Saturday, April 30, 2016

Getting to Empathy


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

April 22, 2016


                Survivors of intergenerational ritual abuse and mind control programming that had split them into a bundle called multiple personality disorder (MPD) or dissociative identity disorder (DID), including those whose “parts” have blended into a single sense of self, raised my awareness of the different sides of myself and others I knew in everyday life, what Erving Goffman called different “presentations of self.”  As victims they had survived systematic torture, as their torturers discovered that they had the “gift” of being able to go to “a different place” to endure what their siblings could not, and come back to their core selves keeping secrets about what had been done to them, with memories that could only be unlocked by a torturer who had instructed a part of the victim to “come out” when given a “trigger” by someone who knew the code.  Among survivors I got to know well were those discovered and trained under CIA, later NSA auspices, to perform assassinations, to seduce and collect intelligence as from high political figures, to carry secret information and as drug mules, and in some cases whose fathers had prostituted them as children, as in the military.  And among those survivors healed enough to share what they had suffered, including survivors who met students whom I saw growing stronger in my classes over as many as 17 years until my retirement, I found, as I put it at the time, “some of the most together people I have known”—extraordinarily self-aware, unusually caring and empathic, remarkably capable of giving and receiving trust and open dialogue.  In psychoanalytic terms, their capacity to develop a coherent sense of social identity and belonging had been interrupted by building defenses to wall themselves off from helpless pain and terror, splitting themselves into parts.  Their gift was one of developed intellectual awareness that enabled them to meld the pieces into one self with a consciousness and self-awareness that encouraged me for one to become aware of the many parts of myself and others we recognize, if at all, as internal inconsistencies in how we ourselves get “triggered” to become different “personalities” as circumstances and conversations change in our own daily lives.  All in all, many survivors have a gift of insight into and acceptance of their integrated selves.

In turn what survivors have taught me is awareness and integration of personas I assume (in Erving Goffman’s terms “presentations of self”) with close friends, with my students, and with what are known in the social science trade as “research subjects”—in a community where the imperative for “value neutrality” and “objectivity,” and reticence to contaminate one’s data, runs strong.  Practically speaking, survivors also raised my awareness of how support helps us all to build safer and more trustworthy relations, serves as social medicine for all manner of trauma, including for instance what makes victim-offender mediation work for participants.

                I was reminded of what ra/mc survivors have to teach by the April 23 broadcast of the WHYY/NPR program “Fresh Air,” on “Electrical Currents and an ‘Emotional Awakening’ for One Man with Autism,” John Elder Robison, interviewed with the neurologist, Alberto Pascual-Leone, who unblocked the neural passages that Robison from awareness of the feelings of others toward himself by non-invasive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS; story at  Robison’s awareness of the feelings that lay behind others’ actions had been blocked.  After TMS to his frontal lobes (Pascual-Leone had used EMS on other parts of the brain to relieve depression in other patients), Robison suddenly became acutely empathic, suddenly noticing “friends’” derision for his autistic behavior, recovering the feeling for music which he had gained temporarily as a sound engineer, being so overwhelmed by emotional drama at the movies and on television that he stopped watching, and summarized:

I was always possessed of strong emotions, what I wasn't possessed of was reaction to situations with other people, and indeed after another stimulation, when I could look in your eyes and feel like I was just reading your thoughts, which was really weird and powerful for me, because that had never ever happened in my life.

Robison now works with other autistic people, particularly youth, and concludes:

…I know that [the EMS treatment has given me] my ability to serve on these autism committees, I think that's the greatest thing I've ever done in my life, and I'm really proud [that] I can do that, and I think this made it possible. So there's pain that I felt from having these emotions come on, but I'm just so proud that I can do this thing that's important to young people and other people with autism and differences. ...

After all this seeing of emotion, though, one thing that I've come away with is the knowledge that I wanted all my life to be able to read these emotions, but of course reading emotions just makes me like everyone else. I think a debt that I could never repay Alvaro and those scientists is that they showed me that my geeky ability to see into machines and see into things, that's my true gift in life too, that nobody else can do that.


                Finally, the April 29 episode of the Ted Radio Hour begins with a finding by Magill University Professor of Pain Studies and Canada Research Chair in the Genetics of Pain, Jeffrey Mogil, that the empathy one extends to friends extends to empathy for strangers after playing the video game Rock Band—that is, by playing instruments to accompany video band music.  I notice a similar phenomenon among people who become acquainted as we play music together, as in weekly jams at the local farmers market.

                Ritual abuse/mind control (ra/mc) survivors I have known who have recovered memories of violence done to them by others attribute their recovery to having found safe company and places in which let their defenses down on one hand, and regard having “split” into “multiple personalities” or “dissociative identities” as a life- and sanity-preserving gift, a defense system.  It remains indeterminate whether Robison was born with autism or was traumatized into it by environmental circumstances, it is clear that his sudden gain in empathy brings pain at the awareness of others’ suffering and of their negativity toward himself and others; his courage in counting his newfound capacity for empathy, like ra/mc survivors integration is dissociated experiences of trauma, is a tribute to the value we humans place on awareness of interaction between our own and others’ feelings as we become able to let down our defenses against it.  As with ra/mc survivors, I attribute Robison’s recovery of his capacity to empathize not only to a resonance in the brain created by EMS, but to the faith and trust he has had in the neurologist who administered the treatment and stood by to support Robison in the aftermath.  For ra/mc survivors and for Robison particularly, the connecting one’s own feelings to the feelings of others rests on making it safe to lower one’s defenses against it.  And Mogil’s experimental results indicate that musical harmony can awaken empathy too.  Social and physical harmonic resonance can break down defenses against empathy—connecting with the feelings of others--even in those whose defenses against it are remarkably strong.

                The awakening of empathy is the fundamental mechanism that produces what I call peacemaking in response to human division and conflict in all our relations.  It amounts to creating resonance and harmony in the face of social dissonance.  The integration of split personalities or identities by social support, the effects of EMS on autism, and the power of engagement in musical harmony to make people kinder to strangers all suggest that empathy emerges spontaneously once barriers to it are lowered.  It explains how, as a friend taught me, to learn to “trust the process” through which tension was released and agreement was reached spontaneously in mediation I conducted, once offenders felt safe enough to acknowledge what they had done and why, and victims to express their fear, anger, pain and loss they had suffered.  It explains how police-citizen relations improve in places like Richmond, California, and Cincinnati, Ohio, once police chiefs establish ways for police and those they police to get to know each other in many ways in community activities outside the context of law enforcement.  It explains the process of resolving international conflict which Roger Fisher and others describe as Getting to Yes!  Empathy emerges in our relations once we make it safe to emerge, in many ways we are only beginning to discover.  The trick to making peace is to lower our defenses against it.  And as with Elder Robison, once the defenses are down, peacemaking happens.  Love and peace, hal










Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Military involvement in Syria: Vietnam revisited?


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

April 26, 2016


                President Obama has just ordered 250 military advisers to Syria.  It carries me back to how the US became enmeshed in our Vietnam War.  I looked up a timeline at .  Military aid to the French, thence to the South Vietnamese, began in 1950 under President Truman.  President Eisenhower sent military advisers in 1956 to fight the Viet Cong.  One of President Kennedy’s first acts in office was to send 100 Special Forces to aid the South Vietnamese army.  By the time I did my summer stint as the legal intern in East Asian affairs in the State Department in 1967, President Johnson had increased the US combat deployment more than 450,000 combat forces.

                On NPR, as on “On Point,” and elsewhere, I hear some voices opposing or questioning Obama’s latest extension of our military commitment in Iraq and Syria, not to mention Afghanistan.  The US has an extensive history of sending in overt and covert (as with the CIA in covert operations in Vietnam beginning in 1954) “military advisers,” and hardware.  Some military exploits were short-lived.  Vietnam stands out as lasting from 1950, until its collapse in 1975.  It took only four years from the first deployment of military advisers until combat deployment was fully underway.

                There is something to the saying that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat.  I wish we were taking note of where “limited” deployment of US military advisers has so recently taken us, enough for the history of our deployment in Vietnam not repeat itself.

                It is ironic to me that a Democratic president who entered office vowing to get us out of the region has been sucked into fulfilling the prophecy that senior Republicans who wrote the declaration of the Project for a New American Century, that an attack like the downing of the twin towers of the World Trade Center would solidify US political will to everlasting warfare against a global “terrorist” enemy.  President Eisenhower warned of the growth of the military-industrial complex in his 1960 farewell address.  As far as I can see, no president, regardless of political affiliation or belief, has contained the military since, especially a president like Obama who comes to office with little experience in foreign affairs.  A double irony is that Hillary Clinton is the one candidate with the experience to be able to bend if not break the US military habit, if only she can learn as she has from the mass incarceration she helped her husband escalate when Bill Clinton took office.  More broadly, I wish more of us in the US looked at where escalation of involvement like President Obama’s now in Syria has taken us, that this time we might change course.  Love and peace, hal


Saturday, April 16, 2016

I never thought I'd endorse a prosecutor:-)

This letter appeared today in the Durango (Colorado) Herald:

                I am writing in admiration of the way my son-in-law, Christian Champagne, has performed his duties as Assistant District Attorney of La Plata County these past 7+ years.  I am a retired criminal justice professor, with experience throughout the criminal justice system, including as defense counsel and as expert witness, particularly in support of children in custody disputes whom I believed to have been sexually assaulted.  I have seen Christian at trial both as public defender and as prosecutor, and discussed many cases with him.  I have seldom seen any lawyer in criminal court as well prepared skilled as Christian.  I have been particularly moved by how conscientiously and consistently he has supported, prepared and worked with victims, particularly women who have been sexually assaulted in childhood.

                At the same time, Christian recognizes that for many of the problems encountered by the police and the district attorney, incarceration is an unnecessary expense to taxpayers, and worse, socially destructive, as when a family breadwinner loses a job.  Instead, he has helped create a DUI court, a court for alternative treatment of mental illness, a drug court, and a diversion program.  He is active both in the operation of these programs, and in community outreach and education to let the community know where to get help and support for crime-related problems, and to generate community involvement in public safety and outreach programs.

                In sum, I have known and respected many prosecutors.  Christian Champagne stands out for his hard work and dedication, for his accessibility, for his care and support for crime victims and safety, for his community education efforts, and for his creative energy on programs that helps restore people to the community in ways that work where incarceration doesn’t.  He cares.


                                                                                                                                                Hal Pepinsky

Friday, April 15, 2016

Clinton vs. Sanders


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

April 15, 2016


                Last night I watched the debate on CNN between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and have listened to follow-up.  The debate caused me, on peacemaking principle, to favor, even admire, Hillary Clinton for President.  Crucial to me, a criminologist, is that she has acknowledged that she made a mistake supporting her husband’s war on crime, focusing on the black and brown “super-predators.”

                Bernie Sanders, whom I admire, cites that as a disqualification of her to hold office.  I see that Hillary Clinton acknowledges learning a fundamental policy lesson from experience.  Bernie Sanders highlights his unflinching commitment to the principles he keeps restating—on the results he will achieve.  H. Clinton highlights concrete initiatives she will undertake, after considerable advice, with her political options open as she moves toward, for example, reducing mass incarceration.  Readers will know that my measure of peacemaking is the capacity of parties to conflict (the stuff of politics) to shift course to accommodate what they learn from experience, from what hasn’t worked and what will work better, from experience and from one another, as in mediation.

                Peacemaking is to me a transformation of “violence,” which I define as being hell-bent and focused on achieving substantive goals without shifting course to respond to people who are being adversely affected by one’s course of action.  Peace is made as holders of power over others especially acknowledge learning from experience and changing course.

                Bernie Sanders offers voters and convention delegates his a form of “integrity” that is measured in part by how attached a politician remains attached to substantive goals.  It seeks political supremacy—a triumph of power over those who associate with the wrong people.  The kind of integrity I prefer in those who hold power entails listening and learning from one’s mistakes.

                I admire Bernie Sanders especially for the way he mobilized the people of Burlington to bring “socialism,” as in the public land trusts for subsidized housing.  To me he is, historically speaking, an outstanding candidate for president, given his commitment to public service and government innovation, understandably refreshing and appealing in his plain-spoken statement of principles.  During last night’s debate, I came to recognize that Hillary Clinton is the rarer candidate who has both a wealth of experience and the “peacemaking attitude” I most value in us when we hold power over others: the willingness to listen and capacity to learn from experience of how one’s actions affect others, and change course compassionately.

                A disclaimer:  I will not register to vote in Ohio because that might oblige me to serve on criminal juries, a power to which I conscientiously object.  Jill and I are looking to move in several years to the town where I expect my son-in-law to be district attorney, meaning I will be obviously disqualified from criminal juries.  There I will register to vote.  It doesn’t keep me from trying to influence those who do vote here and now, as always.  Love and peace, hal

Thursday, April 14, 2016


Returning to Peacemaking

Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

April 14, 2016


                When I went to Poland last August for four months to join my wife, Jill Bystydzienski, on her research Fulbright, I lost my Google password, and without US phone service, could not recover it.  A radio broadcast last weekend triggered me to resume blogging, now that Jill and I are back home in Ohio:

                Last weekend in her NPR program “On Being” (during the local station’s fundraising), host Krista Tippett introduced her Civil Conversations Project (CCP), at .  It reminded me of an article turned chapter on A Criminologist’s Quest for Peace on “Cultivation Community in Conversational Circles” (free download at , references at , complete volume at ).

                This is just one example of the fact that there are many words and phrases for the process I call “peacemaking,” the subject of this blog.  Peacemaking is a balanced conversation.  Peacemaking occurs in circle processes.  It describes conversations as I tried to facilitate them in victim-offender mediation.  Krista Tippett’s work is grounded in theology, just as I find peacemaking to be grounded in all religious traditions.  CCP homepage features a variety of interviews with people who have in many ways, many contexts, and many terms have told stories (aka “narratives”) of peacemaking in practice.  Peacemaking actually happens a lot in all walks of life, as the CCP demonstrates all by itself, if only we notice and try.  It pays not to get hung up on what to call it.  Thanks, Krista, for giving me great material to share, to inspire me to resume this blog.  Here’s to civilizing our conversations.  Love and peace, Hal