Finding the Force: Trauma, Martial Arts, and Jedi Resilience

Star Wars inspired martial arts to save the life of Nic Harrison.

Posted May 03, 2020

Fact and fiction can reciprocally inform one another. And fictional characters and universes found in popular culture can have powerful and pervasive influences on real people in “real life.” The level of engagement can be deep and resonant, and such is the case with Star Wars and the life of Dr. Nicholas Harrison. Harrison accidentally “... stumbled onto a method of therapy without knowing what I was learning from these films. My spirit needed to be nurtured and I found great comfort, guidance, and a sense of belonging.”

In 2008, Harrison wrote an essay entitled “Unleashing the Jedi Within: Reclaiming a Stolen Childhood Through the Power of the Force.” Harrison's essay outlines the abuse he suffered at his elementary school in the late 1970s. With painful insight, he explains how he was victimized by abuse but also how he found resilience to survive and thrive using lessons learned from the original Star Wars movie trilogy. His essay was reshaped into a play, “How Star Wars Saved My Life,” that premiered in Vancouver, Canada in December 2017. Harrison's hope is to stimulate awareness and open discussion about sexual abuse so that other victims can gain strength for their own healing processes.

 Nicholas Harrison, used with permission
Nic Harrison onstage "How Star Wars Saved My Life."
Source: Nicholas Harrison, used with permission

Harrison discovered the Star Wars universe at a time when he “... was dying inside. Star Wars became my redemption—my reincarnation as a spiritual being. Star Wars not only gave me strength as a sexual abuse survivor, but it also had a direct impact on my career as an actor, stunt performer, and fight director.” Harrison was briefly an undergraduate student and did his master’s degree at the University of Victoria. (Where, coincidentally, I have been a professor for almost two decades—so I've been learning about an amazing alumnus!) He then went on to do a Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia (you can read his dissertation here).

Harrison especially points out the philosophical and spiritual role model of Yoda mentoring Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back: “Never does he train Luke to wield a lightsaber. Instead, he focuses on his mind and his Zen conditioning. He teaches Luke that [the power of] the mind is far greater than the physical ability of the body.”

Below is my interview with Harrison where we explore the interactive role martial arts and Star Wars had and continue to have in his life. I urge readers to refer to his first-person narrative on his early life trauma here where Harrison has written, “I had no idea how I was going to be a Jedi, but I knew it had to involve some kind of martial training."

EPZ: You have had a distinguished career studying and doing action films. How did you first get into stunt work? What were your motivations and what attracted you to it?

NH: Star Wars got me into action movies. As you know from my blog and writing, I was abused at an early age and looked to action films (mostly Star Wars and Indiana Jones) for empowerment.

 Nicholas Harrison, used with permission.
Scott Hicks and Nic Harrison on the set of "Snow Falling on Cedars."
Source: Nicholas Harrison, used with permission.

EPZ: What is your own martial arts and physical training history? 

NH: As a way of learning to protect myself my mother enrolled me in Karate when I was a child. I had endured horrific abuse (rape, physical abuse, mental trauma, etc) at a private school but it was when I was stabbed at another school that my Mom decided to get me private karate lessons. I began with Edinburgh Karate in Prince George, BC but eventually branched out into Hapkido and then Aikido. When I started university, I found my true Jedi passion in Kendo at UVic under Sensei Ted Davis.

EPZ: Kendo and Star Wars definitely go hand in hand. This must have been a perfect fit.

NH:  I wanted to be like Indiana Jones (hence my Ph.D.) and fight like a Jedi (why I was a Kendo-ka). I loved Kendo because it was the basis of the original lightsaber fights Bob Anderson used in the first Star Wars trilogy. Later, when I moved to England, I became a member of the British National Kendo team (how I miss the rigors of that daily training) and competed for England in Zurich. When I returned to Canada I ended up being the Kendo choreographer in the film Snow Falling on Cedars directed by Scott Hicks, which was produced by Kathleen Kennedy (the now head of Lucasfilm). 

EPZ: What do you do now for mental and physical stimulation?

NH: I still teach fight choreography and use the martial breathing techniques in my day to day life. As I always tell my students: "breathe, release and relax." It really helps. Eventually, family and film career took over. I ended up doing far more teaching of stage combat. I still teach the essentials when it comes to kendo—especially suburi. Now, my workouts are more running and walking—I do 10km per day and once a week try to do 20km. When it comes to sword practice, it's always great to fall back on kata and suburi to maintain the skills with the blade.

EPZ: At the risk of stating the obvious, stunt work is very physical. Have you had many injuries over the years?

NH: In 2005 I had a really bad concussion when the vehicle I was in (as a passenger on a location scout) rolled over. It was on the show "Young Blades" and I was the fight choreographer. My head was dragged on the cement road through the broken sunroof of the stunt coordinator's truck. I couldn't read for a couple weeks. I was also in a very bad two-story-high fall in 2008 when I slid off the 10-inch pad down an embankment ripping my right foot 180 degrees out of my ankle socket. That pretty much ended my major stunt career right there. I was out of action for almost two years after that. Also made it really bad for me to do Kendo footwork like I had been able to do before. 

EPZ: That sounds physically and philosophically very traumatic. Do you have any other reminiscences of stunts that were maybe more enjoyable and cathartic? 

NH: The most enjoyable was probably the fights as the black knight in Scooby-Doo 2. I spent almost three months on that film and also did most of the camera work as the black knight because the actor hired could not handle the weight of the suit. I also loved doing the fire stunts in Supernatural as a character I played called "Mordechai" in an episode called "Hellhouse." The only stunt I regret was listening to the badgering of the producer to urge me to jump the third time when I had my major leg injury. 

EPZ: Does your work provide a sense of achievement, capacity, and physical agency? I guess I’m asking if your work is empowering? 

NH: Indeed it is. When you are on set as a coordinator or a stunt performer the cast and crew already put their trust in you. You have to deliver the action that the writers want with the safety that the crew requires. It's a great day when you can walk away from a full shift of stuntwork. People put their trust in you and expect you to be able to do what you are hired to do.

The popular culture of the Star Wars universe helped reshape and reinvent the life of Harrison in ways that would have been difficult to implement otherwise. His efforts at plainly speaking of his journey have positively impacted many. The last lines of Harrison's original essay about his experiences capture in vivid prose the potential power of popular culture for stimulating and inspiring resilience:

“I am a survivor. I am a spiritual warrior. I am a Jedi.”

© E. Paul Zehr (2020).