Updated: Sep 7
Interview with Wanda Duvivier, 12 July 2021
Who does not know the immortal song Bridge Over Troubled Water ? Composed by Paul Simon and sang solo by Art Garfunkel, Bridge Over Trouved Water is a song that talks about support, the support that a person can bring to another in times of trials [i]. It is this experience that Wanda Duvivier shares with us, in a conversation that deeply moved me.
Wanda is Psychotherapist/Gestalt-Therapist, and lives in Guadeloupe. The core of her practice is to welcome her clients (Many victims of violences) and their stories. She was saying in February 2021 [ii]:
« I believe them like I was believed, and I support them like I was supported. »
In 2017, freshly certified, Wanda relied on this specific approach, to support strangers in very trying circumstances.
Hurricane Irma laid waste to the Antilles in September 2017, leaving 136 direct victims in its wake. It devastated 12 islands, and the american coast of Florida [iii]. Over a million inhabitants were evacuated, hundreds of thousands of families were suddenly deprived of a roof, fresh water and food. That is were Wanda's adventure began.
Wanda's assistance mission starts with a call for volunteers, sent out by the "Association des Psychologues de la Guadeloupe" (ApsyG). She responds immediately. She goes to work for 10 days at the airport of Pointe-à-Pitre, in a hastily arranged hall, receiving refugees in transit from Saint-Martin and Saint- Barthelemy. Her work there is part of the effort coordinated by the Medical and Psychological Emergency Unit (CUMP in French) [iv]. It consists mainly in being present and receiving arriving refugees, bringing them support in the urgency of their situation. Prior to starting on day one, a two-hour briefing allows her to gain a better understanding of the situation on the islands affected by the hurricane, and of the emergency ressources that are mobilising. She is then let loose in the arrival hall, with a hastily fashioned "Psy" armband for equipment. Refugees are pouring in, there is much to do, the situation is chaotic.
Immediately, Wanda needs to attune to this out-of-the-ordinary experience. No more office or securized space to receive clients. Wanda recalls:
"The therapist's office is dematerialised, but remains present in the way I meet each person."
Those she meets are in transit toward somewhere else. Many are still dazed, in a state of shock. Instantaneity and urgency are the dominant notes of the encounter. No durable relationships, the point is not to do therapy, but rather for her to mobilize her therapist competencies to go and meet strangers exactly where they are. Wanda knows Saint Martin, the name of the districts, and of certain streets. She can discuss with her clients-for-a-moment their journey to the evacuation point. But above all, when all arrive with unbelievable stories, and struggle to realise what has happened, she believes them.
Hurricane Irma before and after | Cities of the World | 12 September 2017
Experiencing a hurricane means facing the disfigurement, the complete collapse of one's environement. Coming out of their houses the morning following the storm, survivors no longer recognize their surroudings. The few trees left no longer have any leaves, boats are on the roads and cars in the ocean. Everything is destroyed. In one night, familiar and comfortable places have morphed into a heap of apocalyptic ruins. After the destruction, material insecurity and hunger loom large. Groups are forming, some loot what is left, survival is the priority [v]. Survivors awaiting a rescue talk about a feeling of complete abandonment (Duvivier, 2018)... [vi].
Then it dawns on Wanda that the most important thing is to "install as soon as possible something known, common and recognizable" with the other.
This defaced, collapsed world, added to fear and possible injuries, is deeply traumatizing for the refugees (Duvivier, 2018). Our most basic survival mechanism is our capability to ascribe meaning to the world around us. For example, a tree announces fruits, and reassures us on the possibility to satisfy our hunger. In surrounding familiarity, our house, our bed, the photos on the walls, in the thousand little things that make our house a home, we find at each instant, the confirmation of our security. We are reassured, our survival is not in question.
But should this familiarity falter (Not finding one's phone for example, might be enough...), and we all of a sudden grow worried. Changes, even minute ones, in our environment, instantly bring us back to essential survival questions. The experience of Irma, is the experience of the total vanishing of this familiarity, of a destitution so complete, that even interpreting what just happened is no longer possible. For the refugees, it's unreal (Duvivier, 2018).
Many ask Wanda : "Do you believe me? Is the world aware of what happened?". Tirelessly, she confirms that yes, she believes them.
Wanda meets Nicolas. His rugby club is in ruins, his friends scattered in all directions. The desctruction of his city is like the end of the world, he is bewildered, for him there will never be any rugby ever again anywhere (Duvivier, 2018).
Encounter after encounter, Wanda finds these little things. The name of a street or a district, the detail of a hairstyle, the fact that other rugby clubs exist in other places, sometimes it's just listening to a disjointed, rambling story, without trying to put it back together. In this world suddenly unrecognizable, these moments of presence bring a first dose of familiarity, something known, something common, like a first hook, on which the person can restart the thread of narration of their own life, one moment interrupted by sideration.
In his song, Paul Simon proposes to help the other, but does not says concretely how. Wanda's experience puts us on the way. When reality is so violent that it seems our feet no longer touch the ground, that we no longer have anything solid to hang onto, and that firm ground is but a distant memory, that which a friend can do, is offer him/herself as a bridge over the troubled waters.
Opposite the stories of looting, Wanda shares with wonder having seen and participated in this movement of solidarity that rose to meet the needs of the refugees.
"It was strong like a wave, and you could feel it in the air, just loads of people showing up at once, to help, it's a human pulsion, irresistible"
For a moment, she could be a bridge. Those who have crossed her path may not remember it, but she, cannot forget them.
Wanda is a Gestalt Therapist, with a diploma from the École Parisienne de Gestalt (EPG). She is a member of the European Association of Psychotherapy (EAP), and holds the European Certificate of Psychotherapy (CEP). Wanda's practice is in Sainte Anne in Guadeloupe. She specialises more specifically in supporting victims of violence, about whom she says: "They know that always and definitely, I will refuse violence and fight alongside them". Her experience with the refugees of hurricane Irma has transformed her practice. She gives a first account of it in her EPG third cycle professional paper [vi].
[i] The last verse does not, as some have pretended, refer to heroïn consumption. Paul Simon later explained that "silver girl" refers to his first wife, Peggy Harper, whom he had thus nicknamed, after she got her first silver hair. The song theme is the support one can bring to someone who needs it. The term "Bridge over troubled water", is very likely inspired from a verse of traditional gospel song "Oh Mary don't you weep", sang by the Swan Silverstones: "I'll be a bridge over deep water if you trust in my name".
[ii] Interview filmed and broadcast on the YouTube channel of Kombit Fanm Karayib, a french 1901-statutes association based in Guadeloupe and Martinique, which promotes equality between men and women, as well as ecofeminism.
[iii] Hurricane Irma is described in abundant details on Wikipédia, in an article listing more than 280 références. Link
[iv] To know more about the French response organisation and the CUMP, see the government website on this subject. Link.
[v] Jacquard, N, 11 September 2017, le Parisien, À Saint-Martin, après Irma, ils ont trouvé refuge dans une imprimerie. Link. Le Parisien, via the Agence France Presse, 11 September 2017, À Roissy, les premiers évacués des Saint-Martin décrivent « Un chaos incroyable ». Link.
[vi] Duvivier, 2018, EPG, Intervention gestaltiste en cellule d’urgence post-immédiate – Les réfugiés d’Irma, 17 pages.