Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith Herman, MD has become a core work in treating trauma. First published in 1992, it was notable at the time for showing the commonalities between individual trauma such as rape and society-level trauma such as war or terrorism, and linking trauma and its healing to social context.
In my dog-eared copy, I often turn to Herman’s descriptions of the essence of the trauma and what makes recovery possible: “The core experiences of trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others. Recovery, therefore, is based upon the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections. Recovery can take place only within the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation.”
A few of the important concepts Herman puts forth on understanding trauma include that traumatic events damage both the psychological structures of the self and links to community and meaning. Traumatic events can mean a survivor is both terrified of people and of being alone. And those who are already more disempowered or disconnected from others are more at risk for the damaging effects of trauma.
Herman notes that the chaos and fragmentation of trauma is hard to force into a set pattern of healing phases, but three general stages are described as establishing safety, remembrance and mourning, and reconnection (each has its own chapter). Other keys include that the empowerment of the trauma survivor is crucial for their recovery, and that sharing the traumatic experience with others is necessary to regain a sense of a meaningful world.
This landmark work has been described as a “gift to survivors” and includes many first-person accounts from a wide range of trauma experiences including rape, incest, combat experiences, and surviving a concentration camp. As with most books on trauma, I recommend taking this book in manageable segments, and monitoring your own response along the way. Those working through their own trauma may want to proceed cautiously or with the support of a therapist.
The epilogue added in 2015 covers topics such as developments in treating PTSD, particularly in the context of recent wars, the Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs) study, and additional context on treating the trauma of sexual abuse.