Judith Herman Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Psychological Insight and Political Understanding: The Case of Trauma and Recovery: Conversation with Judith Herman, Psychiatrist and Author; 9/21/00 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Dr. Herman, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you.

How did your parents shape your character?

My parents are first-generation Americans. They're the children of Jewish immigrants from Central Europe. Both grew up in New York City. My father was a child of working-class parents, and his father worked in the garment industry. My mother was the daughter of a doctor, a family practitioner on the Lower East Side of New York. I think both of them were raised in a secular, socialist tradition. Or, I should say, my mother was. My father found his way to it from his father's observant Orthodoxy. And when they both became academics -- my father became a professor of classics, my mother became a psychologist -- I think they instilled what I would call Enlightenment values or progressive values in their children.

Your mother especially had a strong influence on you. You write in one of your books, "Her psychological insight, her intellectual daring and integrity, her compassion for the afflicted and oppressed, her righteous indignation, and her political vision are my inheritance." Quite a powerful effect.

My mother, was raised, I think, by her father, who was a family doctor very much in a tradition of service to others. If she'd been in my generation, I imagine she'd have gone to medical school. That was really not unheard of, or not totally, but very unusual for women of her generation. She went to Barnard and then did graduate studies at Columbia in psychology, and started on an academic track to become a research psychologist. Then she was blacklisted because of a short period of membership in the Communist Party. So the early years of my growing up, when I was around ten, for example, we were introduced to the idea of political persecution and what people do under those circumstances in a very personal way. My father had never been a member of the Party, so when called to testify before McCarthy, he could, in honesty, say to the question, "Are you now or have you ever been ...?" "No."

My mother took the Fifth Amendment. It was clear that she was never going to get an academic job, so she then went a different route and got clinical training. But in her later work, she tried to bridge the divide between academic research and clinical experience. I think she also tried to bridge the divide between academia and activism in a way that did become a model for me. I should also say that a lot of her righteous indignation and her sense of an expectation of integrity and standing up for your beliefs came out of actual experience. There were a lot of dinner table conversations about who was going to testify, who was going to inform, who was going to back up people who refused to inform, and so forth. She had a really keen sense of irony and indignation about all the weaseling, all the fancy excuses that people made to compromise with something -- that it was morally reprehensible. So that was a pretty formative growing up experience for me.

Any other experiences from your childhood? Mentors, books read, that had a profound influence before the women's movement? We'll talk about that in a second. But anything else stand out in your mind?

I had a college mentor that I really should recognize, I think, and honor. This was a professor of French Civilization at Harvard named Laurence Wylie. An anthropologist, really. He had done a village study in France in which he applied the methods of anthropology ordinarily applied in so-called primitive societies to a French village. He was a participant observer. He had gone there with his family. He had written about it in a deceptively simple manner that, I think, actually was extremely sophisticated, but didn't involve any high sort of ...

Theoretical concepts?

Well, they were embedded in the observations and the presentations.

There was a lucidity.

There was a lucidity and the warmth of storytelling in this book, and it became a very popular book, and he ended up becoming the Douglas Dillon Professor of French Civilization at Harvard, which was a funny fit for him, because he was so very modest and unpretentious. I don't know if he ever lived up to the grandeur of this endowed chair. But he was a wonderful teacher.

Both of these influences strike me as pushing you, leading you, guiding you in the direction of thinking outside the box, which is one of the characteristics of your work.

Yes, and also of keeping your concepts very close to direct observation and direct experience. In the case of Larry Wylie, he had a seminar on village culture where we read all the classics, but then the idea was to immerse ourselves in primary data and eventually to go to the village. The assignment was basically to keep a journal and to record your observations directly and see what you could then infer from your observations. The other thing he taught was cooperative learning, there wasn't a name for it then, but he got these very high-powered students to be in his seminar and they would all raise their hands and kind of spout forth with their ideas, and he would say things like, "That's such an interesting idea. And it sounds so much like what so-and-so said. Why don't the two of you work together and see if you can develop this idea together." And they'd look at each other in horror because that was sort of cheating. But he, through his actions and through his example, modeled a different kind of learning and a different kind of intellectual enterprise for me.

And it's something that you've carried out in your work, namely the whole notion of listening and reporting what you're observing, but also learning in the process from others. In this regard, the women's movement of the sixties seems to have had an impact on you. I'm curious, after learning of these other influences, what the women's movement added to the education of Judith Herman?

For me this was a logical extension of the activism that I was already involved with. I had been involved in the Civil Rights Movement, I had been involved in the Anti-War Movement, prior to the explosion of "second wave" feminism in the late sixties. Kathie Sarachild of New York Red Stockings, who was a classmate of mine at Harvard, Radcliffe, and who had been in Mississippi also with me in 1964, she's the originator of the term "consciousness-raising," -- like many of the early feminists who came out of the Civil Rights Movement, her organizing technique came out of the work she had done in civil rights and involved people speaking directly of their experience as a way to study our condition. She called consciousness-raising an empirical method of investigation. And her view was that for people whose experience was not articulated, not recognized, not visible in the theory class, so to speak, the only way to begin to make our experience known to ourselves was to start with the testimony about the concrete conditions of our lives. So, it was a connect for me and many women of my generation, I think, to start to apply those methods not only to the social issues of racism and more, but to the conditions of our own rather privileged lives. And to recognize that oppression takes many forms.

So it was a spark for your creativity and it helped you to look at yourself and your condition and the broader context in which that condition was created, namely the oppression of women.

Right. And also, the lesson for me was that one becomes most effective when one is speaking out of one's personal experience and one's action grows out of the understanding of one's immediate personal experience.

You went to Radcliffe, then to Harvard Medical School. You're a medical doctor. What were you doing in Mississippi? Just part of the Civil Rights Movement?

I was recruited by a friend and colleague and now more recently a partner, Allen Graubard, who had gone to Mississippi the summer before Freedom Summer with Marian Wright, now Marian Wright Edelman. And they had developed the idea that it would be good to have an academic exchange between Harvard and Tougaloo College, which was based outside of Jackson, Mississippi, and was a black college. And so they implemented this program that involved an exchange of students and faculty during that summer, and then when SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and the other organizations developed Freedom Summer, we became an affiliated part of that project.

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