Person to Know: Judith Herman

It would be impossible to do this work without recognizing the importance of Judith Herman. We’ve already included her on our People to Know page, but the reality is that you need to know much, much more about her than we could fit into that small space.

Judith Herman, M.D., is a professor of clinical psychiatry at Harvard University Medical School and the author of Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence--From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, which was published in 1992. Trauma and Recovery was groundbreaking and is still considered one of the most important explorations of complex trauma and recovery in the field of psychiatry. The book explores the horrors of extreme trauma across multiple contexts, from child abuse and domestic violence to political terror and cults, exposing the common experiences and impacts to survivors. Far before Evan Stark outlined the concept of coercive control, Herman’s work explained the impacts of subjugation and terror, recognizing the central role power and control play in both the reign of an abuser and the recovery of a victim.

Herman drew an important distinction between the impacts of and recovery process related to acute trauma (a one-time event) and complex (repeated, extended) trauma. Her exploration of complex trauma also recognized the commonalities between “the tyranny of private life” experienced by women and those held captive as prisoners of war. [1]  She unflinchingly embraced a feminist theoretical approach to understanding power and control, recognizing the complexity of how victims experience terror, disconnection, and captivity, as well as power and control’s function in our society, including its important role in structuring the political and social systems that govern us (and create law and policy that guides protection for victims).

Herman’s exploration of trauma is eye-opening and certainly resonates with survivors of complex trauma, but her work on recovery provides hope for a way forward. Herman spends equal time exploring the recovery process, offering important insights into how survivors can heal and the people in their lives and communities can best support them. Herman presents three fundamental stages of recovery: establishing safety, reconstructing the trauma story, and restoring the connect between survivors and their community. [2] She also recognizes the important role power and control play in the recovery process as well, stressing that each phase of recovery must be survivor-led and a process that empowers and provides agency to the victim. Most importantly, Herman explores all of these stages through the lens of relationships, recognizing that because trauma shatters a survivor’s “sense of self”, “that sense can be rebuilt only as it was built initially, in connection with others.” [3]

To this day, Judith Herman continues to research and write about trauma. Her work is foundational and Trauma and Recovery is absolutely essential reading for those who want to understand how trauma impacts people and “how we heal and are healed.” [4] It is most certainly an academic exploration of the topic, but is valuable even to those who are not in the field of psychiatry. We hope you’ll check her work out!

Written by Abigail Hazlett

[1] Herman, J. L. (2015). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence--from domestic abuse to political terror. Hachette UK. p. 28
[2] p. 3
[3] p. 61
[4] back cover