Monday, January 28, 2019


The 2012 film, “The Attack,” directed by Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueri, haunts me still. In fact, it feels entirely relevant in our present explosive times. “The Attack” is a tragic quest tale in a contemporary setting, and it concerns the painful modern issues with which we are so familiar. The object of this quest is an answer to the questions we routinely ask in the face of terrible acts: Who was this person, how could they do this? And the equally dreaded question: Am I complicit?
            The film’s protagonist, Amin, is a highly successful and assimilated Arab surgeon in a Tel Aviv hospital, well-loved by his Jewish colleagues. Amin’s privileged world is shattered when a suicide bombing kills 17 children at a birthday party in a popular café. Horrifically, the bomber turns out to be his own wife.
Once released from police interrogation and the shock wears off, he decides to discover the truth about this woman Sihem, with whom he had shared a loving marriage—or so he thought—for 15 years. His quest is a classic heroic journey plot that takes him away from the white buildings and orderly avenues of Tel Aviv to the ancient, teeming village of Nablus on the West Bank. This quest is archetypal and it may be re-enacted in our own lives when everything we had assumed to be true is shattered and we must find a new ground in which to locate ourselves.
            Ever deeper and higher Amin climbs through the old stone streets; through shocking conversations with his relatives, who express pride in Sihem’s martyrdom; through being tossed out of a local mosque by men who are enraged with this secular Arab’s violation of their sanctuary, until he ascends the steps of a church where he confronts the radical Christian cleric who was Sihem’s mentor.
Cold and implacable as he lights candles for the evening service, the priest tells Amin, “Your trip here is a waste of time. I have nothing to say to you. We have nothing to discuss.” The cold refusal to explain or engage in any way with the grief-stricken doctor speaks of a violence deeper even than actions and words—the violence of complete disconnection, sociopathy and contempt for the humanity of another—a violence that is all too familiar in our own daily headlines.
            “The Attack” is not a political film. It is an impassioned but even-handed exploration of what happens when a population is locked away from the resources necessary for life, left powerless, voiceless and in thrall to an evil, charismatic leader who exploits their hatred for the oppressive system.
            Following this encounter, one truth after another emerges as Amin discovers that not only was his own family part of the monstrous plot, but that its Tel Aviv terror cell used his very own apartment for planning sessions during the day while he was performing life-saving surgeries. At the end of this heart-wrenching journey to the Arab village of his childhood, his nephew hands him a video of his wife’s last moments.
            Watching it, Amin sees that Sihem tried to call him before she left on her mission. Unable to speak with him, she wept and called his name. He is left not with a why, but with the knowledge that there was humanity in this woman after all: she betrayed him and she loved him. Amin becomes a man in possession of a more terrible truth: his unknowing complicity in this crime through his blind self-absorption in his career. Tragically, he ends his quest as a divided soul, belonging nowhere in his bifurcated world. We last see him in flashback, standing at the bus station where he dropped Sihem off for what he thought was an ordinary trip to see her grandfather. “Every time you leave, I die a little,” he says. Amin’s entire life and identity has died.
The film is built around everything that makes story a powerful vehicle of self-expression and authentic healing in chaotic times: it holds the ambiguity of reality, the both/and over the either/or lens on life, and it holds a through-line to a transformed life.
Later, after seeing this movie, I sat with a friend at a café across the street from Lincoln Center, New York’s famed cultural complex in a neighborhood much like the bombed-out Tel Aviv streets in the film. We pondered the questions the film does not answer: How could Amin not have sensed that his wife was leading a secret life? Was he therefore complicit? These are the questions we all ask when confronted with a terrible truth about a partner, a child, a job, our country. My friend and I ended our conversation hours later with our personal memories of betrayal and debating our own complicity in our country’s warmongering[CF2] .
            Yet, when I sat down on my multi-colored couch banked with large, soft pillows and three equally large and soft cats to write in my journal, and on impulse rewrote Amin’s meeting with the radical cleric, taking the role of the priest, the language of hatred and contempt for the privileged and unconscious visitor who violated my space flowed easily. Perhaps it came from my resentment, anger and disgust with the U.S government for which I had spent years writing propaganda to pay my bills, or perhaps from trying to thrive as a member of the #MeToo generation and a woman in a male-dominated journalism industry. Perhaps it was rooted in the ghosts of the nursery, or from the forgotten adults who had dismissed me as a girl child—the layers and layers of disgust that had piled up over a lifetime, yet remained suppressed by my “nice girl, warm human being” persona. Whatever its roots, I was surprised at the level of untapped rage I had buried within myself—even with the many years of healing work, especially forgiveness, I had done on myself since my depression in 1990. Succored by the gentle but insistent purring on my chest, my legs and at my side, like refreshing rain, I knew that giving expression to these disenfranchised feelings was important in both my life and my work. Writing within a story context enabled me to journey to the heart of darkness in myself and, unlike Amin, to emerge whole.

            Writing out those walled off feelings opened the channel to a wellspring of emotions and memories that I had erased from conscious memory. Feeling the pain while writing in the buffering metaphor of a terrorist, which I was unable to feel when writing biographically, was a journey through pain to liberation into a deeper vulnerability and love for myself and others. I felt emboldened by my writing, as I always do when I spill the truths that only my writing voice knows and reveals through the metaphors of character, place and plot of story. I subsequently became conscious of the almost imperceptible hints of this shadow coldness in my daily life: the aversion I felt so easily and the way I cut off people who I perceived had hurt me, the subtle ways in which I tended to narrow my life to an aloof existence up a long flight of stairs—as disconnected from visceral inner pain as from my neighbors.
            My point in sharing this experience with you is to assure you that you are not alone in harboring unacceptable feelings that often become exposed in the nakedness of grief and transition. Most of us tend to suppress the unwanted figures in our psyche, much like the oppressor country in the film locked up the displaced people in refugee camps outside its declared borders, only to reap in one way or another the unhappy consequences of this denial. For example, we might have a pattern of producing the opposite of our intentions. The truth is, many of us—especially those with trauma or conflict in our histories—cannot move forward wholeheartedly toward a happier future until we make that hard journey to the place of shadows within.

            I first heard the phrase “fierce practice” from meditation teacher George Pitagorsky at the New York Insight Meditation Center around the time I saw “The Attack.”[1] George defined fierce practice in the Buddhist tradition as the courage to stay on the meditation cushion no matter what arises, echoing mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn’s guide to “full catastrophe living.” [In life, fierce practice means to face facts, carry on, make a leap of faith, admit defeat, surrender, do things we have never done before done, go places we have never been. Fierce practice is to maintain our unconditional commitment to life, to truth, to a new vision and to persist to the end.
This is what change demands of us. As you may be experiencing now, as I have, life after traumatic experience, loss or in the undefined territory of transition, is a jumble of non-coherent events, fears, hopes, broken dreams, haunting memories, fragments of old stories and pieces of a fragile new reality appearing like faint glimmers of starlight in a dark night. We are asked to pick up the pieces and make a new life while we are feeling most vulnerable and alone.
            Writing is my fierce practice, especially writing within a story context, in the voice of characters who live and struggle there—and more specifically, within the story plot of Quest, referred to as “the hero’s journey” by Campbell, and later simplified for writers by Christopher Vogler in A Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters.[2]  
The power of this story paradigm lies in the protagonist’s yearning for wholeness in the deep stories of humanity that we all share and their struggle to win it against all odds. This ancient story plot has been my foundation, my through-line and my place of calm abiding through the many ups and downs in my life. It has given larger context to my own challenges and helped me, like Amin in The Attack, journey to the heart of darkness in my own life. Unlike that of Amin, my journey leads to wholeness. It is a story path that you can follow too.

What is a situation that deeply bothers you?
Whom do you hold responsible?
Who is or could be the hero who changes the story here?
Improvise a dialogue between these two characters.
What emerges for you?

2019, All rights reserved, Juliet Bruce, PhD -- from my book

[2] Christopher Vogler, A Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters. (Los Angeles: Michael Weise Productions, 1992).
[3] Isabel Allende, Paula: A Memoir. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995).

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