A Community of Heart Profile: Bennet Wolper



When you first get to know my good friend and colleague, Bennet Wolper, you would not think that his early life was filled with neglect and abuse. He is the person in the room towards whom people gravitate because of his wonderful smile and positive attitude. He has that kind of temperament. Let’s take a closer look at Bennet’s story.

Bennet’s mother, Shirley Friedland Wolper, was a complicated character. Her mother Rose fled the pogroms in the Hungarian-Austrian Empire, and although not wealthy, her siblings were moderately successful. Her father Benjamin, whose family lost everything in the pogroms, came from Russia. Shirley and Benjamin met and married in New York City. Shirley, an only child, grew up with her parents and her maternal grandfather. Her grandfather adored her. He was however, the dominant male in the household and when he died, Shirley was still a child, and her father -who had resented his own lack of status in the family-became tyrannical and abusive. Shirley became the recipient of his cruelty and carried her wounds with her. She was shy in romantic relationships and never developed successful relationships with men. As a young woman in the 1930’s, she attended college and was part of the young socialist group engaging in progressive activities. She even wore shorts while at Hunter, protesting the oppression of women.

Bennet’s father, Irving Chugustin Weidrow Wolper, was a “shadow figure” in his family. He arrived in the United States from Russia when he was three years old. His father died en route so, as was the custom at the time, he was raised by his mother’s brother. The uncle was quite abusive, never wanting the burden of three children. When Irving was a child he took his uncle’s name, Weidrow. Later, as an adult, his mother remarried, and he took his stepfather’s name (Wolper); this enabled him to get into the union. His failure to have a “name” that was his own was probably reflected in the shadowy nature of his adult identity. Irving was from a poor immigrant family growing up on the Lower East Side of New York, and unable to finish high school. Boxing, running the Williamsburg Bridge, swimming in the waters of the East River, and Murder Incorporated were the stories of his early life which he unfortunately did not share with his only son until his life was almost over. It was thought that Shirley married “below herself” as she had gone to college, but she was also a shy, socially and emotionally unsuccessful woman, who suffered from Trichotillomania and never felt worthy of a man she could respect. As such, she remained continually disappointed with her choice of a mate (the best she thought she could get). When Bennet’s parents first got together, they lived with Shirley’s parents, and like her parents before her, never really established an independent household. Bennet’s maternal grandmother was the major nurturing figure in Bennet’s life playing that role for his father as well. Everyone competed for Grandma.

Growing up in the German-Irish-Italian neighborhood of Queens, New York would be a challenge for any Jewish family. However, it was exacerbated by the fact that Bennet’s mother and grandmother identified as socialists, who chose not to affiliate with any Jewish organizations or synagogues. However, since they also did not participate with any socialist groups, they became further isolated. Consequently, Bennet grew up an outsider in the neighborhood. Sadly, he also became an outsider in his own family, as his older sister, Karen, became his mother’s obsession to re-write her own failed childhood. He was bullied throughout his schooling, often walking blocks out of his way to avoid getting beaten up, not always successfully. He was often called “dirty Jew”. Somehow in the face of this, Bennet said that he retained his spirit of a playful little guy, although at times it was hard to see or recognize it.

Schooling is typically a priority in a Jewish home, yet this support did not exist in Bennet’s family. Perhaps due to over focusing on his sister which consequently, he nearly failed out of high school. Failing five of his five majors mid-way through his junior year, he recognized that any change would have to come from him—apparently nobody else would notice. He did graduate high school, but it took about four years of experimenting until he entered college. In those four years, where he could be separate enough from his family to begin to create his own narrative, he began his quest to find surrogate parents. He found many in the garment district where he sold piece goods and women’s wear. People found him bright, attentive, and eager to learn. He recognized that people generally liked him.

He left the garment center to study photography and in addition to his own work became a photography teacher at summer camp where he was “universally loved.“ During this summer, he became friends with many young people who were in college and with those models, decided to enroll in night school at Hunter College. It was during this period that he hooked up with his old neighborhood friend, who had recently returned from Vietnam, and they supported each other as they each attempted to create a life for themselves. It should be noted that his friend’s parents also invited Bennet to join their family and for the first time in his life, he experienced the joys (and woes) of a real “Jewish mother. “

The rift between his parents appeared to heal when his father was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 1980 and decided to forego the traditional treatments to go to the Bahamas for treatment (the treatments there were a precursor to the immune enhancers). For the year that he spent there, his father served as an inspiration to the other patients by his own positive attitude and encouragement of others. His wife acknowledged him for the first time during his courageous battle with cancer. Unfortunately, the cancer reoccurred a year later. After his father’s death, as a support to his own healing and in recognition of his father’s early pride in his own physical exertions, Bennet ran a marathon in Michigan in his honor, wearing a shirt (bought by Bennet’s son) saying: “Irving Wolper Memorial Run.” After a year of painful and complicated mourning, the start of the race released his tears and grief and Bennet reclaimed his own life and his father’s place in it.

When he first started college, Bennet found for the first time his incredible love of ideas and learning which have lasted until this day. He would often read late into the night, dictionary at his side, looking up all the words he did not know. He loved the radical sociologists like Mills and Goffman, and the more traditional voices of Parsons, Weber and Merton. He found many mentors who were eager to support his voracious appetite to learn. There was so much he did not know and so much time wasted. Seeing the big picture was so exciting. He took courses in philosophy and loved existentialism, especially Sartre and Paul Tillich. He took courses in psychology and education and was fascinated by Freud, Jung, Adler, Szasz, Paul Goodman, and Edgar Freedenberg. He realized that “kids weren’t the problem; you just needed to understand the larger context to understand their behavior.“ Around 1971, Bennet found a way to enroll in “matriculated Hunter” by participating in an experimental program seeking to train teachers who would then teach in underserved communities. The program involved a collaboration between Hunter and the best teachers in the community. One of the professors who participated from Hunter was Zona Scheiner.

At the same time Bennet found his way to the Hunter College Educational Clinic. This clinic was connected to the well-respected school for gifted children. One of the mandates for the school was to recruit gifted children of color who underscored in traditional IQ tests and support them in this enriched environment. The director of the clinic was Maury Appel (a disciple of Carl Rogers) who became a father figure to Bennet. With Maury, Bennet had total run of the clinic. He would spend hours listening to Maury’s tapes of Rogers and Maslow. Together they re-named the clinic library, “The Ken Kesey Reading Room.“ It was open to all except, “Big Nurse”.

In addition to working with the school, the clinic served to provide continuing education for the education department faculty. Bennet sat in and participated in all clinic programs, and as a result developed some wonderful relationships with department faculty. Bennet also worked with children in the school, helping them with social adjustment. His college experience was rich with mentors and learning. He had found his first real family.

In addition to these programs, Bennet found a way to supplement this more traditional education by enrolling in a new program at CUNY. This program, called the CUNY BA, allowed highly motivated students to receive academic credit for off campus activities. One needed to choose a faculty committee and develop an appropriate educational plan. For his plan, Bennet secured a graduate level counseling internship at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

In 1974, Bennet and Zona married. She had two children, Andrea and Gregory. They moved in together when the children were four and two, and together they set out to make the family of their dreams. Bennet says that these relationships were and are the most joyous parts of his life. He was a sophomore in college when they met and his whole life changed. During his tenure at college, Bennet was elected to Psi Chi, the Honor Society in Psychology, Kappa Delta Pi, Honor Society in Education, and Phi Betta Kappa. He was a Danforth Fellowship nominee and graduated Summa Cum Laude from Hunter.

Initially, he did not get into graduate school after college; he was a poor test taker. Often, he had the highest GPA of any candidate, but he also had the lowest GRE’s (the long-lasting consequences of his early educational experiences). After college, he had a variety of experiences. He was a Social Worker at Kings County Hospital in Pediatrics where he saw clients with trauma. He also enrolled, which meant he took courses and workshops, with the faculty of the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy. People like Isadore From, Paul Oliver, and Laura Perls became important mentors in his learning Gestalt therapy. One time, when he had forgotten his coat at an up-state workshop, Laura gave him Fritz’s coat. Although it was a bit too big, he wore it proudly. These people became another family. It was around this time that he fell in love with Family Therapy.

Bennet and his family moved to Michigan, so he could attend graduate school. He was admitted to the University of Michigan’s MSW/PhD program. He was awarded his MSW in 1976, but never completed his PhD. Graduate school was a mixed bag for Bennet. His interests were primarily clinical, and the clinical and community psychology programs refused to accept students from the joint program. He also had difficulty finding faculty support and mentors. An additional blow occurred when a mentor took credit for work that he developed. The fire greatly dimmed, and he sought other avenues to pursue his professional dreams.

Coming from Kings County, Bennet had experience and interest in working with families with child abuse and neglect. During his first year he became a Parents Anonymous sponsor. He trained new sponsors at the state level. After he received his MSW, he took a job doing both in home and office family therapy for families identified as having child abuse and neglect. He was successful and participated in developing a community-wide council to improve communication around child abuse and neglect. He trained members of the police and local government statewide concerning this issue.

A year later, he was approached to participate in a National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect, with child abusing and substance abusing families using structural family therapy. His group was awarded a grant for a three-and-a-half-year demonstration project, to be housed at the University of Michigan Child Psychiatry Hospital. It EMDRIA Newsletter 15 was an interesting model. They exchanged training and consultation to community therapists who agreed to see two to three families in therapy. In total, Bennet and his colleague, Jaime Vasquez, M.D., trained about 30 therapists in family therapy. Together, with their team, they developed screening instruments for abuse, neglect and substance abuse.

An intriguing finding was that these families had an interesting similarity. They would have what Steinglass, referred to as Dry cycles and Wet cycles. They found that during dry cycles, families were disengaged without much interaction, where members were isolated; however, when drinking, the families were much more interactive with much more affiliation, engagement, and laughter, that is, until the alcoholic got so drunk that it led to multiple boundary violations. One family in the project had the police intervene fifty times in one year. By seeing this larger, functional picture, community members as well as staff could design interventions that addressed this larger context. It also led to intake procedures that included the community agencies that were part of the family’s dysfunctional processes.

By 1979, Bennet started Family Therapy Associates (FTA) with Zona, Katie Pelz-Davis, and Glen Davis. They provided psychotherapy treatment and training in couples and family therapy. In addition, they developed a training program in Family Therapy in conjunction with the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic. Their trainers, Charles Fishman and Jamshed Moranas, came to Ann Arbor to provide monthly training in Structural Family Therapy. They worked closely with another important man in Bennet’s life, Harry Aponte. For about fifteen years, Harry and FTA trained therapists in a model known as “Person of the Therapist”. Trainees would bring their own families to the trainings and focus on where they were stuck in their own story. By learning how to use themselves in creative ways, identifying the parallel process in their reactions to their client families and reactions in their own families, they could develop alternative behaviors with their client families based upon both a broader understanding and resolution of stuck places in their own families. Bennet found this model very exciting and it has remained a foundation of his work with clients and consultees.

The narrative shifted in 1996. Zona was trained in EMDR, while Bennet was happily whitewater kayaking in Pennsylvania. Zona could not stop talking about this new mode of therapy and in self-defense, Bennet got trained at the end of the same year. It changed his professional life. Soon after being trained, he and Zona became facilitators for the EMDR Institute. He was part of the Kosovo Children’s Project led by Sandra Wilson and Bob Tinker. He went on this mission with great trepidation as he thought that they were going to Kosovo and that there was the possibility that they would get shot! In fact, the work was done in Germany in conjunction with the German Government and the excellent additional team members: Karin Kleiner, Sam Foster, Howard Lipke, Zona, and others. It should be noted here that Sandra Wilson had been one of his first facilitators in his early training and played a significant role in his EMDR life. It was Sandra who encouraged both Bennet and Zona to shed their reluctance and join them in this project. Much is owed to Sandra for her faith in him from the early days of his EMDR travels.

When Bennet attended his first EMDRIA Conference in 1998, the conversation about certification was just beginning. Having just become a facilitator with the EMDR Institute, he recognized that a lot of the future of EMDR laid in the future of EMDRIA. As such, he believed that he needed to be connected to EMDRIA. He joined the Standards & Training Committee, served for ten years and co-chaired for the last five. His connection to EMDRIA increased radically with the EMDRIA Conference in Toronto. Staff was totally overwhelmed by the strong registration. Bennet rolled up his sleeves and got involved. During this time, EMDRIA became part of him and he dedicated himself to helping it succeed.

Here are many of the ways Bennet has served the EMDR community:

With Jari Preston, he was responsible for introducing the innovative program track in EMDR for EMDRIA Conferences.

He also took over the Conference presentation on “How to Become a Trainer” and became aware of the need for advocacy for EMDRIA non-Institute EMDR trainers. He worked within the organization to help it give greater support to and legitimacy for Independent EMDR Trainers.

In 1999, a year after joining the Standards & Training Committee, Bennet joined the Conference Committee. He wanted to be a part of ensuring that the Conference be a beacon for EMDR therapists. Bennet is the longest serving member of the Conference Committee and believes that the Conference has increasingly improved over the years.

In 2004, Zona and Bennet developed a training program that included consultation. They were very impacted by Nancy Smyth and Ricky Greenwald, who were early advocates of consultation in the EMDR Basic Training following the lead of EMDR Europe. Bennet was asked to be a member of the task force developing new guidelines for the EMDR Basic Training Curricula.

Bennet, as part of the Standards & Training Committee, was awarded the EMDRIA Outstanding Service Award. The following year was given the same award for his dedication and service to EMDRIA.

Bennet had long advocated for the development of a refresher course to be given at the EMDR conference. Regardless of how many trainings he attended, he said, he always came away learning something useful. In 2006, the EMDRIA Conference Committee decided to initiate its first Refresher course, given by Francine Shapiro. As a reward for his hard work, he was asked to introduce Francine. However, Zona, then President of EMDRIA, was also introducing Francine to the Conference. She told him that if he copied any part of her speech, he’d best plan on staying in Philadelphia.

In 2006, Zona and he were invited to Sea Ranch to start the process of becoming EMDR HAP trainers. It took fourteen trainings to fulfill the requirements of trainer in EMDR. As challenging as that was at times, he is truly grateful for the opportunity and the incredible learning he experienced. This process solidified his love and appreciation of what EMDR was about. The Adaptive Information Processing model became more a part of the fiber of who he is.

In 2010, Bennet and Zona became Regional Trainers for the EMDR Institute and have been working in Michigan to support the standards of EMDR therapy in their training and consultation. He is grateful for the recognition and support of the EMDR Institute in this process (most particularly Robbie Dunton and Francine Shapiro).

To the EMDR Community: Thank you so much for the love and sharing that I have felt as part of this community. Both intellectually and personally, being a member of this family has helped fulfill my life long quest to belong.

Bennet’s children say that, when he gets involved in something, he is “all in.“ He has been “in” in backpacking, white water kayaking, and cycling. He has been “in” being a spouse, “in” raising his children, and “in” being a grandfather. His greatest pleasure is seeing how much his children enjoy being parents and acknowledging that they experienced that growing up. What a long way he has come from that neglected child growing up in Queens.

And he has been “in” with his commitment to the EMDR Community in all its facets and is incredibly appreciative of the gifts he has been given from that community.

Bennet’s life is a celebration of life over adversity. No matter the early start of trauma, Bennet has come through and created a life of love and purpose. We are lucky that he brings all that he has learned and all of who he is to our EMDR community.


“A Community of Heart Profile: Bennet Wolper,” Francine Shapiro Library, accessed July 15, 2024, https://francineshapirolibrary.omeka.net/items/show/25394.

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