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










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