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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Lessons Learned

In looking at your career, you combine political activism with accomplishment in a professional field. Some concluded in the sixties that it was not possible to bring radical insight to expertise in given areas. I'm curious as to what your advice would be to students who might read this interview and say, "That's the kind of thing I would want to do with my life." How do you prepare to be both an activist and a professional in a field like medicine or law?

I think it was a lot easier in my generation. We didn't have to find the movement. It just found us. I have a 21-year-old daughter who's just graduated from college. She's trying to figure this out now. But the truth is that you could start almost anywhere. There are so many things in the world that need to be set right. You can start with whatever fires you up, whatever excites you, whatever fires your indignation, and put your energy there. And it's as good a place to start as any. I think that if it speaks to your heart, if it engages your imagination, if it makes you want to get out of bed in the morning and do something, that's probably the best place to start. And that to me is the inside of the political movements that I was part of. Organizations come and go. Intellectual theories come and go. The power to change the way people think and what people do comes out of small groups of people who care enough about something to try something new. And that can be done any time.

It's also about ideas, right? Embedding yourself in history, in a way, to go with those new ideas and then formulate them yourself.

There is an intellectual tradition of political activism that isn't as strong in this country as in many others, and often needs to be re-invented and rediscovered in each generation. But, yes, it helps if you know that other people have thought about these things before you try organizing. You don't have to invent everything from scratch. But, on the other hand, one's immediate historical circumstances are always new. I'd rather see people take the plunge and try innovating and then have to study up because, "Oh my God! I'd better inform myself, because I need to arm myself with knowledge" than try to deduce from the history of the past what should be done now.

But for you, the study of history and politics is absolutely fundamental to the study of psychiatry and psychology? Or is that an overstatement?

To me it is. It's absolutely fundamental. Let's just stop with that.

You express a concern in your book that new researchers will lack the passionate intellectual and social commitment of your generation. You say, "They will not see the essential interconnection between biological, psychological, social, and political dimensions of trauma."

Well, I think that's happening already. It's the price of respectability, unfortunately. The trauma field is now ... you know, we're ...


We're legit. Yep. People write dissertations and people apply for research money and, you know, drug companies get approval for their drugs for treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. And so it's ... I can see it happening already in the traumatic stress field. If you want to keep it clean, it's nice to have some nice, clean auto accident victim study. And hopefully not where there's any sort of corporate liability in the accident, corporate negligence, but where it was truly an accident. And then you don't have to get into any of this murky, messy, social issue stuff. And you can just do a nice psycho-biological study and you can randomly assign people to eight sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy or eight sessions of a serotonin re-uptake inhibitor, or a combination of the two, or a placebo, and see what works best. That's probably a legitimate study. I'm not against it. I just think that's not really where the interesting questions lie.

So finally, the interesting questions lie in values. Is that the answer?

They lie in those areas that we don't understand yet that are so murky and so confusing and so emotionally laden and so riddled with controversy that if you want to get research funding, you probably should stay away from there. But if you want to really figure out how the mind works or how society works, that's the place to go.

Dr. Herman, thank you very much for being here today, sharing your story with us and your example with future generations.

Thank you for having me.

Thank you. And thank you very much for joining us in this Conversation with History.

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See also the Interview with Robert Jay Lifton