Tuesday, June 6, 2023

A Trailblazer of Trauma Studies Asks What Victims Really Want

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When the Harvard psychiatry professor Judith Herman began her medical training, in the nineteen-sixties, sexual and domestic abuse was still considered a private scourge that victims brought on themselves—if, that is, it was considered at all. Prominent journals were publishing studies like “The Wifebeater’s Wife” (Archives of General Psychiatry, 1964), which attributed marital violence to the “masochistic needs” of battered women. A major textbook put the prevalence of incest at one in a million, which was an underestimate by several orders of magnitude. In 1975, when Herman and a colleague submitted the draft of a landmark paper on incest and it circulated within the field, they were surprised to receive numerous letters with messages like “I thought no one would believe me” and “I thought I was the only one.” In a new afterword to her first book, “Father-Daughter Incest,” which was originally published in 1981, Herman recalls, “It was generally held that sexual offenses were rare in reality but rampant in the overactive imaginations of women and children.” She dedicated her career to studying both the psychological impact of such abuse and the public tendency to overlook it. In “Trauma and Recovery,” published in 1992, she famously compared survivors of rape with veterans of combat. Both were subject to “the coercive violence at the foundation of adult society,” she argued, but only those who fought in wars were acknowledged with medals and memorial ceremonies. “There is no public monument for rape survivors,” she wrote.

Herman, who is now eighty-one, came of age during the women’s-liberation movement. She still credits her career to what the author Grace Paley has called “the buoyancy, the noise, the saltiness” of second-wave feminism. In her twenties, she joined the Bread and Roses collective, a socialist consciousness-raising group in Boston. “It was the grassroots activists who knew what was going on,” she told me recently when I visited her at the senior-living facility where she resides, not far from Harvard. “The psychiatry departments had no clue.” “Trauma and Recovery” proposed what was then a novel diagnosis—“complex post-traumatic stress disorder”—for prolonged or repeated abuse, whether it occurred in a war zone or in the supposed sanctum of a family home. Herman outlined a three-stage recovery process, which has since become a therapeutic template in the field of psychiatry. Before anything else, trauma survivors must salvage a basic sense of safety (step one). Only afterward can they mourn what they have lost (step two) and resume some version of ordinary life (step three). Following the publication of “Trauma and Recovery”—which the feminist psychologist Phyllis Chesler, in a New York Times review, called “one of the most important psychiatric works to be published since Freud”—Herman began contemplating a fourth stage of recovery. If trauma was a problem of public recognition as much as of personal suffering, shouldn’t true healing entail more than a private undertaking by the survivor?

In the early two-thousands, during a sabbatical, Herman began interviewing victims of gender-based violence for a new book project. She got as far as publishing a concept paper, “Justice from the Victim’s Perspective,” in a special issue of the journal Violence Against Women, in 2005. But she was sidelined, in the succeeding years, with nerve tumors from an old knee injury, which left her reliant on crutches, a brace, and a fentanyl patch. Herman continued overseeing trainees at Harvard, but her own research stalled. In the meantime, trauma studies developed a new focus on brain science. In 2014, Herman’s old friend and colleague Bessel van der Kolk published “The Body Keeps the Score,” an unexpected best-seller exploring the power of the brain and the body to change consciousness through therapies as plain as yoga and as experimental as psychedelics. (“In the culture right now, if it’s based on the brain, it’s real,” van der Kolk recently told the Times. “Everything else is woozy stuff.”) Herman, by contrast, has largely concentrated on “the power of consciousness”—both social and individual—to change the body and the brain. “Healing from the impact of human cruelty requires a relational context of human devotion and kindness,” she writes in the latest afterword to “Trauma and Recovery.” “No new technique or drug is likely to change these fundamental principles.”

To treat her knee, Herman tried physical therapy, acupuncture, “every weirdo cure you can imagine,” she told me. A few years ago, a doctor suggested an innovative surgery that ended up relieving her pain. During the pandemic, while confined to her one-bedroom suite in the senior-living facility, she returned at last to work on the project that she’d begun two decades before. “Truth and Repair,” which was published in March, is part polemic and part ethnography, assembling testimony from thirty survivors of traumas including child abuse, sexual assault, sex trafficking, and domestic violence. (Twenty-six are women and four are men.) Herman’s central argument is that neither the traditional model of retributive justice, with its emphasis on punishment, nor the burgeoning alternative of restorative justice, with its focus on forgiveness, truly prioritizes survivors.

If her earlier works were like floodlights in the night, baring systemic abuses that had long been blocked from view, “Truth and Repair” is more like a magnifying glass, scrutinizing subtler preconceptions that have persisted through the progress of the #MeToo movement and the mainstream recognition of trauma and its aftermath. Milestones like the criminal conviction of Harvey Weinstein do little to alleviate what Herman sees as the most fundamental breach for victims: the sense that their own communities have failed them. “Truth and Repair” takes aim at the enablers and the apologists, “who profit from the subjection of others,” and also at the onlookers, “who prefer not to know the truth or choose not to help.” Often, Herman argues, “survivors will feel the bitterness of these betrayals more deeply even than the direct harms inflicted by perpetrators.” The new book is slimmer and less overtly revelatory than its predecessor, but Herman’s methodology of assiduous listening serves as its own argument for a new model of justice. In theory, asking survivors of crime what would make things right for them—or “as right as possible,” as she puts it—sounds like a simple thing to do. “In practice,” she writes, “it is hardly ever done.”

Early in her career, Herman attended a lecture at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association about how to testify as an expert witness in court. She’d recently co-founded the Victims of Violence program, at a hospital in Cambridge, to treat survivors of crime and to train trauma clinicians. As Herman recalls, the lecturer, a celebrated forensic psychiatrist named Phillip Resnick, argued that the true function of courts, historically, was to stop disputes from devolving into violence. On a projection screen, he displayed an image of the Hatfields and McCoys, warring factions of Appalachian backwoodsmen infamous for their intergenerational blood feud. The menacing subjects in the photograph, with “their huge mustaches and their rifles across their knees,” lodged in Herman’s memory, she writes, largely as a reminder of the prejudice “that victims will be too angry, too irrational, too fixated on retribution to be trusted.”

Of the victims in “Truth and Repair”—Herman, like an anthropologist, calls them “informants”—very few crave revenge against their abusers. A filmmaker and writer who was sexually abused by her paternal grandfather feels resentment, first off, toward her own mother, who didn’t believe her at first and then urged her never to tell her grandmother, on the ground that the truth “would kill her.” A community organizer who was raped at knifepoint by her ex-boyfriend is appalled when his parents, who once welcomed her into their home, launch a letter-writing campaign on his behalf. A man who was abused as a child by a priest in the Boston archdiocese seems less enraged at the perpetrator than at the religious leaders who moved pedophiles from parish to parish: “I want to go punch them in the face, and I’m not a violent person,” he says. “They should have known better.” Herman suggests that “bystander” is too benign a description for such ancillary figures. Instead, she borrows the term “implicated subjects” from the scholar Michael Rothberg, who has argued that almost all of us contribute to or benefit from structural injustice, and so almost none of us is innocent of implication. “Truth and Repair” invites readers to apply the concept widely. Is a high-school teacher “implicated” for failing to realize that a star student is flunking out because, unbeknownst to him, she was raped? Readers may allocate blame in their own ways, but Herman succeeds in reformulating justice as more than an adversarial contest between victim and abuser. Trauma estranges a victim from “all those who doubt her veracity, who blame her rather than the perpetrator, or who choose to turn a blind eye,” Herman writes. “In standing by the survivor,” she adds, implicated subjects can “reclaim their own moral standing.”

The victims in “Truth and Repair” are perhaps less vengeful than proponents of retributive justice presume. They are also less conciliatory than advocates of restorative justice seem to hope. The #MeToo movement prompted much discussion about the path to absolution for high-profile abusers: What amounts to a satisfactory apology? Can the public tell true penitence from scripted, self-serving expressions of regret? Herman considers real apologies, however healing in theory, to be rare, and she notes that few of her subjects counted on receiving one. “I’ve had enough work to do on my own,” an attorney and rape survivor from Florida tells her. A poet who was molested by her older brother dreads the idea that he’d even discuss the crime: “I suspect he would enjoy talking about what he did.” Herman worries that efforts to reconcile perpetrators and victims, a chief component of certain restorative-justice processes, could be “tailor-made for manipulation” by abusers who re-offend. Even profuse apologies figure in cycles of domestic abuse, by sustaining victims’ hope that violence will end. Although Herman entertains the “creative promise” of restorative justice, she suspects that its “sentimental emphasis” on reconciliation may pressure survivors to forgive crimes that their communities do not take seriously.

In one of Herman’s most complicated interviews, Kyra Jones, a Chicago artist and community activist, recalls that she was assaulted by a fellow-activist who “weaponized the language of the movement to target vulnerable women.” Jones, who is Black, describes herself as a prison abolitionist. She couldn’t stand the idea of reporting her assailant to the police, so she chose to participate in a “peace circle” overseen by the organizer Mariame Kaba. (One general irony of restorative-justice programs, Herman points out, is that they often rely on the threat of criminal punishment to secure an offender’s compliance.) Jones and her assailant—or, in the idiom of the movement, her “harm-doer”—gathered with separate support groups, hers to help “process the trauma,” his to help brainstorm amends. After fifteen months, the assailant’s group deemed him sufficiently committed to “deep reflection and change.” Before long, though, he was accused of assaulting other women. (The man, Malcolm London, has publicly apologized to Jones but denied one of the subsequent allegations.) Like most of Herman’s subjects, Jones ends up pointing her finger at the surrounding community, which “had gone back to its default habits of valuing Black men over Black women.” Jones “agonized” over the outcome, Herman tells us, but she still refrained from reporting the man to the police.

In “Trauma and Recovery,” Herman writes that the therapist’s role is to “affirm a position of solidarity with the victim.” Her commitment to this clinical principle occasionally limits her philosophical inquiries in “Truth and Repair.” Herman doesn’t linger, for instance, on the possibility that Jones had a responsibility to report a repeat offender in order to protect other women. Though “some Black sexual assault survivors were angry with Jones for her choice not to file a criminal complaint,” Herman explains, the community’s “primary obligation” to victims comes down to repairing “the harm that had been done to them.” Some might find this a disquieting insight in a book about collective accountability. Can a survivor’s community members expect from her as much as she expects from them? Jones’s story clarifies, in any case, a cruel predicament of victims who suffer abuses that aren’t reliably redressed by the justice system. Herman cites estimates that less than five per cent of rapes result in a guilty plea or a criminal conviction. If survivors turn to the police, the very process may victimize them again. If they don’t, they risk being seen as implicated subjects themselves.

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