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Transforming trauma into stories of hope, healing, and resistance

Stories | 02.05.24

By Mary Simmerling, Ph.D. 
Online Campus, Master of Arts in Psychology ‘22   

We can leverage the healing powers of the creative self to help trauma survivors heal and become agents of healing in their communities. I know this because, 20 years ago, I shared a single poem that ignited a decade-long global social justice movement exploring and harnessing the transformative and healing power of art. That poem is now included in the recently published anthology We’ve Been Put Through Fire and Come Out Divine: Stories of Hope & Survival, a collection of poems and short prose pieces written by fellow survivors.

As I write this, I reflect on how my personal experiences with trauma and healing have shaped my goals and aspirations, led me to Adler University, and my gratitude for the truly groundbreaking work and teachings of Alfred Adler and the scholarship and teachings of Marina Bluvshtein, Ph.D. My story is not just a story of survival but about harnessing and spreading the healing powers of the creative self as a catalyst for change.

In my 2021 application to Adler University, I described the facilitated writing workshops that I wanted to create and lead for survivors of violence as a way of advocating for social justice, and that I wanted to study applied psychology at Adler to learn more about how best to do that. My goal was to spread what I had already experienced in my own life about art and trauma and to learn what more I needed to know to develop workshops that would offer a safe space for listening to, nurturing, and freeing silenced voices.

Many years before applying to Adler, I was a graduate student in Philosophy at the University of Illinois. In 2005, instead of beginning to draft my doctoral dissertation as I had planned to do, I found myself writing a collection of poetry about the night I was raped and the challenges I faced navigating the world afterward. One of those poems, “What I was wearing,” details the clothing I was wearing the night I was assaulted.

In the two decades since I wrote “What I was wearing,” I have been humbled and moved by what emerged from sharing this poem. “What I was wearing” resonated not only with other survivors but also with those who provide support to them or have been impacted by sexual violence. Importantly, other survivors recognized their own stories in mine. In 2014, the poem became the inspiration for an art installation “What Were You Wearing?” (WWYW) that brings together the words of survivors with outfits that represent what they were wearing during the assault.

Photo of What Were You Wearing exhibit

The art installation “What Were You Wearing?” brings together words of survivors of sexual violence and the outfits that represent what they were wearing during the assault. It was inspired by Dr. Simmerling’s poem, “What I was wearing.” Photo by Jennifer Sprague.

Through participating in WWYW exhibitions, other survivors were able to reclaim their stories and join me in upending victim-blaming myths that falsely assert that one’s clothing is in any way connected to or the cause of the assault. More than a poem, “What I was wearing” became a global social justice movement. In the 10 years since the exhibits first started, they have been held thousands of times across six continents at college campuses, military bases, and nonprofit organizations. And so, with my poem and the WWYW exhibits in mind, I set out to create workshops that would embody the three essential activities of Adlerian socially responsible practice: collective reflection, collaboration, and activism.

Shortly after I became a student at Adler in May 2021, I heard Marina Bluvshtein, Ph.D., director of the Center for Adlerian Practice and Scholarship, talk about Adler’s concept of Gemeinschaftsgefühl — the idea that our health resides in our community life and connections – I immediately knew that this would be a foundational component of my writing workshops and that this sense of fellow-feeling and belonging would be essential for their success. Through the writing workshops, we were able to reclaim our stories and decide how it is we would incorporate them into our lives and give meaning to them. As Dr. Bluvshtein so powerfully states in her writings and lectures, we are the ones who can give meaning to what happens in our lives; we get to decide what it means to us and what we are going to do about it.

Image of We've Been Put Through Fire and Come Out Divine coverDuring the last two years writing together in my workshops, the participants – me included – have experienced the many ways our stories can bring us together and create a sense of belonging, allow us to discover what it is that we have to say, and to bear witness to each other. Our stories help shape and inform how we think about each other and the world. Our stories have the power to change history – both the future through prevention and the past through reclamation. Through sharing them, we are able to forge bonds, make space for each other, and create ourselves anew. We have discovered the hopefulness and sense of belonging that can come from writing in community with other survivors, and have also come to realize that we are not defined by what has happened to us, but that we are in control of deciding how we will incorporate and give meaning to our life experiences.

I am deeply proud of the many ways in which I have incorporated Adlerian theory and practice and the scholarship of Dr. Bluvshtein into my work. In January, when Amherst Writers & Artists Press published the book We’ve Been Put Through Fire and Come Out Divine: Stories of Hope & Survival, I reflected on the many ways this anthology embodies the Adlerian social justice practices of collective reflection, collaboration, and activism. I am grateful to have listened to and acted on Dr. Bluvshtein’s advice to follow the path that requires the most courage because it is in choosing to do something we have never done before that we have the potential to bring about true change.

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, contact RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline for free, confidential, 24/7 support in English and en Español at 800.656.HOPE (4673) and online at RAINN.org and RAIN.org/es

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