Famed trauma therapist responds to allegations of bullying: 'It's an outrageous story'

Bessel van der Kolk (Photo: Courtesy of Bessel van der Kolk)
Bessel van der Kolk (Photo: Courtesy of Bessel van der Kolk)

Following his termination from the treatment center he founded 35 years ago for alleged misconduct, renowned trauma researcher, author, and psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk is speaking out in self-defense — just as many of his colleagues, friends, and admirers are voicing support on his behalf.

“No allegations have been made,” van der Kolk, author of the New York Times-bestselling The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma and founder of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Mass., tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It’s an outrageous story — nobody’s come forward, and I’ve never been accused of improprieties by anybody … and now there are these insinuations about how ‘he’s a sexist,’ intimations that I’m a sexual abuser, which is of course devastating not only for me but for the tens of thousands of people who believe in me.”

Last week, the Boston Globe reported that van der Kolk was fired by the Trauma Center’s umbrella organization, the Justice Resource Center (JRI), in January, following the removal of the center’s executive director, Joseph Spinazzola, over alleged mistreatment of female coworkers.

Van der Kolk’s firing, according to JRI president Andy Pond, was based on allegations by staffers that the psychiatrist had “created a hostile work environment” and behaved in a way that “could be characterized as bullying.” Pond told Yahoo Lifestyle that he was unable to share specifics of the allegations because the accusers had asked that the details be kept private.

In response to his termination, van der Kolk has filed a lawsuit against JRI, as well as Pond and JRI executive vice president Kari Beserra, naming 11 counts of action, including breach of contract, misrepresentation, and defamation.

One of the main issues of the lawsuit, a copy of which was provided to Yahoo Lifestyle, is the Trauma Center’s autonomy, as based on the memorandum of understanding that the Trauma Center and JRI entered into when the administrative relationship between the organizations began in 2005. The contract (a copy of which is attached to the lawsuit) specifies that the Trauma Center is an independent organization, and that all funds and grants generated by the Trauma Center belong to the Trauma Center; but according to the lawsuit, JRI is currently holding more than $2.5 million hostage from the Trauma Center.

Pond tells Yahoo Lifestyle that the claim regarding those funds is “false,” and that the entire lawsuit is “without merit.” He reiterates his belief that “the Trauma Center at JRI is not an independent organization. It is a part of JRI and Bessel was a part-time employee of JRI.” He adds, “As I said before, I know that Bessel has contributed a great deal to the field, and that there are some individuals who are unhappy with my decision. But personnel decisions were made on the basis of the facts at hand.”

Van der Kolk says it’s possible that Pond’s decision was financially motivated. “He took all those funds … they are now basically stolen by JRI, and all these funders are out of their money,” he says. But a “more gentle” theory of motive, he says, is that the allegations against Spinazzola had been known for a while, and that Pond “was the direct supervisor of this guy, and that he felt so embarrassed by his lack of action for so long that he needed to find someone else to put it on. So I think he found me.”

The lawsuit also claims that the contract implied that van der Kolk would be employed “for life” and that it was up to the Trauma Center to terminate its own employees. “That’s a dispute,” van der Kolk says, and is “between lawyers.”

“The weird thing is,” he shares, “I always liked [Pond], and when I walked into his office, I said, ‘Hi, how are you doing,’ and his face froze and he says, ‘I’m firing you.’ We had no prior discussions ever about anything, and I said, ‘This is crazy, there’s as much reason to fire you as fire me; I’ve never done anything.’ And that’s it — no warning, no investigation, no discussion, like, ‘Hey, I’ve heard these things about you.’ Nothing.”

While van der Kolk was traveling and unable to speak much about the situation when news broke last week, he posted a response on Facebook over the weekend — calling the story a “very public character assassination of me” — which has since received more than 560 shares, 825 reactions, and 240 comments, the vast majority of them supportive of the trauma expert.

“That is not to say that I cannot be impatient at times, and I have been known to be harsh — that’s something that I’ve been working on in my own therapeutic endeavors and will continue to do,” he wrote in the post. “I actually think that kindness is our greatest virtue. I am deeply touched by the overwhelming support that I have received from around the world (in fact, it was really good to hear from so many old friends). We are working on reconstituting the Trauma Center by July 2018, with almost our entire current staff slated to join. We already have at least one (very lovely) location that is ready to receive us.”

In his post, van der Kolk also shared the email that he sent to his Trauma Center colleagues regarding the news of his termination, which read, in part, “As you can imagine, I am devastated reading the allegations in the Boston Globe that I have been bullying and denigrating my colleagues at the Trauma Center. I am also aware that such accusations cannot be entirely pulled out of thin air, and that some of you must have felt bullied and denigrated by me, though, as far as I remember, none of you have ever confronted me with such misbehavior. If I have inadvertently denigrated or bullied any of you, I would like to know about it, apologize and make amends.”

Many of his supporters commended him for having changed their lives, noting that they were saddened and sorry to hear of his firing but relieved to learn his side of the story. (“I have never felt so loved as I have in these last few days; the support is overwhelming,” van der Kolk says in response to the outpouring, noting also that “being contaminated” by the allegations has led to organizations distancing themselves from him and the Trauma Center.)

A handful of Facebook commenters took the psychiatrist to task for not owning up to alleged shortfalls, with at least one responding to his comment about never having been confronted. “Well when you’re in a position of power, it’s likely that those you’re bullying have less power and may be rendered unable to confront,” she noted. “It’s not the job of the victim to confront their bully in the work place. It’s the job of management to remove the bully.”

Van der Kolk agrees with that take on power imbalance. “That is a reality. I’ve grown up in the medical world, and people have said all kinds of things, like, ‘If you ever do this again, I’ll fire you,’ and ‘I will not promote you unless you do this…’ You just suck it up. Certainly, when I first started the trauma center a long time ago and came from that world, I thought that was sort of OK. But very quickly my colleagues said, ‘No, we don’t do it that way. So I learned I should not adopt the model I was trained in in medicine.”

Regarding comments he hears about his capacity to be “harsh,” he says, “I wrote about this journey in my book. All of us need to go through the journey of self-examination.”

Further, van der Kolk notes, “It’s interesting — I saw a movie of Ingmar Bergman directing Fanny and Alexander, and Bergman has a little bit of the same background as I do. He was so gentle with his actors, and I thought, if Bergman can do it, I can do it too. I thought, I’m going to be as gentle as Bergman. That became my aspiration, actually.”

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