A Woman of Valor: Janina, Co-Regulation, Transmission

“I didn’t marry you for your cooking!” our dad would routinely say to Mom, only partly in jest. But there was no question about his admiration and regard for her in perhaps all the other ways, and he truly went to pieces when she died in 2000. I remember his often quoting the verse from proverbs, especially if we were particularly ungrateful or somehow disrespectful of her, at least from his point of view: “A woman of valor, who can find? Her price is more precious than rubies.” Strange how these things lodge in one’s memory, even when so little else does, and float back spontaneously unbidden.

March is Women’s History Month here in the States, with March 8th being International Women’s Day. I meant to write a blog on that theme, and as I pondered whom to spotlight, I heard a profile of Angela Davis and thought she would be a fitting subject. (I’ll get back to her!) Then as March stealthily washed away in a wave of busyness, I received an email announcement, enthusiastically congratulating the Psychotherapy Networker’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Janina Fisher, a woman of tremendous valor well-known to all of us in the trauma and dissociation fields. I was thrilled by this news.

I can’t remember the first time I encountered Janina, probably in the early 1990s at a conference of the International Society for the Study of Dissociation (now the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation). Janina is exquisitely smart and one of those gifted speakers who can present complex clinical or physiological concepts in a language and style that is accessible, not “dumbed down” and even interesting. Dissociation was a “new” and readily confusing aspect of the already young and growing trauma field. She made sense of it. And warm and approachable, she was immediately likeable.

When I enrolled in Pat Ogden’s Sensorimotor Psychotherapy certification training in Boston in the early 2000s, I was delighted to discover that Janina was one of my two instructor assistants, so I had the privilege of studying in close proximity with her for almost five years. She was an invaluable resource and I loved her. Again, not only at articulating elaborate ideas but also talented in somatic applications and explaining them as well.

After completing the training in 2005, I rarely saw Janina for a long time, even though she by now she was almost a neighbor to my Oakland, California office, at least part-time. I remember one time after a traumatic bicycle accident which had left me with unrelenting depression due to a long reverberating concussion, Janina came to my office for a one-time sensorimotor session. I don’t remember anything about that session really, except being in her healing presence and the gentle music of her voice. I know it helped. In subsequent years, I saw Janina mostly at a distance at conferences and the like and certainly followed her books. Until last fall in Oxford, we reconnected and found we both live in San Francisco now, I have had the pleasure of hanging out with her a few times since. It was exciting to hear that Janina had been acknowledged and honored by the Networker in this way. She seemed like a fitting subject for my belated Women’s Day trauma blog.

Co-Regulation

Of course, I was delighted when Janina agreed to a Sunday afternoon interview with me. I realized that although I had known Janina for years, and heard her speak probably hundreds of times, I knew little of her personal story. So, I shyly asked her, how she grew into the amazing trauma therapist we all now know. Like me, Janina came into the nascent trauma field right at the beginning, also out of a psychodynamic training background. For Janina, a decisive moment was in 1989, hearing the pioneering trauma expert Judith Herman speak in Boston. Ahead of her time, Dr. Herman eloquently declared that people suffer because of terrible things that happened to them, not because of infantile sexual fantasies. This made phenomenal sense to Janina and re-set her professional direction.

And concurrently, as is true for many of us, the most severely traumatized, dissociative and often self-destructive of all clients seemed to be “drawn to me like a magnet.” I asked Janina, “How do you understand that?” She responded, “I was born into it.” Ahhh. Intergenerational transmission. But she did not know this until some 10 years after being “woke” by Judith Herman.

At the age of 85, approaching the end of his life, and seemingly out of the blue, Janina’s father approached her for a different kind of conversation than they had ever had before. He proceeded to tell her his personal story, the most unbearably heart-breaking saga of traumatic attachment imaginable. While she knew that her father had had a “terrible relationship with his mother since his birth”, she did not know specifics. When Janina’s father was but one year old, his mother placed him in a foster home in Chicago, some 800 miles (approximately 1,300 KM) from her New York home. He was wrenched out of that home at age 2 and a half and “forced to return to living with them.” At age four (!) he was sent to boarding school and was yanked out of there by age 5 and sent to a foster home in France, alone and without knowing a word of the French language. The French foster mother, however, fell in love with the little guy and kept him until he went to boarding school at age 16.

In this long conversation, Janina’s father mentioned in passing what he assumed she had known. Janina’s mother had a severe childhood trauma history as well. And although Janina had always experienced her mother as cool and aloof, and clearly her parents’ marriage was a miserable one. Janina was never close with her mom, who died in a car accident in her sixties. Although her father travelled three weeks out of the month for work through much of her growing up, she felt close to him. Somehow, he came out of all that attachment hell a kind, warm and charismatic person, and Janina believes she learned or inherited her loving warmth from him.

Janina did not realize until she was in her teens, that he surreptitiously drank alcoholically throughout her childhood. He ultimately stopped drinking in AA, and when he died, he was 56 years sober, and his funeral was crowded with AA comrades and generations of sponsors and sponsees. Says Janina with a laugh, “I guess, I learned to co-regulate complicated people from the ground up!” I say, “What an inspiration!”

Transmission

Janina had her first child by the age of 25. “That was what women did…” just a little ahead of the Women’s Movement of the 1970s. As a young undergraduate at Harvard, “I had no idea how to take care of a baby,” she exclaims. By the age of 27, she had two little boys. Overwhelmed she wondered, “How many thousands of women are in this same boat?” She decided to become a therapist and work with young mothers. All the rest is history.

I asked Janina, how she became interested in somatic therapy. She responded without hesitation: “Because of Bessel.” Much like myself, Bessel has been her north star in her study and practice of trauma and dissociation theory and practice over the past 40 years. And also, much like myself, she does not practice Sensorimotor Psychotherapy per se, but it is in our bones and informs how we think, feel and work every day.  

The program that Janina has developed Trauma-Informed Stabilization Therapy (TIST) is quite remarkable. She also speaks to my deep social justice sensibility with a profound antiracist, sex-positive and gender equality commitment. She has an empathic and cutting-edge expertise about addictions and is copiously generous with what she knows. Can you beat that?!

Janina of course is everywhere and I don’t have to tell you where to find her. I am infinitely grateful for all I have learned and continue to learn from her, and for the glowing example and role model of human being, and Woman that she is. Far more precious than rubies! Congratulations, Janina, and thanks!

Today’s song:

 

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