An Autobiography of Trauma

The Developer of Somatic Experiencing Releases His Own “Body Memory”

Magazine Issue
July/August 2024
An Autobiography of Trauma

When I was growing up, my family suffered prolonged life-threatening intimidation from the New York mafia. My father was called as a witness to testify against Johnny “Dio” Dioguardi, a ruthless mafioso of the Lucchese crime family.

In an attempt to protect my mother, me, and my younger brothers from almost certain death, my father refused to testify against Johnny Dio, even after the young and ambitious Robert F. Kennedy, then chief counsel to the New York Senate committee on racketeering, demanded it.

To help secure my father’s silence, I was brutally raped at the tender age of about 12 years old by a gang belonging to the Bronx mob, likely the Fordham Daggers. This violent incident happened under dense overgrown bushes in a neighborhood park, a place that had previously been a playground and treasured refuge for me. This rape was a secret that I kept hidden from everyone, especially from myself. It was buried in the recesses of my mind, but my body “remembered” it. Every day, as I walked to school, my body tensed and my breath constricted, as though my entire being was readying itself for another assault. But even more destructive was the ongoing fear, the collapse of any enduring sense of safety. I was never able to talk to my parents about the assault, as doing so would’ve confirmed the violence I endured, and so it became deeply lodged in my psyche as a pervasive sense of shame and “badness.”

It took 40 years until I was able to access and release the “body-memory” of that brutal rape. I could then gradually restore a sense of enduring self-compassion and “goodness.” What follows is the story of how I unearthed and healed that memory.

A Wounded Healer

As I was evolving Somatic Experiencing, my method for healing trauma, I mysteriously began experiencing persistent disturbing sensations and fleeting images. As these alarming symptoms continued to plague me, I realized that it was high time I took a dose of my own medicine. As the saying goes, we always teach what we most need to learn. Chiron, the archetypal wounded healer, was calling for me.

In reckoning with my distress, I humbly asked one of the teachers I’d trained to help me untangle the possible origins of these troubling symptoms. By focusing initially on my bodily sensations and then the disturbing images, some deeply buried inner movements began to emerge.

Sitting across from me, my colleague and guide took notice of a slight shuffling movement of my feet and gently brought my attention to this subtle, almost imperceptible, movement. Suddenly, an image of running freely on the oval track near my childhood apartment came to mind. My guide encouraged me to focus on the strength and power of my legs during that run. In Somatic Experiencing, we often evoke such inner strength to build sensations of empowerment, linked positive bodily experiences, before we gradually and gently excavate the trauma.

I felt my breath deepen and an expansive pleasure began to flow through my entire body. Gradually, I looked around at this beloved landscape of my childhood refuge. I started to recall and describe my anticipation of its welcoming magic as I headed home from middle school each day. Usually, when I got home around 3:00 p.m., I’d scarf down a handful of Pepperidge Farm chocolate mint cookies and take off to the Reservoir Oval Park, which was located directly across from our six-floor Bronx apartment building.

Rather than walking the two blocks to the park entrance, I’d cross the road and scramble over the wrought iron fence, then head directly through the thicket of dense bushes to the running track below. There I’d enjoy a surging power in my legs as I sprinted around the track. This triumphant release seemed to be an antidote for my unstable legs, which were weakened by the ongoing stress of my family’s legal struggles and fear of mafia violence. I could feel my legs alighting upon the cinder track, my slender, wobbly legs stretching out and gathering strength.

But after I exulted in this expansive memory, a more shadowy awareness began to seep into my recall. It was, initially, a nondescript uneasiness signaled by my uneven breathing and facial pallor. Thankfully, those earlier empowered resources gave me more confidence to delve further into my encroaching distress, which led to memories of one particular autumn day, when I had a vague sense that something was amiss as I leapt over the fence and dropped into the thick overgrowth of bushes on the other side. I remembered catching sight of a few tough-looking teenage gang members, smoking cigarettes and hanging around the bushes. In staying with these images, I noticed an ominous sense of lurking danger and felt a wrenching twist in my guts.

As these procedural “body memories” started to emerge in much greater detail, I was suddenly overcome by a vivid and immediate sense of grave danger. I experienced this as a gripping tension, a bracing, and stiffening in my neck and shoulders. I also felt this fear as a constriction of my breath. Abruptly and unexpectedly, I jerked forward. I had yet another “body memory,” one of being jumped from behind and thrown violently to the ground. I could feel my face smashed into the dirt with my forehead striking a large rock.

I struggled mightily to get free, but it was all for naught, as my arms were pinned down and a heavy weight pressed painfully into my back. I was trapped like a helpless prey animal. Someone behind me started to tear at my clothing, pulling it and ripping off my pants. Immediately, I went blank. It seems that I passed out. Everything went very still, very quiet.

With extraordinary gentleness, my guide placed her hand on my shoulder and brought me back from the deep shock of that dissociation. I sensed the receding of that brutal violation and began to recover my sensory presence in the here-and-now. Indeed, one of the core principles of Somatic Experiencing lies in discovering new and more powerful experiences in our bodies, ones that contradict the feelings of overwhelming helplessness that are the hallmark of trauma.

By the conclusion of the session, I discovered that my body could finally do what it couldn’t do at the time of the rape: fight back. With my therapist’s guidance, I began to sense my life force returning as I encountered a burning rage in my gut, then the fierce willpower to triumph over my attackers. Gradually, I began to sense the singular exhilaration I’d known in leaping over the fence and running freely on the track. And then another “defensive response” reasserted itself with an involuntary revulsion emerging as a gag reflex, followed by a retching expulsion of what seemed to be a viscous fluid with a texture and smell similar to ejaculate.

This sequencing and the reworking of these very physical body memories resolved many of the symptoms that had prompted me to request the session. I wept for the abused and discarded child, holding him in my arms with inner validation: “Yes, Peter, this really did happen. But it’s over now.”

In follow-up sessions, I was able to wrestle with my shame-demon and overcome my guilt and pervasive sense of badness. With tender feelings of genuine self-compassion and acceptance, I was able to place this memory in the distant past where it truly belonged. The “spell” was broken. I was free. I was alive. I felt whole.

More Remembrances

For a time after the session, I continued to visit “episodic” remembrances. However, they came without the emotional charge that had emerged in the potent session previously described. And over time, with the help of my brothers, I began to develop a fuller narrative of what had happened.

The mafia had told my father: “You will find your family face down in the East River if you testify.” Unable to obtain witness protection for the family, he’d struggled, year after year, to avoid imprisonment for refusing to testify. In a case that eventually ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court, he went to prison for “contempt of court.” Chief Justice Earl Warren, in his dissenting opinion, wrote that this was one of the worst decisions the court had ever made. Still, my father would serve a year-and-one-day sentence. This cruel and punitive extra day made it impossible for him to return to teaching at a public school—an additional heartbreak for my father.

Before then, every time a mafia lawyer would arrive at our house to meet with my parents, there’d be an air of menacing darkness. Ostensibly, these visits were “to help” my father avoid testifying before the district attorney and the grand jury by pleading the Fifth Amendment. However, the real motives were to keep my father from fingering Johnny Dio.

I remembered crawling out of my bedroom and hiding beneath a narrow telephone table as I strained to hear their conversation in the living room. My parents never talked to us kids about what was happening, but my younger brothers and I could sense, from their anxious body language, that something was seriously wrong. These undermining stressors and hidden conversations eroded my self-confidence and vitality. They were ultimately as injurious to my well-being as some of the more overt traumas I experienced throughout my childhood.

When my father eventually surrendered to the authorities and began serving his prison sentence for contempt of court, I was a freshman at the University of Michigan. The news came in a blunt, unsentimental letter from my mother. As I read it, wrenching sobs ripped through my chest and dropped me to the floor with overwhelming spasms of guilt and grief.

During my father’s absence, his clothing business went bankrupt. With the weight of this profound stress, and the likelihood of encroaching poverty, my mother developed an ulcer and had some kind of “nervous breakdown.” However, with the family’s survival resting on her narrow shoulders, she pulled herself together and earned a teaching credential in order to support us while my father was in prison.

When I returned to New York City during spring recess, I visited my dad in prison. With the thick glass and metal bars between us, I was frozen with awkwardness. Not knowing what to say, I choked and swallowed the unsaid words, “I love you.” Silently, as my mother and I walked out of the visiting area, a prison guard followed us and touched my shoulder. I turned around and met his unexpectedly kind eyes. He spoke softly, “I want you to know, son, that your father is not a criminal.”

He then told me that my dad had started a prison library and was teaching other prisoners skills they’d need when they were released. In a twist of irony, my father had returned to his first love—teaching. My mother had found salvation in teaching, too, and later my brothers and I would carry on this educational lineage, each in our own individual ways. The more I thought about our story, the more I came to believe that this desire to teach was a gift passed to me. After all, teaching about healing became my passion, perhaps even my obsession.

Adapted from An Autobiography of Trauma: A Healing Journey. © Peter A. Levine. Used with permission by InnerTraditions.


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Peter Levine

Dr. Peter Levine holds doctorates in both medical biophysics and psychology. He is the developer of Somatic Experiencing® (SE), a naturalistic body-awareness approach to healing trauma, which he teaches all over the globe. Dr. Levine is also the founder of the Foundation for Human Enrichment and was a stress consultant for NASA during the development of the space shuttle. An accomplished author, Dr. Levine penned Healing Trauma, Sexual Healing and the bestselling book, Waking the Tiger. He also co-authored with Maggie Kline Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes and Trauma-Proofing Your Kids. His latest book, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, is a testament to his lifelong investigation into the connection between evolutionary biology, neuroscience, animal behavior, and more than 40 years of clinical experience in the healing of trauma.