Critique of Judith Herman’s classic book, “Trauma and Recovery”

[Written around 2004.]

“A Strong Book with a Limited Perspective”

This book is brilliant – but short-sighted. From the introduction Judith Herman provides a clear paradigm for understanding trauma and recovery: “The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.” What she fails to understand is how this applies to her – and those like her…that is, everyone.

The trauma Judith Herman defines is only the extreme echelon of trauma – the tip of the iceberg that rises into her conscious view. Although she rightly and masterfully connects the traumas – and posttraumatic reactions – experienced by Holocaust survivors, rape victims, children in severely abusive homes, combat veterans, and domestically abused women, because of her own denial she fails to link the traumas in these categories to the traumas experienced by the other 99% of humanity: the inflicted traumas that fly under the radar in every family around the world. Thus, if you are one of the 99% whose unresolved traumas don’t fit into her extreme categories (i.e. if you are alive, don’t fit into her categories, and are not yet fully enlightened), this book’s main value for you will be through metaphor – if, that is, you can translate the extreme cases and thereby be able to relate them to your own situation.

Traumas are inflicted on children almost ubiquitously on subtle, chronic levels by those with the greatest emotional power to mold them – their parents. Traumas occur whenever a child’s true self is not witnessed in full. If a child were witnessed in full, he would have no need to develop an unconscious mind to protect himself from the knowledge of the horror he has experienced. But Judith Herman – who idealizingly dedicates this work to her mother, and is a mother herself – fails to grip this. She mistakenly views herself as outside the cycle of victim and perpetrator. This lack of insight into herself is at the root of why she has so little understanding of the mindset and motivation of the perpetrator.

Parents who are not fully conscious – that is, parents in denial of any degree of their own buried, unresolved traumas – inevitably traumatize their children without even realizing they are doing it, and thus can take no responsibility for it. Even in the mildest cases this is emotionally devastating for children, but because so few witness what is really going on and thus call it by its rightful name – including the writer of this standard book on trauma – it goes unacknowledged, and thus is considered normal.

We understand why the Vietnam combat vet drinks himself into oblivion, but do we understand why the child in the normal family compulsively overeats or wets the bed or sucks his thumb or hates his younger brother? We understand why the rape victim later becomes phobic of sex with her consensual partners, but can we fathom the normal mother’s twisted motives for having children? We understand why the Holocaust survivor has persistent, horrible nightmares about Auschwitz, but do we put the correct face on the bogeyman in the dreams of the normal, middle-class child?

The norm is still very, very sick. Yet Judith Herman, who lives in the thick of it and writes for those who think within the box, has not figured that out. Her book is beautiful, but it misses the deeper point.

7 thoughts on “Critique of Judith Herman’s classic book, “Trauma and Recovery”

  1. While studying this book for my assignment I realised a lack of cultural safety being mentioned for the therapist. And also I wonder about the linear step by step process. I think step one is a must. But talking of integration back into the world well we live in the world now.. and what if it feels like an abusive relationship to the client but is really her trauma symptoms etc? Do they just leave their relationship because they are triggered all the time? Does she recommend family and couple therapy so the partner can have more understanding as well?

  2. I’ve had to read chapter 5 of her book for a course, and I found it a mess, it was written like a subjective horror novel of all the worst things that can happen to children. It needed categorising into themes and some statistics, and didn’t describe the social context enough. I agree with Daniel that it is the extreme end of things, and ignores abusive upbringings generally, thus excusing parents including herself and others, including therapists. It’s too easy to write a horror account of child abuse because it’s so terrible, in fact anyone can do that.

  3. “We understand how the Holocaust survivor has persistent, horrible nightmares about Auschwitz, but do we put the correct face on the bogeyman in the dreams of the normal, middle class child?”

    A question one can only hope the world will ask itself someday – and answer honestly – before it’s too late –

  4. I have used the insights from Dr. Herman’s book to explain my clients – traumatized women and children primarily – to judges in various legal forums. Her magisterial book, Trauma and Recovery, is the most extraordinary book I have read in my fifty plus years of reading. It possesses a clarity achieved only by writers who know their subject completely.

  5. Herman wrote this book in order to add more information to the DSM about PTSD and how women who have been raped can have PTSD. With that being the purpose of her book, she did not have to add in things about how it affects the whole world.

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