Truth and Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice

Image of Truth and Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice
Release Date: 
March 14, 2023
Basic Books
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“The author’s goal is . . . to produce deep-seated, culture-wide transformation so that the judicial and community response is to the actual, not presumed, needs of survivors.”

This is not an easy book to read, plunging us as it does into the world of domestic violence and sexual battery and its aftermath. Judith L. Herman, MD, world renowned professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, wrote Truth and Repair to teach us what will bring trauma survivors true justice. Her decades in the field have been dedicated to developing a comprehensive system for trauma survivors who’ve had far too few advocates striving to end their suffering and right the wrongs done to them by domestic violence and sexual offenders, the legal system, and their communities.

The author’s goal is to educate us about how people become and remain trauma victims and perpetrators and to produce deep-seated, culture-wide transformation so that the judicial and community response is to the actual, not presumed, needs of survivors. Toward this end, she draws “on work in philosophy, social science, history, law, and psychology and on interviews with professionals who work directly with survivors” and, of course, with survivors themselves.

She begins by covering some of the ground she wrote about in her seminal 1992 book, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, including the stages of recovery: finding safety and a sense of control, grieving and making meaning of the trauma and refocusing on the present and future. “If traumatic disorders are afflictions of the powerless,” she insists, “then empowerment must be a central principle of recovery. If trauma shames and isolates, then recovery must take place in community.”

Part One explains the rules of tyranny and of equality. She describes how power and the use and threat of violence are employed to subjugate the weak and vulnerable. Herman presents the Power and Control wheel (well known to mental health clinicians treating trauma victims and survivors), whose tactics of isolating, intimidating, minimizing, denying, blaming, coercing, and emotional and economic abuse are meant to “weaken or destroy resistance.” Sensory and sleep deprivation, enforcing rigid rules, and switching from intense loving to withdrawal of affection are also common subjugation strategies.

Herman describes how tyranny is meant to break wills and spirits by individuals, governments, and religious, political, military, and criminal organizations, with the “most widespread and enduring form of tyranny” being patriarchy. She stresses that tyranny can happen only when people look away, retreat, collaborate, enable, or distance themselves from the horrors happening around them. She maintains that “repairing the harms of tyranny first of all requires bystanders and the larger community to recognize their own moral responsibility and to take action in solidarity with those who have been harmed.” 

In contrast to the Power and Control Wheel, Herman includes an Equality wheel characterized by trust, support, respect, negotiation, fairness, partnership, shared responsibility, honesty, and accountability. She stresses that relational equality is based on an alliance between the potential victim and the moral community that proclaims we protect each other. From her research, she concludes that what survivors “need from their communities is a commitment to listen to their stories with an open mind and with care and compassion rather than skepticism and scorn.”

Part Two focuses on acknowledgment, apology, and accountability by recounting stories of survivors and what justice means to them: for the truth to be known, recognition of their humanity, and acknowledgement of their suffering not only from their offenders but from bystanders who were “actively or passively complicit” in the harm they endured. Most survivors wish for little more than moral vindication and denunciation of crimes committed against them.

Regarding apologies, most survivors want perpetrators to take full responsibility for their crimes and undergo a deep moral awakening to indicate they are changed individuals. Not all survivors desire an apology, however, fearing it would be another way of being manipulated by their offenders. Survivors are also divided on forgiveness of their perpetrators, again due to rightfully mistrusting them.

Part Three focuses on survivor healing through restitution, rehabilitation and prevention. For victims, “justice . . . was not centered on the question of the offender’s fate; it was first and foremost about their own recovery.” Most trauma survivors were not looking for our current legal system to provide restorative justice, as so many of them had already suffered re-traumatization by judicial dealings after their initial abuse. Herman goes into detail describing two non-judicial models of restorative justice, an “alternative to how the moral community might respond to victims of crime.” Both conferencing and peace circles provide examples of the key values of restorative justice which are “nondomination, empowerment, and respectful listening.”

Restitution involves making major changes in how our workplaces, police forces, and courts deal with sexual harassment, battery and domestic violence and transforming community views of prostitution and sex trafficking. In some cases, restitution is seen as monetary compensation for survivors to be “made whole” by their communities which will also engage in “efforts to change the systems that have allowed violence and exploitation to flourish.”

Herman maintains that repeat sexual and violent offenders are more difficult to rehabilitate, and survivors generally believe rehabilitation to be more just and productive than punishment. The ultimate goal is to instill in perpetrators empathy and compassion and erase dangerous misogynistic attitudes. Studies conclude that a combination of “batterer treatment programs with active court oversight makes for effectiveness in reducing recidivism . . . Sadly, however, most offenders never see the inside of a courtroom.”

Discussing prevention, Herman focuses on radically altering mores and consequences for sexual battery on college and university campuses, encouraging peer support and increasing bystander accountability. She cites programs that are working to make campuses more safe and secure while underscoring how lasting change will not be realized without government support of approaches that punish and penalize offenders, rather than maintain a “boys will be boys” attitude.

Herman ends her book on a high note, describing positive changes in the past few decades due to the #MeToo movement, international acknowledgement of women’s rights as human rights, and rising wages for women and their greater representation and equality in the workforce. She looks hopefully to a 2020 Survivors’ Agenda, generated by the leaders of four major grassroots organizations composed of women of color, which lays out a blueprint for the future of “the longest revolution” in which women have been fighting for equality in every aspect of life. Based on this Agenda, Herman “challenges all of us to begin dismantling our most deeply imbedded structures of oppression and to create new structures where everyone is respected, everyone is included, and everyone has a voice.”