Richard Mollica on Healing Invisible Wounds

Richard Mollica's Healing Invisible Wounds shares his knowledge from the past 30 years.

I’ve mentioned here before that in November I’ll be traveling to Orieto, Italy for two weeks as a participant in the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma.

The opportunity thrills me for many reasons.  In addition to being held in a glorious setting, the program includes clinicians and other people from all over the world who work with refugees.

Richard Mollica is the program’s director.   A long-time veteran of the field, he has done pioneering work in trauma and communities in Boston and in countries across the globe like Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodian that have suffered mass violence.

As part of our preparations for the course, we are expected to read a number of books, with Mollica’s Healing Invisible Wounds heading the list.

I finished the work yesterday and will say simply that it whetted my appetite even more for the program.

Interweaving sources ranging from the Greek character Philoctetes to the Bible to Renaissance artwork to the trauma stories from people in the countries listed above, Healing Invisible Wounds is a powerful argument for the importance of respectful listening and subsequent social justice in the healing after mass atrocity.

Mollica strikes a balance in the book between explaining the origins of his own work, his ability to gain strength when drained by others’ stories and his prescriptions for how clinicians should interact with survivors with a profound respect for people’s ability to heal themselves.

All too often, he notes, healers unintentionally limit survivors’ self-expression and growth in the name of sparing them further pain.  Instead, he maintains that self-healing is a vital element in recovery both for people who have endured mass atrocity as well as for others who are making their way through life’s vicissitudes.

This sense of connectedness between ordinary and extraordinary experiences suffuses Healing Invisible Wounds.  Mollica’s work points to the simultaneous emotional similarity amid historical  and cultural differences between the diverse people whose stories he recounts in the work.

This assertion of a common and shared humanity has powerful implications for people who seek to work with refugees, and who believe in the possibility of the successful transmission of viscerally lived and stored experiences and memory (He has some engaging material in the book of different types of memory and how the brain stores them.).

At the same time, the work makes it clear that self-healing must occur within the context of some broader social reckoning and ensuing justice in which the country and the world’s institutions grapple publicly with what has occurred.  Toward the end of the book, Mollica offers his thoughts about what his experiences mean for people in his and other disciplines.

As much as Mollica is writing about others in the work, he is also writing about himself and the family tradition to which he belongs.  He opens and closes the book with reflections on his father, who lost his own father while he was just a boy and who Mollica clearly revered.  Frank Mollica’s unfailingly upbeat and positive demeanor inspired his son to do the work he has done.

In addition to paying tribute to his father, Mollica also writes about his own moments of struggle and uncertainty.  In one section, he talks about receiving just two weeks notice that his beloved clinic would be shut down due to a lack of funding from the state.

Temporarily paralyzed by grief, Mollica consults his mentor at Yale, who reminds him that each governmental decision is an expression of values and urges him to stand up for what he has worked so hard to establish.

He did just that.

This willingness to share his insights, his experience and his moments of indecision and uncertainty demonstrate Mollica’s commitment to, and belief in, full engagement in life.

Healing Invisible Wounds not only is a powerful summation of three decades of Mollica’s hard-earned wisdom, it is, I am sure, an appetizer in what promises to be a bountiful and sumptuous meal in Italy and beyond.

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