Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine Ph.D., North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA, 1997, $16.95, pp. 275

Reviewed by John A. Speyrer

When I began this website a couple of years ago, I contacted the author's Ergos Institute in Boulder, Colorado, with an invitation to send some material dealing with body oriented psychotherapy. They asked about my website and after I replied that it was about regressive, abreactive therapy, they said that their work was not related to the kind of material which I was seeking.

After having read, Waking the Tiger, I have to agree that Somatic Experiencing® is not related to Janovian and/or other regressive, deep feeling therapies, although at first glimpse they seemed to be similar since both have as their objective the resolution of trauma.

The major practical difference between the two concerns the benefits of deep forms of abreaction. Somatic experiencing holds that such experiences can be a trauma in itself and often exacerbates the original trauma. ". . . (T)here is a good chance," Dr Levine writes, ". . . that the cathartic reliving of an experience can be traumatizing rather than healing."

Regressive therapy theory would agree that defenses lowered too rapidly or too massively can worsen symptoms, but their lowering does not, in itself, add to trauma. Levine believes that ". . . cathartic approaches create a dependency on continuing catharsis and encourage the emergence of so-called "false memories." Thus traumas which never happened can be fabricated. This position to me, would make the therapist, in some cases, an ally with patient denial in those cases when the trauma did in fact occur.

Waking the Tiger is not particularly useful for someone in primal or deep feeling therapy. Indeed, parts are in direct contradiction with primal theory. The author writes little or nothing about the nature of repression and why and how the most common of trauma to infants and young children -- the psychological -- is most often repressed. The concept of repression is an essential element in regressive therapy theory, but I did not find that word in this book.

In somatic experiencing theory, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation has found support. Dr. Levine writes that "memory is not a coherent and continuous record of something that actually happened." You will never know, he claims, what really happened since that is impossible to find out. While this is true that memory is not at all like the common analogy of an exact copy as in a tape recording, regressive therapies can uncover the source of the trauma and oftentimes resolve it. Writers about the regressive-abreactive therapies rarely discuss the false memory issue. This is unfortunate since it is possible for a patient in feeling oriented therapies to have false memories.

Waking the Tiger contains a number of sensory exercises which enable a person to become more receptive to his inner and outer environment. The purpose of these exercises is to facilitate the resolution of the trauma but not for re-living the trauma. Indeed, the author believes that it is unnecessary to dredge up and relive old emotional memories in order to heal trauma. He believes you don't have to react to your old traumas but rather be proactive towards them. Many examples of healing are drawn from how animals in the wild are able to brush off the effects of trauma by innate biological responses (mostly by freezing and shivering). The author believes that humans with better developed neo-cortexes are hampered in reacting with this form of natural healing and which lays the groundwork for the harmful effects of trauma in humans.

But after the effects of trauma, which can take almost any form of mental or psychosomatic disease, how does Dr. Levine and staff practice somatic experiencing? One must re-negotiate the trauma, he writes. Because of our evolutionary origins, trauma's resolution is similar to not just that of mammals like bears and deer but also of reptiles. (The tri-partite division of the brain, of which Arthur Janov often writes, is recognized by somatic experiencing). You've got to let your instincts override the almost automatic process of man's newly developed neocortex and do it like the beasties by discharging the mobilized energy of the trauma.

Here is where those exercises turn out to be helpful, since you will need to turn towards those internal messages of sensation from your body. Let your body do what it needs to do. It might tremble and shake and yes, even cry. And it may take a long time but the person allowing the sensations to arise will eventually feel the release from the trauma's residuals.

I wonder how one can be expected to learn of the existence of traumas about which nothing is known, such as those of a traumatic birth or a trauma of infancy? Maybe a trauma in this therapy can be resolved without knowing its origins. Perhaps one is supposed to go into a feeling oriented therapy to determine the cause of the trauma and then go to a post-primal workshop with Dr. Levine.

But, I did speak with someone who did just that! She was the one who had referred me to the Ergos Institute. I asked her about the results of Dr. Levine's therapy and she replied that the therapy was helpful since her intra-uterine re-livings were seemingly without end until she experienced somatic experiencing.

Though Waking The Tiger pays lip service to the significance of all forms of trauma, the book mostly discusses the traumas of injuries, such as automobile accidents and other physical injuries. Dr. Levine admits that the period around birth and infancy is critical but his book ignores the most common trauma of them all --- the lack of parental love. The closest he gets to it is when he writes that "when parents have been traumatized, they have difficulty teaching their young a sense of basic trust.." (my emphases).