She Redefined Trauma. Then Trauma Redefined Her.


From The New York Times: “In the fall of 1994, the psychiatrist Dr. Judith Herman was at the height of her influence. Her book Trauma and Recovery, published two years earlier, had been hailed in The New York Times as ‘one of the most important psychiatric works to be published since Freud.’

Her research on sexual abuse in the white, working-class city of Somerville, Mass., laid out a thesis that was, at the time, radical: that trauma can occur not only in the blind terror of combat, but quietly, within the four walls of a house, at the hands of a trusted person.

More than most areas of science, psychology has been driven by individual thinkers and communicators. So what happened to Dr. Herman — as arbitrary as it was — had consequences for the field. She was in a hotel ballroom, preparing to present her latest findings, when she tripped on the edge of a rug and smashed her kneecap.

‘Just, wham,’ she said. ‘Smack.’

On and off for more than two decades, Dr. Herman groped her way through a fog of chronic pain, undergoing repeated surgeries and, finally, falling back on painkillers. The trauma researchers who surrounded her in the Boston area moved on with their work, and the field of trauma studies swung toward neurobiology.

‘She is a brilliant woman who lost 25 years of her career,’ said her friend and colleague Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, whose 2014 book, The Body Keeps the Score, helped propel the field toward brain science. ‘If you talk about tragedy, that is a tragedy.’

At the age of 81, Dr. Herman has rejoined the conversation, publishing Truth and Repair, a follow-up to her 1992 book Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. During that period, trauma has gained broad acceptance in popular culture as a way to understand mental health.

. . . in Truth and Repair, she picks up where she left off in 1992, arguing that trauma is, at its heart, a social problem rather than an individual one.

Drawing on interviews with survivors, she lays out a theory of justice designed to help them heal, centering on collective acknowledgment of what they have suffered. Her approach is frankly political, rooted in the feminist movement and unlikely to go viral on TikTok.

This does not seem to trouble her at all. ‘In my own life, I feel like I’m in a good place,’ she said. ‘On the other hand, I think psychiatry will have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into any kind of progressive future.’”

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