Judith Herman’s new book, Truth and Repair is disappointing

Judith Herman’s new book, Truth and Repair is disappointing

A review in the New York Times calls Judith Herman’s recently published Truth and Repair, “a beautiful, profound and important book.” (Kenneally)  In some ways that may be true.  What it’s not is a “blazing bookend” to Trauma and Recovery (1992).  Not only is this just about the silliest phrase I’ve ever read in a review, but it’s wrong.  Truth and Repair never deals with the internal changes necessary to overcome the wounds of trauma, above all the experiences of dissociation and the constant presence of the past.  The books between the bookends never touch.  The inner world of trauma is lost to reflections on tyranny, enlightenment, and justice. 

Recognition and justice, what truth and repair look like to Herman, may help the traumatized woman integrate her inner self.  But it’s also possible that this integration will remain superficial, social not psychological.  Social integration may drive psychological disintegration further underground.  Herman fails to address this complexity.   

Trauma isolates

Because trauma isolates and shames, says Herman, recovery must be social. 

If traumatic disorders are afflictions of the powerless, then empowerment must be a central principle of recovery. If trauma shames and isolates, then recovery must take place in community. These are the central therapeutic insights of my work. (p 7)

Tracing the recovery of survivors over time a large body of research has now documented facts that make intuitive sense: social support is a powerful predictor of good recovery, while social isolation is toxic. People cannot feel safe alone, and they cannot mourn and make meaning alone. (p 8)

Herman is concerned with only two types of trauma, the sexual abuse of children and the domination of women by force.  This is no criticism, and it allows her to see trauma as continuous with tyranny, and tyranny as continuous with patriarchy, the original tyranny.  But these are political categories, and while the trauma of sexual and marital abuse takes place in a political environment, its suffering is not necessarily resolved by rendering it social.  I worry when psychic trauma is seen from a political point of view.  Not because trauma isn’t political, but because a political point of view tends to treat the inside as a mirror of the outside. 


In the title of her book, Herman refers to repair.  But along the way she generally refers to justice.  While she is sharply critical of the criminal justice system as a way to deal with the trauma of rape, the justice she seeks is an idealization.  To be sure, she starts with just the right question, which she addresses to thirty survivors.  “What would make things right—or as right as possible.” (pp 9, 24)

The answer is acknowledgment and vindication.  “Survivors want the truth to be recognized and the crime to be denounced by those in their communities who matter to them.” (p 20)  Perhaps surprisingly, most survivors are not particularly interested in the conviction and punishment of the perpetrator.  This is in part because “the requirements of legal proceedings seem almost perfectly designed to aggravate the symptoms of posttraumatic stress.”  For example, victims often need to limit their exposure to reminders of the trauma; the court requires them to relive their experiences in excruciating detail (pp 58-59).

This, though, is not Herman’s primary argument against retribution.  Her primary argument is that communal support mitigates the desire for vengeance.

When the community rallies to the victim’s support, vengeful feelings are transformed into shared righteous indignation, which can be a powerful source of energy for repair. It is only when victims are denied their fair measure of justice that their anger can fester as helpless rage. (p 45)  

If justice is acknowledgment and vindication, then honoring survivors with public recognition is a new kind of justice, restoring their broken relationship with their communities (p 17).  Vindication, here, seems to mean recognition that the survivor has been wronged. 

WOKE Communities

Herman’s insight is that “implicated subjects,” people who know but do not act, particularly common in the case of sexual abuse in families and institutions, such as the church, are as insulting to the dignity of the survivor as the act of the perpetrator (p 36).  Though she does not use this language, what is needed is that the community become WOKE, aware not only of structural racism but of the structures of patriarchal tyranny.  “Tyranny is the antithesis of the Enlightenment concepts of liberty equality, human rights, and the rule of law.” (p 26)

Here’s where I get worried.  Not with Herman’s WOKEness.  That’s all to the good; we should all be more WOKE.  Worrisome is her treatment of repair, as she calls it, as though the defeat of tyranny will bring forth a world in which the just and caring community is an alternative to therapy.  She never says this, and one could argue that because justice is the “fourth and final stage of recovery,” therapy has already been completed.  Only therapy is never completed, and Herman makes no attempt to connect her previous work to this one. 

Herman (1992) has long recognized how trauma is at once dissociative and intrusive.  Trauma leads to feelings of unreality or erasure of self, and trauma keeps the past from becoming the past.  “Then and there” is always threatening to become “here and now.”  Enlightenment is a social and political achievement, desirable but contra Herman too general to help actual individuals overcome their trauma.  Traumatized individuals need therapy.  The love, care, and compassion of other individuals may be enormously helpful, but its generic version, community, is weak.  It is incapable of reintegrating dissociated memory into the narrative of an individual’s life.  Perhaps it can reintegrate the dissociated memory of the individual into the memory (history) of the community, but that’s not the same thing and is likely to replace the true self with the communal self. 

Hermann tells the story of Ross Cheit, who had been abused by the director of the San Francisco Boys’ Choir.  Many had been abused, but only he and a couple of others spoke out, and then only years later.  After arduous litigation, Cheit won a civil suit against the choir’s director and the choir itself.  He felt satisfaction.  “Acknowledgement is a balm,” he said (p 80).  But was it more than a balm?  Was justice icing on the cake (to mix metaphors), or did it take the place of the depth psychological work that overcoming trauma often requires?  Herman provides no clues. 


Truth and Repair is repetitive and poorly organized.  Within it are several interesting observations, and an important truth.  Because sexual abuse is tyranny, sexual abuse is a political act.  Whether this means it is best approached using political theory is another question. 

In my day job, I’m a political theorist.    Since Hobbes, and perhaps since Socrates, most political theorists have written as though men are rational.  When Herman opposes the Enlightenment to tyranny, she assumes that men and women recognize that the values of liberty, equality, and the rule of law are in their collective self-interest.  But trauma defies reason, reversing time and attacking the self so that it is unable to act in its own interest.  How many individuals, and nations, remain stuck fighting the past, unable to act freely in the present?  Herman knows this, but in Truth and Repair, she writes as if rationality is enough, as though trauma won’t subvert our interests and intent. 

The book ends with several examples illustrating how restorative justice might be applied to college campuses.  Take the case of Kevin and Amy.  Amy has too much to drink, Kevin walks her back to her room and Amy consents to have sex with him.  She remembers nothing in the morning, but when Kevin tells her about their “wild night,” Amy files a complaint with the school. 

“No one in this scenario wants to get Kevin in trouble with the law,” says Herman. “Not Amy . . . not the school, and of course not Kevin.  Adolescents do many stupid things” (pp 188-189)  A “healing circle,” in which Kevin learns something about his own sense of sexual entitlement is a better solution.  And it is with this example that the text ends. 

The reader, or at least this reader, feels let down.  The book just doesn’t connect.  The claim that sexual abuse is patriarchal tyranny ends with a case of date rape that lacks violent behavior or intent.  Of course, many books have disappointing endings.  The trouble with Truth and Repair is that the disappointment is built into Herman’s project, which moves from sexual abuse as the paradigmatic tyrannical act to solutions that have an element of consent, at least in so far as the victim is somehow reconciled, if not with her offender, then with her community.  About some things, there is no reconciliation, only “giving up hope of a better past,” as one wise survivor put it (p 90).  From this recognition, it is possible to move on. 

Addendum, April 25, 2023

The New York Times has a long and interesting feature article on Herman in its April 24, 2023 edition, discussing how a painful injury transformed her life (Barry).  Particularly interesting is the way it sets the neuropsychological approach of Bessel van der Kolk  against Herman’s thirty-year commitment to a social-psychological explanation.

Trauma is about bad relationships, and it is best treated by good ones.  For all my criticism of Herman, I admire her dedication to a perspective that has fallen out of favor for the wrong reasons, above all the desire for a quick fix. Her latest book continues that commitment, even if it strays far from the inner world of the wounded psyche.


Ellen Barry, She Redefined Trauma. Then Trauma Redefined Her. New York Times, 4/24/2023 https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/24/health/judith-herman-trauma.html

Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror.  Basic Books, 1992.

Judith Herman, Truth and Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice.  Basic Books, 2023.

Christine Kenneally, Review of Truth and Repair, New York Times, March 14, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/14/books/review/judith-herman-truth-repair.html



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