Nov 25 2008

Victories: Ethics and Transparency Progress

Published by at 2:01 pm under Counseling & Psychotherapy

The Victories Board of Directors took a very positive step forward in creating and publishing its Ethics policy.

The key element of their Ethics policy is as follows:

“Service Personnel who are mental health professionals shall avoid dual relationships involving their clients and Victories of the Heart unless they can be assured that (1) the relationship does not violate the code of conduct applicable to their profession and (2) the relationship will not adversely affect their client. In particular, this means that no mental health professional will invite a client to a weekend, which he is attending as staff or participant, without full disclosure to the client of the potential change in the therapeutic relationship that may occur as a result of attending the weekend together. If more than one such client accepts the invitation, the professional must (1) disclose to each client the fact that other clients from his therapy practice will be in attendance and (2) fully discuss the therapeutic and confidentiality implications of the situation.”

Up until this policy was implemented, it was commonplace for the therapist leaders and staff to encourage their clients to attend a weekend, preferably, the therapist’s own weekend. There were notable exceptions to this rule, particularly among the programs founders and other board members who had robust private practices and often referred their clients to other leader’s weekends. As a rule, therapist leaders recruited their own clients for their weekends.

When I was a leader myself, I both encouraged my clients to attend my weekends, other weekends, and was the recipient of many referrals from other principals in Victories. I noted in fact it was generally easier for me to help clients step beyond their comfort zone to attend a weekend if they were going to join me. This speaks to the very powerful attachment clients have with their therapist, making them at risk of harm in the creation of a dual relationship and why this new ethics policy has important value.

Like all ethics guidelines or codes, the Victories policy underscores the need to protect the complex and powerful relationship of therapist and client. Victories built itself on the backs of the clients who were referred by either the therapist leaders or therapists from the community. I know from my own experience and witness to others in Victories how dual relationships can be damaging.

I began my involvement with Victories in about 1990 as a result of a referral to one of the Victories’ (Men’s Room at the time) principals. What began as a request for therapy, quickly became an encouragement to engage in the principal’s personal growth weekend, the first of multiple, dual relationship problems. I can only imagine how difficult it was to develop this Victories ethics policy prohibiting therapists from inviting their own clients to their weekends!

Ethical thinking and analysis is a great process and only good things can come from an effort of this sort. While this new ethics policy is a very positive step forward, here are some of my concerns offered in the spirit that open dialogue and debate is a good thing.

First, let’s consider the “wiggle room.” The new policy states the importance of preventing dual relationships between therapist and client, but then waivers, and gives the therapist permission under certain circumstances to invite their client to their weekend.

In creating a policy of preventing dual relationships, then allowing them, Victories falls into the logic trap of both/and. Both/and logic suggests that there are no contradictions and diverging concepts can be seen as compatible.  This type of thinking can be creative and useful for brainstorming and philosophical debates. However, in the realm of ethics, both/and thinking usually muddies the water when it comes to determining ethical or right/wrong behaviors in the world, especially in the realm of psychotherapy related dilemmas.

This is the problem with this aspect of the Victories ethics policy. Is it possible that both dual relationships have a negative impact and should be avoided and dual relationships can have a positive impact and should be encouraged? Having lived through this dilemma myself as a client and staff leader, I do not think both concepts are compatible.

This ambivalent aspect of the ethics policy increases the risk the therapist leader/staff may purposefully or inadvertently exploit and injure their clients. Dual relationships in the context of “men’s work” have no place and should be strictly prohibited.

The problem with the “wiggle room” in this policy suggest the culture within Victories was not yet ready at the time to let go of older beliefs, such as clients attending their therapists’ weekend is a net positive. One doesn’t have to be an expert in organizational development to understand long time power brokers in an organization do not yield their power easily.

Studying the role of power in organizations and relationships is a very important ethical process. The wiggle room related to therapist leader/staff inviting clients to weekend programs underscores a theme in Victories where founders/leaders wield undue power. The wiggle room benefits only those leaders who advocated for it, while damaging the efforts of reformers within the organization who may have been pushing for healthier boundaries, more shared power, greater transparency and the prevention of situations where complaints of ethical lapses by those in power are discredited or ignored.

Without being at the meeting to discuss these issues, I can guess the sub-group who lobbied to be able to continue to recruit their clients to their weekends. They would have all sorts of reasons to do so, but none which explore the underbelly of their motivation, the non-conscious aspects of their need to rely on clients so heavily.

Therapist leaders in Victories were able to develop their own following among participants. If a participant was also a client, that client became even more attached and dependent on the therapist leader. This happened to me and I can say I became blinded to these men’s vulnerabilities and also my own strengths. It was not empowering for me and I have described this in other writing as like “being on a therapeutic life-support drip…” I thought I needed it to survive. I did not.

What may lie beneath this sub-groups belief that it was good to invite clients to their own programs could be the fear that if therapists could not recruit their clients to their weekends, the weekend may fail. There was a lot of competition among leaders as to the number of participants at their weekends. I remember writing an email to other leaders and Board members saying it was time to start referring to other weekends, such as the one in which I was a co-leader.

I think Victories missed an opportunity to create healthier relationship boundaries among all involved and therefore a more transparent and healthier organization by waffling on this policy.

It’s unfortunate, as the program has not been able to grow much, since the 2004 Strategic Plan was adopted, but then mostly ignored. This was another ethical dilemma for the stakeholders in Victories. An excellent planning process occurred in 2004, but none of the key elements of the plan were implemented for the four years before I resigned in 2008. For example, the plan stressed the importance of program decision-making by the 8 leaders at the time, of which I was one. This did not happen and worse the decision-making power appeared to become even more consolidated under the two founders.

Somehow, the Victories founderss were unilaterally able to create a second leader group, bifurcating the organization and creating a group of men who were wary and competitive with myself and the other 6 leaders. The Breakthrough leaders were essentially emasculated and left behind. There was some awareness at the Board level of problems brewing in the development process and Paul Kachoris was selected to liason between the Breakthrough and Wisdom years groups. I am not sure what Paul did, as there was no report or meetings to address the emerging issues.

I know I spoke up when I received an invitation to attend a training on group process sponsored by a Wisdom years person who I had never heard of. I objected to this training to Kurt and Buddy Portugal, who I had assumed was behind the unilateral effort to do a training. All the programs utilized groups and a unified training for all leaders and volunteers would have been progress. This was just another specific example of how the founders easily deviated and ignored the 2004 Strategic plan which called for all program related decision-making authority to rest with the 8-member leadership body of which I was a part.

In 2004, there was some hopefulness the Wisdom years would expand to other cities. The unilateralism of the founders and the impotence of the Board and leadership to allow them to create chaos and conflict within the organization they called their own was unfortunate.

I remember being at an event with other leaders when a man who I didn’t even know came up to some of us and pressured us to attend the Wisdom years. It was pretty common for some principals to encourage others to “recruit” for weekends. This sort of recruitment was uncalled for and created hostility. I know I resented this man who I didn’t know approaching me and pressuring me to do the Wisdom years as if I needed it for some type of personal psychological completion.

I was informed there was some discussion about the Wisdom years splitting off and becoming its own organization. I only learned about this a few years later and still do not know the details. To me, this was a significant ethical dilemma and I am not sure how the current ethics policy would handle such issues now. However, one can be assured nothing in the 2004 Strategic plan suggested the Wisdom years should separate from the organization. It was a ridiculous idea and I only wish now the men involved had courage enough to bring these ideas to a full Board meeting where the other stakeholders who had been donating at least a $1,000.00 per year could hear what was happening and hold those individuals who were deviating from the 2004 plan accountable.

In my tenure as a leader and Board member from 2004-2008, there was never even an informal review of the 2004 Strategic plan or even a mention of it once. It was like there was a great planning process which the powerful original leaders flushed down the toilet. It was a waste, pun intended.

When I finally resigned, my resignation letter to the Board was not provided to any Board members. Instead, I was pressured to write something less critical, which was then distributed to the Board. I later realized how I had been manipulated and published my actual resignation letter on my website, so all the Board and public could understand the rationale behind my resignation. Even still, I withheld some of the more awful details, such as those related to the voicemails I found offensive, the refusal for the Board to require the mediation I requested and the pressure by two leaders for me to smoke pot and kill a pet rat as some type of bizarre ritual before a weekend around 1994.

While I disclosed to a friend, my wife and Kurt Schultz many years later, I kept the pot/rat experience private until I understood more clearly the intense pressure to keep such aberrant behavior secret. It’s common knowledge in the trauma field abusive predators kill or threaten to kill animals in the effort to pressure their victims into secrecy. While these men told me I persuaded them not to smoke pot or kill the rat, did they not make the connection between this blatantly illegal and irresponsible activity and the terrible abuse of children so prevalent in our society? As I elaborate in my other writing, what if they had gotten high, there was some accident at the weekend and their use of pot was uncovered?

There was a sweat lodge at this particular weekend and it was very poorly implemented. There was no real protocol for the experience and I had the responsibility to bring the hot rocks into the lodge itself. Participants could have been injured. I had no training in the movement of the hot rocks.  This was not the spiritual/cleansing experience common to Native American people. This was the ideas of leaders who were unaware of aspects of themselves which did not support their overly positive beliefs about themselves.

I realized it was a cruel joke that Victories has threatened me with legal action over the years and accused me in writing of lying and trying to damage Victories. In my own time and experience, I loved the weekends away with other guys and was profoundly moved by the work in psychodrama, the music, the collaboration of our teams and the fellowship. Is my writing about my own experience so damaging? I’ve been writing for many years and the earth still revolves around the sun.

My initial disclosure of this secret led to one of the threatening lawyer letters I received. The letter essentially called me a liar and distorted what may have been said during this weekend. One element of this lawyer letter states:

” …your disclosure of alleged statements that you attribute to (name) and/or (name) in the context of the 1995 (name) weekend violates the confidentiality agreement applicable to all leaders and participants on a weekend. Moreover, your statements concerning these individuals misquote them and assert claims about them which are untrue and distorted.” (lawyer letter, December, 2011)

So, the message in this quote is pretty clear. I am the one who is violating an ethical/legal standard (confidentiality) by blowing the whistle on egregious conduct by leaders prior to a weekend and also I am making claims which are untrue and distorted. Thus, the cruel joke I am the one who is being threatened with legal action as recently as 2016 for making these disclosures. I will be printing the lawyers letters I have received along with a narrative to explain the context and answer the allegations set forth in these letters.

Now, I realize it’s best for me to disclose these events, so the Victories stakeholders and lawyer can make an informed decision about whether to sue me or not. In other words, I know it’s tough to be sued for libel or defamation if you are telling the truth.

You can read this resignation letter here.

Second, the Victories ethics policy describes an informed consent process which has several problems. The policy states:

no mental health professional will invite a client to a weekend, which he is attending as staff or participant, without full disclosure to the client of the potential change in the therapeutic relationship that may occur as a result of attending the weekend together. If more than one such client accepts the invitation, the professional must (1) disclose to each client the fact that other clients from his therapy practice will be in attendance and (2) fully discuss the therapeutic and confidentiality implications of the situation.”

The main problem with this policy include the unlikely ability of the therapist to fulfill the serious requirements of informed consent. The core meaning of informed consent is to describe in detail the pros and cons of some medical or mental health procedure so a patient may understand their choices and make an informed decision about their care.

Here are the elements (verbatim)of informed consent from a website on Ethics in Medicine:

  • The nature of the decision/procedure
  • Reasonable alternatives to the proposed intervention
  • The relevant risks, benefits, and uncertainties related to each alternative
  • Assessment of patient understanding
  • The acceptance of the intervention by the patient
  • the patient or client must be deemed competent to make the decision
  • and the decision must be voluntary.

While it seems difficult for the therapist to go through this detailed informed consent process with one client, I am concerned it would be much more difficult, if not impossible to repeat the process with multiple clients.

I’m not sure if therapist leaders still bring multiple clients to weekends, but it was most common during the period up to 2008, when I resigned from leadership of weekends and Board involvement.

If the therapist informs the client other of his clients may be participating, does this also betray the confidence of the other clients?

The therapist is saying, “I will have other clients at the weekend” reveals there will be other clients from the practice of the therapist leader. Does this disclosure that other clients will be present represent a complicated breach of confidentiality? And in a situation of unequal power, how can a client say no or even be able to make an informed consent decision?

I actually remember the therapist leader I worked with asked me if it was a problem that other of his clients were present at the weekend. However, he asked me after the weekend, which obviously prevented any informed consent to occur. He also did not ask me if it was a problem that his son was present…what would anyone say?

There was no informed consent and it was obvious the therapist/leader needed me to protect his fragile feelings about these matters. Ethically, this is not the way to do it and I can’t stress enough how taken in total, the need for the therapist/leaders to have their clients attend their weekends had damaged the overall development of the organization.

A key question here is if the therapist has a good therapeutic relationship with their client, why would they want it to change? Who does that really benefit? Also, how does the therapist describe how their relationship will change after a shared weekend experience?

There are several flaws in this thinking, including therapists are not able to see the future, both therapist and client are biased in how they report their experience, and importantly, the previous individual relationship with the therapist has morphed into a group relationship experience. The client now has access to other therapists and staff from the weekend, each with their own favorite leader and opinions about other leaders.I remember the not-so-subtle attempts by other therapist leaders to compete with the therapist with whom I worked. How can knowledgeable therapists ever think this would be a good idea?

The therapist has more influence by the nature of the therapeutic relationship, so just in the asking, even if subtle, the client will feel some pressure to participate. Even if good initially for the client, his therapeutic relationship will be forever changed, usually in ways not able to be predicted. Just the suggestion “the therapy relationship can change” may be enough to create a block in the development of the therapy relationship, preventing growth, disclosure and healing on the part of the client.

As an example of the power differential between therapist and client, I informed the therapist with whom I was working of my intentions to attend an upcoming New Warrior Training Adventure (Warrior) weekend. He immediately discouraged me by stating falsely the Warrior weekend was failing (it was actually on the dynamic path to become an international men’s group) and not as good an experience as his Men’s Room weekend and I should wait until that weekend was happening several months later.

I waited and attended this weekend. Unbeknownst to me, this therapist own son and the son of another staff person and several of their friends (it was a pre-wedding party) were also attending. These young guys did not want to really be there and split the participants right down the middle and never integrated into the larger group.

I know there was no ethical thinking in planning this weekend and the violation felt by myself and the other “old guys” from the weekend had a lasting impact on all of us. It seriously damaged the support group following the weekend and was a frequent complaint within this group.

This is perhaps an extreme example of dual and multiple relationships within the culture of Victories and the problem with both/and thinking.

Victories sets out to create a clear ethics policy, yet allows it to remain murky, such as it was since the mid 1980’s.

I would assume there is some progress now this ethics policy has been enacted and would be interested in hearing any evaluation the organization has completed.

There is extensive ethics literature to consider and Ken Pope, Ph.D. writes an insightful article on dual relationships which can be read here.. It may be one of the most discussed and written about aspects of various ethical codes. In looking at the literature, there is some leeway when it comes to dual relationships. There is mention of various exceptions, such as therapists in rural areas who might be required to help someone they might know in another setting. The exceptions to the “avoid dual relationships” rule have clear rationale. In Victories programs, there are many other opportunities for a therapist/lleader/staff person to have his clients attend another weekend where he will NOT be present.

Third, the ethics guideline specifically addresses the dual relationship possibility of VOH personnel engaging in business and sexual relationships with participants. The guideline states:

“Specifically, for a period of two years following the completion of a man’s participation in a Victories’ weekend or other program, no Service Person who attends or leads that weekend or program shall become engaged in any new financial, business, or therapeutic relationship with that individual. In the case of a new sexual relationship, this prohibition shall be in effect for five years.”

The two and five year prohibitions again offer wiggle room, weakening the intent to create clarity as to right/wrong actions within the organization. If dual relationships can be avoided permanently, why not do so? In hindsight, I would have preferred not being a participant at my therapist’s weekend and then being recruited to volunteer and become involved in the development process of the organization.

The late, Buddy Portugal, Bob Mark, and the other leaders were tremendously charismatic, dynamic men, but needy too. There was a lot of competition, most of it hidden and acted out through proxy, between leaders. There was a significant crisis in the organization about 2003 when the animus between the two oldest leader groups were directed through the organizations administrator at the time. He was blamed and scapegoated unfairly by these four men which led to his resignation.

I was informed about this process and later was given the report written by the psychologists who were asked to consult about the crisis. They were told it was a personality conflict blaming the administrator. The psychologist consultants, however, stated suggested the problem was systemic in a letter to the Victories leadership and community.

Here is what they wrote:

“From an observer’s prospective, what appeared as a personality conflict might represent more of an organizational crisis. The recent history of the VOH provides the context for this discussion. Recently, (the founders) had been trying to pass control the organization on to a new generation of leaders. Transitional processes like that createa period of change with opportunity for organizational growth, but also a time with attendant dangers. The prominence of personalities, the formation of alliance and schisms, and the competition over who is staying true were to the vision of the founders – all of these responses to the transition bespeak a cultish edge to the organization. If allowed to continue, these responses would really hamstring the important work that gets done on the weekends. Many of us have encountered destructive processes like that in religious or political movements. Sometimes, periods of transition like this bring out what is worse in us as men. Ambition for power at the expense of man who we should be seeing as colleagues and collaborators is one of these dangers.”

The psychologist consultants were able to see the vulnerability in the organization at the time, specifically, the power of the two founders to influence others and the desire of men (me included) following these two charismatic men blindly. However, the consultants were not privy to some of the internal machinations in the organization and presented the founders as innocent bystanders who were actually brought in as “consultants” themselves.

The reality is both of them or at least one of them was instrumental in initiating the conflict in which the other leader team felt attacked. This was their style. They would set up key men who they influenced to fight battles for them at strategic times. I know this is what happened when I was trying get a mediation arranged. I had asked Kurt to remain out of the loop and although he agreed, the other person who I was in conflict with refused to allow Kurt to remain neutral. He had Kurt write legal sounding letters to me and eventually Kurt was compelled to provide the language for the second threat of a lawsuit.

This pattern was the same as had occurred in the 2003 time period. The founders initiated an attack on the other leader team through the administrator at the time. The administrator was only doing his job, trying to bring some sort of consistency and order to the chaos inherent to the organizational structure at the time. After initiating the conflict, the founders abdicated any responsibility and allowed the scapegoating of the administrator at the time, and the four leaders joined in detouring their own serious conflicts through the administrator. Having self-respect, this person resigned.

The irony of me being threatened with a lawsuit and accused of lying is a lawsuit would allow all this history to be brought forward and validated. I’m writing about it and putting the information into the public domain as is my right.

The outcome of my complaints and request for mediation was the same as the administrator’s 5 years earlier. I was aware of the systemic problems, while not the details of all of it. When I received the offensive voicemails from another Victores principal, I was led to believe by this person we would meet to resolve the problems created by his voicemails. He seemed to understand he had been inappropriate. I had enough though and decided to resign.

As the record of his voicemails (there were about 5-7 voicemails totaling over 30 minutes) indicates, he seems concerned and surprised I sent an email to all the readers notifying them I was resigning. Is he concerned about me or is he concerned about what it would mean about him that I have chosen to resign after receiving these voicemails. He tells me tells me he is going to meet with Kurt the next day and hopes I will change my mind about resigning. Like the administrator 5 years earlier, I wondered what variation of Oz I had gotten myself into and was looking to exit smoothly and quickly.

The next day Kurt met with me and persuaded me to not resign. Shortly after that, the other Victories principal began leaving me voicemails in which he seemed strangely empowered and pressured me to “meet with him, so we could listen to the voicemails together.” He became more clear that he was saying I offended him too and he was triggered by my offensive voicemails.

I had seen this before in my life and knew the tables were being turned on me. It would have been so easy for this person to say, “hey, I am really sorry I said you were chronically disappointed several times in a few sentences and please forgive me.” It would have been over.

Instead, his manipulative and unhealthy desire to make me the guilty party left me with no other choice but to request there be some type of larger accountability process. I also saw this was an opportunity to confront an extremely unhealthy organizational pattern where certain leaders were given a pass to do whatever they wanted, even to the detriment of the organization.

I had witnessed the significant deviation from the Strategic Plan during the prior 4 years and believed it was based on the power of certain leaders personality and the blind following of men in their respective leader subgroups. I never let up in my effort to hold them accountable and my writing is evidence of that. No doubt I was afraid of being sued, but am not anymore.

The dyadic leader structure encouraged this competition by preventing cross-collaboration and cooperation. The hidden competition was a significant cause of organizational malaise, a stumbling block to development.

I also am critical of the permission after a five year prohibition on the development of sexual relationships. This element of the ethics policy needs much greater clarification. It uses language from other professional ethics codes which govern the relationship between a therapist and their client.

Unlike the therapist who terminates their professional relationship with their client, waits 5 years and then begins a personal, sexual relationship with their former client, the Victories policy suggests there can be an ongoing relationship of some kind, then after five years, this relationship can become sexual. What does sexual mean in this context? Does sexual not include erotic emotional relationships?

This aspect of the ethics policy, without more clarification, seems again to offer too much wiggle room for leaders, staff or participants who may be interested in pursuing a sexual relationship with someone from within the program. A program whose mission it is to encourage health and healing to men and their families should create a more clear rule about right/wrong sexual behavior within the organization. Seeing anyone else within the organization as a potential sexual partner seems to me to be part of the damage men can bring to relationships.

Having worked as a straight therapist in a variety of contexts, including a Victories volunteer and leader, I can verify same sex attractions can and do surface on a regular basis. Victories should do an anonymous research project to explore what individuals have experienced in this area. I saw and heard plenty in my own experience and think the organization would get enough confidential feedback to encourage them to create more strict and clear right/wrong ethical standards in this area. Even the stress on a dyadic leader team can create multiple meanings for multiple people. How much do the leaders really love each other? It needs to be clear to create safety.

If I had still been involved, I would have encouraged a strict prohibition on any business or non-business relationship/sexual relationships. If two men wanted to develop a closer business or sexual relationship, they would have to wait the respective two and five years, after they no longer had a formal relationship with Victories.

Ongoing contact via staffing, Board involvement, committee work, or any other formal Victories involvement would not count towards the two or five year prohibition. This would serve to prohibit any dual relationship while the two men were a part of the organizational process. The dyadic leadership model is complicated enough. Suggesting it would be possible for a participant and a Victories official to have a dual relationship of some kind blurs the boundaries too much, thus increasing the risk of abuse.

A fourth area of ethical concerns involve the mixing of men from different professional backgrounds. The Victories ethical policy states men are being held accountable to their own professional codes. A significant ethical dilemma surfaced when I was threatened with a lawsuit several times for writing about some of my unresolved complaints.

The threatening lawyer letters I received had several allegations against me which the source of the letter knew were false. He was one of the people I confided in about these events, some of which had occurred years earlier. He was in a bind, trying to protect people and the organization and it was easiest to try to silence me. He and I were able to talk about all this.

Nonetheless, the ethical question is whether he should have been held to an ethical standard of honesty, as is true for all ethical codes for most professions? I think so, but others may disagree. As I said, it’s easy to lie in a threatening lawyer letter, but more difficult to prove lies in some adversarial court proceeding.

Having received the last subtle threat of legal action, I realized I should publish everything, rather than being afraid of being sued. I also realized that decision-makers really didn’t have all the facts, so in reading about them in the emails I sent and now being able to read the thousands of words I have written in various settings, the facts are available. Their lawyer who seemed poised to take legal action before (I have all the correspondence) may think twice before suing someone like me who is telling the truth.

In the National Association of Social Workers code of ethics, integrity is one of the main values guiding ethical thinking and practice for its members. It states (verbatim):

“Value: Integrity

Ethical Principle: Social workers behave in a trustworthy manner.

Social workers are continually aware of the profession’s mission, values, ethical principles, and ethical standards and practice in a manner consistent with them. Social workers act honestly and responsibly and promote ethical practices on the part of the organizations with which they are affiliated.”

While I knew the allegations in the letter were untrue, I was dumbfounded to discover there are other professionals who could endorse allegations without doing due diligence. It was remarkable and sad the human and organizational behavior could lack any cohesive ethical framework. I discuss these events in more detail here.

An organization like Victories should be aware ethical behavior in one professional group may pose ethical risks in others.

Finally, there are many, many other areas for ethical thinking within the overall organization. Victories would benefit from adapting another professional organizations’ ethical code (NASW or Illinois Counseling Association) to develop a more comprehensive and integrated approach to ethical decision-making.

The published Victories ethical standards are very important, but there is much missing that could offer guidance when the right/wrong decisions have to be made. For example, there are claims the programs are based on science, but there is little to no specific research offered. There is a private site “for professionals” which can only be accessed with permission.

I reviewed that site imagining I would find some of the latest neuroscience research which offers clear rationale for some of the body centered work of weekends, like psychodrama. I was also curious to review any research cited to support the shadow weekend, of which I had grown to become very critical. In this private section, I was shocked to find limited reading resources. Nothing was found directly substantiating any of the processes on any of the weekends.

I might say the lack of any specific research validating programs and methods is shocking, but not surprising. Both the founders book, Victories of the Heart and Dr. Mark’s book, Clearing the Path: Opening up the spiritual frontier, eschew or deliberately avoid the use of scientific research. Neither book has citations documenting any of the ideas.

In his book, Clearing the Path, Dr. Mark says:

“My doubter has neither disappeared, nor died. My doubter is still a part of me. However, the experiences detailed here, and more,, and added to my ability to believe, without having to prove something that is beyond scientific testing. Actually, testing doesn’t prove anything. Neither. Rather, science proves the null hypothesisor what “is not”, not what is. Increasing my ability to be open, to actively not know, has enabled me to see, all, experience and, yes, believe,, what I used to otherwise discount as mere coincidence or accident. To some degree. This has led me to a very important piece of personal growth – self-acceptance.” (Mark, p. 160)

Dr. Mark supports his belief in his spiritual powers by making the confusing statement that science doesn’t prove anything, except the null hypothesis…what isn’t true. Of course, scientists would disagree with Dr. Mark’s assumption here devaluing science. On one level, he is speaking to the age old conflict between those studying the natural world and human relationships and religious thinkers.

Is it god or man? Dr. Mark appears to believe he has discovered the divinity within giving him powers he has nurtured over the years to “divine” the future from the throwing of stones or reading palms.

But his revelation that this work has led him to an important piece of personal growth–self-acceptance reveals a complex mystery of himself as a human being. What does he mean? What has he had such a difficult time accepting about himself that he would turn to a sort of mysticism to explain the internal sensations and awareness he experiences in the world.

That there is a mystery explains something to me. I found Dr. Mark both charismatic and distant. I asked him to go for coffee once and he simply said no. I wasn’t offended at all…I knew he had to be busy and why would he want to go for coffee with a young guy like me.

However, this lack of science and perhaps the active avoidance of scientific research in the writing and methods related to Dr. Mark’s programs has left a pervasive mark. What is based on science and what is based on belief? I found I could be a very unpopular person by asking these questions.

The lack of any substantial review of programs and the research supporting them is unfortunate. There is a lot of research, especially in the area of neuroscience, explaining how trauma changes the way memories are stored (implicit memory) and how these memories can be accessed by the use of body-centered exercises (state and context dependent memories).

This aspect of the research is crucial for Victories and other such programs to understand. Trauma is stored as implicit memory in fragments and sensations below our level of awareness. Implicit memory is often referred to as procedural memory.

Examples are learning to ride a bicycle or a musical instrument. As we learn to do these things, the memory is stored implicitly so it is retrieved automatically to help us do something.

Explicit memory refers to memory easily retrieved, such as the name of our high school, our phone number, etc.

Psychodrama is an intense method which almost automatically opens the pathway to stored implicit memory. It’s easy to facilitate the opening and the access of these memories. It’s more difficult to evaluate the safety of facilitating this process. Does the participant have some serious brain related issues, such as bi-polar depression, cognitive disabilities, or psychotic illness history?

Not everyone should undergo intense, energetic psychodrama methods as it can be debilitating and retraumatizing.

Back to the resources for professionals, it would be helpful for this section to address some of these more complicated research issues. Offering a book or article about implicit memory is not enough. Even my brief peer-reviewed article about the use of a body-centered exercise published would be an improvement.

Victories has psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and other professionals who should be able to integrate scientific research and Victories programs. Between 2004 and 2008, my leadership team and I were busy teaching and applying some of these neuroscience concepts to the practice of psychodrama. That psychodrama training has been successful over the years and hopefully continues to present some this valuable research.

The amusing part of this research story is originally, I had been asked around 2004 to provide the reading list for the graduate class I was teaching at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. This list was used for many years.

I will also note I was the only clinician involved with Victories who published anything in a peer reviewed publication. The founders wrote a book, but it was not peer reviewed and offered no citations. To read my review of their book, click here.

I wrote a brief article on a body-centered exercise we used extensively in my program related work. I assume there is some rationale for this article to not be mentioned, but ask the ethical question about proper attribution to colleagues for professional work. I should have been included in this professional resources section.

While the website description does not elaborate, it seems there is a more robust ethics group, with an ethics Chairperson. This is excellent.

Having an ethics committee function in this way can be invaluable to the development of effective programs. Ethical dilemmas are commonplace in organizations of every size and should be explored and studied. Is someone having an inappropriate sexual relationship with a person with lesser power is something heard all the time. Even Victories decided to address this issue in this ethics policy.

However, there are many other areas of ethical concern Victories could address, such as the role of specific processes on weekends, how applicants are screened prior to participating in programs, how confidentiality is managed after a weekend program (everything is confidential is not an adequate standard), the power relationship between program leaders and volunteer staff, the adequacy of the claim all programs are based on research and evaluated by outside consultants, transparency among other issues.

Victories is limited, of course, by being an organization mostly led by volunteers. How much time can they devote to the organization before they neglect themselves and their own personal and family obligations.

While creating ethical standards is a very positive effort by newer leaders, it seems like the old guard still wields influence. This has served to muddle the effort to create a clear right/wrong way of thinking and acting in an organization which has claimed it’s superiority due to professionals being in charge.

Ethical thinking and the development of standards is an ongoing process. Hopefully, more clarification will come down the road and we in the public will learn about a more robust ethical process in VOH, including a free-standing committee whose role is to explore and adjudicate ethical complaints. This will enhance the power of VOH version 3.0.

There is no doubt these standards represent a huge and historic step forward and the Board members creating these standards deserve a lot of credit. Kudos to them and I hope they keep up the good work.


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