Wolf Therapy: “Rewolfing the Heart”

“I am not what you think you see. I am the wolf.” – Hansol Jung, Wolf Play

“Many people talk about the wild heart, or ‘rewilding’ the heart, but I prefer to talk about rewolfing the heart. When was your wolf heart awake and alive?” – Teo Alfero, Wolf Connection

• • •

In our work so far, we’ve taken a look at adoption dissolution and the potentially damaging effects of such an extraordinary life event. In an earlier post, Ilana noted that one of the ways individuals survive through post-traumatic stress is by dissociation. In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk also calls this depersonalization. A traumatic moment can cause someone to lose some of their physical sensations, and sometimes progressively, their sense of themselves. Healing begins with reconnecting the body’s sensations with a sense of safety.

As Wolf Play unfolds, Jeenu reveals that he is not a child, but a wolf: first to the audience, then to Ash and Robin. It’s clear from the start that his connection to the animal goes far beyond a childhood infatuation: he relates to the wolf because of its capacity to survive in extreme circumstances. But why a wolf? Why not another powerful, fighting animal, like a lion, a cheetah, or a bear? Wolves are resilient, cunning, and adaptive, all qualities important for Jeenu: “The wolf knows that he is alone, that all he has is his paws and his cunning to survive in the ever-changing environment.” There’s something about the spirit of the wolf that keeps Jeenu grounded, even in the tumultuous moments of being re-homed.

Photo by Yannick Menard 

We don’t know if Jeenu has ever seen a wolf in person, but people who have say that the experience can be awe-inspiring. In Acton, California, less than two hours outside of Los Angeles, an organization called Wolf Connection provides people with the opportunity to come face-to-face with a pack of wolf-dog hybrids. Their work, termed “Wolf Therapy,” is accessible for individuals, companies, and other groups who are seeking an experience that could connect them with nature, but at their core, they are a youth empowerment program for kids and teens who have faced trauma — not unlike Wolf Play‘s Jeenu. The group’s founder, Teo Alfero, published a book in 2019 (The Wolf Connection), in which he talks about the principles and methods that make up the therapeutic experiences offered at their ranch. He says:

“We have personal histories and experiences that influence the choices we have made and will make. But we humans often distort or repress our past experiences, which renders the truth of who we are and where we are in our lives elusive… Experiencing a living wolf may not be possible for most people, but I believe that connecting with the real-life stories of wolves and humans can help us reawaken our wolf heart and reconnect with our life purpose.”

Just like how dogs can be great service animals or emotional support animals, wolves have some of that same natural intuition to nurture and comfort another being in need. The folks at Wolf Connection have successfully demonstrated that being welcomed into the pack and falling into step with them on a hike, while also learning about the wolves’ stories (often the wolves have been neglected or mistreated by humans) can allow people to feel at ease with their own circumstances. The organization has helped people navigating cancer and terminal illnesses, addiction, and especially youth who are in treatment for mental illness and/or are living in an unstable environment.

Images: The Wolf Connection

Since beginning in 2009, Wolf Connection has grown in popularity, and its close proximity to Los Angeles has enticed local nature lovers and even movie stars. Comedian Whitney Cummings, who after the death of her father was looking for an experience that would guide her through her grief, found Wolf Connection and penned a beautiful piece in the New York Times about her experience:

“The night before, I went into a wormhole of wolf photos for inspiration, but nothing prepares you for seeing a real [wolf], much less touching one. So much of what we look at now is airbrushed, laced with a complimentary filter and color-corrected, but encountering a wolf in the flesh makes you realize how all those ersatz finishes, meant to improve the image, actually kind of ruins it. In the quest to make things flawless and beautiful, we remove the grit and spirit, the qualities that actually make them interesting.”

The marks of a wolf — their coarse, mesmerizing coat, their earthy, calming scent, and their piercing gaze — can open the heart, and protect the soul.

“Wolves are an extremely adaptable species. Wolf is one of the few that survived the last ice age. Pluck from the desert and throw into a sea a wolf will never drown a wolf will survive.

But it takes TIME.

It takes TIME.”

A Guide to the Legal Terms in Wolf Play

In rehearsal, we’ve been digging into the feelings and intentions behind the characters’ actions, and how they affect young Jeenu. We have come to realize that while Jeenu’s situation is deeply complicated, the adults around him are all acting out of their own version of “extreme love.” Although Ryan and Ash both have reservations about getting a child from an unregulated internet forum, Robin says to Ryan, “Why? Because we’re bypassing some kind of institutional governmental system?” She sees Jeenu’s photo on the post online, and feels compelled to rescue him from the internet and bring him into their home. Regardless of how he wound up on this platform, he is there and in need of a family.

From the other side, we’ve learned about some of the reasons why Peter and Katie decided to re-home Jeenu using the internet, rather than working through official government channels. Peter says that if they went to court, “he might slip into the cracks of the system, so it’s just simpler, this way, it seems? And uh, affordable, a lot more.” The latter point speaks to the crux of why families, like the ones reported on in the Reuters exposé, turn to unregulated re-homing: adoption and family law can be wildly expensive. When Peter changes his mind, however, and his interactions with Shephard-Michaels clan escalate, we do see him place his faith into the court system, which he was originally so ready to renounce.

Because this practice is murky legally, it’s important for us to understand how it works, and just how much the characters in Wolf Play understand what they’re taking part in. This post serves as a glossary for some of the legal terms used in the play’s account of Jeenu’s re-homing. While not all reported instances of this phenomenon occur exactly the same way, these components are crucial in our understanding of what happens to Jeenu.

[Illustration by Dante Terzigni for City Journal]

Adoption dissolution: the termination of a previously legalized adoption. This phenomenon is often lumped together with the term adoption disruption, which more accurately is when an adoption already-in-process ends before it is legally finalized. For our purposes, Jeenu is going through the dissolution of his adoption by Peter and Katie and is in the process of being “re-homed” elsewhere.

Power of Attorney contract (pg. 11) – delegates authority for the care of a child (such as the right to consent to medical treatment for
the child and to enroll the child in school) to the new
caregiver. It is not intended to transfer custody permanently, and is most often employed when a parent cannot care for their child for a period of time, such as due to illness or military deployment. Also called durable power of attorney (pg. 88).

Affidavit of waiver of interest in child (pg. 13) – a formal document used in certain states when a parent desires to relinquish all parental rights to their child. Not official unless signed by a judge or court official. In Wolf Play, the affidavit that Robin signs is notarized by a government official in the state of Arizona, although it does not meet the state’s laws for adoption and custody transfers. Usually, both parties involved with the notarization of this waiver would need to be present at the time of signing, so in this circumstance we don’t exactly know how official this document actually is.

Information fraud (pg. 85) – the act of misrepresenting oneself and one’s personal information on any legal documents. Peter accuses Robin of lying about her marital status with Ash, and tries to use this as a way to prove their wrongdoing and inability to take care of Jeenu.

Domestic partner (pg. 88) – Peter describes Ash as Robin’s “domestic partner” which intentionally delegitimizes Ash and Robin’s marriage. Although what Robin states on page 87 is correct – “Under the federal laws, state laws forbidding joint adoption by same-sex couples is illegal,” the judge cites their “non-traditional family structure,” as a stress on Jeenu’s emotional wellbeing.

Petitioner (pg. 85) – the party who is bringing a case or argument to the court

Speculation (pg. 85) – an objection made in court when a witness is prompted to answer a question that they may not know the answer to, thus potentially creating false information.

Temporary custody of the state (pg. 88) – when parents lose custody of a child, or a child is without any familial guardian, the state in which the child lives must assume custody of the child until they are placed with an adoptive family. When in the care of a foster parent or home, treatment facility, or group home, the state usually retains custody of the child.

Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children – a contract between all 50 states that aims to keep track of the cases of children in the foster care and adoption systems, even when the child is being moved across different states. This ensures a structure for deciding who is responsible for the care of a child who is moved out of state jurisdiction.

In our production, we imagine that the scene in court takes place in California, because we see Jeenu back at home with Robin and Ash in San Francisco the next day. In the court systems of California, adoptions (both with an agency and independent) must be legalized in the presence of a licensed social worker and two witnesses. Also in both circumstances, a home-study of the adoptive family must be performed by the county or state department of social services (and this usually costs around $4,500 in fees, excluding attorney or counseling fees). So although we still have some questions regarding exactly how the exchange of Jeenu’s custody and the notarization of the documents manages to go unnoticed by the legal system, we know that his re-homing does not comply with California’s adoption laws.

At the center of these adults’ decisions, whether initiated out of this “extreme love,” or something else, is a human life, a boy. First brought to a new home in America from South Korea, and then released to whoever on the internet happened to find and connect with his post, Jeenu is on the hunt for stability and peace. Designed to keep children safe and cared for, the legal system, while imperfect, prevents a child like him from being put though any trauma or harm, and in Wolf Play, we see what happens when challenging the system goes too far out of bounds for an easy solution to come about.

Rehearsal with Boxer/Dancer Kim Holman

Boston-based boxer and modern dancer Kim Holman (Artistic Director of Luminarium Dance Company) joined rehearsal earlier this week to provide some boxing training and consultation for cast and team alike.

[A note for our cast: find notes from rehearsal and videos of boxing combos on the Boxing Resources page, found in the password protected C1 Biz dropdown menu.]

Some big takeaways from our conversations…

  • Boxing is 100% a mental sport. Any fear or intimidation, you’re going to lose. You’re constantly training in something and part of that is to have a strong sense of self. You also have to be strategic in the ring – there are times when you’re sitting back and assessing, and others when aggression has to come fast.
  • All boxers have a unique relationship with their trainer. As a trainer, you’re responsible for someone’s life, trying to get someone else to take risks and put themselves in harms way. It’s a slippery seesaw of being the person to make the call if the fight needs to be stopped, and then also being very caring. Also, having a coach is a different type of relationship than you have with professors, or other kinds of mentors. You need to have 100% trust in them, and you bond fast.
  • Boxing rules how you live your life, any physical risks that go wrong can make you lose a lot of ground fast, so you have to be cautious. Getting hit in the ring can cause a lot of injury. Before every fight, boxers get a medical check-up, but some will put up a good front so they can get cleared and make it into the fight. When punches start getting thrown, adrenaline takes over, and you almost don’t feel the injuries. But some are hard to throw: with bruised or broken ribs, every breath you take, there’s pain.
  • The sport is very “you against yourself” — you can measure your own progress. You have to be aware of and in control of your body. You gain a lot of skills when you first start training, and maybe plateau a few times, but you watch yourself progress.

Some boxing vocabulary:

  • Smokers/Burners: exhibition fights that are used to boost confidence and focus and grind 
  • Shadowboxing: an exercise intended to get a boxer the habit of throwing punches without using your brain
  • Combinations: series of different types of punches and moves that a boxer has in their arsenal to use in the ring. Some examples:
    • 1 – 2 – 3 – 6 = jab, jab, hook, uppercut
  • Slips: A way to dodge your opponent’s punch: the tiney-est, baby-est motion

Boxing Basics

We’ve seen in our first reads of Wolf Play how boxing is important to our characters, the story, and the structure of the play. To understand more about how boxing impacts the world of the play, here’s some background on the basic structure of the sport:

In both the fight and court scenes, we hear the familiar signal: “Ding, ding, ding, Round One!” In professional bouts, the number of rounds can reach up to 12 for men and up to 10 for women. Rounds typically last 3 minutes for men, and 2 minutes for women, although there is a recent movement in women’s boxing to extend rounds to a full 3 minutes. In between rounds, opponents have one minute in their respective corners to receive coaching and physical treatment from their staff. We see this when we hear Ryan and Ash checking in during the bout, and we witness Robin and Jeenu’s support as part of Ash’s team, or pack.

Once the bell rings, the next round is announced and the fighters continue. If both boxers can make it though all rounds, which is also known as “going the distance” of the match, the fight is then decided by up to three ringside judges to calculate the scores and determine the winner.

For professional bouts, points are awarded on a ten-point scale, points deducted when fighters are knocked down or if any of their moves are considered a foul.

A boxer may win a match before rounds are up through a “Knock-Out” or “KO,” which means that the referee decides that the boxer is unable to safely continue the bout. This is often determined by a count of eight if a boxer is knocked down or in danger of being unable to protect themselves. Boxers can also receive a technical knock-out, or “TKO” which is determined if there are three or more knockdowns. If a fighter decides themselves that they’re unable to continue, they can “throw in the towel” or forfeit the match.

This video shows a match between Claressa Shields and Hanna Gabriels.

Another match to take a look at is the recent heavyweight bout that was one of the biggest upsets in the sport to date – Andy Ruiz Jr. vs. Anthony Joshua. Joshua, a 6’6” shoe-in for the title, was hurt badly by Ruiz, an underdog who won with a TKO in the 7th round. (At a rematch this past Saturday, Joshua reclaimed the win.) This video below breaks down the highlights of the first match with commentary from boxing greats like Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson, and Sylvester Stallone, and the athletes themselves.

The commentary showcases the intense psychological aspect to boxing. When punches are not being thrown, we see glimpses into the boxer’s mind and emotions, and then when the blows begin, we see how each fighter attempts to use the other player’s state to their advantage.

Here is a link to a useful article about the rematch that analyzes Joshua’s turn towards smarts and technically-focused boxing as a way to defeat Ruiz’s massive force. We also hear how Ruiz slacked off on training the past few months, while Joshua doubled down. We appreciate this insider analysis as it connects nicely to our in-rehearsal conversations about boxing’s mental game.

Boxing feels like a fight for one’s life — round after round, the stakes get higher and higher, until something breaks or the referee steps in to make the call. This momentum reverberates through Wolf Play, with Ash’s boxing training and bout being central to the action. Fighting is used as a metaphor for what our characters are experiencing. In the court scene, we see how the emotional and psychological fight of the sport becomes a fight for Jeenu, with the sound of the bell escalating the cacophony. We witness him experiencing this trial and interpreting what he can from the legal jargon and making sense of this tragic event through the lens of a boxing match.

Coming up, we’ll be going into more detail about the styles of fighting that Ash, and Ryan (and Jeenu) are working with, as well as the trainer/boxer relationship, and what it’s like to “go pro.” Until then, here are some quotes that line up well with the boxing in this play:

It’s less about the physical training, in the end, than it is about the mental preparation: boxing is a chess game. You have to be skilled enough and have trained hard enough to know how many different ways you can counterattack in any situation, at any moment. – Jimmy Smits

“I’m scared every time I go into the ring, but it’s how you handle it. What you have to do is plant your feet, bite down on your mouthpiece and say, ‘Let’s go.’ “ – Mike Tyson

Wolf Imagery, Part 1

Throughout the play, playwright Hansol Jung includes countless allusions to wolves in nature, wolves as symbols, and wolves in folklore.

One of the most evident ways that wolves are built in to this story is in the characters’ names.

On page 34, we learn that Peter’s last name is Hunt. We know that wolves are apex predators at the top of the food chain — they hunt animals large and small, and often as a pack that separates and surrounds their prey with great speed and strength. Wolves first stalk their prey, and then strategically select the right time and choose the most vulnerable animal to attack. This maximizes nutrition by exerting as little energy as possible.

BBC Earth
BBC Earth: Frozen Planet

Another layer of meaning that this name holds is a reference to Peter and The Wolf, the opera by Sergei Prokofiev. The opera was first written and performed in 1938, and later famously recorded in 1978 with narration by David Bowie. The opera was made popular over several albums that served as a teaching tool and gateway for children into classical music. Movie adaptations also abound, like the 1958 Disney version, pictured below. A full version recorded by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, can be found here. Notably, each character has a leitmotif, or a musical pattern that signals when they appear in the story, which you may recognize. In this version, the conductor describes the wolf’s leitmotif as, “hideous, nasty, ugly, smelly” and “scary.” Peter, on the other hand, is represented by joyful strings.

The story of Peter and the Wolf follows a young boy named Peter who, excited to explore the clearing outside his grandfather’s home, leaves the gate open unintentionally. Although being warned by his grandfather that a wolf could come out of the forest and enter the yard, Peter defiantly claims that “boys like me are not afraid of wolves.” Inevitably, a wolf does appear, and gobbles up one of the boy’s ducks. With the help of some hunters, Peter catches the wolf, and instead of killing it, parades it to a zoo. One of the morals present in this story is that courage and creativity are essential to getting solving risky situations.

Notably, in Hansol’s play, we are doubled up with Peters. First, we have the young Peter Hunt — a puppet — aka Jeenu, an adopted child of Korean origin, who is also a boy in Wolf’s clothing. Or a Wolf in boy’s clothing. Then, there is the elder Peter Hunt, a white man from Arizona — the first adoptive father, who renames his Korean son after himself. We are told explicitly by the Wolf that Peter Hunt Senior is not a member of the pack, though has been someone worth forming an alliance with.

Disney’s Peter and the Wolf (1958)

Robin’s last name, Shephard, also has rich meaning behind it. A shepherd, is literally, “sheep-hearder.” And of course, what does a shepherd protect the sheep from?
Predators.
Wolves.

In many religions, and especially in Christianity, a shepherd is often synonymous for God. This points to the notion that humans have a divine leader who will protect them from harm and not lead them astray. Just as shepherds keep watch over their flocks at night, and protect them from dangerous predators, so Jesus protects his flock. In the Biblical parable of the lost sheep, he says:

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’

By imbuing character names with wolf-imagery, what do you think Hansol is potentially revealing about these people and this story? What other ideas come to mind when examining these wolf-centric names?

In future posts, we’ll be writing more about all of the different references to wolves, their natural behaviors, and their presence in culture. But in the meantime, here’s Sam Sheepdog & Ralph Wolf in Looney Tunes’ “Steal Wool,” a classic of the Sheep-herder/Wolf genre…