Understanding stories of trauma

In many cultures, including Congolese culture, storytelling functions as a means of preserving and transmitting historical memory while building community solidarity. Narrative also plays a therapeutic role in reducing the psychosocial impact of trauma by allowing individuals or groups to tell their stories and listen to the stories of others within safe spaces (Kiser, 51). However, in some cases traumatic events are so horrific that survivors choose to suffer in silence. Fear of retribution and rejection prevent those who have experienced the trauma of rape from acknowledging the event and seeking assistance. My research with Congolese women who have been raped has underscored the key role that narrative can play in assisting rape survivors and others in understanding the trauma of rape and in helping rape survivors heal from that trauma.

Sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV) is rampant in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). A 2009 study found that 462,293 Congolese women, aged 15 to 49 years, reported having been raped within the past year (Peterman, Palermo and Bredenkamp, 2011). This stunning figure excluded girls under the age of 15 and women over the age of 49 who had also experienced this horror. Furthermore, for a number of reasons, many women choose not to report their attacks. Reporting rape too rarely ends in any form of justice for the victim and can often have negative effects, with raped women facing stigma, discrimination and retribution.

In February 2014, I collected stories from 14 women who had survived rape in the eastern DRC as part of dissertation research into trauma healing for SGBV survivors. I assessed interview data using narrative analysis techniques to identify themes that surfaced across all of the interviews, using that data to then compile one biographic narrative using the data and themes from all of the narratives. While I had planned for only ten interviews, many more women requested the opportunity to share their stories of rape and its aftermath. Nearly all of the women I interviewed expressed gratitude for the opportunity to share their stories and asked that I share their stories so that other women might find healing.

One of the primary goals of the narrative approach to trauma healing is to increase awareness of the dominant stories that shape the lives of storytellers (Bennet, 12-13). Becoming aware of these dominant narratives can assist rape survivors in identifying and developing responses that can bring healing and build resilience for individuals and communities. The narrative approach I employed in my research consisted of very loosely structured interviews. In responding to a limited set of interview questions, my informants focused on the key aspects of their own stories of rape as they experienced and remembered it. Rather than adopting a structured interview style focused on eliciting information about particular topics, I sought through more free-flowing interviews to allow my informants to identify the crucial dimensions of their experiences and memories.

The findings of my study resonated with a theory of social justice developed by Madison Powers and Ruth Faden, whose work in philosophy and bioethics has articulated how indicators of human well-being can serve as a measure of social justice. Powers and Faden have described six essential dimensions of human well-being: health (physical and mental); respect (self-respect and respect from one’s family and community); reasoning (ability to engage in coherent, rational thought); attachment (presence of intimate relationships); self-determination (ability to exercise agency); and personal security. While Faden and Powers grant that one can have a decent life without having a high threshold in all six of these dimensions, they do contend that human well-being can be negatively affected by a serious deficiency in one or more of these dimensions.

My research with Congolese rape survivors found that the traumatic experiences these women had undergone significantly affected their wellbeing in all six dimensions of human well-being identified by Powers and Faden. That said, the dimensions of well-being most adversely affected, I discovered, were attachment and respect. Though many of the women had suffered significant physical trauma, most only mentioned their physical injuries after I questioned them specifically about physical complications resulting from the attack. The majority of my interviewees, however, did highlight in their narratives the pain of rejection by their husbands and/or stigma they faced from other community members because they had been raped.

Stigma toward rape victims, particularly stigma from other women, often results from a need on the part of stigmatizers to distinguish themselves from persons who have been raped. This distinction acts as a pseudoprotective measure, cultivating the illusion that one is definitively safe from suffering the same fate as the victim (Grubb and Turner, 2012).

Trauma healing, awareness and resilience efforts aimed at addressing the particular needs of rape survivors must therefore pay particular attention to deficits in attachment and respect. My research found that narrative opportunities for rape survivors to share their stories can contribute to a reduction in the stigmatization and discrimination of rape survivors in at least two ways. First, by affirming and supporting rape survivors in exercising self-determination as they share their stories, thus building their resilience as individuals and in turn strengthening their confidence in fostering intimate attachments and building relationships. And second, by expanding and deepening family and community understandings of rape and the experiences of women who have faced it, in turn reducing the stigmatization of rape survivors. Storytelling by rape survivors thus becomes a key way of expressing and building individual and communal resilience.

Beth Good is MCC’s Health Coordinator and holds a Ph.D. in Nursing.

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