very much a dialogical process, it happens in dialogue with others. And it’s through that dialogue that people are able, often, to get out of that constrained narrative about one’s traumatic past.

Esther: Thomas, I think that this would be an interesting moment to play a clip. It’s a clip from my podcast, Where Should We Begin, where I basically record live couples therapy sessions. They are one-time, three-hour sessions with people who are applying for the podcast, so they’ve never been my patients and never will be. And this is a story of a couple where the man who was also in Afghanistan basically comes back. He has four children, his wife has a major drug problem, and she also commits suicide. And a couple years later now and he has met this new person, this new woman, but he is completely constricted. She comes from a history of sexual abuse, but she feels that the one thing that the abuser couldn’t take from her was a different relationship to her body, an ability to stay connected to her sense of aliveness. And so, she yearns for him to connect with her intimately, sexually, sensually. And it’s about how I try to help him get out of this, what Jack described, the constricted narrative. Literally he starts by saying, “I’m a fix it guy, I stay in the practical realm.” And she wants to bring him into the poetic, into the intimate, into the place where we can feel safe, you and I together, away from the world. Let’s listen.

Thomas: Perfect.

[Podcast audio]
Male: I do have a tendency to get into a “manage the project” kind of a mindset. I’m sure that talking about logistics is not that romantic, it doesn’t evoke the erotic.

Esther: But you know a conversation where someone is deeply focused and attentive and curious is erotic, in the sense of you feel alive and awakened, it doesn’t have to be sexual.

Male: Someone’s focused on you. Yeah.

Esther: Yeah. You enter through the eyes, you enter through the curiosity, you enter into her universe. All of that is erotic. You want to say it in your own words, what you’re asking from him, actually, let me reframe that – what you’re offering him?

Female: In my world, my inner world, there’s no one else I would rather give that to than you, but I want you to desire that and not be intimidated. But to take me places that I haven’t even allowed myself. I think that was the only thing I could protect in my past experiences with abuse. I remember thinking, I can protect this part, and opening myself, and saying, “Here I am, I’m open, you have everything, I’m not going to withhold.”

Esther: Do you sing to him?

Female: I haven’t in a long time. I haven’t felt the inspiration. I haven’t felt the desire, and I don’t like that. I don’t like that that part of myself has gone dormant.

Esther: The reason I want you to sing is because voice is crucial, every baby recognizes a voice. Every kid who is left misses the voice, you can still see the person, you can’t hear them. And when you sing to him, it does to him what it does to you when he touches you, it will help him with the freezing. That’s going to fill him up. Is there a song you know you love?

Female: Yes. [Singing.]

Esther: Let it go.

Female: [Singing.] I’m nervous of my voice.

Esther: There is no greater victory against a rapist than to experience full sexual and erotic intimacy with somebody else. That’s when you can say to someone, “You have not taken the best of me.” And you can give that to her.

Male: I want to give that to her, because as much as she wants to come alive, I do too. And I’ve been at a loss sometimes for how to get there.

Esther: As long as you tell her, “I do too,” rather than just, “I don’t know how,” we’re good.

[Podcast recording ends]

Esther: What do you hear? Where does it reach you, Thomas?

Thomas: Definitely immediately in the connection of the voice and the intimacy of singing, which is a very vulnerable act and it invites immediately a mutual space into the room between them. So, that reached me immediately, even when I listened to that, to the moment, how it creates immediately an intimate space. I want to ask something, when I listen to both of you, it seems you said something, Esther—I think before in the clip you said it—that a level of presence becomes a participation in your world and that that’s erotic. And when I listened to you, Jack, before, I had the feeling that besides hearing the opening up of the group, how the energy and their aliveliness starts to spread and open up and reconnect to the community, to the children. And so, it seems also the level of acting is also a participation in the world, in the inner world of the people that experienced a traumatic … whatever, the torture, for example. And can you say a little bit more about this, how we are willing to participate in each other’s experience, this deeper attunement? Can you speak to the part how this-

Jack: I think you’re making a really important point. There’s something about when you take in a person’s story and then you spend hours working improvisationally to bring that story to the public, and find the universal elements in their story, and take their gestures, you convey to the person that you have listened. One of the most powerful things that we can do to heal is engage in the process of compassionate listening, because in most of the work that I do artistically with communities, it starts with this level of acknowledgement and listening. They need to know that what they have been through is deeply acknowledged by whoever the witnesses are. In the case of the work that we do, we bring the public in as witnesses, and we engage the public to compassionately listen to the survivors.

So, how do you break the silence? There’s so many ways in which silence can be a response. Sometimes it’s an important positive response, but in many times, as in the case of moral injury, people are afraid to speak about what they’ve been through. Either they want to protect their loved ones from knowing some of the horrors that they’ve experienced, or they fear that they would be seen as unpatriotic or critical of the military. And this makes it a very serious problem. I think now we’re starting to realize that moral injury is also a consequence of our war culture in our society, in the United States. We glorify war and violence. And if you go against it, if you talk about what war is really like, and convey to the public the horrors of war, and the ultimate destructiveness, then you could be retaliated against. So, a lot of the people are afraid to even speak because they’re afraid of breaking that silence and being punished in some way.

And it’s very real. So, this project really is about how do we create spaces for the difficult
conversations that we need to be having as a society. The veterans are the prophets who are bringing to us, they’re the messengers that are bringing to us the truth about war. And their healing depends on their being able to speak to a public and have that public acknowledge what they’ve been through. I think Thich Nhat Hanh said that veterans are the tip of the flame of a match that enlightens the way for society to understand what war is and to find a way toward peace. And it’s really incredible to see the role that veterans play, the important role that they have to play in bringing this reality to the public. And it makes me think about one of the functions. I think that there’s an adaptive function to PTSD and moral injury from a social perspective. It may be a way that we have developed through evolution, a way of not
forgetting events.

There are people who continue to be haunted by the memories when maybe the society wants to move on and not think about what they went through. These people actually inspire the public, the society, to grapple with these truths and take care of them. And the way that they do that is bringing those people back into community and hearing what they have to say. There’s so many different versions of that healing ritual in many different cultures, where communities find ways of bringing the people who have been harmed the most back into community. And it often involves listening to what they have to say.

Esther: I’m listening to you and I’m thinking that one of the … You’re doing something different because your truth sayers, your sufferers, they’re like messengers and they deliver the message from the wounded to the witness, and they’re sharing responsibility. But I think that part of what we are both doing, we both are clinicians and we work in our office and we help people in multitudes of ways. We have more narrative, so we deal with their stories, we try to open, et cetera. But we are very aware that there is something about the office that is a problem-ridden environment in which you come to experience your pain in isolation, maybe with the therapist, but still in isolation.

And I do it around couples life, couples today are more isolated than they’ve ever been. There’s never been more expectations on this unit of two, and there’s never been less information about how to do it. And the podcast was … There’s fake news all over the place, social media people posture and screen their lives. What about actually letting people hear the place where nobody ever goes? I think that’s where we are similar. We bring to the people, to the community, the voices, and the stories, and the truths of places where people never go. What happens when a couple close their door? And nobody knows. You don’t even know when your best friends are about to divorce these days, you didn’t see it coming. And the village doesn’t have the narrow streets anymore where you could hear every fight and every makeup in the neighbor’s house.

Thomas: Yeah, I think that really hits the core. Because I deeply am convinced that what you’re both saying is so essential for our collective healing and that to create this collective witnessing, in both ways that you shared now, is absolutely crucial for societal evolution and development. And also, when you speak about, Jack, what you said is really fundamental, I believe. I think in order to evolve beyond the war culture that we have, we have to bring that collective witnessing and the veterans back together in order to open up the denial of our societies. And I think that that’s such an important work, I just want to underline what you both said, that I think that that’s so crucial for how the interdependence of the individual and the collective, that they are not separate, but they’re interdependent.

And I think that principle of healing is so crucial and you both express this in different ways, but very powerfully. It’s so lovely to listen to both of you, I could go on for hours because it’s so true, it’s so to the point. Many things you both said, I think, are very precise and very much also the beauty, how you riff off each other is very beautiful to see. And also, the precision of your expression, it’s very touching, it’s a deep conversation. I’m a bit sorry that we have to end our conversation now. And it was very inspiring for me and also the depth of the transmission that’s in the room as we go deeper is very beautiful. And I think you’re doing both amazing work and I want your work to be blessed, and to expand, because I think it’s deeply meaningful. It’s meaningful to me, and I think it’s meaningful to everybody who is listening right now.

Esther: Thank you.

Thomas: So, thank you so much for joining our Summit. Thank you. Esther: Thank you.

Thomas: You are beautiful, both of you.

Esther: Thank you. Bye-bye.

Thomas: Thank you.

Jack: Bye-bye.