Comfortably ensconced on a couch in my living room on a chilly autumn day, Marilyn Murray, a woman of Russian descent and an internationally renowned author, educator, therapist and theorist, and I spent the afternoon talking about her life’s work. As I spoke with the almost 80-year-old author, I was struck by both her passion and compassion. But most compelling was her sense of urgency regarding the suffering of the Russian people – a people confronting past and present trauma, abuse, addiction, neglect and deprivation related to the Soviet regime, the societal collapse following the dissolution of the USSR and the present crises.
Alcoholism and heroin addiction rates in Russia are among the highest in the world…But there is an acute shortage of trained professional staff and the need for help far exceeds the supply.
The Fall of the Soviet Union
On December 25, 1991, the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin. People all over the world watched in amazement as the monolith that was the USSR dissolved. Mikhail Gorbachev later told interviewers, “The Soviet model was defeated not only on the economic and social levels, it was defeated on a cultural level. Our society, our people, the most educated, the most intellectual, rejected that model on the cultural level because it does not respect the man, oppresses him spiritually and politically.”
When the Soviet system collapsed – and with it the societal norm of dependency upon the government for nearly every aspect of person’s existence – chaos ensued. Alcoholism and smoking addictions were rampant. Vodka and Russia were synonymous.
In her book, The Murray Method, Murray addresses “one of the most profound unspoken tenets that formed the Soviet system . . . human life has no value.” She noted that even today, this “ruinous conviction is reflected by the fact that being careless regarding one’s safety and health is common . . . many [people] of all ages drink, smoke or do drugs to excess without being concerned about whether they will die in the process.” (p. 105)
As in any country where there is oppression, poverty and widespread addiction, there is also abuse, neglect and deprivation. Additionally, many individuals in the new Russia faced extreme violence that continued through the early 2000s.
When the USSR fell, people around the world came to the aid of the former Soviet citizens with food and other necessities. They also brought knowledge and support, especially in the area of alcohol and drug addiction treatment. Some Russian professionals were brought to the US for training and, at last, treatment centers were opened in the former USSR. But there continues to be an acute shortage of trained professional staff – the need for help far exceeds the supply.
Today, alcoholism and heroin addiction rates in Russia are among the highest in the world. Beer was not considered to be alcohol until 2011, and was even sold in schools. Binge drinking is common, fueled by the Russian tradition of excess. Even codeine did not require a prescription until 2012.
In 2011, the World Health Organization estimated that one in every 13 Russian citizens was an alcoholic. A mind-boggling 15.76 liters per capita, fourth highest volume in Europe, was consumed each year by Russians. Thanks in part to anti-alcohol measures taken by the government and a growing interest in health and fitness fueled by the Internet, more recent figures reflect a decrease in consumption to 13.5 liters per capita.
The Healing Journey
From reading her autobiographical book, Prisoner of Another War, I knew that Murray had been a victim of childhood trauma as the result of a violent assault when she was eight. When she returned home that day, she felt “like a prisoner of war who returns to family and friends who love and care for her, but have no comprehension of her pain or trauma.” It wasn’t until her early 40s that memories of the event began to surface and eventually create havoc in her picture-perfect life.
“Emotional pain that is denied or repressed by chronic shock will take its toll some time, some place. It will fester and either erupt or be driven underground to emerge in other ways,” said Murray. A close friend urged her to go into therapy. She emerged from her healing journey seven months later with a new set of tools and a new vision. Murray’s memoir is the story of her painful passage to health and her eventual development of a new approach to treating trauma, further explained in her second book, The Murray Method.
In 1997, at the Ottawa University’s Arizona campus, she created and taught a graduate program using the Murray Method entitled The Treatment of Trauma, Abuse and Deprivation – one of the first specialty programs for health professionals regarding these difficult issues.
As a psychotherapist, she was a pioneer in Intensive Outpatient Therapy where she specialized in problematic cases, often with high-profile clients. Mike Tyson speaks of the effectiveness of his long-term work with her in his new book, Undisputed Truth.
Murray’s Russian roots, as well as her work decades ago in prisons, spurred her interest in people imprisoned in Iron Curtain countries and her desire to understand their survival mechanisms during very traumatic times.
An Invitation to Teach
In 2002, after more than 20 years providing therapy to victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse and associated traumas and addictions, Murray was invited to teach a weeklong workshop regarding The Murray Method and trauma at a training program for therapists sponsored by a Russian organization offering courses for addiction counseling. And thus, in a country where trauma is normal, her mission to provide a way out for other trauma sufferers by training counselors and therapists from former Soviet countries began. “I went to teach one class and, fourteen years later, I’m still going there today,” Murray told me.
“These people were facing life and death issues. Many were living in survival mode,” she said. Many of her students had been raised in a restrictive environment where they were told the enemy was all around them. The Soviet system ruled by fear.
In the USSR, all women were required to work fulltime. Many children were raised by grandparents. Others attended government schools where some children only went home on weekends. If no childcare was available, children and infants were left home alone for many hours and even days. The concepts of God and family were regarded as competitors of the Soviet system and thus should be eliminated.
In a July 29, 2013 article for The Moscow Times, Murray wrote, “They had become so accustomed to abuse, neglect, deprivation and brutality that it became normal for them. They had no concept of how appalling it was nor how common.”
Murray shared that, “They were taught they had zero worth as a person, except to help the Soviet system.” When the communist regime ended in 1991, people were left with no one to be responsible for them, however inadequate or harsh that care may have been. One student, a physician, said, “The system deliberately kept us as dependent children who were punished if we ever thought for ourselves. When the USSR fell, it was as if we were small children who were thrown out into the snow, and told, ‘Here, go take care of yourself!’” He then declared, “We’re not stupid; we’re not lazy; we just don’t know how!”
Their very identity had been tied to the system and their value as human beings depended on their pride as Soviet citizens. Then, suddenly, without a stable government, they found themselves floundering and in chaos. It was humiliating to have to accept help from former enemies. Families that formerly were devalued now were enmeshed with several generations living together in tight quarters. Many were fatherless due to alcoholism and divorce.
A Pathway for Others to Follow
Since that first seminar in 2002, Murray has taught seminars to nearly 3,000 health professionals and clergy from 295 cities in the former USSR, Siberia and near the Arctic Circle. She spends four to six months a year in her small apartment in Moscow, where she has been a professor at the Moscow State University of Psychology and Education and other universities, as well as the Murray Method International Center in Moscow founded by some of her students.
Her students learn the Murray Method by doing it. On long rolls of wallpaper hung around classroom, they create their Trauma Eggs with heavy lines depicting the pain in their lives. Each participant shares deeply regarding events never spoken of before. Many did not realize that others were also suffering the same pain. They learn that many of the negative messages their former government had inundated them with for years weren’t true.
In a 2013 article for The Moscow Times, Murray told of one class of “professionals, teachers, psychologists, doctors, businessmen and women, economists, engineers, accountants, musicians, artists, students and professors, in which seven had a close family member become psychotic; twelve were sexually abused; thirteen were severely beaten by a parent as a child; five saw their fathers regularly beat their mothers; twenty-one had close family members who were alcoholic, often through several generations; three had grandfathers who died in World War II; four had parents and grandparents living under Nazi occupation in World War II; seven had parents or grandparents who were declared ‘enemies of the people’ and sent to gulags [Soviet forced labor camps]; four experienced starvation and famine as children; six were left alone as infants, toddlers and small children while parents worked for the State; five had immediate family members commit suicide; and three were hospitalized for severe depression.”
Students, who must be six months clean and sober, soon begin to realize that sharing their traumas brings healing. They are taught to look at what is good in their culture and to prune away what is unhealthy, and the importance of examining their lifestyles and belief systems as they make sense of their changing world.
For some students, the program has awakened a “desire to know myself” and has “helped us draw a picture of our souls.” Where once they were taught not to have personal responsibility, now they are learning they must take personal responsibility as they learn to deal with life in healthy ways without anesthetizing. “Change is possible; there is hope for healing,” said yet another student.
Some enthusiastic students become certified Murray Method instructors and travel throughout the former USSR, often to remote places, taking with them the message of recovery to those still suffering. Each instructor is required to have two years of sobriety and six months free of smoking. In a Murray Method International Center video, A Pathway to Freedom, one instructor declared, “[Marilyn] got me from my knees to my feet.” Another took the Murray Method to Yakutsk, the capital city of the Russian Sakha Republic, located less than 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
As she spoke of her plans for a June 2016 return to Moscow, Murray said, “Russia may never be comfortable or convenient, but it will never be boring. I still have work to do. Myriads of people worldwide have inherited lives filled with pain . . . As multitudes of Russians have shared their hearts in our classes, I have gained a greater level of understanding regarding the enormity of the unique, harsh issues they have endured.”
In her acknowledgements at the end of The Murray Method, Murray spoke of her “deep admiration of [my Russian students’ and friends’] incredible talents and abilities, and for [their] courage and strength as [they] commit to healing the deep wounds [they] carry, not only from the present, but from generations past.” She closes the book with these final words: “What legacy will you leave? You now have the opportunity to leave a wonderful legacy of health and balance – a pathway for others to follow.”
And so we do.
As an internationally recognized educator, author and psychotherapist, Marilyn Murray has taught her Murray Method since 1983. Beginning in 2002, she has lived and worked halftime in Moscow teaching her method to health professionals and clergy throughout the former USSR. For more information about Marilyn Murray’s healing journey, and to support her ongoing work, visit her website murraymethod.ru. Her Murray Method seminars in the US are sponsored by The Meadows, 800.244.4949, and she provides consultations at Psychological Counseling Services, 480.947.5739.