August 3, 2009
By Claire Sykes
Father Michael Lapsley had just opened the mail when the manila envelope exploded, blowing off both his hands and blinding him in one eye. It was 1990, a month after Nelson Mandela’s release, when the bomb was sent to Zimbabwe to silence this Anglican priest who was known for speaking out against apartheid oppression.
Five years later in New York City, psychotherapist and biologist Steve Karakashian met the man with metal hooks for hands, who had since become founder and director of the Institute for Healing of Memories, based in South Africa. But it wasn’t until 2005 that Steve joined Father Michael’s cause, as a volunteer doing development and program evaluation.
Founded to help people overcome the trauma of apartheid, the Institute for Healing of Memories now brings together people who struggle with the aftermath of political, social and personal conflicts in many countries. Its workshops provide a safe and respectful space where people can unburden themselves of their pasts, live in the present and look to the future with hope.
Claire Sykes: What is it about South Africa for you?
Steve Karakashian: For years, I never had a desire to go to South Africa, or thought I ever could go because of the economic sanctions. But in 1991, immediately after Mandela’s release, I was sent there as part of a fact-finding delegation from The Riverside Church in New York. I began attending the church even though I’m not a Christian, because it is legendary for its social activism.
While in South Africa, I saw how the apartheid regime had brutalized people. There was trauma everywhere. Many issues relevant to the United States play out on a larger scale there. For example, both countries once legalized racism, slavery and segregation. In fact, South Africa is a giant morality play, and big questions of good and evil play out there—questions like: Will good triumph over evil? Can people who perpetuate evil be redeemed and take responsibility for what they did? Is forgiveness necessary or even possible? Can people of radically different cultures, in South Africa’s case, European whites and traditional Africans, not only coexist but also enrich each other? Is power inevitably corrupting? These questions matter to me because I have a philosophical and spiritual bent, and there are few places on Earth where they’re as dramatically lived out as they are in South Africa.
CS: When and why did you get involved with Healing of Memories, in particular?
SK: I met Father Michael at The Riverside Church in the late 90s. I saw how his organization was working in a very effective way with people’s traumas, and with reconciliation. It’s a community-based process that used ordinary lay people, not professionals like me. They’ve taught ordinary people to become healers. And I liked that.
CS: Who participates in a Healing of Memories workshop?
SK: In South Africa people still, today, 15 years later, need to process what happened to them under apartheid. The country is devastated by HIV/AIDS, and we work with people who are infected and their caregivers. As our reputation has grown, we’ve been invited to many other countries that have seen conflict and oppression. At this point, we’ve worked in Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Rwanda, Northern Ireland, Germany, Sri Lanka and Australia. And we’ve just been incorporated as a nonprofit organization in the United States where we’re beginning to train people to use the Healing of Memories methodology.
CS: What goes on during a Healing of Memories workshop?
SK: Usually workshops consist of 15-25 participants. We take them to a safe place for the weekend. We provide a comfortable bed and good meals, which is a major deal for people living in a poor country; for those couple of days, they’re relieved of their life struggles. Then we create a safe and nurturing atmosphere that’s spiritual, but not narrowly religious.
At a certain point, they’re invited to tell their stories to each other, whatever is important to them, in small groups with trained lay facilitators. For many people, this may be the first chance to unburden themselves. That’s where the healing comes from—by letting go of the past. On the final day, we ask people to devise a ritual of hope that looks forward. People sing songs, dance, pray, read poems. It’s often a very moving and beautiful experience. Some people may not feel very hopeful, and they are encouraged to contribute honestly about where they are with themselves. But for most, a group spirit is generated that is helpful, and carries people along. So the workshop is a sort of journey from the pain of the past, through telling the story in the present, and then moving into hope for the future.
CS: What’s a common workshop experience?
SK: Many of the folks were physically or sexually abused as children, abandoned by parents and brought up by grandparents. They often have anger and resentment that they’ve never voiced because in African cultures, especially, people are taught to respect their elders. In some cases during the workshop, they come to look at how they’re perpetuating the abuse with their own children.
Through hearing other people’s stories about their experiences with apartheid, quite a few people come to realize why their parents abandoned them. In some cases, the parents were involved in the apartheid struggle, feared being arrested, and didn’t want to put their children at risk so they sent them to their grandparents. After one workshop, a woman talked to her mother and learned that her mother was an alcoholic who knew she would be a terrible parent and wasn’t able to raise her child. The mother told her grown daughter how she had married a man who beat her and there was no food, so she turned to drink.
Out of this miasma of trauma and abuse, one of the things we do with the Healing of Memories workshops is to encourage people to see how the story of their country affected their personal lives. And that in itself is healing, because it opens the door for them to forgive those who abused them. Many people come to understand their abuse as related to the apartheid system in one way or another. It does not absolve the abuser, but providing a new context is itself healing for many people.
CS: How have you, personally, been changed by your work with the Institute of Healing of Memories?
SK: I think I would say I’ve been deepened. It’s not that I didn’t know that these stories existed, but my knowledge, particularly of apartheid, was intellectual. Yet when you hear these things from the lips of people who endured them, such as an inmate in a Cape Town prison who killed three people, and you watch the light of understanding dawn on his face as he realizes that his murderous rage dates back to his being utterly brutalized as a child, this changes you. It deepens your humanity.
CS: How does this depth express itself in you?
SK: It makes it easy for me to feel even more commitment to the work. It’s made me more generous with my finances and my time, contributing to the organization. And it’s changed my perspective on the world. I read the news now with a feeling for humanity that’s different than before I started working with Father Michael. It’s increased my compassion. It’s also increased my own sense of gratitude. Doing this kind of work is really a privilege. It’s not something you do for others as much as for yourself.
Update: In 2012, Father Lapsley published his memoir, Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer (Orbis Books, 2012), co-written by Steve. With an introduction by Desmond Tutu, the book tells the riveting tale of Father Lapsley’s dramatic life and his vow to help others all over the world heal from the aftermath of war, conflict and abuse. What a page-turner!
© Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.