Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Aug 30
The Colors of Their Lives

by Vanessa Hooper

[Vanessa was a Pongo mentor and Assistant Project Leader in juvenile detention.]

The moments, in the chill of the cement walls of detention, have been the most powerful, heart­breaking, challenging, and inspiring moments of my life. I have been with Pongo Teen Writing for the last two years. Each Tuesday morning I felt a complexity of anxiousness and excitement wash over me. Unsure of how the voices in detention would color my life, I walked cautiously through the halls, aware of my own sound and energy.

With my Pongo colleagues, I waited patiently as the youth filed in, wondering how and what their days had brought to them. It was at those times I could feel the warmth and splattered paint their pain and passion conveyed against the cold colorless walls. Their words held the weight of the ocean and the lightness of a feather, full of regret and heartache, hope and courage, and confusion and enthusiasm for the future. There are painful stories that haunt me, leaving me dismal and disgusted by the malice and cruelty still breathing in this the world; while others leave me speechless from the undaunted vitality after years of trauma.

Two girls in particular, I was privileged to work with, left me paralyzed after hearing the harsh realities of their young lives. Both pregnant before fourteen, both raped more times than they could count, yet both smiled when we worked together as if they were royalty. “I was a kindergartener with dreams of being a stripper, and I know there are other girls like me,” said one girl, who grew up in the same town where I have my roots. Her poem was a letter to her son, a letter of truths and fear from a young mother who underestimated her own strength, a teenager who after homelessness, drug addiction, prostitution, rape, and abuse still believed in a dream of finding happiness. The other girl came into the Pongo world quietly, expressionless. She sat with poise and beauty, a pregnant twelve-year-old. Living in foster family after foster family, she had been ripped away from her siblings after her mother disappeared. As she began to open up through her poetry, her eyes grew wide with emotion. In contrast to the unthinkable acts she had endured, she held herself like a princess being groomed to be queen.

When I helped both girls create their poems, and as I read their words aloud, I could feel their confidence grow, and the colors of their lives shine. Each one left the room with a smile, as if she had begun to shed the cracked scales of a lost childhood. In a world of bars and barbed wire, with the sounds of echoing fears and the crescendo of doors slamming, where rock bottom feels ice-cold and isolated, there is a pulsating rhythm of hopefulness in the hearts of these youth, a thirst to be more than the label around their wrist and the file that confines them. Their eyes show the innocence of a child in a world where anything is possible, they just need someone to listen, someone like Pongo to see them for so much more than the mistakes in their past. 

Mar 08
The Trauma of Child Abuse

by Richard Gold

A personal summary and organization of ideas on this issue. I am not a trained clinician, so some of my descriptive words may be inexact as terminology.

1.   Abuse is an overwhelming experience that creates fragmented states of being for the child (and for the adult survivor of childhood abuse). A person may function very capably at times after abuse, but may also revert internally to being a child who is overwhelmed, which I’ll describe as a child in a state of terror. As oppos­ed to the capable state, a person in the terror state feels trapped, unable to benefit from his or her own cognitive skills to reflect, problem solve, or gain perspective.

2.   Very important­ly, the fragmentation is a response to traumatic experi­ences that are often not remembered, not acknow­ledged, or not understood.

3.   The fragmentation, in response to unremembered experiences, places a person inside a chaotic universe of powerful and unattributed emotions/conditions, such as anger, numbness, anxiety, and depression.

4.   This fragmentation is a survival technique, the best a child can do to wall-off the terror of abuse. Sadly, the walled-off terror is also “preserved” in this way.

5.   Because the different ways of being (for example, of capable functioning and of overwhelm­ing terror) don’t really “know” one another, a person can flip back and forth between these states, sometimes for self-protection, in a way that limits under­standing and makes healing difficult.

6.   Abuse is more devastating for the child when the victim is younger, when the abuse occurs over a longer period of time, and when the abuser is in a close relationship with the victim.

7.   A child is especially vulnerable to abuse when there is a destructive parental system (which is often the case). Instead of having parental bonds that provide a sense of wholeness, of comfort, and of being an acceptable person, the victim feels a particularly strong sense of personal failure and defectiveness after abuse.

8.   This inner concept of defectiveness is an organizing principle for an abused child. It preserves the goodness of the parents in the child’s eyes and helps the child make sense of its world. It is a survival technique, but terribly painful.

9.   The fragmentation and the sense of personal defectiveness reinforce one another.

10.  There are biological factors in an abused child’s states of terror, in addition to emotional factors, that determine the child’s experience and reaction to trauma.

11.  Beyond these circumstances of fragmentation and a sense of personal defective­ness, there are other powerful factors within abuse that reinforce the traumatic conditions. Two such factors are blame and shame.

12.  A child is blamed. It’s important to understand that abuse is not a “simple” hit or sex act. Abuse is coercive. The victim is blamed for the victimization. In the proc­ess, the abuser exerts control in ways that are torturous and terrifying.

13.  A child feels ashamed. It’s important to understand that the failure of kindness and protection in the family is a profound wound to the child. The victim is deeply ashamed at this loss and carries the burden of feeling unlovable.

14.  Beyond the circumstances of fragmentation and a sense of personal defective­ness, that reinforce one another and are further reinforced by blame and shame, there are powerful factors within abusive family systems that reinforce trauma.

15.  Here are some of the factors in abusive family systems that reinforce trauma. Within a family, the abuser may not only be dominant, but idealized. And everyone in the family may measure themselves by the abuser’s moods. It is a condition of abuse that victims identify with the aggressor, and will sometimes judge themselves and others through the eyes of the aggressor (which can be a source of guilt for the victim). Often there is an enforced isolation for the family, where the abuser passes judgment and controls outside contacts. This isolation limits the child victim’s opportunities for understanding and healing. Often in an abusive family there is a parent who is a passive enabler of the abuser, and this role is significant. The enabler makes it possible for the family to be a self-contained system. The en­abler may support or justify the abuser. The enabler may allow or even encour­age the child to serve as a target for abuse. The enabler is frequently suffering from his or her own history of abuse. Ultimately, the abused child may carry a respon­si­bility to mollify the abusive parent and to protect the enabling parent. In this environ­ment the abused child may also feel protective of siblings and pets, and may feel terrorized by, or implicated in, abuse directed there. In the end, the abused child may carry the huge burden of preserving the family as an ideal – and therefore may carry a huge burden of guilt for failing in that impossible task.

16.  It is my observation that although the abuser sometimes wants an abused child to appear successful in superficial ways to the world outside the family, the abuser doesn’t really want the child to be emotionally accomplished. In addition to messages from the parent that the child deserves blame for family problems, there are also significant messages that the parent doesn’t want the child to be happy or to succeed as a person beyond the abusive parent’s limited capabilities. So the child feels guilt and failure for its successes, as well for its victimizations.

17.  Beyond the family system’s own talents for submitting to the abuser and isolating itself, there are also societal factors that preserve the traumatic family system. Society is afraid and avoidant – ultimately in denial about abuse. The helplessness and terror of abuse creates feelings of vulnerability in its witnesses. As a result there is anger and a stigma that are part of society’s reaction to abuse, and this anger and stigma falls most heavily on the victim. (This anger and stigma may be witnessed in society’s failure to recognize mental health issues among the homeless and incarcerated.) Unfortunately, the victim of abuse is the easiest person for society to blame and repress, because of the vic­tim’s own sense of confusion, feelings of failure, acting-out behaviors, and desire to protect the family. Also, the social system is set up so that once a family’s failures are identified, a family may be dispersed and destroyed. In this eventu­ality, the victim of abuse is the easiest person for the family to blame and repress. It is sometimes the victim who is isolated by the family. In this eventuality, in which a family is dis­persed, the victim of abuse suffers particular­ly, because it has always been the victim’s goal to keep the family intact.

18.  One powerful theme throughout circumstances of abuse is the theme of secrecy. There are secrets that the child victim keeps from itself. There are secrets that the child victim keeps from the abuser, from the enabler, etc. – and vice versa. There are secrets that the abusive family keeps from society. The abusive family sus­tains itself with falsehoods.

19.  The victims of child abuse may suffer many problems in life, including forms of self-harm (such as cutting), eating disorders, intimacy difficulties, substance abuse. Particularly horrifying to friends and observers is that some victims have a recurring pattern of recreating childhood abuse by entering dangerous situa­tions or abusive adult relationships.

20.  The victims of child abuse may have notable areas of resilience, including being self-sacrificing and empathetic, with a strong desire to help others. They may have perfectionist qualities, intellectual strengths, and creative talents. Victims may have many extraordinary gifts that are the pro­duct of their extraordinary efforts to save their families and themselves. They may be driven by a strong sense of moral purpose.

21.  In the world of the victim of child abuse, there is a very special role for creative writing as a tool for healing. The primary way to counteract fragmentation is to cognitively and symbolically integrate feeling and experience – in other words, to write openly and in a feeling way about personal experience. The sense of defectiveness, blame, and shame are all mitigated by personal writing because writing externalizes and objectifies experience, thus removing it from intensely self-critical internal processes. And then there is the fact that creative accomplish­ments can be publicly shared, which builds self-esteem, facilitates further com­mu­ni­cation, and alleviates isolation. Eventually the impact of abuse can be lessened by expressing oneself honestly.

Jul 26
Approaching the Trauma, Not the Crime

by Alex Russell

This year, while volunteering with Pongo in Seattle Juvenile Detention, it seemed like every other night on the news there were stories about kids doing terrible things. Some boys attacked a bus driver at night when she wouldn’t let them off through the back door. A group of girls made national headlines when a video showed them beating another girl in a downtown transit station. When I sat down with a kid to write poems, I hoped he or she wasn’t involved with anything I’d seen on the news the night before.

As Pongo volunteers, we are there to serve kids, not to judge them. Even so, the habit of judging is persistent and reflexive. I was a victim of violent crime in 1998. I was 19 at the time, shot in the neck by a guy who couldn’t have been much older than I was. I thought the experience gave me a window into the lives of those who had also experienced extreme violence. It also predisposed me to judging kids who had committed violence against others. I volunteered with Pongo to help kids no matter where they came from, no matter what they had done. I didn’t think I had to worry about my own judgments.

Toward the end of the year I was facilitating a group poem with a teen I’ll call John and one other boy. In the process of digging for lines, John mentioned how he was on CNN for why he was in Detention. Then things changed. Judgment is a persistent habit. It a filter to help us understand the world around us, and it’s something that happens involuntarily. As soon as I knew what John was talking about I couldn’t help feeling suddenly withdrawn. John’s demeanor seemed to change as well, but unrelated to what anyone else said or did. It was as if he realized immediately what it meant to become “that criminal on TV” instead of just John, a kid trying to get through a poem.

John was likely the same as every other kid I worked with, someone who’s experienced major emotional traumas. At our best as Pongo volunteers, we help kids externalize traumas most of them bury in order to survive. When the traumas are on paper, they lose a lot of their power. My fellow mentor Eli Hastings described it as turning shame into pride: by writing poems, kids turn traumatic memories they are ashamed of into works of art they are proud of. Because of this, it only makes sense to approach the trauma and not the crime, the seismic skip that is a symptom of that trauma. Approaching the trauma is the only way for anyone to heal.

When I went to drop off his poems, John was the same as every other kid I worked with last year. He was happy to see me and started reading his poems as soon as I slipped them under the door. Everything was as if the session had gone perfectly. It made me think that maybe I wasn’t the failure I thought I had been. More than anything, it reminded me that the process of recovering from trauma is complicated and imperfect, and never really over. The symptoms can change over time, whether they begin with actions that find us imprisoned, or with unsettling judgments against others. Both share the same root causes, but if I learned anything as a Pongo volunteer it’s that there is always a way to move forward.

Feb 01
A Black Hole in the Spirit

Many of the teens who write with Pongo have suffered trauma. And that distress leaves them silent, determinedly silent, helplessly silent – with a black hole in the spirit where their feelings are sucked inside.

It’s important to understand this silence in order to understand many suffering young people, and how they can be helped to poetry, and by poetry.

Black Hole
by Erica (a homeless young woman, about 15 years old)

My heart and my spirit are
very different.
My heart’s saying Yes,
but my spirit says No.

What’s the matter with me,
can you hear me,
can you even feel me?

I feel like a black hole,
something so gone.
I’m here but lost in…

but lost in what?

You try to finish the rest.

Often when people think about writing classes, they think about an expert writer who teaches skills and refinements of communication to people who already express themselves, even if those students don’t yet understand the deep reflection that writing can facilitate.

On the other hand, consider the people who have a black hole in the spirit. Many Pongo authors have suffered trauma, such as abuse, and their feelings are buried deep inside. Among the effects of trauma, people can be in shock and numb, cut off from feeling. Trauma itself can be overwhelming and people might repress the experience, or disengage from the experience in a more extreme way as if their traumatized feelings are part of an entirely separate personality.

Trauma can leave a person hypersensitive and overly reactive. This is not silence as such, but it might be a painful diversion from more painful feelings. Some people are aggressive. Some people hurt themselves. They unconsciously avoid feelings of traumatic loss.

Then there are traumas that exert an even more brutal grip on feelings. If a child has been abused by a parent, the child might blame herself or behave in other ways that protect the relationship with the parent. Also, the family may adapt to the abuse by placing great responsibility on the child, including the responsibility to keep the abuse a secret.

Guilt and shame are also powerful effects of trauma, and are contributors to a person’s silence. And so on.

For people who have suffered trauma, who feel a black hole in the spirit, poetry heals them by integrating experience and feeling.

Pongo enables that integration by listening to experiences and by placing a person’s words in the feeling-ful medium of poetry. Beyond that, the Pongo method is essentially gradual, nonintrusive, supportive, and caring.

Jan 09
How Do You Talk About Violence?

Last night a group of Seattle performance poets read Pongo poetry on themes of trauma and violence. Most of the poetry had been written in Pongo projects in juvenile detention. The performance included poems about child sexual abuse (“The Guy with the Green Eyes”), addiction and abuse at home (“Without a Family”), parental abandonment (“The Other Piece of Me, My Father”), and rape (“Running Away”).
The performance was the vision and execution of Pongo volunteer Eli Hastings and Seattle poet Roberto Ascalon. It took place at Youth Theatre Northwest on Mercer Island. And the performance was the product of many months of thought and several false starts. What made this performance so difficult to create?
The WHY of such a performance was an easier consideration than the HOW. The Pongo poetry can make people cry. It illustrates the profoundly hurtful and earth-shaking traumas that often precede teen behaviors that eventually lead to incarceration and psychiatric care. The Pongo poetry can facilitate understanding and a constructive response to youth violence. But HOW do you talk about such traumas without evoking and creating more trauma and destructive behavior?
Pongo has had the privilege over 14 years of working with, and learning from, youth in crisis. We have worked in collaboration with many insightful professionals, such as Dr. Ted Rynearson, founder of the Homicide Project, and Dr. Mick Storck, a psychiatrist at Child Study and Treatment Center. So we have learned to appreciate the great hurt inflicted by trauma, a hurt that can leave a person feeling preoccupied, damaged, guilty, worthless. We have also seen that these same hurt people can show another complicated reaction to trauma in which they seem uncaring or are drawn to recreating traumatic events.
Our solution to the HOW, when it comes to talking about violence, was to focus in this way – the effects of violence on the individual, as expressed in poetry, and the benefits of poetry for resilience.
In other words, we chose not to talk about violence as a concept or a sociological study. The seeming neutrality of such a discussion might only reinforce a person’s sense of damage and helplessness. Instead we chose to talk about trauma and violence in terms of how the individual feels in poetry. And how we feel in reading and hearing the work.
This approach was also important, I think, for the majority of the audience, those who have been less directly affected by trauma and violence in their lives. After all, how often in our social dialogue do we respectfully open up to feelings about something so overwhelming? Isn’t it more common for us to shut down emotionally or to express anger instead?
At the end of a great evening, that included performance and discussion with performers and audience, Roberto said, “This was so easy, why couldn’t we have made this happen sooner?” The answer of course is that talking about trauma and violence isn’t easy at all.