A few months ago, an adult survivor of childhood sexual assault called me from under a table, where she had been huddled for the last hour and a half. Her story, which she will tell herself, and in her own words, is one of almost unimaginable trauma: she was abused by her own father and then trafficked internationally to pedophiles.
Investigators – lawyers and former officers from all branches of law enforcement and the military – have been interviewing the survivor for the past year. They are, they assured the survivor, highly trained and most definitely “trauma-informed.”
So why was she calling me from under the table? Well, on a practical level, because although the investigators had retained a therapist to offer support, therapists — unlike trauma— keep business hours, and it was now 11 p.m. On a more troubling level, the survivor needed solace because, like many who consider themselves trauma-informed, the investigators were no more than that — informed. Informed about the impact of trauma on the brain and body, informed about survival responses… they could probably even recite the principles of trauma-informed care, which are safety, choice, collaboration, empowerment and trustworthiness.
What the investigators could not do was to consistently put these principles into practice. And the reason they could not do that is because they have the same blind spot that afflicts so many survivor-serving professionals: they were not “survivor-informed.”
By “survivor-informed,” I mean the fundamental practice of asking the survivor what they want, and then respecting and prioritizing their wishes. This might sound really simple, but sometimes in our desire as professionals to implement our training in “trauma-informed” practice, we give ourselves permission to make assumptions about what is best for the survivor. (After all, aren’t we the ones who have been educated about trauma?)
Not only is this approach wrong-headed — how can we consider ourselves more expert than the person who has lived the trauma? — but it robs the survivor of power and control over their own recovery, story, voice and choice.
Recently, service providers have started to use terms such as “survivor-centered” or “survivor-focused” to describe a shift in power toward the survivor (survivor empowerment being one of the principles of trauma-informed practice.) However, if it is the professional who’s doing the centering or focusing — drawing on their knowledge and expertise to make assumptions about what is best for the survivor rather than consulting the survivor — then, ironically, we end up centering the professional and their assumptions, rather than the survivor and their needs.
Judith Herman explains it best in her 1992 book, “Trauma and Recovery”:
“Trauma robs the victim of a sense of power and control over [their] own life; therefore, the guiding principle of recovery is to restore power and control to the survivor. [The survivor] must be the author and arbiter of her own recovery…. Many benevolent and well-intentioned attempts to assist the survivor founder because this basic principle of empowerment is not observed. No intervention that takes power away from the survivor can possibly foster [their] recovery, no matter how much it appears to be in [their] immediate best interest.”
The investigative team in the pedophile case I mentioned would have done well to heed Herman’s wise words. The call from under the table was not the first time a survivor had reached out to me after being retraumatized. Even before the investigation began, one of the team members called the survivor and announced that, since it might be hard for her to find privacy at home for the Zoom sessions (the investigation coincided with the pandemic lockdown), the team would book her a hotel room. Far from the gratitude the investigators expected for their thoughtfulness, the survivor went into freefall: She had been abused in hotel rooms.
This is an example of well-meaning professionals drawing on their trauma knowledge who omitted the step of consulting the survivor about her wishes and as a result actually did further harm. Certainly, a hotel room could have been one of the options on offer, but by making assumptions about the survivor’s wishes, the investigators sparked painful memories, which made her feel unsafe and close down.
If extensively trained professionals can make this mistake, then there is clearly something missing in most trauma trainings. We have to shout louder that successful trauma-informed practice must be about the experience of the survivor, not of the service provider, or their assumptions about the survivor’s experience. We have to insist that power and control be restored to the survivor and recognize when we — and our expertise — are getting in the way.
Of course, professionals have skills that can be extremely useful to the survivor, but we must remember that this process is not about us. The survivor will only recover to the degree that we are willing to give up our professional pride and truly put our skills in service to the survivor. We will only ever be as trauma-informed as we are survivor-informed.