Family Constellation: the pseudoscience retraumatising victims at the approval of Brazilian courts,Carlos Orsi,The Skeptic

[Content note: this article touches on themes of sexual abuse, child sexual abuse, incest and domestic violence]

Victims of domestic violence often take their time seeking justice. They fear their aggressors, they are ashamed, and they are afraid of being treated unfairly by the courts. In Brazil, a survey carried out by request of the São Paulo Association of Justices (Apamagis) lists the main reasons why someone would choose not to report domestic violence. These include fear (73% of the respondents), shame and fear of exposure (31%), financial dependence on the aggressor (19%) and skepticism of the law and judicial system (15%).

Now, picture a hypothetical victim of domestic abuse, after overcoming all these obstacles. She finally decides to report the aggressor. She seeks justice, be it punishment for the perpetrator, protection for her and her kids, a fair divorce, or child maintenance payments. At this point, she sees herself being forced to relive her trauma, and is even coerced into asking the man who hurt her or her children to forgive her. All this can happen in a session of “Family Constellation”, Brazil’s judicial system’s pet pseudoscience, implemented with the excuse of helping “conflict resolution”. Absurd as it may sound, this has been going on in Brazil since 2012.

Family Constellation, ostensibly a form of psychotherapy, uses “quantum” gibberish to push an ideology of male dominance and female servile submission that seems to hark back to the Middle Ages. This “therapy” was created in the 1970s by a former German catholic priest called Bert Hellinger. It’s described in Hellinger’s book Love’s Hidden Symmetry, published in 1993. The technique came to Brazil in 1999, was implemented in the Judicial System in 2012, and was brought into the Public Healthcare System in 2018, as part of the National Plan for Integrative and Complementary Medicine.

In a typical constellation session, volunteers take on the roles of family members of the patient, and according to Hellinger, “fields of energy”, like Rupert Sheldrake’s “ morphogenetic fields”, will telepathically make the volunteers behave in a certain way that will bring about repressed memories and unconscious connections of the patients’ relatives and their ancestors. This repressed or hidden content will manifest itself in the geometry of the people in the room – their places and stances relative to each other – and this map, or “constellation”, duly interpreted by a professional “constellator” can heal the patient from mental suffering and/or reestablish the family’s harmony. Or that’s what Hellinger and his successors say.

According to the doctrine, the key to the proper reading of the “constellation” is the purported fact that everyone has a role to play in a family, and this role must be respected. When people overstep or deny their roles, the harmony of the family becomes imbalanced, and this can lead to disease, aggression, assault, incest, and violence. The ideal, or “healthy”, scheme is highly hierarchical, with the father at the very top. In his book, Hellinger says that the role of the woman is to follow her husband in language, family and culture, and their children should do the same. There is a clear hierarchy in the family, with the father as the leader, and duties to be attended to.

For instance, in a case of incest, where the father sexually abuses the daughter, Hellinger explains that it happens because the mother is probably not fulfilling her marital obligations. Since the father is being neglected, according to Hellinger it is only natural that the daughter will “offer herself” as a substitute. The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Hellinger on the subject:

Now about incest. If you are confronted with cases of incest, a very common dynamic is that the wife withdraws from her husband, she refuses a sexual relationship. Then, as a kind of compensation, a daughter takes her place. This is an unconscious movement, not a conscious one. But you see, with incest there are two perpetrators, one in the background and one in the open. You cannot resolve that unless this hidden perpetrator is brought in. There are very strange sentences that come to light. The daughter can tell her mother, ‘I do it for you.’ And she can tell her father, ‘I do it for mother.’

Homosexuality is also “curable”, according to Hellinger, who believes it usually occurs when a boy “takes the place” of a deceased female sibling. In another book, “Acknowledging What Is: Conversations with Bert Hellinger, the guru of family constellation says that victims of sexual abuse that eventually become prostitutes do so because of an unconscious love for the perpetrator, and for carrying his guilt.

In Brazil, the “therapy” reached a whole new level, in the form of “Systemic Law”, a concept created – and patented – by Judge Sami Storch. Judge Storch promotes the use of family constellation as a type of conflict resolution. He claims that the Judicial System’s goal should encompass the harmony and love among human relations, and not just distributing justice and enforcing the law. Several women came forward to report the use of this practice in family law issues, such as divorce, alimony, and domestic violence cases. Some were encouraged to ask their aggressors for forgiveness, others were forced to face their abusers and relive their traumas.

Storch also sells online courses for anyone interested in becoming a professional “constellator”. For R$ 2,000.00 (roughly £350), you can enroll in a 14-hour online course and receive your certificate. In comparison, to earn a Bachelor’s degree from a Psychology School in Brazil, the Ministry of Education demands at least 3,600 hours of classes, as well as a supervised internship and research project.

Because of the work done by the Institute Question of Science (IQC) in Brazil, family constellation was exposed as a pseudoscience both in the Healthcare system and in the Judicial system. Once in the public debate, the “therapy” became the subject of a Public Hearing at the Senate.

Senator Eduardo Girão summoned specialists in the field, including Bert Hellinger’s widow, Sophie Hellinger, and Judge Storch, to highlight the wonders of the technique. Girão says he didn’t think it necessary to summon any other professionals in the field of psychology or law that might oppose the idea of family constellation, because he truly believed that nobody could oppose such a marvel. Thanks to the intervention of another Senator, Sergio Petecão, IQC was called, together with a team of scientists.

The hearing alternated between a laundry list of all the typical logical fallacies – cherry-picked positive testimony, appeals to “tolerance” and “open-mindedness” to paper over the absence of evidence and the very real dangers of the practice – and the no-nonsense depositions of psychologists, physicists and even legal scholars.

As things stand, Family Constellation is still an accepted mode of “conflict resolution” in Brazil, its use by the courts authorised by the National Council of Justice, the ethics overseer of the Judiciary system. Formally, the Brazilian law for the protection of women (Lei Maria da Penha) forbids the use of any “conflict resolution” mechanisms in cases of domestic violence: such cases ought to be treated as criminal cases, full stop. This would restrict the application of Family Constellation to matters of alimony, child custody, divorce and the like. But that’s not what happens.

The conservative cultural habit of appealing to the woman to “forgive” in order to “save the relationship”, no matter what, is still strong in Brazil, and many judges see themselves as Solomonic dispensers of wisdom, rather than public servants in charge of applying the law. In this scenario, Family Constellation is almost irresistible.

Even in non-violent cases, however, the adoption of pseudoscientific, borderline mystical concepts and practices (including mental communication with ancestors) as tools for the courts would be troubling. The use of such concepts and practices to push women into accepting a sexist framework to deal with their family problems is unacceptable.

Paulo Almeida, neuroscientist, lawyer, and director of the IQC, said at the Senate Hearing that the Brazilian State is “highly permeable” to pseudosciences: lobbies with access to special advisory committees, lawmakers and even individual, high-positioned bureaucrats have little difficulty in finding ways to circumvent the scrutiny of regulatory, science-oriented agencies like Anvisa (the “Brazilian FDA”) and have their products or beliefs enshrined in some form of public policy.

This is especially true in the case of systems of belief that have a spiritualist flavor, for reasons we have covered in a previous article. Family Constellation, however, brings dangers that surpass the mere misapplication of public funds or the eventual threat to the health of people who choose to forego science-based treatments. It’s something that affects the lives and minds of very vulnerable people, reopening wounds and piling trauma over trauma. And it’s happening right now.

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Brazilian courts are disturbingly fond of Family Constellation, a pseudoscientific form of therapy that pushes blame onto victims, and retraumatises the most vulnerable people
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