I dare say that this is one of the most important books I’ve read this year – maybe ever. The matriarch of trauma theory and studies, Judith Herman is incredible – simply incredible – in her clarity, depth, and empathy. She is one of those rare writers that presents ideas so concisely yet with so much – indeed, it’s hard enough to find such skill amongst seasoned writers, much less amongst psychologists! This makes Trauma and Recovery extremely accessible, which is great news: this is an absolute must-read.
Because I consider this such an important read, I have gone into greater depth than usual. Trauma and Recovery was a tremendous help for me to process and mourn the loss of my mother. I can’t deny that the two overlapping makes me bias. But is that so terrible? I don’t think so.
Trauma studies is fairly new, but it has been burgeoning, really, since Herman’s publication (for example, some biblical scholars and theologians are using the methodologies and fruits of trauma studies with their respective fields, which have produced some interesting and exciting works). This is not say that trauma is new. No, trauma is almost as old as humanity. In fact, before trauma was named and identified as “trauma,” Jean-Martin Charcot (Sigmund Freud’s colleague) called it “hysteria” among beggars, prostitutes, and the insane (10). Freud later expanded his sample to domestically abused women, who featured identical symptoms. On the one hand, Charcot and Freud should be lauded for giving such acute attention to a severe problem among forgotten groups of people. On the other, how they treated hysteria (and its name gives some hint) was, at times, unhelpful: hysteria is an atypical symptom of mental illness or some inherent weakness. Herman tries to undo (and successfully, I might add) some common misconception about trauma: it is, instead, a life-threatening event that violates bodily integrity. Trauma includes but is not limited to war, rape, child abuse (sexual or physical), and captivity. Trauma also produces complex symptoms, which can fall into three main categories: hyperarousal, intrusion, and constriction. Herman defines these as follows: “Hyperarousal reflects the persistent expectation of danger; intrusion reflects the indelible imprint of the traumatic moment; constriction reflects the numbing response of surrender” (35). Collectively, these symptoms disconnect the survivor from his- or herself and from his or her reality: trapped in a body they are unfamiliar or disgusted with and suspended in a tormented memory.
Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning.p. 33
Traumatic events can break one’s safety and identity, yet humans are resilient – indeed, more resilient than we give credit. While traumatic events can be as short as a few minutes, the process of recovery can take months, years, and even a lifetime – but survivors can and have recovered! The second half of Trauma and Recovery shares practical steps towards recovery with some successful and some unsuccessful testimonies. Recovery comes in three stages: establishing safety, remembering and mourning, and reconnecting. The first goes beyond reassuring the survivor that the listener will not physically harm him or her: establishing safety also demands that the listener will not deny, not show visible disgust or disbelief, and not further isolate the survivor as he or she shares. Unfortunately, ill-prepared listeners can re-traumatize survivors by dismissing their story as silly or too shameful to discuss – this is especially true in cases of incest.
Mourning is the only way to give due honor to loss; there is no adequate compensationp. 190
The second stage also goes beyond mere re-telling the event and moving on from it. Most likely, the survivor will never leave the event – or the event will never leave her. Traumatic memories are “wordless and static” (175). But remembering and mourning disarms the memories by giving them words so that they can be integrated into survivor’s life. This process empowers the survivor: yes, these memories are horrifying, but integrating them reminds her that they can become parts of her life and not the whole. What’s more, “mourning is the only way to give due honor to loss; there is no adequate compensation” (190). To mourn is to accept and to integrate.
Trauma disconnects the survivor from his- or herself and from his or her community. In this final stage, the survivor restores loss connections through reconnection. She must not only reintegrate memories but also herself into her community. At times, her symptoms are what dissolves relationships, other times her community rejects or is ill-prepared to care for her. Nevertheless, she must reconnect. Reconnection does not have to be with the same persons – sometimes, completely cutting oneself from toxic relationships is required – but it does have to be with persons. Often times, moving from one stage to another will force the survivor to go backwards or in circles, and this stage is no exception. Reconnection will re-trigger the need for safety and mourning. So, let it be: recovery is rarely linear but is always, always possible.
Trauma and Recovery reveals insurmountable pains in the world. Rape and incest are shockingly common: it is possible that there are more rape or incest survivors than there are left-handed people (this stat is, albeit, hard to be precise because so many rape and incest cases go secret). The numbers jump when we count war-torn or war-stricken countries. We live in a traumatic world, especially for women and young children. Yet, Herman does not leave us at that. She offers the good but demanding work of recovery – there is hope. Not everyone can be a therapist nor should anyone jump into it without serious discernment, but everyone can learn to assist, witness, empathize, and love does who ache and long for healing and wholeness. This is, I think, Herman’s intention of exposing such horrors in the modern world: there are also bright spots waiting to shine.
The survivor who has achieved commonality with others can rest from her labors. Her recovery is accomplished; all that remains before her is her life.p. 236