Prof. Jack Saul on Trauma, Community, and Healing

"The focus was on the dead and not the living," said Prof. Jack Saul, Assistant Professor of Population and Family Health at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, about the recovery effort after the September 11th tragedy.

At the May 2014 edition of Narrative Medicine Rounds at the Faculty Club of Columbia University Medical Center, Prof. Saul, author of the book "Collective Trauma, Collective Healing: Promoting Community Resilience in the Aftermath of Disaster," discussed his experiences counseling traumatized populations in Kosovo, Chile, and the neighborhoods in and around Ground Zero.

Of 9/11, he wrote in his book, "I began to experience firsthand what international colleagues had told me about post-­disaster situations elsewhere." At the talk, he said, "The main stories were the stories of the victims and the heroes, and the stories of the war on terror."

But he knew that the media neglected the stories of the community members themselves – narratives that, he knew, had the power to heal the "fragmentation and conflict" that often occurs in populations affected by traumatic events.

He said that, when doing therapeutic theater workshops in Chile and Kosovo, dismantling silence through performance helped to "strengthen already existing family community support systems." "It was a liberating experience for these kids to have this silence broken."

So when he approached community recovery in his neighborhood post-9/11, he used many of the same therapeutic tools that he had developed and honed in Chile and Kosovo including theater workshops, youth programs, and even dance classes. Surprisingly, he said, "Samba and other forms of dancing are probably the best forms of trauma therapy of all."

Even now, the community rebuilding effort lives on: "We got the funding to set up some narrative projects, to set up a narrative archive with oral histories that have now been put into the 9/11 Museum. It was a space to express a diversity of stories, to promote the collective narrative in a way that didn't shut out the stories of some people, one that everyone could feel included them."

Prof. Saul said, "Collective trauma requires collective responses. And families and communities harbor a remarkable capacity for adaptation and recovery after tragedy."

Listen to a recording of Prof. Saul's talk and other editions of Narrative Medicine Rounds at iTunes U. Narrative Medicine Rounds, held the first Wednesday of each month, September through May, are free and require no RSVP. View a full schedule of Narrative Medicine events here.