“Our Collective Trauma” Transcript

Guest: Judith Herman

(Listen to the audio on the episode page.)

Betty Teng: Welcome to Mind of State, a podcast for both political junkies and armchair shrinks. I’m psychoanalyst and trauma therapist Betty Teng.

Jonathan Kopp: And I’m political communications strategist Jonathan Kopp. Join us as we welcome experts in politics and psychology to consider this, the state of our nation through the state of our minds and the mind of our state. Hi, Betty.

Betty: Hey, Jonathan.

Jonathan: You know, in your work as a trauma therapist, I think it’s safe to say you tend to focus on the individual, right?

Betty: Yeah, absolutely.

Jonathan: But I keep thinking, as a sort of student of politics, about our collective experience and about the collective trauma, at least it feels, from a lay person’s perspective anyway, that we are experiencing some serious collective trauma.

Betty: Absolutely. You know, crises of a biomedical sort. This is a natural disaster, really.

Jonathan: A number of them, right.

Betty: Yeah, right. We sit in these intersecting crises, it’s going to have an impact on us. Our whole lives have been derailed and they remain derailed a year out. People are really fraying in a myriad ways.

Jonathan: And that’s individually true, but it’s also true of our societal collective.

Betty: Absolutely.

Jonathan: Right, so we have this complex that we are wrestling with of trauma on a physical, on a health perspective, economic perspective, racial tensions all–

Betty: Political, societal.

Jonathan: –bubbling up and mixing at once.

Betty: Absolutely.

Jonathan: Right, political as well.

Betty: Just keep naming them, Jonathan. Let’s keep going.

Jonathan: Right. And this is our present day, but it’s also probably multigenerational. We can go back over generations of suffering and trauma and it’s an awful lot for us to be processing at this moment, isn’t it?

Betty: It’s so much. It’s really so much. And as such, it’s so good to recruit an expert on trauma to speak to us about how we might apply some of the tenets of trauma treatment to ourselves as a society as we go through this.

Jonathan: And that’s exactly why we’re so fortunate to have with us Dr. Judith Herman as our guest on this episode of Mind of State. Dr. Herman is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. For 30 years she was the director of training at the Victims of Violence Program at Cambridge Hospital in Massachusetts. She is the author of two award winning books on trauma and recovery and we’re so thrilled to have her with us. Welcome to Mind of State, Dr. Herman.

Judith Herman: My pleasure.

Betty: Now, there has been what some people consider the four year trauma of Trump, and now we are looking at societal sociopolitical traumas of monumental proportions. And so not only pandemic, but economic crisis, a referendum on racial injustice, climate justice and climate change. And so let’s go through the framework of trauma informed treatment to see how we can apply it.

Judith: Well, I guess the place to start is to see trauma not simply as an individual problem, but as a social problem. And this is particularly true of the multiple traumas that ensue when you have a social structure of dominance and subordination so that, you talked about the racial reckoning, the reckoning with systemic racism. We also might mention Me Too and a reckoning with the oppressions of patriarchy. And then we have–

Betty: Absolutely.

Judith: –all the economic injustice issues. And you can think of the pandemic as a virus that not only attacks the weak spots in an individual’s immune system, but also the weak spots in the social, society’s immune system so that all of the injustices and inequalities, inequities, if you will, of our society turn out to be real weak spots.

Jonathan: Right, they’re sort of, they’re like preexisting conditions, aren’t they, right?

Judith: Yeah, and they, and so our society fractures along those lines and we see, for example, Black people being exposed and getting sick and then you have the racial disparities of healthcare and dying at much higher rates–

Betty: Yeah, four and five times.

Judith: –than white people. So trauma, to my mind, is never a personal issue. It’s a social issue. And that means that the healing is not just a matter of a personal matter, it’s a social matter. And that’s why, for example, groups are so important and social support is so important in healing from trauma. And we have very good data that shows that social support is a predictor, both of resilience, meaning not developing post-traumatic stress just by being exposed to a deadly stressor. Also recovery and in individual treatment, we have very good data, and this actually applies not just to trauma but to psychotherapy in general, that the therapeutic alliance is the single greatest predictor.

Jonathan: Can I ask you to just pause and define that term? As a non-mental health professional, sometimes I trip over, you know, some of the terminology.

Judith: It just means the relationship. It just means a relationship of trust where a person feels safe and free to speak her mind. So what I did in talking about trauma recovery and psychotherapy is really the bedrock of trauma treatment. We don’t have medication that makes trauma go away, although actually alcohol, people self medicate with alcohol for that reason. It makes it go away temporarily. It’s, so it’s, the first stage of trauma treatment is developing a safe, trusting relationship, but the problem is that for people who have been exploited and abused, the first thing that’s destroyed is trust. So you can’t just assume that person coming into your office is going to trust you. It has to be earned. And so we talk about building a therapeutic alliance, if you will, or building a trusting relationship.

Jonathan: I see. So the therapeutic alliance is between the mental health professional and the patient.

Judith: Correct, correct. So that’s the beginning of trauma treatment. And then I define three basic stages of treatment, and they’re not rigidly defined stages, nor do they have a rigid timetable. I still get questions from especially the, you know, the bean counter types. Well, how long does the treatment have to go on? You know, can we get it done in three weeks? Six weeks? You know.

Jonathan: Right. They want to know the program. They want to know the end goal. They want to know the timing.

Judith: Absolutely.

Jonathan: But it’s a more fluid, organic process.

Judith: Absolutely, and it depends to a large extent on how severe, how prolonged the trauma was. I mean, a single incident is not the same as being abused starting when you’re five and going on until you’re 17 when you run away from home. So the first step, when you’ve built or you’ve started to build a relationship, the first goal of trauma treatment is safety. And that means if you’re working with a battered woman and this is crisis intervention, you have to know how to get a restraining order, where the safe houses are, how to figure out how to get somebody some money. It’s all about survival at the beginning and establishing at least a perimeter, a defensive perimeter, so that you can’t really go back and talk about the past until there’s some degree of safety in the present. And that’s not just a therapeutic challenge. That’s a social problem.

Jonathan: Right. You need physical safety before you can start to address the mental and emotional.

Judith: Exactly, exactly. And this is an issue, for example, with refugees and people in conflict zones where they’ve gotten to a refugee camp, but if it’s run by a mafia, there’s still no safety. And yet you’re trying to build social support, you’re trying to build some degree of some at least small area where the person doesn’t have to be hypervigilant all the time. That’s another jargon term for being on alert constantly, expecting danger at all times. And people who are, that’s one of the major symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. And it means that your adrenaline is going all the time. You can’t sleep, you have nightmares, you startle at the smallest sound, and you’re constantly watching the door or you’re scanning the environment.

Jonathan: In mentioning doors, I recall our last episode actually with our guest, Megan Doney, who was a survivor of a school shooting, and she said that ever since then, ever since escaping out the emergency door, she sees doors differently now through the rest of her life.

Judith: No, you can see people have PTSD. If you meet them in a coffee shop, for example, they’ll want to sit near the door or sit where they can see, you know, they’ll check out all the exits, they’ll–

Jonathan: Makes sense.

Judith: So safety is the first challenge. And, as I say, it’s not just an individual problem because nobody can be safe in isolation. It means you have to know who you can trust. You have to have some social support system. If you don’t have it, you need to build it. One of my colleagues at Cambridge Hospital used to say to patients our first order of business is to make sure you have a friend because I can’t be your 24/7 support system. I’m a limited human being, so you have to have at least one friend and if you don’t have a friend, then our first job is going to be making a friend. So that’s stage one, and it doesn’t mean that we don’t talk about the trauma. We do, but we talk about it more in terms of its impact on the symptoms that the person is having now. Understanding what is PTSD, understanding feelings of shame and anger and terror that come along with trauma and naming them and understanding how they impact, how they’re experienced in life now. We have, for our early recovery patients, we have what we call our trauma information group. And that’s a 10 week weekly meeting with quite a structure. It has, we have an information sheet that we use for each topic, each session has a topic, and we have an information sheet for each topic like what is PTSD or safety and self care is our second topic. Things like that. And we read a paragraph from our information sheet and then people discuss. Oh yeah, I have that symptom too, you know. Oh you have nightmares too. Oh, you know, I’m out and you just want to withdraw and hide. Oh I do that too.

Jonathan: So part of the treatment is understanding that you’re not alone in the symptoms that you’re experiencing, that there is common human experience and response to trauma.

Judith: Exactly, exactly. And that it has a name and it doesn’t mean you’re weird or crazy, which is what a lot of people fear. It just means that you had something terrible happen to you and this is the normal, a normal response. And so being in the group, feeling understood is a tremendous relief for people who feel isolated and ashamed and that no one would understand or no one would believe them. So that’s kind of the early stage of trauma recovery, where it’s about safety, it’s also about self care, because if you don’t feel safe in your body or if you are a danger to yourself, then you can’t be safe anywhere.

Jonathan: And when you talk about the isolation, the feeling of isolation, I think that what you’re speaking of predominantly is a mental and emotional isolation, that you feel like you’re experiencing this alone. But in the world of the pandemic, where we are actually physically isolated by, it is required in order to get through this pandemic, how does the physical isolation feed into the experience of the traumatized person.

Judith: Well, of course it exacerbates both the feeling of being alone and it actually also exacerbates danger for many people. There’s been a tremendous increase reported in many countries now in domestic violence since the pandemic, because if husbands are home–

Jonathan: Yes. Right, you’re isolated, but unfortunately, you’re isolated with the person who’s causing the trauma.

Judith: Exactly. And we’re not getting a lot of child, a big increase in child abuse reports, but people are worried that that’s because kids are not going to school and they don’t have teachers that they might be able to confide in or they’re not going to their regular pediatrician’s appointments. So they’re not only not getting immunized there for ordinary things like measles, mumps, and rubella, but they’re not having opportunities to be out of the home where somebody else might be able to intercede. And of course teachers and doctors are what we call mandated reporters, we are required, if we suspect child abuse, to let the Child Protective Services know, but that’s not happening as much in the pandemic. So the isolation is both emotional and with a big increase in mental health demand, both for frontline workers and for people socially isolated in their homes. But it’s also physically dangerous for many people.

Betty: And so we’re talking about big macro impacts of trauma to micro impacts of ongoing sociological situations. What are we to do in terms of establishing safety for society?

Judith: Let me go through the other two stages, because I think that will help us think about how can we do this on a macro level. Once safety is established then what’s generally, what generally comes next is a reckoning with the past, going back and talking about what happened. And reliving what’s what happened, not just the facts of what happened, but the emotional impact and the bodily sensations and the thoughts that, you know, like, it’s all my fault, which is so common and the shame, the self blame, the sense of being different, not belonging, not deserving to belong, sometimes not deserving to live. And so all of that has to be revisited from this place of greater safety so that there is what can make a distinction between that was then and this is now. And we have to do that not as an exorcism, people often think they just want to vomit it out and get it all out and that doesn’t really work very well, and that’s what they did with, under hypnosis, with combat veterans when they want to return them to combat. But that’s not how you recover to live the rest of your life.

So we do it a little at a time and we process each little bit of that and we keep it within the range of emotional tolerance so that people are not retraumatized by being compelled or driven to pour out more than they can emotionally handle. And then there is a process of grieving because you can’t go back to the person you were before this happened or you can’t have the life that you might have had if you had not been abused as a child, you know, or if you had not been made to be a child soldier, or if you, that you are changed by what happened to you, but as you grieve, you also come to realize that you’re not, it’s it’s part of your story, but it’s not the whole story. It’s part of you, of who you are, but it’s not all of who you are. And that, as people sort of come to realize that, then they begin to have more of a sense of the future.

And then so the third stage of recovery is people sort of emerge from their grieving. It’s more about possibility and expansion, so that instead of being, it’s reengaging in the present, but instead of from a defensive perimeter, it’s more from an expansive sense of taking on new challenges, developing more intimacy, and sort of daring to do things or imagine who you can be, not just who you were. And so that’s the sort of more rewarding, if you will, moment in trauma recovery when people really are able to embrace all of who they are. And some amazing survivors develop what my colleague and friend Robert Jay Lifton calls a survivor mission, which is in some ways redefining the meaning of the trauma by making it a gift to others in some way, by joining with others to try to prevent this from happening to other people. And people will say things like, you know, if I can prevent one person from getting assaulted or if I can help one person get safe or if I can help change the laws so survivors are better cared for and some of these injustices can be corrected, then it won’t have been in vain and maybe this is what I was meant to do.

Jonathan: A sense of mission, a sense of purpose.

Judith: Yes.

Jonathan: So as we apply this framework of trauma and post-traumatic stress to the collective experience, I know, Judith, you’ve written, and I’ve so appreciated your writing about the collective PTSD, if you will, of systemic political violence, where you’ve written about really some of the most dire situations in this world, dictatorships, civil wars, genocide, things that frankly, we haven’t, so many of us, most of us in the West, have not experienced in the United States. So many have. They’re refugees from and they bring their personal experience, but I mean, collectively, here in the United States, we have not experienced a modern civil war or a genocide or these experiences that are occurring in other parts of the world. How do you apply this approach to collective PTSD to the experiences that we’ve had recently, that to our lives feel traumatic?

Judith: Well, I would argue that we are still dealing with the legacy of our Civil War, actually.

Jonathan: Oh, that’s interesting. That’s interesting.

Judith: Because, you know, the Civil War, it’s not clear who won the Civil War. I mean, the Union was preserved and slavery was abolished in the Constitution, but once the federal forces were withdrawn from the south, we had a century of Jim Crow, which I would argue was a system of state terrorism by which an enslaved population was basically re-enslaved, functionally re-enslaved. And that the political structure that we developed involved tremendous compromise with the, what I would call, the one party dictatorships of the South. And compromise that sort of also implicated the north in financing the cotton industry and the other cash crops that were grown by, if not slave labor–

Jonathan: Indentured servitude, certainly.

Judith: Yes. And I don’t, I think we do need to come to terms with that legacy in a much deeper and more widespread way than we have today. I do think that we might be due for a truth and reconciliation commission, for example, as the kind of stage one. Or I would call it more a truth and repair commission because I think repair has to precede reconciliation. I think one of the big strengths of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was that it put survivors at the center. And their testimony was widely broadcast, mostly on radio, so that their stories were central and it really became impossible to deny, even though apparently the Afrikaners called it the lying and crying commission, it meant that we didn’t get a, in South Africa, there really were, you could not lay the groundwork for Gone with the Wind reframing of slavery or apartheid, as, you know, a benign system where, you know, with happy slaves except for the bad ones, of course.

So that part, I think, was the big success. The other big success was that they traded amnesty for confession so that some of the major perpetrators of state sponsored violence did confess in order to avoid trial. But they didn’t have any kind of reparations built in. And I think they’re still very much suffering in their society from the fact that, you know, it’s still such a very unequal society where all of the capital that was created by a subordinated group has advantaged the oppressors, and there was never any compensation. So I do think we need to think about that. And then I do think that the question is can we create enough safety to embark on something like that. And that’s what I think is really going on right now with the proposed relief money that is hopefully going to be approved by Congress really just to, people talk about it as a stimulus, but it’s not really an economic stimulus. It’s disaster relief.

Jonathan: Yes. Disaster relief for a very immediate near-term–

Judith: Right.

Jonathan: –situation for the economic collapse–

Betty: Exactly.

Jonathan: –associated with the COVID pandemic, not going back to the injustices that, right, that remain from the Civil War in the 19th century.

Judith: Right. You have to do safety first and that means safety from the pandemic. A lot of that disaster relief money is about trying to roll out a competent vaccination program that’s centralized and equitable and gets people to herd immunity quickly. So that’s what we mean by safety first. And then the economic repair, plugging those holes so people don’t, we don’t have mass evictions and hunger, which is what we’re facing right now. So, yes, food, clothing, shelter.

Betty: Yeah, the basic needs.

Jonathan: I want to come back to my question, though, and that is that the things that we’ve experienced here in this modern moment of the pandemic and the economic crisis and the racial injustice are so real and visceral. We’re living them right now. And I’m just wondering, and I’m not asking you to put trauma’s on a hierarchy, but can you apply your collective PTSD approach that you’ve written about in contexts of genocide and modern civil wars, immediate responses to, you know, families whose children have been killed in a civil war with child soldiers and the immediate reparations and reconciliation. Can you apply the same approach to collective PTSD, to the things that we’re experiencing here and now in America?

Judith: Sure. But you have to start with the stage one, which is safety.

Jonathan: Right.

Judith: And then we have a reckoning. And I would argue that talking about the storming of the Capitol right now doesn’t make sense unless you understand its white supremacist roots. Scholars of the Ku Klux Klan say this is just, the group that stormed the Capitol is very, in terms of its components of evangelical Protestant Christians and white supremacists and militias, are very similar to the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, which, by the way, was very widespread, and not just in the South.

Jonathan: Right. And we saw that on display on the 6th, right, with–

Judith: With the Confederate flags.

Jonathan: –Confederate flags, nooses–

Betty: Swastikas.

Jonathan: Out in the, right, swastikas, Holocaust denial on sweatshirts, all of that.

Judith: Yeah.

Jonathan: And so, right, so the reconciliation, the bearing witness to that experience has to take into account the historical underpinnings that they carry forth.

Judith: Right. That those militias were not invented on January 6th. So that would be my argument about stage two is the getting the truth out there, making it known, and processing it and grieving and then wanting to do something to fix it. And I think it’d be a lot easier to start talking about how to fix it once you have a very widespread process. I mean, you know, there was a commission after the, many of the ghettos had uprisings in the 1960s, late 1960s, after Martin Luther King was assassinated. There was a commission appointed and it talked about two Americas, separate and unequal, and that commission report was excellent and many of its recommendations would still be very pertinent today.

Jonathan: You raise an interesting point because I’ve been wondering, in reading your work and listening to you, about how politicians and elected officials respond to collective trauma. And there’s certainly a component of bearing witness, but I wonder about the balance of, a politician, it seems, needs to bear witness, but then typically they’ll try to pivot and–

Judith: Oh let’s move on. Let’s move on.

Betty: Right, right.

Jonathan: Right, right. So–

Betty: Let’s not dwell.

Jonathan: Right. And you had Joe Biden, President Biden, expressing tremendous empathy, bearing witness to the death and the illness and the trauma that people have experienced in the pandemic, dedicating the night before the inauguration to the the purpose of bearing witness and then launching into–

Betty: Which his predecessor did not.

Jonathan: Right. So we had one who was in denial and then the contrast, the marked contrast, of Joe Biden bearing witness for the world.

Judith: And then wanting to move on. Yeah, well, he’s got, I mean, I totally understand that he has a lot of work to do and not much time to get it done. So, and of course, he wants to push forward. On the other hand, we have a reckoning with someone who basically incited a fascist coup attempt. This is a, I mean, to me, this is like a Beer Hall Putsch in the 1920s, you know, it didn’t succeed, but, you know, it could be a portent of things to come. And not just here, but in Europe and other democracies, but I think what politicians can do depends very much on what people know, whether the truth is out there, and that’s why I do think that, I mean, the big mistake of the Kerner Commission, what was it, 50 years ago, more, was it was a report, a big written report, how many people read it? It needed to be publicized and the testimony of survivors needed to be the main event so that everybody understood what it is we’re dealing with and that it’s not just a problem over here, it’s all of our problem.

Jonathan: Right. And you’ve written that recovery requires remembrance and mourning and so–

Judith: Yes.

Jonathan: –that you can’t move on in your stages, in your framework until we first get to safety and name it and grieve.

Judith: Mm hmm.

Betty: And what you say, Judith, reminds us of Pauline Boss and what she said to us, which was we are a nation founded upon unresolved trauma–

Judith: Exactly.

Betty: –which goes back to what you’re saying about the Civil War, goes back to what you’re saying about referencing South Africa. And what I find interesting about what you said about South Africa’s truth and reparation process is that it puts survivors at the center and does not privilege the powerful–

Judith: Exactly.

Betty: It privileged the harm.

Judith: Yes.

Betty: And in moving forward, you know, it seems like as we see the demands upon politicians, we don’t, Biden doesn’t have a lot of time. He must do almost two stages at once. Do the safety and the recognition and the repair almost, you know, in this accelerated fashion. As we know, in trauma treatment, time is our ally. It’s one of our tools and so how for not only the macro but the micro, do we sort of as citizens, you know, make this effort for ourselves and support the effort of our now leaders who are attempting to move us through this trauma? What are your thoughts on that?

Judith: Uh, I guess I would just say don’t try to do anything alone. That’s what I tell therapists and certainly people who are involved in political work. Find your squad, you know, find your support system, find the people that you trust and try to work together with them. And if you’re trying to reach out of your comfort zone a little bit and do something you have never done before, like, you know, run for political office or that sort of thing, know who, you know, know who your buddies are. Yes. Don’t do it alone.

Jonathan: Judith Herman, thank you so much for joining us on Mind of State.

Judith: Well, thank you for having me.

Betty: Thanks for joining us on this episode of Mind of State. If you liked this episode, you’ll find plenty more on Apple podcasts or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

Jonathan: You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at Mind of State Pod. Our website is MindofState.com.

Betty: Mind of State is produced by Alletta Cooper and Jenny Woodward. Special thanks to our co-founder, Thomas Singer. I’m Betty Teng.

Jonathan: And I’m Jonathan Kopp. Join us next time on Mind of State.