Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Justice and the Healing of Trauma

Jennifer Schuett was 8 years old in 1990 when she was kidnapped from her bedroom, sexually assaulted, had her throat slashed and was left for dead in a field. Her voice was damaged in the attack and she could not scream for help. She told investigators she knew she was going to die. She didn't. Not only did she live, but she was able to help with a sketch of her attacker and his first name.

Today, 19 years later, modern science did the rest. A suspect was arrested based on a DNA match with evidence at the scene. The suspect's DNA was in the system from a very similar attack on an adult woman for which he has served time. At a press conference, Schuett, now 27, said,
This event in my life was a tragic one, but today, 19 years later, I stand here and want you all to know that I am OK. I am not a victim, but instead, victorious.
Schuett went public with her story in hopes of finally finding the perpetrator. She wants to encourage other victims of violent crime to speak out.

A common and simple summary of this story would say that Schuett will finally get "closure." If authorities have arrested the right man, the perpetrator of her attack is no longer a threat to her and will go to jail. But saying that she now has closure is far too simplistic. Trauma isn't quite that linear and straightforward.

Those who have experienced trauma -- whether from crime or from less nefarious sources -- experience it as a series of events. There is the initial critical incident -- the one that shakes their world view and makes them feel completely off center. Then there are other events, often less severe in their impact, which represent new chapters in their understanding and processing of the experience.

One need only look at the video of Schuett's press conference and listen to her tears to know that this is not "closed." That in no way makes her less of a survivor, or less victorious, or less strong. What it does mean is that once a traumatic incident occurs, it is always a part of the people it impacts. They may process it, incorporate it, and understand it, but it will never be gone.

Most likely, Schuett had acclimated to the "new normal" as a tween, teen, and young adult who had survived a vicious attack. Now, she will acclimate to a new, new normal, where the alleged perpetrator is brought to justice. She will come to understand what that means for her, and she will move on to the next thing. While getting there will, hopefully, not be anywhere near as difficult as processing the original incident must have been, it will still take some doing. If her past history is any indication, she is certainly strong enough to accomplish the task.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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