The survivor’s narrative is often rendered invisible by the perpetration of violence, whether that violence is physical, psychological or material. Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events is an essential part of the healing process. After natural disasters, healing can come from the connection with others who have shared the experience. As Judith Lewis Herman highlights, ‘the solidarity of a group provides the strongest protection against terror and despair, and the strongest antidote to traumatic experience.’
My grandparents and parents survived the Second World War. They had vivid memories of the experience of war, which included the Nazi bombings in our home city in 1943. My parents were children at the time and years later, my mother and great aunt would recall that night and their fear as they heard the warning sirens. My mother’s apartment block was bombed. They managed to escape into the street and run for cover into the nearby air raid shelter. They were running for cover through broken glass from windows that had exploded into the streets. They were running for their lives and the sounds, smells and sights they saw that night stayed with them forever.
Often with abuse, survivors are isolated. Often, events that harm are minimised, adapted or denied completely. Acts of violence and domination have the power to erase the disaster and retell the story through the eyes of the perpetrator, giving the listener a partial truth. Sometimes, even the survivor believes the re-told story because of the ‘hold’ that the perpetrator has over their reality.
Even though I did not live through the war, I experienced it vicariously through my family experience, through the stories they told. As I got older, I realised that there was much more that they didn’t say, particularly my grandparents who tried to shield their grandchildren from the horrors of war. I noticed early in life, that the absence of words can be a more powerful indicator of trauma than the stories we retell. This understanding has followed me into my professional life and continues to fuel my professional curiosity.
A major challenge for professionals attempting to support survivors effectively, is that these partial truths may be scattered across multiple agencies, if these truths are known at all. During my work in London, I have trained professionals on risk assessment and domestic homicide prevention. Understanding risk through the eyes of the survivor is a vital piece of the narrative. Tragically, domestic homicide reviews are too little, too late for the victims and their families, but the principle of these reviews is to embed the learning into prevention work that benefits all survivors.
As professionals we may only see fragments of the story. This can make it very difficult to support that individual, family or community effectively. We may think we are doing the right thing by following agency protocols, or a social worker report BUT if our response is not informed by the survivor’s experience, then our intervention is compromised, in fact it can be more dangerous. At times we may not know what to believe because there is conflicting information. When I coach teams, I encourage them to always believe what the survivor and children are telling them, there is nothing lost from believing a person’s story. Sometimes what is recorded in case notes is NOT accurate information. Even if there are copious amounts of case notes, hearing a person’s story as they remember it is an act of humanity. This is a starting point for meaningful engagement. Meaningful engagement builds trust, particularly if you follow through on your commitments and the person believes that their feelings and experience is acknowledged. Trust enables disclosure. The more accurate information you have about a survivors situation, the better placed you are to assist them.
Cath Kane has worked extensively with the public sector and Not for Profits meet the challenges of change through fostering resilience in teams and cultivating authentic leadership in highly pressurised situations. Cath is an experienced consultant and professional coach. Her coaching is infused with more than 20 years’ experience creating, managing and advising on award winning projects in the arena of interpersonal violence and inter-agency responses. Having relocated to the US, she has expanded her consultancy and leadership coaching business to work across North America.