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The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable. Atrocities, however, refuse to be buried. Equally as powerful as the desire to deny atrocities is the conviction that denial does not work.
Folk wisdom is filled with ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves until their stories are told. Murder will out. Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites both for the restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual victims.
The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma. People who have survived atrocities often tell their stories in a highly emotional, contradictory, and fragmented manner that undermines their credibility and thereby serves the twin imperatives of truth-telling and secrecy.
But far too often secrecy prevails, and the story of the traumatic event surfaces not as a verbal narrative but as a symptom. The psychological distress symptoms of traumatized people simultaneously call attention to the existence of an unspeakable secret and deflect attention from it. This is most apparent in the way traumatized people alternate between feeling numb and reliving the event.
The dialectic of trauma gives rise to complicated, sometimes uncanny alterations of consciousness, which George Orwell, one of the committed truth-tellers of our century, called "doublethink," and which mental health professionals, searching for calm, precise language, call "dissociation." It results in protean, dramatic, and often bizarre symptoms of hysteria which Freud recognized a century ago as disguised communications about sexual abuse in childhood.
The study of psychological trauma has a curious history-one of episodic amnesia. Periods of active investigation have alternated with periods of oblivion. Repeatedly in the past century, similar lines of inquiry have been taken up and abruptly abandoned, only to be rediscovered much later. Classic documents of fifty or one hundred years ago read like contemporary works. Thought the field has in fact an abundant and rich tradition, it has been periodically forgotten and must be periodically reclaimed.
This intermittent amnesia is not the result of ordinary changes in fashion that affect any intellectual pursuit. The study of psychological trauma does not languish for lack of interest. Rather, the subject provokes such intense controversy that it periodically becomes anathema. The study of psychological trauma has repeatedly led into realms of the unthinkable and foundered on fundamental questions of belief.
To study psychological trauma is to come face to face both with human vulnerability in the natural world and with the capacity for evil in human nature. To study psychological trauma means bearing witness to horrible events.
When the events are natural disasters or "acts of God," those who bear witness sympathize readily with the victim. But when the traumatic events are of human design, those who bear witness are caught in the conflict between victim and perpetrator. It is morally impossible to remain neutral in this conflict. It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil.
The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of the pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering ... In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator's first line of defense. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens.
To this end, he marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization.
After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it on herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on. The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail. The perpetrator's arguments prove irresistible when the bystander faces them in isolation.
Without a supportive social environment, the bystander usually succumbs to the temptation to look the other way. This is true even when the victim is an idealized and valued member of society. Soldiers in every war, even those who have been regarded as heroes, complain bitterly that no one wants to know the real truth about war. When the victim is already devalued (a woman, a child), she may find that the most traumatic events in her life take place outside the realm of socially validated reality. Her experience becomes unspeakable ...
To hold traumatic reality in consciousness requires a social context that affirms and protects the victim and that joins the victim and witness in a common alliance. For the individual victim, this social context is created by relationships with friends, lovers, and family. For the larger society, the social context is created by political movements that give voice to the disempowered ...
Judith Lewis Herman is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Training Director of the Victims of Violence Program at Cambridge Hospital.
praise for "trauma + recovery"
"One of the most important psychiatric works to be published since Freud."
Phyllis Chester, The New York Times Book Review
"A triumph. Trauma and Recovery is astute, accessible and beautifully documented. Bridging the worlds of war veterans, prisoners of war, battered women and incest victims, Herman presents a compelling analysis of trauma and the process of healing. She presents a convincing case for the empowerment and care of all trauma victims."
Laura Davis, coauthor of The Courage to Heal
"Brilliant. . . . Every politically committed person of the 1990s will learn from it."
Christina Robb, Boston Globe
"This book will surely become a landmark work on the social impact of psychological trauma and on its treatment ... A magnificent gift to survivors."
Miriam Lewin, Women's Review of Books
"A stunning achievement ... a classic for our generation."
Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. Harvard Medical School
"A book of luminous intelligence. You must read it as soon as possible."
"Herman's brilliant insights into the nature of trauma and the process of healing shine through in every page of this rich and compassionate book. Must reading for all who are concerned with this most crucial issue of our time."
Copyright 2006 Lenore Walker, Ed.D. Director, Domestic Violence Institute
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