Next week I will share my powerful experience in a constellation therapy where I was the protagonist. I want to give you some background first.
Burt Hellinger was born in 1925 in Germany to a religious Catholic family. He resisted joining the Hitler Youth Movement but was later conscripted into the German army. He was a prisoner-of-war in Belgium. He felt his Catholic faith helped him and his family resist Nazi propaganda. After the war he became a priest and worked with Zulus in Africa. He was moved by the Zulus’ regard for ancestors and how they stayed connected with them through ritual. He incorporated Zulu music and rituals into his mass. After his Africa experience, Hellinger went to Vienna to become a psychoanalyst and in the 1970s, he moved to the U.S. to study primal therapy, psychodrama, gestalt therapy, transactional analysis, hypnosis, and family system therapy (Carnabucci and Anderson).
Hellinger was struck by the suffering of the German population as they tried to integrate the Nazi experience and legacy. He designed Constellation Therapy to help with generational suffering. He saw the necessity of love flowing from one generation to another and when this hose of love got a kink in it, therapeutic intervention was necessary. Gabriella Baring, a CT practitioner, told Burkhard Bilger: “There is a kind of family consciousness that we all share. Why does a mother go walking along a beach and suddenly know that her daughter in Canada or Asia just had an accident? ...There are no coincidences. They have information that we don’t have. That’s what we’re trying to uncover – the family secrets that lie beneath our cells.”
Here is an example from a child of former Nazis: “I went through a phase where I just wanted it all to go away…I hated the whole wartime generation (Bilger).” “By the time Karin was in school, that meant field trips to Verdun and Dachau. It meant hour after hour in darkened classrooms with clattering projectors, watching cities burn and grave sites filled with corpses.” She wished all the perpetrators would die but when most of them did die, her cohort realized that they needed to hear those stories (Bilger). The stories were their generational legacy.
A few of my colleagues participated in Constellation Therapy and were impressed. It works like this: The leader privately gathers generational history from a participant. She then asks other participants to play certain parts in the drama. Some parts the protagonist can choose. When a person is given a part to play in someone else’s drama, s/he is given a position in what looks like a psychodrama. S/he then takes a few quiet moments to see what feelings come up and what happens to hi/her body. Without knowing anything about the person s/he is playing, s/he is often surprised by his/her thoughts and physical sensations. One person might feel like she is suffocating and use her hands and body to fight someone off her. She later learns that this relative was raped. Another might feel very weak and learn that this relative was very sick. The constellation leader keeps pushing for feelings and physical sensations and she voices belief in their validity.
Burkhard Bilger participated in a constellation therapy in Germany with Gabriela Barin in Germany.
He describes it: “Baring’s workshops run from nine in the morning till six at night. By the end of the second day, I’d been a brother, a grandfather, restlessness, and the country of Germany. I’d watched people burst into tears, climb into one another’s laps and pretend to be God. I’d heard a woman scream that she was bleeding from her vagina and that crows had eaten her baby. At times, the sobs and shouting rose to such a pitch that I worried that the police might come. (Germans tend to be eerily quiet at home, at least by American standards.) There were moments, I’ll admit, when I would rather have had all my molars pulled than be asked to play another Nazi war criminal.”
In 1914 a group of psychologists did a study at the University of Heidelberg to test the validity of such treatment. It was a controlled, randomized study with 208 participants; half of them were a control group. The study group was divided into groups of 26 for a three day session led by a constellation therapist. Two weeks after the session, members of the active group felt better, on average, about their social relations than 75% of those in the control group (Bilger).
Peter Schlotter at the University of Witten/Herdecke wanted to test how the therapy succeeds. He videotaped a session “and marked exactly where the participants stood and what they said. Then he set up life-size statues in their place and had volunteers take turns replacing them. When asked how they felt at different spots, the volunteers gave remarkably consistent answers. They felt powerful in some places and weak in others, connected to certain people and disconnected from others. When volunteers in a follow-up study were asked where they felt best in the group room, they were drawn to the same spots… Schlotter repeated the experiment in China…The results followed the same pattern (Bilger).”
“Schlotter recently led a session in which one of the stand-ins sensed that the patient had a half- brother, born out of wedlock. Afterward, the patient repeated the story to one of his aunts, who confirmed that it was true (Bilger).”
Bilger, Burkhard, “Where Germans Make Peace With Their Dead,” The New Yorker, September 12, 2016.
Carnabucci, Karen and Ronald Anderson, Integrating Psychodrama and Systemic Constellation Work, Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 192 pp, 2012.