A Student Educates Her Teacher
A Lesson in Ethics and Activism
Posted May 13, 2014
My student, Danielle Levanas, about to graduate the Drama Therapy Program at NYU, was angry. While interning at Bellevue Hospital in the forensic unit, an article appeared in the NY Post (May 5, 2014; http://nypost.com/2014/05/05/accused-killers-avoid-rikers-to-do-time-at-cushy-bellevue/) condemning drama and art therapy as trivial and unethical, rewarding unacceptable violent behavior with play and compassion. The article was called: ‘Killers sing karaoke and salsa dance in cushy ward.’
She showed me a rebuttal to the article she wrote, and I urged her to send it as a letter to the editor of the NY Post. She did so immediately, and I will share, with her permission, the letter below. Then I will reflect on my early career as an educator working very close to Bellevue in the 1960s. Finally, I will write an open letter to Danielle on the eve of her graduation, one I have wanted to write for so many years to so many students who have honored me with their guts and passion, activism and wisdom.
The NY Post article begins: “Some of the city’s most savage criminal suspects are gaming the system at Bellevue Hospital’s prison psych ward, dodging Riker’s Island to spend their days singing karaoke and salsa dancing—even though they’re deemed sane enough for trial… ‘They do Shakespeare theatre rehearsals, salsa dancing, yoga and watch newly released action movies,’ a Corrections Department source told the Post…Bellevue is their penthouse in the sky.”
Danielle’s Letter to the Editor, NY Post May 5, 2014:
My name is Danielle Levanas, and I am a drama therapy intern on the acute forensic psychiatric unit at Bellevue. I will be graduating with my M.A. from NYU Drama Therapy in two weeks, and I work at this "cushy ward." I feel compelled to respond to your article "'Killers' sing karaoke and salsa dance in cushy ward" because I am greatly upset by the lack of perspective and context it provides readers.
If the "sources" quoted in the article ever actually attended our drama therapy and group therapy sessions, they would see that in fact, we are not doing "finger painting" or "Shakespearian dramas” but we are building the capacity for empathetic connections; integrating emotion regulation; strengthening capacity to support others and tolerate frustration, anger, and sadness; addressing the shame dynamics that keep people in our broken prison system; lowering the rates of violence on the unit; markedly raising compliance with treatment goals; and daring to believe in the power of human spirit, human connection, and human agency in some of the most marginalized populations.
Yes, from time to time a patient may be found to be "malingering," and the staff is aware of it. These are not the men who stay long term. The overwhelming majority of the patients on our forensic unit at Bellevue have severe and chronic mental illnesses, illnesses that have led to some awful, violent actions against others in our society at times. However our society benefits more from these "karaoke" groups than any fear-based, punish-and-shame tactics of the system. Without the experience of seeing one's positive, healthy potential reinforced, individuals will never get better. In fact, the system is training "killers" only to have more reasons to kill again, if we do NOT encourage them to get in touch with their humanity.
How many violent crimes could we prevent if we dared to sit with people and listen? It's a slow process, but when people are locked up in a system that leaks millions of dollars, the (devastatingly low) salaries of 2 creative arts therapists per unit is a drop in the bucket. The possibility for lowering recidivism rates and interrupting cycles of trauma - even momentarily - I believe, is worth it.
So I'll risk the scorn of uninformed "sources" any day. You enjoy your cynicism and take out your aggression on us - the people working in the front lines. I choose to see the bigger picture, and I will continue to wake up with Gandhi's statement at the forefront of my mind: "A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members." Not all victims grow up to become perpetrators, but most perpetrators at some point in time were indeed victims.
Please post my response, or follow up for additional context to the vision you presented. I would love for more people to understand the depth of what we do as creative arts therapists instead of just judging based on assumptions.
My first teaching gig in the late 1960s was at a special education school in New York City, just down the block from Bellevue Hospital. On occasion deeply troubled students living with mental illness were admitted to the psychiatric unit at Bellevue, treated and released back to their parents and teachers. Bellevue, founded in 1736, is the oldest hospital still in operation in the United States. It has developed a notorious reputation for treating mental illness and criminality, the mad and the bad, over the years. Among its many famous patients was Eugene O’Neill, who was treated at Bellevue after a suicide attempt, Normal Mailer, who was admitted after he stabbed his wife with a kitchen knife, and John Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman, who spent time within its forensic unit. But the vast majority of its tens of thousands of patients remain unnamed and anonymous, born to mental illness, poverty, abuse and neglect. All too many had little chance to normalize outside of an institution that did its best to hold the misery and, in many cases, attempt to transform it. Bellevue had its share of medical and mental health pioneers, eventually embracing the practice of creative arts therapy within psychiatric treatment in the 1960s.
In the late 1970s, I recall attending a stunningly creepy production of Dracula, performed by psychiatric patients to an audience of patients, nurses and doctors in its old theatre. At that time, I also attended drama therapy sessions with psychiatric patients led by Gertrud Schattner, a former Viennese actress and advocate of the healing arts, who was an early pioneer in American drama therapy.
When I first began to teach at NYU, one of my early forays within the community was to set up internship programs. To do so, I was compelled to demonstrate the effectiveness of drama therapy with psychiatric populations. My first test case was Bellevue. After talking my way into a group session with psychotic patients, run by a psychiatric social worker, the skeptical supervising psychiatrist told me to keep everyone safely within a frame of reality. Metaphor, he argued, would be confusing and dangerous, pushing delusional people deeper within their psychotic haze. Heeding the warning, I attempted to work with fictional role as a bridge between delusion and reality. I asked people in the group to take on the role of another and to discover similarities and differences between the role and the self. In my first session, one woman immediately decompensated and submerged herself within her delusional alter-ego, the singer Eartha Kitt. I could not help her back and thought I heard the voice of the psychiatrist behind me whispering, ‘I told you so. Go someplace else.’
On that day, however, I learned the most important lesson about running groups, which is about trust. Somehow, even in my sense of defeat, I imagined that the group would help its weakest member return. That is precisely what happened, as others with similar backgrounds encouraged the person to remain in the group and to return at her own pace. In the final closing ritual, as I asked all to utter a simple statement of difference between themselves and their alter-egos, she spoke up in a small but firm voice: ‘Eartha Kitt wears her hair in a bun. Mine is in a pony tail.’ Within weeks, we set up our first internship placement at Bellevue.
I am proud to say that Danielle and others have worked as interns in recent years under the supervision of two extraordinary pioneering drama therapists, Alan Pottinger and Daniel Haywood, who proceed tirelessly under difficult institutional conditions to treat forensic patients with respect and compassion. They were recently joined by exemplary drama therapist, Courtney Dowdell. The interns learn to model the vision of their mentors of working creatively and positively to provide a powerful window of hope to men whose vision of life is too often shuttered by hopelessness.
It is another season of graduation at NYU and as usual, my life is filled up with the minutia of signing forms and troubleshooting problems. Before all the commencement speeches and bromides about the generosity of self-made men and women, I want to tell you that your voice struck a profound note for me. By willing to take on the voices of cynicism and ignorance, you do honor to visionaries like Gandhi and in a simpler way, to your teachers and mentors. To speak with you about ethics, responsibility and justice is to feel that my life is more ethical and just. And not just in the talk, but in the walk. You act when others speak. You move when others stand still. You listen to alternative voices, those that remind us that people who commit bad acts should be punished, not rewarded with fun and games, no less Shakespeare and karaoke. You remind me how much I share your privilege of devotion and outrage and action, the only real privilege that comes from mobilizing the heart and mind in the service of serving something beyond the self. And you remind me that even though we try hard to foster change within deeply flawed human beings and deeply flawed systems, we hit hard walls, and that too is ok.
You are my hero because your metaphor is not the theatre of war, battles fought and won, bodies counted and wasted. It is, rather, one of process, of journeys taken. You are my hero because your destination is change and you will not allow the insurmountable obstacles of stasis to veer you too far from the path. And you will know that in the darkest night, as hard as your try, you cannot go it alone. If it is of some consolation, I am right there with you.