Violence is ubiquitous in American life, and so is the trauma that follows in its wake. From the domestic sphere to the public sphere, interpersonal violence, particularly of a sexual nature, is all-too-common in the US. How does the resulting trauma manifest, and how does this trauma shape everything from our personal relationships to our politics? Specialist Dr. Judith Lewis Herman joins The Chris Hedges Report for an in-depth discussion on how trauma distorts the mind and the body politic alike.
Dr. Judith Lewis Herman is a psychiatrist who studies trauma and developed the diagnosis for Complex PTSD. She is the author of several books, including her most recent, Truth and Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice.
Studio Production: David Hebden, Adam Coley, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Chris Hedges: Dr. Judith Herman’s book, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence– From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, as The New York Times wrote, is one of the most important psychiatric works published since Freud. It is the foundational text, along with The Body Keeps Score, written by Dr. Herman’s close collaborator, Bessel van der Kolk, for understanding trauma and how to treat it. Trauma is widespread in American society, not only among veterans that fought in our forever wars but in millions of homes across the country beset by domestic and sexual violence.
1 in 5 Americans was sexually molested as a child. 1 in 4 was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left on their body. 1 in 3 couples engage in physical violence. 25% of us grew up with alcoholic relatives. 1 out of 8 witnessed their mother being beaten or hit. The consequence of this trauma is personal and social. “It impels people,” Dr. Herman writes, “both to withdraw from close relationships and to seek them desperately.” It results in a profound disruption in basic trust. It induces feelings of shame, guilt, and inferiority, as well as the need to avoid reminders of the trauma that occurs in daily life. Trauma compromises the capacity for intimacy. Trauma can dramatically reduce focus to extremely limited goals, often a matter of hours or days.
It often engenders the survivor triad of insomnia, nightmares, and psychosomatic illnesses. Chronic trauma can result in a paralysis of initiative, feelings of apathy, helplessness, and depression, and it can see survivors to blunt the pain of trauma, engage in a variety of self-destructive behaviors, retreat into drugs, alcohol, and self-harm; including suicide. In short, repeated trauma forms and deforms the personality, especially when this trauma occurs in childhood. Trauma is of epidemic proportions in the US. The failure to address our trauma has grave individual, social, and political consequences.
In the first of two parts, Dr. Herman, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of the Victims of Violence Program, discusses her book, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence– From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. Next week we will discuss her new book, Truth and Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice.
As you know, I’m a tremendous fan of your book. And as a war correspondent, and I’m not alone, your book was incredibly helpful as we navigated our own experiences with trauma. In the introduction, I’m going to read a couple of sentences and have you comment, you write, “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, which undermines their credibility and thereby serves the twin imperatives of truth-telling and secrecy. When the truth is finally recognized, survivors can begin their recovery but far too often secrecy prevails, and the story of the traumatic event surfaces, not as a verbal narrative, but as a symptom.”
You spend a lot of time in the book talking about the various ways trauma expresses itself but I want you to begin there, that the narrative surfaces not as a verbal narrative but as a symptom.
Judith Herman: Yes. Thank you, Christopher, for having me on your show. And yes, this really takes us back to the history of studies of traumatic stress and the disguised presentation of trauma that manifests often as physical symptoms. And this was seen in men who served in combat: it was called shell shock. And it was also seen in women with mysterious failures of language, apparent paralysis, and even pseudo-seizures. And these symptoms were diagnosed as hysteria. And it was already discovered in the late 19th century that hysteria was the consequence of trauma. Those discoveries were made independently by Pierre Janet in Paris and Sigmund Freud in Vienna.
And both of them, by paying attention to women with hysteria and actually talking with them and forming a relationship with them, and asking about their childhoods, independently discovered that many of them reported physical and/or sexual abuse. But that discovery was so unthinkable, if you will, that in the end, Freud retracted his discovery and concluded not on the basis of any data, but simply on the basis of the fact that the thought was anathema. That the women must have fantasized about this because actually, it was something they desired and–
Chris Hedges: I want to interject because, in the book you make a point, the reason he retracted it was because it was so common. And you write that if his patient stories were true, and if his theory was correct, he would be forced to conclude that what he called “perverted acts against children” were endemic, not only among the proletariat of Paris where he had first studied hysteria but also among the respectable bourgeois families of Vienna, that this had political and social consequences that he wasn’t prepared to confront.
Judith Herman: That’s correct. And it’s also true that he couldn’t confront it alone. That’s something that I always tell people who want to work as clinicians with trauma or are going to confront trauma in their line of work, whether they’re first responders, whether they’re journalists, you can’t do it alone. Don’t do it alone. You will simply be re-traumatized yourself. If you’re isolated, you will not be able to deal with it. And Freud was isolated. When he published his paper, The Etiology of Hysteria in 1896, he expected it to bring him glory. It would be like publishing in 1953, The Structure of DNA. And he called it finding the source of the Nile.
And instead of bringing him glory, it brought him ostracism and shunning. And so he realized that this idea was never going to be accepted in the medical community where he was making a name for himself and he couldn’t fight that alone. So he basically retracted his theory.
Chris Hedges: That gets into a point you make and I may be fusing your books but you write about how important the women’s movement was to your own investigations into trauma. And at the same time, it was during the Vietnam War, you have these rap groups of Vietnam veterans. But you say that without these communal entities, work like yours is not possible.
Judith Herman: I really believe that’s true, and it certainly was true in my case. I joined a consciousness-raising group about six months before I started my psychiatric residency. And my colleague and friend, Kathie Amatniek, who was actually a classmate of mine, had been in Mississippi in the Civil Rights Movement during Freedom Summer. And she had seen there how powerful it was to bring people together in these groups called Freedom Schools to talk about their lives. She’s the one who coined the term “consciousness-raising.” She thought of it not only as a method of political organizing but as a method of scientific inquiry because she said, nobody knows the truth about women’s lives because women don’t dare tell the truth about their lives.
And sure enough, the consciousness-raising group I was in was a bunch of white, highly-educated, privileged women. But even in this group, there were stories of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and domestic abuse. There were a lot of reports of violence and we understood this as a method, of course, of control: the method by which ultimately any group that dominates another group has to use to preserve their power and control. So when I started my residency, here I was a brand new psychiatrist in training and my very first two patients, on the inpatient service where I began my training, were women who’d made very serious suicide attempts and been hospitalized. And what do you know, both of them gave histories of father-daughter incest. Well–
Chris Hedges: –Let me stop you there because you write in the book that until work like yours was done, the traditional view was it was one in a million. Do I have that right?
Judith Herman: Yes. You have that right.
Chris Hedges: One in a million women had suffered incest.
Judith Herman: All forms of incest. But that was the comprehensive textbook of psychiatry, which was the basic text. If that were true, what do you think the odds would be, that a brand-new rookie would see two cases in two weeks? So something was off there. And then as I began talking to colleagues, I began collaborating with a young psychologist named Lisa Hirschman who had gotten her doctorate. And she was seeing incest survivors in her practice. And by asking around among the few people we knew, we collected 20 cases. So if we hadn’t had the women’s movement behind us, we wouldn’t have dared to publish our findings because who were we to contradict these authorities? And not only that but I doubt that any psychiatric journal would’ve published our findings.
Chris Hedges: Well, do I remember from the book, it wasn’t that easy for you to publish your findings?
Judith Herman: Well, no. We got it accepted in a brand new women’s studies journal called Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. But academic journals take a long time to publish things even after they’ve accepted them. And during the year or so between when we submitted our paper and when it was finally published, we got letters from all over the country. It had been passed hand to hand and copied. And women started writing to us saying, I thought I was the only one, or, I thought nobody would believe me. So that’s when we realized, no, this was real.
Chris Hedges: I want to ask about that because one of the most interesting parts of the book for me was how that chronic trauma is so severe and how it manifests itself in ways that we wouldn’t expect. But I’d also want to say before that, when you talk about hysteria, that’s something I saw in the war zone. I saw soldiers shake without being able to stop. I saw them unable to speak. I saw in El Salvador, one soldier had a case of blindness but in fact, there was nothing wrong with his eyes. So that term is fair, which we often use towards women, it was rife within war. I was fascinated with how women who suffer incest, abuse will actually try and be protective of their abuser, blame themselves. The psychological masochism is overwhelming. I want you to talk about that because it’s counterintuitive.
Judith Herman: Yes, it is counterintuitive, except if you consider it from the child’s point of view. The child is faced with an impossible dilemma. First of all, she’s helpless and unable to escape. There’s no way to resist. She may have tried to seek help from the non-abusive parent, usually the mother. But one of the things we found in our incest study was that one of the most frequent concomitants of incest was domestic violence. So the mothers were battered or otherwise rendered helpless themselves. Some of them were physically ill. Some of them were mentally ill. In one way or another, they were helpless bystanders. And oftentimes also the favoritism that the incest perpetrator shows the daughter chosen for abuse made the other siblings and the mother resent this kid; she was given extra privileges and attention.
And so from the point of view of the kid, there’s nowhere else to turn. And whatever tension and affection she gets, this is the price that she has to pay. Mentally she can understand this one of two ways: Either this is happening to me because I’m bad. If I’m bad, then I can try, and try, and try, and try, and try to be good. I can try harder and harder and harder to be good. And maybe if I try hard enough to be good, I’ll be able to be loved for who I am without being abused. The alternative is, there is nothing I can do. This isn’t happening to me because I’m bad; this is happening because this is the choice he has made. And that’s unbearable. That means there’s no hope. There’s nothing to be done. This is you’ve been abandoned by God and by fate. And so for many kids who are being abused in this way, though it’s counterintuitive, it’s better to blame herself or himself than to put the blame where it belongs.
Chris Hedges: I want to ask about traumatic memories. You write, “They lack verbal narrative and context. Rather, they are encoded in the form of vivid sensations. Robert Jay Lifton, who studied survivors of Hiroshima, civilian disasters, and combat, describes the traumatic memory as an indelible image or death imprint.” Can you explain that idea?
Judith Herman: Actually, Pierre Janet had a very good way of describing the difference between traumatic memory and normal memory. He said normal memory is the action of telling a story. And it’s verbal, it is flexible. Over time you can tell the two-minute version of it or the 20-minute version of it. So you can retrieve it when you want to. And you can put it back when you’re done with it. And you can make meaning of it. He says it doesn’t really count as a memory until we have integrated it into our life story and made it a part of a bigger narrative and made some meaning out of it.
Traumatic memory doesn’t have any of those features. Rather than verbal, it’s very sensory. People will describe the smells, the sounds, the physical sensations they had, whether it was dark or light, that sort of thing. If you remember the recent Senate hearings for the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh, or as I call them, the Ayatollahs: Ayatollah Kavanaugh–
Chris Hedges: –We have two sex offenders on the Supreme Court, so.
Judith Herman: That we know of.
Chris Hedges: That we know of. Right.
Judith Herman: Christine Blasey Ford, Professor Ford was challenged because she couldn’t name the date or the location of the party where she was attacked. But what she said she remembered most specifically was the laughter, that these boys were laughing as they had her pinned to the bed and with her mouth covered and smothering her. And that’s the trauma memory that’s not mutable in time. And it comes when you don’t want it and you can’t necessarily retrieve it when you do want it. So in all those regards, traumatic memory is very different from normal memory. And part of the work of recovery is transforming that death imprint, if you will, into a living narrative.
Chris Hedges: Since you touched on it, let’s talk about male groups. You talk about these private forms of chronic abuse as being, it may not be exactly a word, small tyrannies, but you liken it to a tyrannical structure of a state. And you write about how in a tyranny there is a hierarchy, religious, military, whatever, that profits off of the abuse. And then you write about how we have these hyper-masculine, tyrannical structures, fraternities on college campuses, eating clubs at Harvard, where you’ve taught. And my son was an athlete at Colgate. He heard about this abuse, which was common among fraternities. He’s a journalist. He wrote it up in the school paper and the response was fascinating.
The alumni came down on him like an avalanche. He got all sorts of death threats. He couldn’t go downtown on the weekends when the kids got drunk. But what was even more chilling was how the administration went after him to cover it up. And I don’t think there’s anything uncommon about that. These groups – And you write about it and I’ll let you explain – They not only embrace but they perpetuate this abuse. The military is rife with this stuff.
Judith Herman: Of course. In general, all-male groups, whether they’re fraternities, sports teams, the military, and so on, first of all, they enforce this dominant hierarchy with their own quite sadistic initiation rights. So the pledges have to basically go through a symbolic death and sometimes literal death. There’s an anthropologist named Peggy Reeves Sanday who wrote about fraternity gang rape as a tradition handed out from one group to the next. And she talked about the bonding ritual where copious amounts of alcohol, being beaten, and having to do dangerous things like go out on a roof when you’re drunk. And then of course, vomiting and having to clean up vomit and excrement and so on.
And then once you’ve submitted to that ritual, you have broken the bond of the young man to his mother and re-bonded to the fraternity, to the male group. And indeed, we have lots of data now that indicate that in those all-male environments like fraternities, people who belong to those groups are much more likely than others to commit sexual assault. And indeed, some of them are planned and rules set aside for the purpose after parties–
Chris Hedges: –It’s also self-selecting. I wouldn’t let these people tell me to do that. So what you’re doing is getting, essentially through that initiation process, getting people who are willing to subsume themself into the group and into that hierarchy. And in the military and the elite units in particular, this hazing is horrific. And overseas there are a lot of suicides. And anecdotally — I was with the Marine Corps — Most of the suicides were people who had been hazed, and hazed, and hazed, and ostracized. And they would punish them. There was actually a term called “bitch for a day” and all this stuff.
And then they’d go in the porta potties and blow their brains out. You’re right about it. It’s a very dark undercurrent in American society and one that is so ingrained in the society all the way up, of course, to the Supreme Court nominee hearings, we don’t even speak about.
Judith Herman: Well, because it really is also a very privileged group. And so people are willing to submit to the cruelties because of the many benefits that are promised. And for example, at Harvard, at my university, the final clubs, which are the equivalent of fraternities, are, well, I’ve heard that they’re called the final clubs because they are the final step of admission into the elite of the elite. Teddy Roosevelt was in the Porcellian Club. FDR was only in the Fly, that’s second. And JFK was in the Spee. But they’re rumored on campus to have the best parties. And of course, once you’re in the club, your social network is the ruling class.
And so to Harvard’s credit, I’d have to say, when Drew Faust was president, she appointed a committee to look into the issue of rape on campus. And they produced a report that said, male-dominated spaces are high-risk environments and we have to do something to change the culture of the campus. And they actually tried to set some limits on the final clubs, which are separately incorporated. They’re not part of Harvard. And the limits were pretty tame. If you were a member of a final club that refused to integrate, they gave them all a chance to go co-ed, those that refused, you couldn’t be recommended for Rhodes Scholar or you couldn’t get certain Harvard privileges. And guess what? The final clubs sued Harvard for sex discrimination. And that was the end of that.
Chris Hedges: Well, you note in the book that in the end, not much changed.
Judith Herman: No, no.
Chris Hedges: Great. We’re going to stop there. That was Dr. Judith Herman, the author of Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence– From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. I want to thank the Real News Network and its production team, Cameron Granadino, David Hebden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.