What Should Justice Look Like for Trauma Survivors? Ask Them.

TRUTH AND REPAIR: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice, by Judith L. Herman

After 16-year-old Melissa Ackerman was attacked by a boy at a beach party — she had told him she didn’t want to be with him, she had told him she liked girls, but he called her “disgusting” and forced himself on her — her life fell apart. Ackerman’s grades plummeted, she couldn’t perform athletically and she flunked out of school. It took years until she met someone whose support allowed her to recoup and rebuild. Ackerman went on to become a criminologist whose life work includes devising ways for victims to experience restorative justice.

In “Truth and Repair,” the author Judith Herman asks Ackerman what she wanted from the man who raped her. For herself, Ackerman wanted acknowledgment, explanation and reparations — including, in the last case, straightforward compensation for every dollar she had to spend on her own mental health after the attack. Ackerman also wanted the rapist to be accountable to the larger community, owning what he had done, ideally as part of teaching teenagers about sexual violence. She wanted accountability from bystanders, too, the people who should have helped but didn’t, the community that failed her when she was raped and after she was raped. From them, she wanted acknowledgment, apology and amends.

Acknowledgment, apology and amends. Over the course of this extraordinary book, in which she interviews survivors of trauma and surveys innovative programs of community justice and healing, Herman, a psychiatrist, resolutely rings this bell. When victims of traumatic violence are not served by our systems of justice and when they are let down by their communities, as they almost always are, harm is heaped upon harm.

Herman introduces truth and repair as the final stages of a recovery process that she first described more than 30 years ago in a book called “Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror.” Even in 1992, when the book was published, it was hailed as a beacon. In The New York Times, the reviewer Phyllis Chesler’s first sentence was: “This book is one of the most important psychiatric works to be published since Freud.” Time has borne Chesler out. Herman may not have quite the popular reputation of Freud, but in her capacity as an author, as a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and as a founder and innovative treatment provider in the Victims of Violence program at Cambridge Hospital, her influence runs wide and deep.

In “Trauma and Recovery,” Herman wrote that the trauma response of soldiers to war, and the trauma response of women and children to domestic terror, were fundamentally the same. If this seems obvious now, it’s only because Herman’s book patiently made the case when it was not. Herman was the first clinician to propose the diagnosis of “complex post-traumatic stress disorder,” now commonly referred to as CPTSD, to describe the hard-to-treat set of symptoms caused by prolonged, repeated trauma, such as domestic violence or cult membership. Now CPTSD is a formally recognized diagnosis in the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (though not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5), and it is widely utilized in the psychiatric and psychological professions.

Herman originally described three stages of recovery. First, safety and agency must be re-established in a survivor’s life. Second, survivors may review events, grieve and make meaning from what happened. Third, they may once again begin to grow and re-engage with their community, with some, like Ackerman, using their tragedy to help make the world a better place. Now, in “Truth and Repair,” a beautiful, profound and important book, Herman explains that she has come to think of the fourth stage of recovery as “justice.”

Trauma is not just a psychological issue, she explains. It is a social one. Consequently, healing requires empowerment and engagement — the opposite of shame and silence. “Recovery cannot be simply a private, individual matter,” she writes. But recovery is complicated because the relationships of dominance and subordination that shape our society also shape the way justice is delivered. As a result, even the best version of our current systems of justice is often less than healing for survivors of traumatic attacks, like rape victims.

A survivors’ agenda prioritizes the recovery of the victim, Herman says, even above the punishment of the attacker. In fact, survivors are less focused on punishment than the justice system would suggest. Rather, they want trauma-informed training for participants — such as law enforcement — to create compassionate understanding for how victims of violent attacks may feel. The court systems also require change at almost every level. Herman describes a successful specialized court for victims of sex trafficking, based on the understanding that minors working as prostitutes are victims, not criminals. Survivors’ voices should be elevated, like those of the three teenage trafficking victims who sent a letter to The Boston Globe when the New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was charged with buying sex.

“The real story,” they wrote, “is all of you who think it is acceptable to buy someone.”

Survivors want a justice system that doesn’t motivate the accused to smear complainants and “deny, deny, deny.” A system that incorporates elements of restorative justice would offer different processes to perpetrators willing to acknowledge what they have done. This could include what some survivors want — authentic engagement with their attackers.

“There was no way for me to say to him,” one woman told Herman, “‘Why did you do this?’”

All survivors who spoke to Herman were ambivalent about wanting an apology. Many assumed it wasn’t possible to secure a sincere statement of contrition. Still, they thought attackers should be exposed to public censure, and for those in the workplace or religious institutions to be removed from positions of power. Some survivors proposed making rapists responsible for the often ruinous costs of seeking justice, as well as personal repair. One suggested that restitution be taken from her rapist’s paycheck, “like taxes.”

Survivors also want rehabilitation for offenders, to prevent them from causing harm to others in the future. Herman cautions that this is one of the least explored solutions, and, if done badly, could privilege the recovery of offenders over victims. “Even the most innovative models for repairing the harm of sex crimes and rehabilitating offenders,” she writes, “are much in need of further development.”

“Truth and Repair” stands entirely on its own, but when read alongside “Trauma and Recovery,” it is striking to see how consistent Herman’s tone of measured, calm inquiry has been through the decades, how firm her resolve, how clear her language. Each book has immense value. Together, they are blazing bookends for an incredible career.

TRUTH AND REPAIR: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice | By Judith L. Herman | 265 pp. | Basic Books | $28

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