Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

A Narrative Model of Recovery1

Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

A Narrative Model of Recovery1

Article excerpt


In this paper I defend the suggestion that narratively understanding her experience of rape can help a survivor in her recovery from the harm that she has suffered. Susan Brison defends a similar suggestion, but, I argue, does not get all of the possible mileage out of narrative understanding because she does not explore what she takes to be the necessary features of a successful narrative itself. I hope to supplement her, primarily relational, account with a richer understanding of narratives themselves, as it is only, I argue, through coming to understand the essential characteristics of a narrative that we are able to grasp the particular explanatory force of narratives and, thereby, all of the potential benefits of narratively understanding her experience for a rape survivor.

1. Introduction

I first came across the idea that it is essential to be able to incorporate a traumatic experience into one's narrative in order to recover from the harm of this experience in Brison's Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self. Brison argues that 'Victims of human-inflicted trauma are reduced to mere objects by their tormentors: their subjectivity is rendered useless and viewed as worthless.' (Brison 2002: 40) Given this, she claims that one of the most important obstacles to recovery is 'regaining one's voice, one's subjectivity, after one has been reduced to silence, to the status of an object, or, worse, made into someone else's speech, an instrument of another's agency.' (55) Overcoming this obstacle, she argues, involves working through one's traumatic memories of the experience by constructing a narrative, since, for Brison, constructing such a narrative 'involves going from being the medium of someone else's... speech to being the subject of one's own.' (56) For Brison, then, 'the central task of the survivor [is] regaining a sense of control, coming up with a coherent trauma narrative and integrating it into one's life story.' (103)

What does Brison mean when she speaks of a narrative? She explains:

As I use the temi, a 'narrative' does not need to have a beginning, middle, and end, unless that is taken to mean, simply, that it starts and ends, with something in between. . . [a narrative] is a social interaction - actual or imagined or anticipated or remembered - in which what gets told is shaped by the (perceived) interests of the listeners, by what the listeners want to know and also by what they cannot or will not hear. (102)

So, a narrative, as Brison is using the term, refers to a story of an event told to an audience - at its core a narrative is, for Brison, a 'social interaction'. On Brison' s account, one's authence plays a fundamental role in the construction of one's narrative insofar as the narrative that one tells depends in certain crucial ways on one's authence - particularly on the interests of one's authence. To elucidate, she compares the kind of narrative one would tell one's therapist with the kind of narrative one would tell in a courtroom; where the authence's interest in the former is to work through the experience and the authence's interest in the latter is to hear the details of the experience exactly as it occurred.

One's authence also plays another fundamental role; that of listening - being receptive to - and engaging empathetically with one's narrative. Without one's authence engaging with one's narrative in an understanding and empathetic way, it is, according to Brison, very difficult, if not impossible, for the survivor to recover. She writes:

In order to construct self-narratives we need not only the words with which to tell our stories, but also an authence able and willing to hear us and to understand our words as we intend them. This aspect of remaking a self in the aftermath of trauma highlights the dependency of the self on others and helps to explain why it is so difficult for survivors to recover when others are unwilling to listen to what they endured. …

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