In Together Beyond Words (Éditions du non-A, 2022), Nitsan Joy Gordon joyfully reflects on a life spent building peace amid the wreckage of trauma — a life’s work for which her own experience prepared her well. Born in an Israeli kibbutz less than a mile from the Jordanian border, where all the children were separated from their parents every night to protect them from snipers and bombs, Gordon tells us her earliest memory is “of being stuck in my crib with no mother or father to comfort me.” Over the course of her life, Gordon has transformed the lonely terror of that experience into a living practice of loving connection: the unique blend of movement and dance, improvisation, healing touch, compassionate dialogue, and Internal Family Systems that gives the book its title. In community with other Israeli women of all faiths, Gordon developed the multi-disciplinary Together Beyond Words approach to peacebuilding over the course of three decades, and her memoir tells the story of that development.
The challenge of healing hatred
Through brief anecdotes, told with vivid simplicity, Gordon gives a moving account of what it’s like to grow up in an incomprehensible world, where danger is a fact of life and children fear their neighbors — not just in Israel. After surviving the horrors of the Six-Day War, when Gordon was just seven years old, her family moved to a Tennessee mountain town outside Chattanooga. There, classmates bullied the new Israeli girl ceaselessly, calling her a “dirty Jew,” pelting her with rocks, and worse. During a history lesson on the Holocaust, two white classmates hissed at her: “‘Too bad more Jews were not murdered … . Too bad you were not murdered.’” This confrontation with the horror of prejudice gave rise to the intellectual, moral and spiritual challenges that motivated Gordon through the rest of her life: Why do people hate, and how can they be healed?
It was through dance that she found her first answers to these questions. Doing research for her master’s degree in dance and movement therapy, she arrived at a stunning approach to the problem of healing from hatred: she set out to understand “what prejudice looks like on a body level. Once I know how to discern prejudice through the body and movements,” Gordon recalls, “I might be able to figure out interventions that would assist in transforming it.” Her research suggested a deeply intuitive correlation: people who have prejudice in their hearts, Gordon’s experiments showed, have a hard time understanding their own bodies in space, moving fluidly, and relating to the bodies of others — patterns of movement Gordon knew to be associated with childhood trauma as well. From these findings, she drew a remarkable conclusion: people who act on prejudice might behave as they do
because of how they were treated in childhood, and that finding a way to heal those early wounds might actually help people become less bound, more open and less in need of the defense of prejudice.
Back in Israel, Gordon put this healing insight into action in movement workshops for Palestinian and Jewish Israeli women, which evolved over the years as Gordon and her colleagues incorporated new forms of healing, from the dialogic “listening partnerships” of Reevaluation Counseling to theatrical improvisation.
Embodied peacebuilding, embodied IFS
By the 2000s, Gordon and her colleagues had formalized the Together Beyond Words approach to peacebuilding, and they were sharing it around the world. While teaching at Esalen, the famed Northern California retreat center, Gordon met Richard Schwartz and Toni Herbine-Blank — and through just a few minutes of Partswork, the two of them cured her of the chronic cough that had troubled her for years. In Gordon’s telling of what happened, Schwartz “wondered whether there might be emotions that her cough was trying to suppress. The cough would be the protector.” Sure enough, when she inquired internally, Gordon discovered a little orange cough-monster in her chest, who was trying to protect her from the memory of herself as a baby girl, terrified and alone in the dark kibbutz nursery. Schwartz helped her negotiate with the coughing part to comfort the baby; and then, as Gordon tells it, her coughing vanished completely. “The miraculous transformation I experienced,” she writes, “drove me to search for a way to create the first IFS Level 1 course for Arab Palestinians and Jews in Nazareth” — where Einat Bronstein and Osnat Arbel continue to teach the model today.
Gordon’s account of her “miraculous transformation” might raise eyebrows among some of us who’ve learned IFS in recent years. Beyond asking our clients to inquire where they might feel Parts “in or around your body,” most of us aren’t trained to inquire too deeply about the relationships among Parts and embodied experiences — much less to inquire whether unburdening Parts might even sometimes relieve physical symptoms altogether. But in 2009 at Esalen, IFS seems to have been a thoroughly embodied practice. In a snapshot Gordon includes in the book, Schwartz reclines on the floor amid a cheerful tangle of Israeli women, all of them tenderly touching each other on a shoulder or arm. Like Susan McConnell’s indispensable somatic approach to IFS, the Together Beyond Words peacebuilding practice insists that Self is necessarily embodied — so healing must be too.
Gordon’s approach also teaches IFS practitioners to pay far deeper attention to cultural and legacy burdens than most of us are trained to do — a necessity for helping people find healing in Israel. “After thousands of years of pogroms, the Holocaust, the Nakba, the Occupation, the 100 years of conflict,” Gordon writes, “I began to wonder what effect unburdening our legacy burdens would have.…Was it even possible to let go of our burdens, our beliefs, after decades of bloody conflict and trauma?”
The question is profound — and Gordon refuses to provide a pat answer. Instead, she shows how suffering Parts can, with support, let go of just enough of their cultural and legacy burdens to make healing and connection a little more possible. To that end, Gordon recounts a moving piece of work Richard Schwartz helped make possible during a workshop they were leading together in 2015. Noa, a Jewish participant, wanted to support the rights of Arabs in Israel — but one of her youngest parts paralyzed her with fear at the idea of doing so. With Schwartz’s gentle coaching, Noa learned that this little one was carrying the full emotional weight of her grandmother’s unspeakable death in the Holocaust; he believed Noa must never stop feeling the horror — so such atrocities could never happen again. (For good reasons, never again is the common motto of both genocide remembrance and our most traumatized Parts.) Finally, after much negotiation, Noa’s little one agrees to stop terrifying her, if and only if she will send his stories about the horrors of the Holocaust to an imagined “Museum for Humanity’s Suffering” so they can be kept for later remembrance. At the end of the work, Noa’s Self had the courage to stand up for Arab rights after all.
This sort of legacy unburdening is much more nuanced, and much less triumphant, than IFS training would have us believe. But among the blessings of Gordon’s work is the legacy gift of wisdom earned from centuries of human suffering. In real life there is no museum where the abyssal horror of our species’ worst cruelties can safely be stored; and right now, whole nations and groups of people around the world, from Xinjiang to Yemen to Ukraine, are suffering the kinds of genocidal violence that will burden their posterity. Those legacy burdens will also need healing. Nitsan Joy Gordon gives us good reason to believe that they can be — and that there is a beautiful, embodied way for people to come together to heal them, “together beyond words.”