Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Trauma and Trump


At the Vietnam Memorial during the Woman's March on Washington DC: 3/9/86
CC Jean Stimmell

I was taken aback when I heard she had written a new book. She had disappeared from sight over 30 years ago after a devastating injury. No, she wasn’t an old flame: I never met her, yet she has been a guiding light in my life. Her name is Judith Herman, M.D.

When I was on the rivers of Vietnam, she was launching a career that revolutionized how we understand psychological trauma, whether sexual or combat-related. As a  result, a woman is no longer automatically judged to be a slut or a liar if she reports being raped; and a soldier is no longer considered a coward if traumatized by war. 

After returning from Vietnam, I, too, disappeared for close to 30 years, finishing college and becoming a stone mason. Yet trauma was never far from my mind after what I had seen in Vietnam and, to a greater extent, what my high school veteran friends told me about their tours of duty, much more extreme than mine. It’s not surprising I have so many old friends who are veterans.  

Pittsfield is a rural, patriotic place that has always sent its young off the war. Out of my circle of acquaintances who served in Vietnam, two were killed, three seriously wounded, and two committed suicide, including a recon marine who had received a silver star for valor in combat. 

In my forties, my body rebelled against the stress, strain, and sun damage from lifting rocks shirtless under the hot sun. I went back to graduate school to become a psychotherapist. But no small part of my effort was to help my friends and myself figure out what had happened to us. That's when I ran across Judy Herman's groundbreaking book "Trauma and Recovery."

Herman's book was an indispensable resource, guiding me toward a career specializing in trauma. The first step in treatment, according to her, begins with a safe place and a trusted therapist to start piecing together a truthful story from shattered shards of traumatic memory; then, over the rest of treatment, assist survivors to "re-create the flow" of memory, transform the recollection, and mourn that traumatic loss."⁠1

Herman’s new book, Truth and Repair, picks up where she left off thirty years ago,  arguing that trauma is better understood as a social problem, not an individual one. As trauma pioneer Bessel van der Kolk has written, “Herman brilliantly confronts us with another vital, but much ignored, aspect of recovery: social justice. Justice is an essential component for healing the godforsaken sense of humiliation and abandonment so central in traumatizing experiences.”

Herman's research has produced some surprises: when survivors of sexual trauma were asked what true justice would mean to them, they overwhelmingly looked for acknowledgment and amends from bystanders – rather than from offenders alone.

Herman explains that "these survivors "knew that many people in their communities enabled the offender's behavior, either by complicity or by inaction, or worst of all, by blaming the victim. This betrayal often hurts even more than the offender's crimes. To make things right, survivors needed the larger community to acknowledge their suffering and to take responsibility for making amends.⁠2

I have to say, Herman's new book, appearing at this exact moment, seems like divine justice. That's because, right now, Donald Trump is defending himself against E. Jean Carroll's civil suit declaring he raped her. Meanwhile, seventeen other women await their day in court to tell a remarkably similar story of how they were assaulted by Trump.

Will Donald Trump finally be exposed as the serial sexual perpetrator he is? And, in a related matter, will he be held to account for disparaging combat veterans, many with PTSD? As just one example:

In a previously unreported 1998 interview with Howard Stern, Trump compared sex to going to battle in Vietnam: He claimed that because he slept with so many women during the Vietnam era, he faced a higher risk of dying from an STD infection than a soldier did from combat. For that sacrifice, he joked, he should be the one getting a Congressional Medal of  Honor.”⁠3

In her first book, Herman wondered if anything would change. "The study of psychological trauma has repeatedly lead into realms of the unthinkable and foundered on fundamental questions of  belief.”⁠4 However, a new day is now dawning because of her seminal work.

I predict E. Jean Carroll’s suit against Trump will be a memorable turning point in history:  the beginning of a true restorative justice  movement where society validates and supports those who have been abused, slandered and discounted.






4 Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman. Basic Books: 1992. Page 7.

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