On the advice of their lawyer, The Sun’s editors insisted that I use a pseudonym to ensure that my father could not sue the magazine and me for libel. It is typical for abusers to use such lawsuits — or even just the threat of one — to silence their victims. If my father is able to impose his will upon editors he has never met, and force me, his adult son, to use a fictitious name in order to tell about his abuse, imagine the degree of captivity routinely experienced by a significant portion of American children and spouses each day, and each night.
— Richard Marten
When I was a boy, my father beat everyone in the family but me, perhaps because I was the youngest. I remember scenes — vaguely, as if from a dream or a movie long ago — of arms flailing, of my father chasing my brother around the house. I remember my mother pulling my father into their bedroom to absorb the blows meant for her children, who sat stone-faced in the kitchen, listening to her stifled groans through the thin walls. Late at night, I would lie frozen in my bed, hearing my father enter my siblings’ bedrooms, and wondering when it would be my door that opened.
The worst thing was not that my father hit his children, but that he denied he ever did it. He not only broke bones; he broke the connection between memory and reality.
We became a family of amnesiacs. There was no place in our minds to put these experiences, and anyway it would have served no purpose to remember the atrocities, as there was no escape from them. So we forgot, and forgot again. There’d be a beating, followed by a brief period of contrition, during which he’d ask, with deep emotion, “Why did you make me do it?” And then nothing, save the inconvenient physical evidence: the broken door, the urine-soaked underwear, the wooden room divider my brother repeatedly tore from the wall as he tried to flee around the corner. Once these were fixed, there was nothing left to remind us. So we forgot, and the pattern of abuse continued.
Battered children aren’t the only ones who forget. We read in the newspaper that every nine seconds a woman is beaten by her partner, and that 350,000 American children are injured or killed by their parents or guardians every year — and then we turn the page. We don’t talk, or even stop to think, about such things because they’re too horrific. As Judith Herman so accurately puts it, “The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.”
Herman is one of the world’s foremost experts on the effects of psychological trauma. In November 1996, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. Her book Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (HarperCollins) has become a classic in the field, and was recently reissued with a new afterword.
Trauma and Recovery is not so much a self-help book as it is an incisive and compassionate look into the abyss of violence, and an open-eyed exploration of the territory beyond. I could not stop crying when I first read it two years ago, and upon rereading it more recently I cried once again — at the book’s honesty, and at the clarity of Herman’s vision. This interview was a chance to ask the many questions I had long wanted to have answered.
Marten: How are atrocity and silence related?
Herman: Atrocities are actions so horrifying they go beyond words. In people who experience or witness atrocities, there is a kind of silence that comes from not knowing how to put these experiences into words. At the same time, atrocities are the crimes perpetrators most want to hide. This creates a powerful convergence of interest: No one wants to speak about them. No one wants to remember them. Everyone wants to pretend they didn’t happen.
Marten: In Trauma and Recovery, you write, “In order to escape accountability, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting.”
Herman: This is something with which we are all familiar. It seems that the more extreme the crime, the more dogged and determined the effort to deny that the crime happened. So we have, for example, almost a hundred years after the fact, an active effort on the part of the Turkish government to deny there ever was an Armenian genocide. We have a whole industry of Holocaust denial. I just came back from Bosnia, where, because there hasn’t been an effective medium for establishing a record of what happened, the nationalist government continues to insist that “ethnic cleansing” didn’t take place, and that the various war crimes and atrocities didn’t occur.
Marten: How is this possible?
Herman: On the most blatant level, it’s simply a matter of denying the crimes took place. Whether it’s genocide, military aggression, rape, wife beating, or child abuse, the same dynamic plays itself out. It begins with an indignant, almost rageful denial, and the suggestion that the person bringing forward the accusation — whether it’s the victim or a witness — is lying, crazy, malicious, or has been put up to this by someone else. Then, of course, there are a number of fallback positions to which perpetrators can retreat if the evidence is so overwhelming and irrefutable that it cannot be ignored or suppressed: the victim exaggerates; the victim enjoyed it; the victim provoked or otherwise brought it on herself; the victim wasn’t really harmed; even if some slight damage was done, it’s now time to forget the past and get on with our lives; and in the interest of “preserving peace” — or, in the case of domestic violence, “preserving family harmony” — we need to draw a veil over these matters. The incidents should never be discussed, and preferably should be forgotten altogether.
Marten: To what degree do both perpetrators and their apologists believe their own claims? To provide a personal example, did my father believe his claims that he wasn’t beating his children?
Herman: Do perpetrators believe their own lies? I have no idea, and I don’t have much trust in those who claim to know. We in the mental-health profession don’t have a clue as to what goes on in the hearts and minds of perpetrators, either of political atrocities or of sexual and domestic crimes.
For one thing, we don’t get to know them very well. They aren’t interested in being studied — by and large, they don’t volunteer — so we generally get to study them only when they’re caught. But once they’ve been caught, they tell us whatever they think we want to hear. So we have to wend our way through a thicket of lies and obfuscation in an attempt to discover what’s really going on. And convicted offenders are a very small, skewed, unrepresentative group. In the case of rape, for example — for which the reporting rates are, by even the most generous estimates, less than 20 percent — you lose 80 percent of the perpetrators right off the top. Our sample is reduced further by the rates at which arrests are made, charges filed, convictions obtained, and so forth. Ultimately, convicted offenders represent about 1 percent of all perpetrators. Now, if the odds of being caught and convicted of rape are basically one in a hundred, you have to be extremely inept to be a convicted rapist. Thus, the folks we are normally able to study look fairly pathetic, and often have a fair amount of psychopathology and violence in their histories. But they’re by no means representative of the ordinary, garden-variety rapist.
So we don’t know much about perpetrators. The one thing victims say most often is that their attackers looked normal, and that nobody would have believed it about them. That was true even of Nazi war criminals. These people didn’t appear particularly disturbed. In some ways that’s the scariest thing of all.
Marten: Given the misogyny, genocide, and ecological destruction endemic to our culture, I wonder how much of that normality is only seeming.
Herman: True, if you’re part of a predatory and militaristic culture, then to behave in a predatory and exploitative way is not deviant, per se. Of course, there are rules as to who constitutes a “legitimate” victim, a person who may be attacked with impunity. And most perpetrators are extremely sensitive to these rules.
The one thing victims say most often is that their attackers looked normal, and that nobody would have believed it about them. That was true even of Nazi war criminals.
Marten: What are the actual rates of rape and childhood sexual abuse in this country?
Herman: According to the best data we have, one in four women will be raped in her lifetime. For childhood sexual abuse I trust Diana Russell’s data — which, I believe, is still the standard by which other studies should be measured. She asked a random sample of some nine hundred women to participate in a survey about victimization. The interviews were in-depth, and conducted in the subjects’ native languages by trained interviewers. She found that 38 percent of females had had a childhood experience that met the criminal-code definition of sexual assault. Some people have said that because Russell’s study was done in California, it’s not representative of the country as a whole, but the results from other studies have been, while slightly lower, still in the same ballpark. So childhood sexual abuse is a fairly common experience. It’s less common for boys, but there is a substantial risk for them, as well. I’d say a fair estimate would be around 10 percent for boys, and two to three times that for girls. It’s a little more difficult to determine rates of sexual abuse for boys, because most are victimized by male perpetrators, which adds a layer of secrecy and shame to the experience.
Marten: So a significant percentage of the population has been severely traumatized. Why isn’t this front-page news?
Herman: Actually, one of the questions Russell asked her interview subjects who disclosed childhood abuse was: What impact do you think this has had on your life? Only about one in four said it had done great or long-lasting damage. Though virtually everyone said, “It was horrible at the time, and I hated it,” half the women considered themselves reasonably recovered and didn’t see it as having affected their lives in a major way. I say this not to minimize the importance of what happened, but to give due respect and recognition to the resilience and resourcefulness of victims, most of whom recover without any formal intervention.
Part of the reason for this is that not all traumas are equal. When Russell and I examined the factors that seemed to lead to long-lasting impact, they turned out to be the kinds of things you would expect: prolonged, repeated abuse by someone close — father, stepfather, or another member of the immediate family — or abuse that was very violent, or that involved a lot of bodily invasion or had elements of betrayal. Women who reported these kinds of abuse had the most difficulty recovering.
But you were asking why this isn’t front-page news. The answer is, in part, that this isn’t new. Nor is it unique to this country. Wherever comparable studies are carried out, the numbers are pretty much the same. The U.S. may have a lot more street and handgun violence than, for example, Scandinavia, but private crimes are an international phenomenon.
Marten: But they aren’t ubiquitous to all human cultures. I’ve read that in some indigenous cultures rape and child abuse were rare or nonexistent prior to contact with the West. The Okanagan Indians of what is now British Columbia, for example, had no words in their language for either rape or child abuse. They did have a word, though, for the violation of a woman. Literally translated, it meant “Someone looked at me in a way I didn’t like.”
Herman: I think it would be hard to establish that rape was nonexistent in a culture. How would you determine that? But you can certainly find variation. The anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday looked at data on the prevalence of rape in more than a hundred cultures and divided them into high- or low-rape cultures. She found that high-rape cultures are very militarized and sex-segregated, with a great difference in status between men and women, the care of children being devalued and delegated to subordinate females. She also found that the creation myths of high-rape cultures recognize only a male deity, rather than a female deity or a couple. Another interesting finding was that high-rape cultures had recent experiences — meaning within the last few hundred years — of famine or migration. That is to say, they had not achieved a stable adaptation to their ecological niche.
Sadly enough, when we tally up these risk factors, we’ve pretty much described our culture.
Marten: I’d like to back up for a moment and define psychological trauma.
Herman: Trauma occurs when people are subjected to experiences that involve extreme terror, a threat to one’s life, or exposure to grotesque violence. The essential ingredient seems to be a condition of helplessness.
In the aftermath of such experiences it is normal and predictable that people will experience symptoms of psychological distress. For most, these symptoms are transient, and recovery follows more or less spontaneously. Others, however, go on to have prolonged symptoms, which we’ve come to call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
We see PTSD in combat veterans, in prisoners of war, and in concentration-camp survivors. We see it in survivors of natural disasters, fires, and industrial and automobile accidents. We see it in cops. Sophisticated police departments now include traumatic-stress debriefing for officers who have been involved in any sort of “critical incident,” such as a shooting. These departments had discovered that, within two years of involvement in such an incident, many well-trained, valuable, experienced police officers would retire or quit due to physical complaints, substance abuse, or psychiatric problems.
Similarly, we see PTSD in firefighters, who sometimes have to bring out dead bodies from burning buildings. We see it in rescue workers who have to clear away bodies after a flood or earthquake. And we see it most commonly in the “civilian casualties,” if you will, of the private war against women and children — that is, in the survivors of rape and domestic violence.
Marten: What are the symptoms of PTSD?
Herman: It’s easiest to think of them as falling into three categories. The first category is symptoms of “hyperarousal.” In the aftermath of a terrifying experience, people see danger everywhere. They’re jumpy, they startle easily, and they have a hard time sleeping. Sometimes they’re irritable and more prone to anger. This seems to be a biological phenomenon as much as a psychological one.
The second set of symptoms involves people reliving the traumatic experience in nightmares and flashbacks. Any little reminder can set them off. For example, a Vietnam veteran who was involved in helicopter combat might react years later upon seeing a news helicopter fly overhead.
Marten: All through my teens and twenties, when someone would ask me to go water-skiing, my response would be “No, thanks,” but my internal response was “Fuck you.” I couldn’t figure out why until a few years ago, when I asked my mom and she said that there had been beatings on water-skiing trips when I was a small child. I’d always thought that water-skiing just pissed me off.
Herman: Sometimes people recognize the trigger, but don’t have complete memory of the event. In that case, they may respond to the reminder as you did, by becoming terrified or agitated or angry, without knowing why. A lot of times it’s very subtle. Someone who was raped in the back seat of a car may have intense feelings every time she gets into a car — particularly one that resembles the vehicle in which she was raped.
These intrusive flashbacks are not a normal kind of remembering, where the smell of cinnamon rolls, for example, might remind you of your grandmother. Instead, those who suffer from them say it’s like playing a videotape over and over: a repetitive and often wordless reexperiencing. People remember the smells, the sounds, the weather, the images. Sexual-abuse survivors often say, “I felt like I was smothering. I thought I was going to choke.” But it’s very hard for people to recount traumatic events in a fluid verbal narrative that is modifiable according to the circumstances. That is, people can’t give you the short form or the long form, describing the event differently over time. It remains just a repetitive sequence of terrifying images and sensations.
Marten: Is this symptom also physiological?
Herman: Oh, yes. Studies have shown that traumatic events are perceived and encoded in the brain differently.
The third group of symptoms people have — and these are almost the opposite of the intrusive nightmares and flashbacks — involves a shutting down of feelings, a constriction of emotions, intellect, and behavior. People with PTSD oscillate between feeling overwhelmed, enraged, terrified, desperate, or grief-stricken, and feeling nothing at all. They describe themselves as numb: they don’t feel anything; they aren’t interested in things that used to interest them; they avoid situations that might remind them of the trauma. You, for example, probably avoided water-skiing in order to avoid the traumatic memories. Water-skiing may not be much to give up, but some people avoid relationships, avoid sexuality, and generally make their lives smaller in an attempt to protect themselves from the overwhelming feelings.
In addition, one finds all kinds of physical complaints. In fact, the more the culture shames people for admitting to psychological weakness, the more these symptoms manifest themselves physically. Rather than seeking psychological help, people go to the doctor for sleeping pills, or to the neighborhood bar. We see a lot of alcoholism and other substance abuse as a secondary complication of PTSD.
Marten: Where does dissociation fit into all this?
Herman: It’s central. Dissociation involves a mental escape from experience at a time when physical escape is impossible. Though I don’t think any of us can even pretend to understand it, we all seem to have the capacity to dissociate. For some people the capacity is greater, and certain circumstances in particular seem to call up this response.
When I teach, I often use automobile accidents as an example, as many people have been in one. I’ll ask them, “Can you describe what it was like in the moment before impact, the moment of impact, and the moment after?”
People often describe a sense of denial: this isn’t happening. Or they describe dissociation: this is happening to someone else, while I sit outside watching the crash and feeling very sorry for that person. They may feel as though they’re watching a movie. They also describe a slowing of time, and a kind of tunnel vision, where they focus on only a few details — sounds, smells, or images — while all peripheral detail falls away. Some people describe lack of pain perception. We’ve all heard of people who walk on broken legs until they get to safety, then collapse; or of people who are able to ignore their own pain while they rescue others. And some people, of course, have amnesia or memory gaps. They’ll say, “I remember the moment before the accident, and then the next thing I knew I was on the shoulder outside the car.” Even in the absence of head trauma and loss of consciousness, there is often a loss of memory. These experiences, of course, are not specific to car wrecks, but happen with all sorts of psychological trauma.
Marten: Dissociation sounds like a good thing.
Herman: You’d think so. But more and more research is identifying dissociation as a predictor of long-lasting symptoms. For example, some studies were done after both the San Francisco earthquake and the Oakland fire — two big disasters of the past decade. Each event affected many people, and necessitated large-scale responses by emergency personnel. So researchers had numerous chances to interview and examine survivors, and then to call them up after six months or more to see how they were doing. People who dissociated during the event turned out to be more likely to have PTSD later. There seems to be something about that altered state of consciousness that, although protective at the moment, gets you into trouble later on.
By the way, people who dissociated also tended to lose some of their coping abilities during the event. They either behaved helplessly — like zombies, or as if they were paralyzed — or else lost the capacity to judge danger realistically. Rescue personnel had the most trouble with the latter group, because they would insist on going back into burning houses to rescue possessions or animals.
Part of the motivation not to talk about it is the belief that you can go back to the way things were before the trauma, but that’s just not possible. Once you’ve seen, up close, the evil human beings are capable of, you’re not going to see the world, other people, or even yourself the same way again.
Marten: What’s the difference between trauma and captivity?
Herman: Trauma can emerge from a single event like a fire or an auto accident, where you’re in danger, you survive it, and then you get on with your life. You may continue to relive the event in your mind, but it’s not happening to you over and over. Even if you live in an earthquake zone, you can still choose to move away.
Based on my work with domestic-abuse survivors and victims of political terror, however, I began to ask: What happens when a person is exposed not to a single terrifying incident, but to prolonged, repeated trauma? I came to understand the similarities between, on the one hand, concentration camps and torture, and, on the other, domestic violence, where the victim may be beaten or sexually abused for years on end. We see the same sort of captivity in the sex trade’s criminal trafficking in women and children, and in some religious cults where people are not free to leave.
In situations like these, where trauma occurs over and over, and is imposed by human design (as opposed to the weather or some other nonhuman force), one sees a series of personality changes in addition to PTSD: people begin to lose their identity, self-respect, autonomy, and independence.
People in captivity are often isolated from other relationships; this is true in literal captivity and in domestic violence, as well, where perpetrators often demand that their victims cut all social ties. Being so isolated, the captives are forced to depend for basic survival on the very person who is abusing them. This not only creates a complicated, deeply conflicted bond between the two, but skews the victim’s perception of the nature of human relationships. The effect is even worse for children raised in these circumstances, because their very personality is formed in the context of an exploitative relationship in which the overarching principles are coercion and control, dominance and subordination.
Whether we are talking about adults or children, it often happens that victims lose their faith in other people, and in themselves. They come to view all relationships as coercive, and to feel that the strong may do as they please. They see the world as divided into victims, perpetrators, bystanders, and rescuers, and come to believe that all human relations are contaminated and corrupt, and ruled by sadism.
Marten: Might makes right. Social Darwinism. You’ve just described the principles that undergird our political and economic systems.
Herman: And there are other losses involved: a loss of basic trust, of feelings of mutuality in relationships. In their stead is a contempt for self and others. In the aftermath of this kind of brutalization, victims have a great deal of difficulty taking responsibility for their lives. If you’ve been repeatedly punished for showing autonomy, initiative, and independence, after a while you’re going to cease to show them. Often, those of us who try to help get frustrated because we don’t understand why the victims seem so passive, so unable to extricate themselves or to act on their own behalf. They behave as though they’re still under the perpetrator’s control, even though they’re now “free.” But in some ways the perpetrator has been internalized.
Captivity also creates disturbances in intimacy, because if you view the world as a place where everyone is either a victim, a perpetrator, a bystander, or a rescuer, then there’s no room for relationships of mutuality, for cooperation, for responsible choices. There’s no room to follow through on agreements to everyone’s satisfaction. The whole range of cooperative relationship skills — and all the emotional fulfillment that goes with them — is lost. And that’s a great deal to lose.
Marten: It seems to me that this loss is caused not simply by the physical trauma, but also by the fact that the traumatizing actions can’t be acknowledged.
Herman: And, more broadly, by the fact that they take place within a relationship defined by a need to dominate, in which coercive control is the central feature. Violence is only one method of control, and it’s not even one of the most frequent. Because it’s so powerful, it doesn’t have to be used that often; it just has to be convincing, so that when the victim looks into the eyes of the perpetrator, she realizes, Oh, my God, he really could kill me. In the battered-women’s movement, there’s a saying: “One good beating lasts a year.”
This violence is reinforced by other methods of coercive control aimed at isolating the victim and breaking down the victim’s resistance and spirit. For example, capricious enforcement of petty rules, with concomitant rewards. Prisoners and hostages talk about this kind of thing all the time: if you’re good, maybe you’ll get a shower, or something extra to eat. Then there is the closing off of any outside relationships or sources of information. Finally — and I think this is what really breaks people’s spirits — perpetrators often force victims to engage in activities that the victims find morally reprehensible or disgusting. Once you’ve forced a person to violate his or her moral code, to break faith with him- or herself (regardless of the fact that it’s done under duress), you may never again need to use threats. At this point, the victim’s self-hatred and shame will be so great that you won’t have to beat her up, because she’ll beat up herself.
Marten: That reminds me of what Jean-François Steiner wrote in Treblinka about those who collaborated with the Nazis: “A man who had knowingly compromised himself did not revolt against his masters, no matter what idea had driven him to collaboration.”
Herman: Perpetrators know this. These methods are taught. Pimps teach them to one another. Torturers in clandestine police forces teach them to each other. They’re taught, at taxpayer expense, to our Latin American “allies” at our School of the Americas. The Nazi war criminals who fled to Latin America passed on this knowledge, but it is now apparently a point of pride among many Latin American torturers that they have come up with techniques the Nazis never imagined.
Marten: You’ve written that symptoms of PTSD can be interpreted as the victims’ attempts to tell their stories.
Herman: People not only relive traumatic experiences in memory, but sometimes reenact the trauma. So a combat vet with PTSD might get a job in another high-risk line of work. A sexual-abuse survivor might engage in behaviors likely to result in another victimization. One way to view this is as a desperate attempt to tell the story — in action, if necessary. Maybe that’s oversimplifying it a bit, but we do know that when people are finally able to put their experiences into words that are heard and understood, they often feel quite a bit of relief.
Marten: In Trauma and Recovery, you wrote that “when the truth is finally recognized, survivors can begin their recovery.” How does that work? What happens inside survivors when the truth is recognized?
Herman: I wish I knew. It’s miraculous. I don’t understand it; I just observe it and try to facilitate it. I think it’s a natural healing process that has to do with the restoration of human connection. If you think of trauma as the moment when that essential connection is destroyed, then there is something about telling one’s story in a place where it can be heard and acknowledged that seems to restore connection: the possibility of mutuality returns, and people feel better.
The most important principles for recovery are: (1) restoring power, choice, and control to the person who has been victimized; and (2) facilitating the person’s reconnection with her or his social supports — in other words, the people who are important in that person’s life. In the immediate aftermath of trauma, of course, the first step is always to reestablish some sense of safety for the survivor. That means getting the person out of physical danger, and creating some minimally safe social environment where the survivor has others to rely on, to connect with. Nobody can recover in isolation.
Only after safety is established is it appropriate for this person to tell the trauma story in more depth. And there we run into two kinds of mistakes. One is the idea that it’s not necessary to tell the story, that the person would be better off not talking about it. That might work for a while, but there comes a time when, if the story isn’t told, it festers. So one mistake is suppressing it.
The other mistake is to try to push people into telling their story prematurely, or when the circumstances aren’t right, or when it’s not the person’s choice. If the timing and setting aren’t right, all you’re going to get is another reenactment, not the integrative process of putting the story into context, making sense of it, and finding resolution, which is your real aim. You don’t want just a simple recitation of facts; you want the person to be able to talk about how it felt and how it feels now, about what it meant then and what it means now, about how she made sense of it then and how she’s trying to make sense of it now. It’s through that kind of process that people reestablish continuity in their lives and reconnect with others.
Marten: Is this tied to mourning what was lost?
Herman: Part of the motivation not to talk about it is the belief that you can go back to the way things were before the trauma, but that’s just not possible. Once you’ve seen, up close, the evil human beings are capable of, you’re not going to see the world, other people, or even yourself the same way again. Those of us who’ve never had such an experience might imagine how brave or cowardly we would be in extreme situations, but people who’ve been exposed to those situations know what they did and didn’t do. And, almost inevitably, they failed to live up to some expectation they had of themselves.
So, yes, there has to be some grieving for what was lost. It’s only after the mourning process is over that people can say, “That was a hard lesson, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, but I am stronger and wiser.” People do learn from adversity. Some will say, “I had a crisis of faith and found out what’s really important, what I really believe in.”
Recovery doesn’t end with the telling and hearing of the story. . . . What finally renews people is the belief that their own capacity to love has not been destroyed.
Marten: How does an abused child mourn the loss of what he’s never known?
Herman: It’s hard to grieve for what you’ve never had. It’s not fair. You get only one childhood, and you were cheated out of it.
Marten: What comes next in the recovery process?
Herman: Recovery doesn’t end with the telling and hearing of the story. After that comes the re-forming of connections, when people move from a preoccupation with the past to having hope for the future — feeling that they have a future, that it won’t be just a matter of enduring life, going through it like a member of the walking dead. Instead, they can affirm life even after surviving the worst it has to dish out. What finally renews people is the belief that their own capacity to love has not been destroyed. When people feel they are damned and that they can’t go on living, it’s often because they fear they have been so contaminated with the perpetrator’s hate and taken so much of it into themselves that there is nothing left but rage, distrust, fear, and contempt. After people go through a period of mourning and a crisis of faith, they come back to their capacity to love, whether it is with other people, animals, nature, or even music. Sometimes that connection is frail and tenuous, but that’s the bedrock to which they must return, the caring relationship the perpetrator was unable to destroy. And they build from there.
I think that, as people move into their lives again, those who do best are the ones who’ve developed what Robert Jay Lifton calls a “survivor mission.” I’ve seen it happen many times. People turn their horrific experience around and make it a gift to others. That, really, is the only way to transcend an atrocity. You can’t bury it. You can’t make it go away. You can’t dissociate from it. It always comes back. But you can transcend it — first, by telling the truth about it, and then by using it in the service of humanity, saying, “This isn’t the way we want to live. We want to live differently.”
In the aftermath of terror, many survivors find themselves much clearer about what they want in life and relationships, and more daring about going after it. They straighten things out with their families and lovers and friends. And often they become very courageous about speaking truth to those in power. I have heard many survivors say, “I know what terror is, and I will live in fear every day for the rest of my life. But I also know that I will be all right.” Sometimes, through atrocity, people discover in themselves courage they didn’t know they had.