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How courts fail survivors of domestic violence

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This week brought news of two sentences in two high-profile cases of sexual abuse. A Los Angeles judge gave the disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein 16 more years in prison on top of a 23-year sentence in New York in connection with charges of rape and assault. And in Chicago, a sentence for child pornography means the convicted former music legend R. Kelly will spend an additional year in federal prison on top of the 30 years he's already gotten for racketeering and sex trafficking.

So justice served, right? Maybe according to prosecutors, but our next guest says not necessarily for the people who endured the abuse. Dr. Judith Herman is a giant in the field of trauma and recovery. She's spent her 50-year career as a psychiatrist working with survivors of violence against women and children. And she says that their vision of justice is often very different from the courts. And she's with us now to tell us more. Dr. Herman, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

JUDITH HERMAN: And thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: I think your findings, based on your practice, based on your research and based on survey data, will be surprising to many people, you know, because they see the TV news. They see TV shows based on the news. And they see survivors, you know, hugging and fist pumping when one of these convictions actually happens and when sentences are actually announced. But you're saying that that picture that we have of what justice looks like isn't what's really most meaningful to survivors. How did you first come to this insight?

HERMAN: Well, first of all, I think it's important to realize how rare it is that perpetrators are actually convicted of their crimes. Most survivors never report because they're so intimidated or so shamed, and also because they know that they're going to be the ones on trial if they actually go to court. They're going to be shamed. They're going to be blamed. They're going to be treated as though they're the suspects and they are the criminals. And the second thing is punishment doesn't really do all that much. When you ask survivors what they would want, they'll say things like, I don't want them punished, but I want them exposed. I want people to know who he is and what he did. And I want people to believe me. And I want people to tell me I didn't do anything wrong. It's the support and the vindication from the larger community that matters the most to survivors. They don't want to be shamed and blamed. They want to be told the shame belongs to the person who did the crime.

MARTIN: I found it fascinating. In one of your writings, you said that when you work with survivors, they want acknowledgement and apologies from bystanders even more than they want to hear apologies from the people who violated them. Could you say more about that?

HERMAN: Well, I think a lot of people can accept the fact that there are sociopaths in the world who are power mad and do a lot of harm. But what about all those enablers? What about all the people who look the other way? What about all the Hollywood people who knew for years? It was an open secret what Weinstein was doing. What about the women whom led the victims up to his hotel room, knowing perfectly well what was going to happen? That hurts in some ways worse, the fact that the wider community basically took the side of the perpetrator, either by action or inaction. That makes the victim feel completely isolated. For that reason, getting that community support means a whole lot.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things you point out is that actually what you called kind of formal structures of justice offer very little incentive for people to come forward, given all the things that you just talked about. So would that acknowledgment - do having groups like the #MeToo movement say we've experienced this, we see you, we understand what this is like - does that help survivors?

HERMAN: Oh, absolutely. That's often the first step in bringing people out of isolation. And what you hear over and over any time there's a speak out is I thought I was the only one. When people get feedback from others who have been there, who know what it's like and they hear, no, you didn't do anything wrong, it's an enormous relief.

MARTIN: You say that, you know, the kind of - the thing that is conventionally considered justice - punishment and monetary damages - isn't what survivors really want. They want truth and repair. What does that look like?

HERMAN: Well, it starts with public testimony, public acknowledgment. Every survivor I've ever worked with, that's what - the first thing they want. They want the facts out there. They want the people who matter to them to believe them. And then after that, some people want apologies from the perpetrator. A lot more people actually want apologies from the enablers and the people who might have taken action but didn't. When the abuse happens within the family, a lot of times survivors will say, well, you know, where was my mom? I want her to apologize for looking the other way. One survivor who I talked with said, you know, I went from being a straight-A student - because she'd been sexually assaulted at a party - to flunking out of school. Why didn't anybody say something? Where were my teachers? Didn't anybody notice? Oftentimes, a lot of the healing involves talking with the people who didn't help.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting how - you also say that one sort of under-discussed aspect of this is that the victims often really want the perpetrators to get help.

HERMAN: Yes.

MARTIN: They want rehabilitation. They want treatment. They want - we hardly ever hear this. And I'm just of curious, like, why you think that is.

HERMAN: Well, I think particularly when the abuser is not a stranger - and that's most of the cases - they can see that there's a human side to the perpetrator. I talked to one amazing woman named Wynona Ward who grew up in a family where her father was very violent and abusive to his wife and all the kids. And she had a big brother, and he was kind of her pal and her buddy. And then what happened was he didn't abuse her, but he abused the younger sisters and then his nieces. She actually had her younger sisters press charges against her brother. And she said, you know, I could see that he was a good little boy, and I loved him. And my father destroyed him. And he was in prison, and she wanted him to get help. She visited him in prison. And after his father died, he finally admitted what he did and got into treatment. And she was so happy for him that he was finally free enough to admit what he did. And she really wanted him rehabilitated.

MARTIN: Dr. Judith Herman is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She's the author of the noted work "Trauma And Recovery." A new book, "Truth And Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice," will be out next month. Dr. Herman, thanks so much for talking with us today.

HERMAN: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.