Sunday, October 13, 2013

Elizabeth Smart's Recovery

Andrew Klavan is right. Today’s therapy culture cannot easily explain Elizabeth Smart. Our commonly-accepted sense of how to deal with extreme trauma does not account for how Smart dealt with hers.

Klavan summarized the problem:

Nine months of trauma, raped every day, mentally tortured by these demonic lowlifes with their threats and their sick religious delusions. Hell, I know women who’ve been assaulted once and have never gotten over it. I know people whose whole lives are defined by the cruel things that were done to them. I myself just have to hear Smart’s story and I start having angry fantasies about what I’d like to do to Mitchell (hint: it involves a ball-peen hammer and pliers). So how does she, who actually went through this stuff…  how does she live her life without being consumed by rage every day all the time?

He continued:

In our whiny, victocratic, nurse-your-wounds, therapy-and-drug laden culture, this poised young woman gives you faith there really is a better way. Whatever is in her, it’s an amazing thing, that’s for sure. I just wish I knew what it was!

Perhaps the question is not so much what it was, but what it wasn’t.

Smart did not undergo therapy. She received no professional counseling. She was not debriefed. She was not put on serious psychotropic medications.

Thus, she was not encouraged to make her trauma the meaning of her life. She did not learn how to maintain a state of permanent rage for what had been lost and could never be recovered.

She chose to put it behind her. For the most part she has preferred not to talk about it with friends and family. She has maintained her poise and her dignity, and has become who she would have been if it had not happened.

Five years ago People Magazine described her recovery:

Still, by all accounts Smart is doing remarkably well in putting her ordeal behind her. Since reuniting with her parents and five siblings, she has traveled with her family to Ireland, England, France and Italy ("The gelato! I couldn't get enough of it"), performed dozens of harp recitals for neighbors and people in her hometown (she's been playing since she was 5) and had a steady boyfriend for a while (she's not seeing anyone right now). She has a summer job as a bank teller and during the school year lives away from home in a noisy apartment with four roommates. "It's terrific how well she is doing," says her father, Ed Smart, a child-protection advocate who along with Elizabeth helped get the Adam Walsh bill, establishing a nationwide sexual-criminal registry, passed in 2006. "After going through such a nightmare, how do you deal with it? But she's been truly amazing. I think it's a second miracle."

Although her parents offered counseling, Smart has put her life back together without the help of a therapist, preferring instead to speak with her parents and grandparents when issues come up. "I don't feel the need to talk about what happened to me, but if I do, I know my family is there," she says. Ed Smart insists his daughter isn't just keeping everything bottled up inside. "We haven't gone through what happened to her blow-by-blow, but both Lois and I have heard different things from her," he says. "It's a part of her life she can never forget, but it's nothing she wants to dwell on. So we try not to dwell on it either." 

For some reason, therapy wants trauma victims to relive their pain. It has believed that if victims are not in a state of semi-permanent rage and anguish they have not really understood what happened to them.

Therapists rarely believe that an Elizabeth Smart could become who she would have been if the trauma had never happened. Their worldview is not based on recovery, but on punishing the perpetrators. How can we mete out a just punishment to rapists if we believe that their victims might recover?

Unfortunately, too much therapy helps people to maintain a permanent state of moral outrage. This is more about politics, about manipulating the popular mind, than it is about helping trauma victims to heal.

A broken-down trauma victim is a better argument for rage than is a recovering victim.

Of course, Elizabeth Smart did not do it alone. When she returned to her family, at age fifteen, they respected her decision to try to put it all behind her.

Imagine that: respecting the decision of a child. In a more therapy-savvy culture she would have been dragged to the neighborhood therapist, regardless of her wishes. She would have been told that she is bottling up her feelings. She would have learned that the trauma will henceforth define who she is. She would have been put on a cocktail of psychiatric medication.

Had she treated the experience as something that was not relevant to whom she really was, her therapist would have said that she was dissociating.

One must emphasize that the Smart’s family and community was as much a part of her recovery as her own inner resources. It appears that no one treated her as irretrievably broken down. No one treated her like a trauma victim. They treated her as Elizabeth.


Elizabeth J. Neal said...

I officially opened April 12th. My business is located within the Accelerated Physical Therapy space, but is completely separate from them. Sober Companion

Anonymous said...

This post is so woefully misinformed about "therapy culture" and the reason we ask trauma victims to relive their pain. We don't do it to ensure that trauma victims live in a "semi-permanent" state of rage. We do it so they can stop blaming themselves for the horrific things that happened to them when they were unable to protect themselves.

And therapy in general is not all about the perpetrators. It is, in fact, about helping victims heal. We don't care what happens to the perpetrators as therapists, but we are going to try our hardest to help victims move past their trauma and start to love themselves enough to live rich and fulfilling lives rather than defining themselves by their past experiences.

Also, the basic premise of therapy is based on the idea that "drug cocktails" don't fix everything, but that emotional wounds take real emotional and mental work to heal. So there's no guarantee that Elizabeth would have been prescribed meds if she'd seen a therapist during her recovery. In fact, she most likely wouldn't have, because it would have been clear what the cause of her depression, anxiety, PTSD, and whatever else was affecting her was. No one would have tried to tell her it was purely biological. And since it wasn't biological, there's no evidence that drugs would have helped much, if at all.

She seems to be doing okay for now, but I've seen plenty of clients who have been "doing okay" until 20 or 30 years after the trauma when they finally start to realize how negatively it's affected their self-perceptions, relationships, and their lives as a whole. But before you call me a therapist just trying to baby trauma victims, you better be certain that I'll be the one who's there, ready to pick them up when they're ready to do the incredibly difficult work it is to process those terrifying and debilitating fears and pains.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Anonymous, for your wonderfully worded reply. Many people do not have the kind of stable family support, community, faith, surroundings, etc. that she had from the very beginning of her life which gives her that wonderful foundation to fall back on and to draw from (for which I am so happy for her in the most sincere way :))) but my point being, that many people have already very shaky beginnings, with layer upon layer of "debilitating" erosion for years. To try to "shame" other people who have experienced assault, especially from your own relative, is ridiculous, (my paraphrase) "You were only raped once, for God's sake get over it, look at what she went through and you're still whining and wallowing in it??" seems to be what he's saying... about someone he knew. ugh.... Make a commentary, okay dude, but leave shaming other people out of it.