Pioneering trauma researcher terminated for bullying behaviors

Pioneering trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk, whose bestselling book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014) has been highly recommended by this blog, has been terminated from his position at the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts, for alleged bullying and mistreatment of staff members. Liz Kowalczyk reports for the Boston Globe:

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a best-selling author on trauma whose research has attracted a worldwide following, has been fired from his job over allegations that he bullied and denigrated employees at his renowned Trauma Center.

Van der Kolk was removed as medical director of the Brookline center in January, according to several accounts…. His firing capped a tumultuous three months at the center that van der Kolk founded 35 years ago.

Executive director Joseph Spinazzola, like van der Kolk a longtime advocate for abuse victims, was removed in November over his alleged mistreatment of female employees, executives said.

Andy Pond, president of the Trauma Center’s parent organization, told the Globe that van der Kolk had “violated the code of conduct by creating a hostile work environment. His behavior could be characterized as bullying and making employees feel denigrated and uncomfortable.’’

Van der Kolk has denied the allegations and has filed a lawsuit challenging his termination.

This is enormously disappointing news to report. Van der Kolk has earned his reputation as one of the world’s most influential trauma researchers, and The Body Keeps the Score remains, in my opinion, the best book on psychological trauma and its treatment for both general and specialized audiences.

However, I also feel obliged to share this development, even as I struggle to process it. At the very least, it is a head spinning reminder of human fallibility and imperfection. As for the decision to terminate van der Kolk, it reminds us that doing the right thing in a management context can sometimes be enormously difficult. Within the community of researchers and practitioners addressing psychological trauma, the repercussions will be considerable.

9 responses

  1. WOW!!! WOW!!! WOW!!!

    I’m so glad to see these types of behaviors being called out, dearest David!!!! BRAVO!!

    Your greatest fan, Linda


  2. There are many forms of behavior from colleague nurses, physicians and managers. The worst is the manager. Followed by the nurse colleagues who turn their back on the gaslighting and unfair treatment by a manager. The Nursing Code of Ethics and Nursing Code of Conduct don’t exist in these workplaces except where they might be selectively applied to the victim The abuser and their accomplices rarely face accountability. There are a growing number of wrongful termination lawsuits, that if dissected, provide evidence of misconduct and abuse of power. Maybe one day these legal documents will be scrutinized by licensure boards and action taken. Seems if they make claims in their mission statements, bylaws and policies. Yet, don’t follow recommended practices or applicable standards, they are not entitled to misrepresent themselves to the public. And thus, should be stripped of the awards, ratings and recognitions. Unfortunately, those have become a billion dollar industries in and of themselves. Gold outweighs doing what’s right on the scales of the Wall Street business model in healthcare.

    • It doesn’t seem any better where healthcare is a public system. It’s entrenched in the culture of the work itself.

  3. My heart aches for the targets who were so profoundly betrayed, but my mind is eased with the knowledge that they could not have addressed the situation alone. Some colleagues, investigators, bystanders, have stepped up. It can’t have been easy when the bullying individual is highly esteemed and clearly knows better.

    I guess we really are making some progress on believing women.

  4. At the very least, David, if true, it is a cautionary tale and has deep psychological etiology to consider in how we deal with our own frailties.

    Steve Moffic

  5. I’m sad but extremely happy that his behavior was not overlooked just because of his power and position. I guess he pissed off the wrong people. I had to leave my workplace to get away from gaslighting, microaggressions/attacks and undermining. These places drain the life out of you.

  6. Hopefully the allegations are brought out clearly in the lawsuit. As someone from a culture that once respected the rule of law, I’m amazed that events like this occur with absolutely minimal evidence regarding what actually happened.

    The comments on this blog and elsewhere indicate people have already judged and juried the situation. Maybe he mouthed off, maybe he showed up at work irritable and traumatized from his latest turn-down from the NIMH for grants. Maybe he failed to deal with the inevitable transference and counter-transference that occurs in any workplace, but is intensified when there’s a rock star Important Person involved. Transference BTW means you have feelings toward people in your present environment that were generated towards people in your childhood environment. So the boss becomes Daddy or Mommy and you’ll have feelings about Boss similar to those you had/have about Daddy or Mommy. Or both…. Similarly, the Boss will have feelings toward employees similar to those he/she’d have toward his/her children. Makes quite a spectacular mess in most workplaces when it isn’t dealt with. Which it usually isn’t. Including in therapy clinics. But forget about nuance, stick to “right/wrong,” “black/white,” “bully/not bully.” It’s so very American.

    I’m amazed that no one is asking the status of the $2.7 million that Bessel says was appropriated by the “parent” organization after being donated to his clinic. I’m amazed that anyone has any hesitancy to talk back to people in so-called power positions. What’s the big boss going to do to you? I’ve told a number of big bosses and Boards to stuff it when I didn’t like their language or demands. But of course you say, you’ve got white male priviledge so you can do that.

    I’m amazed that people allow themselves to live in fear of bullies, bosses, predatory or not. Fear is the mind-killer.

    John Nash

  7. People judge without knowing all of the facts. I would want to know what motivations people in power at this company that he built had for pushing him out. Money and power are motivating factors. I had the personal experience of a company building a paper tiger to get me out that was untrue because I would not participate in their own cover-up of wrong doing for one of their managers who forced 11 people in her district into a cult indoctrination.

    In the news now is Andrew McCabe who was fired just a few hours before his retirement. Some see this as punishment for his work that was legal and needed to protect our country. The person at the top wanted him out for being part of an investigation against that top person. Another example of the paper tiger. The cat at the top is fat! The question is, who is doing the wrong?

  8. WOW! His book has been my bible for working with subclinical trauma coaching clients. Thank you for posting this. Just WOW!

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