YouTube video

The pervasiveness of trauma in American society is intimately linked to the ubiquity of sexual violence in our culture, and ultimately, the politics that buttresses this reality. In the second installment of a two-part discussion, acclaimed psychiatrist Dr. Judith Herman returns to The Chris Hedges Report for a discussion on the political implications revealed by her medical expertise: the need to confront the violence of our present system by reconstructing society itself.

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, Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley
Post-Production: Adam Coley


Chris Hedges:  Dr. Judith Herman in her classic work, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, which we discussed last week, detailed three stages to recovery.

In the first stage, the survivor focuses on the complex and demanding task of establishing safety in the present, with the goal of protection from further violence. Safety gives the survivor the space to recover from the terror that reduced him or her to abject submission and to regain a sense of agency.

In the second stage of recovery, the survivor revisits the past to grieve and make meaning of the trauma. Out of this grief is forged a new identity that does not deny the past, nor allow it to define his or her identity. As Dr. Herman writes, “Social support is a powerful predictor of good recovery, while social isolation is toxic. People cannot feel safe alone, and they cannot mourn and make meaning alone.”

The third stage sees the survivor refocus on the present and future, expanding and deepening his or her relationships with a wider community and the possibilities in life. Some survivors see their own suffering as part of a much larger social problem. They join with others, including other survivors, to work to build a better world. Robert Jay Lifton calls this a “survivor mission”.

In Dr. Herman’s new book, Truth and Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice, which we will discuss today, she adds justice as the fourth stage of recovery. “If trauma is truly a social problem,” she writes, “then recovery cannot simply be a private individual matter. The wounds of trauma are not merely those caused by the perception of violence and exploitation. The actions or inactions of bystanders, all those who are complicit in or who prefer not to know about the abuse or who blame the victims, often cause deeper wounds.” “Full healing,” she adds, “because it originates in a fundamental injustice, requires a full hearing within the community to repair through some measure of justice the trauma survivors have endured.”

Joining me to discuss her new book, Truth and Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice, is Dr. Judith Herman, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Co-Founder of the Victims of Violence Program.

Last week we talked about the effects, in particular, of incest. We talked about the importance, as you write in your book, of consciousness-raising groups and how vital that was to your own work. I want to talk now about how people pull themself out of that trauma. What are the mechanisms that they use to recover? We mentioned some of them, so let’s go through them. And then let’s talk about – And I fully agree with you that – A vital link that is often overlooked is a sense of rebuilding a society where justice is at its core, especially for those who have been victimized by abuse or injustice.

Judith Lewis Herman:  Well, the take-home message about the harm of trauma is that it shames and isolates people. Recovery has to take place in relationships. When people feel reconnected to their communities and re-accepted in their communities, then the shame is relieved and the isolation is relieved, and that really creates the platform for healing. One of the things we discovered early on from a therapeutic point of view, and this applied whether we’re talking about combat veterans or whether we’re talking about incest survivors, or rape survivors, is that putting survivors together in a group often was tremendously healing and therapeutic.

The Vietnam Veterans Against the War developed what they call “rap groups.” And when Robert Jay Lifton studied Vietnam veterans, he did so by getting involved in leading rap groups. Sometimes they were self-help groups. He, as a psychiatrist, and as what he called a witnessing professional, offered his services to facilitate people coming together. And the comment was that they felt understood. They felt they belonged. They felt other people got what they had been through, whereas they weren’t sure that civilians could.

And similarly with sexual assault survivors. In the company of other survivors, they felt not only understood and accepted, but they also felt they had something to contribute. So they weren’t in the position of seeking help, damaged people see seeking help, but they had caring and compassion and understanding to offer others, and that was also very liberating.

Chris Hedges:  There is a difference, though, as you write in the book, between the way society views veterans: we accept their trauma, and the way women who have endured sexual assault are viewed. You quote, was it Catherine Mackinnon? Is that right? About how rape in the US is not prohibited. She uses the word it’s moderated.

Judith Lewis Herman:  It’s regulated.

Chris Hedges:  Regulated. Regulated.

Judith Lewis Herman:  Yeah. If a blonde, virginal, white woman is raped by a Black stranger on the street, that is a felony. And the justice system, such as it is, will spare no expense to track him down and string him up. But that’s not what most rape is about. Most rape victims are assaulted by people they know: family, friends, bosses, dates, ex-boyfriends, et cetera, and most rape is intraracial. Of course, Black women are much more frequently raped by white men than the converse. And in those cases, it’s, well, what was she wearing? And, why did she go to that party? And, how many beers did she have? And, why did she accept a ride home?

Chris Hedges:  Well, you talk about the court system and how traumatic it is for rape survivors to enter into the court system because the defense counsels will consciously re-provoke the trauma, that it’s really awful.

Judith Lewis Herman:  Of course, most cases never even make it as far as a court. In fact, most cases aren’t even reported to the police. The high-end estimates are maybe 20% to 30% of sexual assaults are reported to the police because most women know that they will be treated as suspects rather than victims. Their cases will be blown off. And even if they are properly investigated and do result in a prosecution, I like to say that if you wanted to design, on purpose, a setting that would exacerbate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a court of law would probably be ideal because it’s an adversarial system. It’s a hostile system. Pretty much any amount of verbal cruelty is allowed. The victim is a witness. The victim has no say over whether or not the charges will be brought and how the case will be presented.

And of course, since reminders of trauma worsen the symptoms of PTSD, having to confront one’s perpetrator and then be cross-examined, not to mention facing the physical threats that may come from the perpetrator or his friends or his family, it’s pretty scary. A lot of survivors talk about the second rape in the justice system.

Chris Hedges:  One of the things I found fascinating from your work is that they don’t necessarily want money. It’s not money they’re seeking.

Judith Lewis Herman:  No, and it’s not punishment. For my new book, I interviewed 30 survivors of various forms of gender violence: 26 women and four men who survived childhood abuse, domestic violence, sexual trafficking, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. And I chose that group both because those are the people I’ve worked with all my life and also because in terms of prevalence worldwide, the United Nations estimates that gender-based violence is the most common and endemic human rights violation in the world. But my argument applies in any situation where the dominance of one group over another group is a matter of a longstanding tradition, whether that’s based on race, caste, class, religion, or gender.

The stereotype of survivors is that they’re going to want revenge. That’s why the state has to be the injured party rather than the survivor in criminal court because the survivors will be out for blood. But in fact, what everybody I interviewed wanted most was truth and repair; they wanted the bystanders, the community, to validate, to recognize the truth of their story, not only the facts but also the harm that had been done. The backup argument is always, yeah, it happens, so get over it. Why are you still whining? And so the facts, the harm, and the wrong. The fact that this was a crime and they want the shame put on the shoulders of the perpetrator rather than on their shoulders.

Beyond that, what they really wanted was for the community to do what was needed to help them recover and to prevent this from happening again. They wanted the community to step up to set limits on the offender and make sure he couldn’t do it again. But beyond that, they weren’t big on punishment.

Chris Hedges:  Well, you even had cases in the book of women who don’t want– There was a case where she wanted the perpetrator to pay a symbolic fee of $30 to a rape relief center. They didn’t even want the money.

Judith Lewis Herman:  Well, a lot of survivors will feel very conflicted about– To be clear, in criminal court, the metric of justice is punishment. In civil court, the metric is money. And the standard of proof is not as high and the scales are more balanced because the offender’s liberty is not at stake. But the metric is money damages. And a lot of survivors felt very mixed about it because, on the one hand, they’d spent a fortune on doctors and therapy and lost opportunities, like dropping out of grad school. And on the other hand, it felt like dirty money. They didn’t want to feel like they’d been bought. And this was especially true for women who’d been trafficked and had actually been bought.

The survivor you quoted was an artist who was raped by an ex-boyfriend when she went to his apartment to retrieve some of her artwork. Her case was turned down for prosecution. She did report to police and the prosecutors didn’t want to touch it because they had had sex before. He said it was consensual. So it was he said/she said. So she sued him in civil court. She wanted him to give $30 to the rape crisis center because that represented the 30 pieces of silver for which Jesus was betrayed. And I said, but he told me he had a lot of money. Why didn’t you ask him to give them 30,000? She said, I didn’t think of that. So yeah, the idea that survivors are out for the money, that’s a sexist stereotype.

Chris Hedges:  I want to talk about forgiveness. I had a great professor who told me, only God forgives. And you quote David Konstan, the classical scholar, who talks about that issue in his book, Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea. Let’s talk about forgiveness.

Judith Lewis Herman:  Well, that’s the other thing that most of the survivors I’ve talked to were not big on. There were a few to whom it really mattered. I’d like to quote one of them, who is a Protestant minister, Anne Marie Hunter. She had been herself a victim of domestic violence and now she works with clergy to try to get them to take this seriously and not advise the woman to turn the other cheek to keep the peace in the family. She said, rather than bringing victims to forgiveness, let’s work on bringing perpetrators to contrition and change behavior. She said, it’s so much easier to pressure victims to forgive and forget than it is to actually confront what needs to be done to change the culture so that this behavior is not as endemic as indicated in the statistics you quoted.

But some survivors really cared about forgiveness and they meant two different things by it. There were the very rare survivors who felt that forgiveness had happened because there had been a true reconciliation, a true I and thou moment where the perpetrator had been remorseful and had apologized genuinely and had made amends. And when that actually happens, it’s very rare, but when it happens, forgiveness is like a spontaneous emotion. You don’t have to work at it. One survivor, I quoted a young woman named Rosie McMahan had said, it was like I was lifted out of my chair. It was such a relief.

But for many other survivors where that was never going to happen, they worked hard on forgiveness. And what they meant by that was a unilateral letting go of resentment and anger and bitterness. Because they often felt as though that anger and bitterness was a residue of the offender’s hatred that they were stuck with. It was like a foreign body. The artist I quoted who wanted the 30 pieces of silver returned, a woman named Amy Bradford, she described how she would have these nightmares in which a dinosaur came and stomped on the rapist. In the dreams, she was crowing. And when she woke up, she felt terrible. She was like, I’m not that person. I’m not a violent person. That felt awful. So for many survivors, they worked on letting go of their anger and rage and so on, and bitterness, but in the absence of any apology or amends, that was a long process of grieving and letting go.

Chris Hedges:  Well, you write, “Forgiveness must be earned by the practice of repentance.” So it has to be earned.

Judith Lewis Herman:  Yeah, yeah. Well, and as I learned from David Konstan’s book, it’s not in the Bible.

Chris Hedges:  No, it’s not.

Judith Lewis Herman:  It’s interpersonal. God’s forgiveness, yes, but not interpersonal forgiveness. Because in the Old Testament view and early New Testament views, only God had the wisdom and understanding to recognize true remorse and true repentance, and therefore, only God had the grace to forgive.

Chris Hedges:  And we should also add that incest is also not condemned in the Bible.

Judith Lewis Herman:  Well, there’s that. Yes.

Chris Hedges:  It’s a mixed bag, the Bible, having studied it at Harvard Divinity School.

Judith Lewis Herman:  Yes. Yes. Well, under certain circumstances, if the father’s seed– The needs of the patriarchy are paramount. Let’s put it that way.

Chris Hedges:  Let’s talk a little bit about, I remember Melissa Farley once saying that, the trauma that you experience in war – And this is excluding moral injury of which is its own category, which you read about, but – The trauma that someone like myself experienced in war is finally not comparable to the trauma of a woman who has been raped because our bodies were not penetrated. Would you agree?

Judith Lewis Herman:  Well, strictly speaking, I don’t think that’s always true.

Chris Hedges:  Well, no, it’s not. But let’s say that distinction is made. Would you agree that the trauma is worse?

Judith Lewis Herman:  I hate to get into this comparative of whose trauma is worse business. I do think that the trauma of sexual assault for men and women is of a different order of magnitude from physical assault, say, because of the degree of humiliation involved. Not only the physical pain, but the defilement, if you will, the level of hatred and contempt that goes into a sexual assault. But in general, it’s a zero-sum game, this trauma is worse.

Chris Hedges:  This is one of my favorite paragraphs in the book where you compare the Roman Catholic Church to the sex trade. Go ahead.

Judith Lewis Herman:  Yes.

Chris Hedges:  I totally agree with you, by the way. I’m totally with you on this.

Judith Lewis Herman:  Well, in terms of international scale and international wealth, they are comparable.

Chris Hedges:  Well, but also in terms of what they’ve done.

Judith Lewis Herman:  Well, there’s that, yes. We’re not getting into the Inquisition and all that but the more current practices.

Chris Hedges:  You do bring up towards the end of the book, you always put it in quotes, “sex work”. I remember interviewing Rachel Moran, who wrote her book on prostitution. She had been a prostituted woman. She said it was being raped for a living. And you’re not buying, correctly, the fashionable embrace of “sex work”. Can you talk about that?

Judith Lewis Herman:  Well, sure. This has been a debate within feminism for a while. There are good intentions on both sides. There’s a desire to de-stigmatize prostitution by calling it sex work and comparing it to any other work. But the policy consequences there would be full of decriminalization, which means not only decriminalizing the prostituted person, the person who’s being sold, but the sex industry, which is an international criminal organization that preys upon the most vulnerable women and children of both sexes, but especially–

Chris Hedges:  Who are usually people of color, poor people of color?

Judith Lewis Herman:  –People in poverty, people of color, abused kids, runaways. A pimp can spot a runaway at a hundred paces and their recruitment techniques are all about promising to be the daddy they never had.

Chris Hedges:  When you talk about it, you liken it to the way cults recruit.

Judith Lewis Herman:  No, they use the same methods, of course, of control: Love bombing at first, and then very quickly the imposition of the same methods of coercive control that torturers use: violence, but also control of the body, what she eats, when she sleeps, what she wears, forcing people to do things that they find dirty and degrading, and then isolating people from any other sources of support. They teach each other the same methods, the same way that clandestine police forces in our CIA taught dictatorships in Latin America; They’re the same methods.

So no, I do not think that the sex trade is harmless, and I do not think it should be decriminalized. I have a lot of good data backing me up. A number of countries now have followed another policy, which decriminalizes the person who’s being sold, but still criminalizes the pimp, the brothel keeper, and the John, the sex buyer.

Chris Hedges:  This is the Nordic model.

Judith Lewis Herman:  This is the Nordic model pioneered in Norway, and Sweden, and is now adopted in several other countries. They have very good outcome data whether you’re talking about diminishing prostitution overall, diminishing violence against prostituted people, or diminishing murders of prostituted people. Whereas the countries that have gone with basically licensing brothels, like Germany and the Netherlands and so on, there’s been no diminution in trafficking or violence or murders.

Chris Hedges:  Great. We’re going to stop there. That was Dr. Judith Herman, author of Truth and Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice.

I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, David Hebden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at

Speaker 1:  The Chris Hedges Report gets some extra time now with a few minutes of bonus material with Chris and his guest.

Chris Hedges:  So for this last little part, I want to talk from a societal point of view you do talk about tyrannies: the small tyrannies and the big tyrannies. I interviewed Gabor Mate about The Myth of Normal. He certainly makes the case that we live in a society, as both you and Bessel argue, that is not only rife with trauma, but it’s that relationship between the small tyrannies and the big tyrannies and the failure to address it that is deforming our political and social system. So I’d like you to speak about that.

Judith Lewis Herman:  Well, we are living in a time of real struggle, worldwide, between a political worldview that embraces democracy and a political worldview that embraces tyranny or oligarchy. And that happens both on the international scale of war and the national scale of dictatorship. But it also operates on the social scale within democracies of, do we really mean it about racial equality? Because we never have. And do we really mean it about gender equality? Because we never have?

Those are incredibly fraught battles that are going on right now. Where every time you see a social movement for human rights or for democracy or for the liberation of a traditionally subordinated group – Whether it’s people of color, whether it’s women, whether it’s folks who are genderqueer, whether it’s good old-fashioned antisemitism – That’s a hardy perennial within Western societies and they’re all interlinked. If you really mean it about democracy, then you need these social justice movements to implement it because it never has been implemented. And when you get movements like Black Lives Matter or MeToo, you also get tremendous backlash from the dominant group that does not want to give up power.

Chris Hedges:  Yeah, I’m wondering to what extent the failure – And I think you would agree that it is a failure – To address the small tyrannies exacerbates the larger tyrannies.

Judith Lewis Herman:  Oh, absolutely. Because people who embrace the small tyrannies are much more susceptible as well to embracing the large ones. When you have a political party that embraces the subordination of women, the subordination of people of color, the subordination of gender non-conforming people, and the subordination of non-Christians, then it cannot be a Democratic Party. It’s not a party that embraces democracy. It’s a party that is looking for a fascist leader and is going to find one.

Chris Hedges:  Well, for a figure like Trump, the moral bankruptcy of his personal life meshes seamlessly with the moral bankruptcy of his political life.

Judith Lewis Herman:  Yes and when you see Evangelical Christian groups that are supposed to be all for traditional patriarchal morals, embracing such a person, you realize that the morals don’t count; it’s the patriarchy that counts.

Chris Hedges:  Well, I wrote a book, American Fascist, and I didn’t use the word fascist lightly about the Christian right. And people forget that the Nazi party, one of the prime selling points, was that it was about moral renewal.

Judith Lewis Herman:  Oh, yes. No, and purity. Purity.

Chris Hedges:  And purity, yeah.

Judith Lewis Herman:  Purifying the race. And you see that in other religious nationalisms as well. The Russian Christian nationalisms, all that purifying, holy Russia, that’s why gays are so persecuted because they’re going to rape and inseminate pure Russia. And similarly, Hindu nationalism is all about purification. But what that means is tyranny.

Chris Hedges:  Great. That was Dr. Judith Herman, author of Truth and Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.