Torture Victims

Healing Themselves



By KELLIE B. KOTRABA                                                                                         


Can trauma victims heal themselves? Boston psychiatrist Richard F. Mollica is convinced that they can. In his book Healing Invisible Wounds: Paths to Hope and Recovery in a Violent World, he reports his findings from 25 years of research on the psychological healing process of trauma victims, including former South Vietnamese soldiers tortured by their Communist captors after their victory in 1975.  

Since 1981, Mollica and fellow researchers at the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma had conducted “thousands of clinical interviews, oral histories, and research survey of traumatized people worldwide,” Mollica wrote in the Boston Globe in 2007. “We have found that the survivor’s trauma story is essentially a story of healing and survival.”

In his book, Mollica strays from the widely held view that trauma victims cannot be treated. According to Mollica, there is an “innate capacity possessed by all human beings to restore their physical and mental self to a state of full productivity and quality of life, no matter how severe the initial damage.” He points to self-healing as one of the most efficacious forms of restoration. “Engaging traumatized persons in their own recovery must become a mantra of social recovery,” he insists.

“Trauma survivors can transform social and cultural barriers to self-healing by making it a meaningful concept in our vocabulary,” Mollica writes. For example, Vietnamese combat veterans who talk about their experiences with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) not only help themselves heal internally, but spread awareness in society.

Mollica explains that when conversing with torture survivors, it is important to grasp the precise meaning of the words they are using—words that could be distorted in translation. The Vietnamese who were interned in re-education camps, he writes, were “brainwashed,” but this term can mean different things in different translations and cultures. According to Mollica, the Vietnamese use the phrase, cải  tạo tư tưởng, signifying a “re-education of someone’s ideas or thoughts.”

Mollica cites Thang, a South Vietnamese prisoner of war, as an example for explaining the ability of humans to cope with traumatic situations. For three months of his 10-year captivity, he was shackled in a small dark room, but hid his emotions because he knew that he would be executed if he released his anger. “In his mind, he would translate his experiences into something familiar, something he could control,” Mollica writes. Thang imagined mosquitoes and worms to be helicopters and tanks he and his battalion could hold off in combat; the barbed wire was, in his imagination, a beautiful rose vine. “He was able to survive by becoming a ‘great pretender,’” Mollica writes. Thang thus healed himself while undergoing this ordeal.

As another example of self-healing, Mollica cites Truong, a former soldier, who also spent 10 years in Communist incarceration. Truong lives in self-imposed isolation. Mollica relates that Truong’s only contact with others is at his Catholic church, and that only his faith prevented him from committing suicide. “While many doctors would view the depressive symptoms of this man as urgently in need of psychiatric care, he is surviving through his own agency by prayer.” Still, Truong continues to struggle with depression.

In his 2007 column, Mollica underlined the significance of faith in the self-healing process. “Extensive scientific research by my group, including more than 160 publications, has demonstrated that the three major social elements of healing are altruism, work, and spirituality,” he wrote.

Self-healing, he writes in his book, very much involves a social element. Those who are involved in social activities heal much better than those who are not. “One of the first steps in a traumatized person’s recovery, whether child or adult, is to break his or her isolation by acknowledging that the forces of self-healing are at work and will ultimately lead to a good outcome, including the return to a normal life,” Mollica continues. While self-healing primarily involves the victim, Mollica also notes, “helpers are essential because they can use their empathetic skills to reinforce this therapeutic optimism in survivors.”

One key way for trauma victims to heal is to tell their stories, Mollica emphasizes. According to Mollica, the purpose of telling traumatic stories is not to repulse the listener or relate brutal occurrences graphically. Victims should communicate their stories clearly and craft them well in order to have the most benefit. “Traumatized persons have so much to gain in their interactions with listeners if they share the full trauma story,” writes the Boston psychiatrist. But just reporting details is not enough: “The story must be told in a manner that can be readily received by the other person without causing the listener to be overwhelmed and to withdraw.”

Although some of his colleagues doubt the ability of trauma victims to heal, Mollica adamantly insists that self-healing is possible: “I am optimistic that the [opinion of professionals about] personal healing of traumatized people has been permanently transformed and will not revert to the hopeless attitudes and harmful practices promulgated by previous generations.”