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The Harms of "Only" "Always" & "Never" (Re Judith Herman's "Trauma & Recovery"), Dec 2020 post

Updated: Apr 8, 2023

Note: I wrote this post on December 2, 2020 and published it on my other blog site

I love Judith Herman's book "Trauma and Recovery" more than any book I've ever read.

It saved me in so many ways.

And yet it wounded me deeply in a way that's still with me 20+ years later.

I've written a lot about the need to try to avoid unnecessarily using grand sweeping statements about trauma and mental health. Such statements are frequently damaging (note how I didn't say "always"--easy peasy!) and can exclude people whose circumstances may not have been contemplated by the maker of the statement.

With deeply damaging effects....

So here's the example from "Trauma & Recovery" that hurt me, badly, and still does (first paragraph, Chapter 5).

"A single traumatic event can occur almost anywhere. Prolonged, repeated trauma by contrast occurs

only in circumstances of captivity. When the victim is free to escape she will not be abused a second

time; repeated trauma occurs only when the victim is a prisoner, unable to flee and under the control

of the perpetrator."

The part that hurt me? "When the victim is free to escape, she will not be abused a second time; repeated trauma occurs only when the victim is a prisoner, unable to flee, and under the control of the perpetrator."


I should acknowledge that the chapter that follows adds context that softens the impact of this bold statement and addresses ways in which people can be "captive" that aren't quite so literal.

Nevertheless, this statement still hurt me. Because it's neither fair nor accurate. And it was totally unnecessary.

Regardless of how we define captivity (unless it means simply existing in a world in which someone with more power than you in a given situation can decide to surface and harm you even after they've let you go and you've completely moved on from them), it's demonstrably false that you can't be repeatedly victimized by someone if you aren't their captive. Perhaps it's not the norm. But neither is it rare.

Consider a few random examples I just thought up because I make it a practice to avoid accepting an "only" without carefully thinking of possible scenarios to negate it:

--Repeated instances of intimate partner violence after the relationship has ended and the parties have gone their separate ways and completely disentangled their lives, but the abusive partner either decides to resurface and harm the person again or they come into contact by chance and further abuse occurs;

--Stalking--arguably this could be a form of captivity, but that's straining the definition of captivity, unless it's acknowledged that the way some people exercise the power they can hold over another person can render that other person captive in their own lives;

--Opportunistic abuse: e.g., when a particular type of "predator" harms anyone of a particular demographic that they can get access to, and it just so happens that those circumstances that make the abuse possible recur, not because of captivity but because of people living their lives just as they would if they'd never even met.

I won't share why it hurt me. I'm not up for that. My sharing doesn't extend that far (I'm frustrated that I've had to say even this much to make my point). But it's a clearly false statement, and I've seen numerous examples of the above. Surely she is not saying those scenarios can't occur? Or that they are the victims' fault for failing to ensure (upon having regained freedom) that the abuse did not happen a second time?

Yet what else could those grand sweeping words imply? To someone already struggling with self-blame and reaching for an authoritative book by a brilliant expert in the field to find answers?

And the answer isn't to strain the definition of captivity even further. For one thing, that would make no sense (captivity can't just mean that someone finds a way to hurt you again while you are freely living your life). For another, it would distort the experience (which I'll suggest can be its own kind of trauma) of what it's like to be harmed repeatedly even after you got free. To not be captive, and yet still be targeted repeatedly by someone who lets you live your life until such time as they plan or decide on a whim to hurt you again.

I still admire her and am grateful for the rest of the book (which isn't to say I agreed with every other word and idea in it--but overall it helped me more than anything else). But I had to stop reading it for a bit when I got to Chapter 5, and it took a lot out of me to be able to pick it up again.

It's just far too easy when we discuss these big issues to be grand and sweeping to make our point. Those "always's" "only's" and "never's" are beautiful and powerful in their simplicity and rhetorical effect.

But I'm asking that we please pause and resist them. I'm not saying "never" use them or "always" avoid them, but let's please be really careful and use them incredibly sparingly.

And always, yes *always*, let's listen afterwards for the ways in which we may need to revise them to soften the harm they caused to someone that we didn't anticipate.

In a perfect world, the next edition of the book would no longer contain those words.

Or perhaps simply say: "When the victim is free to escape, she will usually not be abused a second time; repeated trauma usually occurs only when the victim is a prisoner, unable to flee, and under the control of the perpetrator."

Those slight changes (the addition of a single humbler word in two places) would have spared me 20+ years of self-doubt and self-blame that continue to this day because those words persist (and made it into a second edition).

I'm making an example here not to attack her. If you asked me what my favourite book ever written was, that would be #1. Overall, it was life-saving for me to read it.

I'm doing it to show how easy it can be to lapse into that kind of language even when we are generally extremely trauma-informed--even when we are writing a guidebook that will teach others how to be trauma-informed.

And because it hurt me, deeply--yet avoidably--and I needed to say so.

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