In 1992, psychiatrist Judith L. Herman shared her groundbreaking analysis of psychological trauma, Trauma and Recovery. For years this has been among the “must read” books on the topic, and Dr. Herman has remained a leading authority in the field. In a 2022 edition, she would add an epilogue that examines new understandings and developments in trauma research and treatment during the ensuing decades.
Throughout this time, I sensed that a lot of folks who are deeply interested in trauma wondered if Dr. Herman might have another major work in her, one that might advance our understanding of this important topic even further. This welcomed volume has arrived in the form of Truth and Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice (2023).
In this three-part series of posts, I’m taking a good look at Truth and Repair and applying its precepts to two topics that recur often on this blog, workplace bullying and therapeutic jurisprudence.
The path to Truth and Repair
In her new book, Dr. Herman summarizes that Trauma and Recovery identified three general stages of recovery from trauma, all closely focused on the individual survivor: The first stage is “the complex and demanding task of establishing safety in the present, with the goal of protection from further violence.” The second stage involves “revisit[ing] the past in order to grieve and make meaning of the trauma.” And the third stage involves a “refocus on the present and future, expanding and deepening…relationships with a wider community and…sense of possibility in life.”
It was the contemplation of a “fourth and final stage of recovery,” that of justice, which prompted Herman to work towards a new book. After all, she reasoned, “(i)f trauma is truly a social problem, and indeed it is, then recovery cannot be simply a private, individual matter.”
With this new focus, Herman interviewed “twenty-six women and four men who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault, sex trafficking, sexual harassment, and/or domestic violence.” The results of these conversations helped her to conceptualize elements of justice and healing from a trauma survivor’s perspective.
Elements of justice and truth
Through her interviews, Dr. Herman identified three precepts of justice and truth, as defined by trauma survivors:
Acknowledgment — “The first precept of survivors’ justice is the desire for community acknowledgment that a wrong has been done,” for public recognition of a “survivor’s claim to justice must be the moral community’s first act of solidarity” with the survivor.
Apology — Perpetrators should provide a genuine apology for their traumatizing offenses, taking responsibility for their actions and offering to make amends. In some instances, an apology may “create the possibility of repairing a relationship.”
Accountability — While trauma survivors interviewed by Herman were ambivalent about punishment for perpetrators and complicit bystanders, many were drawn to the broader precept of accountability for individuals and institutions. Ideas behind restorative justice — a movement that embraces values of “nondomination, empowerment, and respectful listening” — resonated strongly in this context.
Elements of healing and repair
Dr. Herman’s interviews also identified three precepts of healing and repair, again as defined by trauma survivors:
Restitution — Restitution can take the form of money to cover a survivor’s losses and recovery, but it also can be defined in more systemic ways, such as creating more humane justice systems and safer institutional spaces (including workplaces). This broader take on restitution expands on the traditional legal notion of “made whole,” typically defined largely as financial compensation.
Rehabilitation — Because our justice systems, especially those governing criminal behavior, are vested mainly in the objective of punishment, “we know little about what it would actually take to bring perpetrators to relinquish violence and feel genuine remorse for their crimes.” Nevertheless, if we can find ways to “instill empathy or a feeling of common humanity in those who lack it,” we may create moral awakenings that truly safeguard our communities.
Prevention — Prevention, of course, means reducing potential exposure to traumatizing acts and events and help trauma victims in their healing. Educational programs, bystander training, and counseling and support for victims are among the preventive measures that can be implemented.
Truth and Repair is much richer and more fulsomely detailed on a deeply human level than I can provide in a relatively digestible summary. Indeed, this important book merits a close reading by anyone who is interested in how we, as a society, respond to psychological trauma.
Brevity aside, I hope this gives you a good sense of Dr. Herman’s essential theme. In the next two blog posts, I will apply these findings to (1) the experience of targets of severe workplace bullying and potential responses by the legal system; and (2) the interdisciplinary field of therapeutic jurisprudence, which examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of our laws, legal systems, and legal institutions.