The Psychology of Trauma

Domestic Violence

What did Judith Herman say about the psychological effects of captivity?

In 1992 Judith Herman (1942–) published a book entitled Trauma and Recovery, which looked at the psychological effects of traumatic abuse from domestic abuse to political terror. Her chapter on the effects of captivity has particular relevance to the discussion of domestic violence. In effect, captivity can produce a form of brainwashing. In a severe battering situation, the batterer holds the victim captive. By controlling the victims’ entire world—their sleep-wake cycle, their diet, their physical safety and, most importantly, their access to other people—batterers can gradually take over their victims’ mind. Through constant verbal abuse and through the degradation of the physical abuse, the victim loses any sense of self-worth. Her confidence in her ability to control her environment is shattered. Her very sense of what is real is destroyed as the batterer controls the information that is available to her, and constantly denies her own sense of reality. Moreover, by keeping other people away, batterers remove any outside reality check on their distorted worldview.

A particularly powerful way to break down victims’ sense of self is to make them betray their own moral values. The victim may be forced to engage in emotionally disturbing sexual behavior or to participate in the abuse of another victim. Similar techniques are used in the brainwashing or “breaking down” of prisoners or cult members. A critical implication of this work is that, under the right circumstances, anyone can suffer the same psychological effects. Likewise, anyone can get into a battering relationship. Of course, certain people are more vulnerable to abusive relationships than others. People with a history of child abuse or domestic violence in childhood may be more vulnerable to entering into and staying in a battering relationship. Similarly, younger people and people with significant psychological problems may also be more vulnerable.


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