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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Seeing Face to Face

You developed an interest early on in trauma, but specifically in the problem of incest. In one of your books, you describe a paper, your first paper with Lisa Hirschman, and it really was almost an underground paper. Tell us a little about that. The ideas that you were proposing, both that there should be focus on the subject, and on its broader context was quite revolutionary, quite radical. It went to the roots of the problems.

Well, that's what we thought at the time. The reason we thought that was that we were seeing cases. Lisa had just finished her training as a psychologist. book cover I had just finished my psychiatry residency. We were doing some peer supervision, really, and we'd seen all these incest cases. And we kept wondering, "What's going on here? Why are we seeing all these cases? Is there something about us that's attracting it? Or is this something that everybody starting out as a therapist sees? And, if so, why isn't anybody else saying anything about it?" We kept waiting for someone else to say something about it. We waited and waited and nobody did. So then we finally said, "Well, maybe we ought to." I think what gave us the courage to do that, besides our relationship with each other, was having come out of consciousness raising, feeling that we're part of a movement where it was okay to trust your own observations even if nobody else seemed to think that what you saw made any sense.

Before we talk about trauma, which became a major focus of your work, I want you to talk about something you say at the beginning of your book on trauma and recovery, and that is, you relate the history of psychological insight to the ferment of the times. In a short history you show how Freud's work and that of others on hysteria came at a political moment in French history. That the work on war veterans and trauma in war veterans came as part of an anti-war struggle during and after World War I. And then, finally, that insights on women and the traumas that they suffer came in the political climate or the aftermath of the political climate of the sixties. Tell us a little about that, because that's very important in your thinking about these issues, especially the issue of trauma.

Well, you know, psychology is a very soft science. That's putting it at its most charitable light. What one observes about human behavior, human consciousness, human relationships is so embedded ... what we observe and how we conceptualize what we observe is so embedded in the context of what we're looking for. And how we name it. This isn't physics. So that even the paying of attention, the selection of what it is that we're going to consider interesting and significant in human behavior is formed by the social and political context that we're embedded in. And I think that's particularly true about the emotions related to power and control, the emotions related to one's place in society, one's place in the family, the emotions of shame, of resentment, of pride, of a sense of legitimacy or illegitimacy. So, even to pay attention to what women say about sex, motherhood, relationships, depends so much on what one thinks a woman ought to be saying, ought to be feeling, on what is legitimate to express. Unless you have a political movement that says, "Forget what everybody else thinks you ought to be feeling, what you ought to be saying. Get down to it. Tell the truth. What did you actually think and feel and notice in your body." You need a safe space to be able to do that. You need a political context to be able to do that.

One of the intriguing points that emerges from your book is that in focusing on a new agenda -- trauma endured by children and mothers -- you realize that what you find is an insight that actually extends beyond them to victims of political torture, to war veterans, and so on. So in a way, in looking at the particular, you end up with the universal.

To me that seems so clear. I don't know why it's so hard to figure out, you know? Oppression is oppression. Being the underdog is being the underdog. Being treated with contempt is being treated with contempt. Being treated violently is being treated violently. People respond the same way to it. When you get right down to it, pain is pain.

But showing that obvious point is radical, and was radical at the time you did it, because of the boxes that are created to avoid make those connections.

Well, radical ideas are always very simple, it seems to me, for precisely that reason. They're only radical because of those obstacles. You know what I mean? Not because of their complexity.

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