Book Review: Searching for “Truth and Repair” — Asking Rape Survivors For Their Vision of Justice

By Pat Reber

For real change to happen, argues Judith Herman, “crimes of dominance and subordination would need to be approached as a matter of public health as well as public safety, with prevention as a primary goal.”

Truth and Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice, by Judith L. Herman. Basic Books, 272 pages, $28.

Judith Herman — feminist and psychiatrist — did pioneering work in the ‘70s and ‘80s to connect the post war trauma of returning Vietnam Vets to the trauma of women subjected to rape and domestic abuse.

In her 1992 book, Trauma and Recovery, Herman set out the three steps which have become the broad basis for working with trauma survivors over the past decades: establish safety; revisit the past in order to grieve; and refocus on the present and future.

In her latest book, Truth and Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice, Herman calls for a fourth and final stage of recovery — justice. She asks rape survivors about their vision of justice. What she finds seems to surprise even herself.  Seeing their attacker behind bars is not a priority. Rather, what they want is acknowledgement, apology, accountability, and amends.

Herman, 81, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, talked to 30 people — 26 women, four men — who are survivors of sexual assault and harassment. She began the project nearly 20 years before, with a paper in the journal Violence Against Women. Years passed with illness, family losses, grandchildren, until finally, isolated during the pandemic, she came back to the project.

“If trauma is truly a social problem, and indeed it is, then recovery cannot be simply a private, individual matter,” she says.

Herman finds that the biggest thing missing in this “fourth stage” is the establishment of a moral community, a spotlight on the bystanders who failed to intercede along with the failure of society to protect and believe the victim. As things are now, in the few rape cases that ever make it to court, the female survivor usually faces a wall of condemnation, a front of dismissal and disbelief not only by judges and defense lawyers but also by her very neighbors, her very community, sometimes her very family.

In short, rape and sexual assault in the minds of the broader community is seen as a “private misfortune” that does not affect them.

The challenge Herman explores is this: How to create a form of justice that would help repair the injuries, bring in the community, and provide a bypass to the established court-and-incarceration system. Truth and Repair provides a guide to the alternatives to the status quo being explored around the country. Although she expresses skepticism about restorative justice — the most well-known example being the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa — a consideration of RJ (as it is known in the field) runs throughout the book as she explores RJ programs and then calls for further development and study.

The current justice system has failed rape survivors, a fact known by most women. A mere 1 to 5 percent of rape survivors gain what is conventionally called justice in criminal court.

Feminist Susan Brownmiller documented the function of rape in society in her 1975 Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. Reaching back to ancient cultures, she proved her then controversial thesis that sexual gratification is often the last thing on the mind of a rapist — whether the attacker acts alone or in a gang. Rather, rape is the tool of male domination — “a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear,” Brownmiller wrote.

During the AIDS crisis, many women carried condoms in fear of sexual assault. In the Rwanda genocide of 1994, Tutsi women were systematically raped by HIV-positive AIDs patients recruited by the Hutu-led government from hospitals. After mass rapes in the Balkans and Rwanda, the international community began recognizing and prosecuting rape as a weapon of war.

Rape as a weapon of war is not the focus of Herman’s book. But this recent international history supports her claim that rape can no longer be considered just a “private misfortune.” Rather, it is a system of violence and control that leaves its victims with life-long trauma, in need of healing and repair.

Asked about their visions of justice, rape survivors told Herman that they wanted the truth to be acknowledged by the perpetrator and bystanders. “I just want people to know who he is, what he did to me,” one woman said. Survivors want the “burden of shame” taken from their shoulders and put on the shoulders of the rapists.

Some rape survivors find acknowledgement by working through civil court cases that may end with settlements — such as cases brought against the Catholic Church by childhood sex abuse victims. Herman cites a California civil case brought by Ross Cheit and other victims of childhood sexual abuse at a summer camp run by the San Francisco Boys Choir. Cheit won a settlement but he refused to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Instead, as part of the settlement, he insisted the organization admit it had harbored a predator.  Just this year, writer E. Jean Carroll gained acknowledgement from a civil court jury that she had been sexually assaulted by former president Donald Trump.

Apology and accountability are also cited by rape survivors as steps to healing. But getting there is a hard reach. Apologies by perpetrators are often empty gestures. One woman, an incest survivor, tells Herman that she would not want an apology from her older brother. “I suspect he would enjoy talking about what he did,” she said.  “And I would be wary of an apology because then I would feel pressure to forgive him.” [Emphasis author’s.]

The restorative justice movement has gained traction in recent years as an alternative to court systems — a way to hold perpetrators and bystanders accountable. It calls for the formation of a circle of community members to bring together victim and perpetrator. John Braithwaite of Australia,  a leading proponent of this movement, writes that the “harm-doer” should be confronted with community resentment and feel shame.

Herman can’t make any judgement about this system’s viability. There is not an extensive enough of a track record to determine if it helps rape victims to recover. In the first case she cites, for example, the rapist continues to rape afterwards. Still, throughout the book, she keeps coming back to versions of restorative justice that appear to be working.

A program in Tucson, Arizona suspends the threat of criminal trial for lower level sex offenders (repeat offenders or cases of great violence are not eligible) if they participate in restorative justice conferences with victims and witnesses who tell their stories. One quarter of the men initially considered for the program make it through to the end.

In a Vicarious Restorative Justice program, (VRJ), rape survivors attend therapy groups with men who are court-mandated to undergo sex offender treatment. There is no personal connection between survivors and rapists, but Herman writes that process offers some sense of justice for survivors who have been damaged.

What about restitution and amends for rape victims?

Some survivors told Herman they would be offended by financial settlements, saying it would make them feel “bought off.” Others pointed to the lifelong financial losses in terms of derailed careers and medical costs. “Trauma is a life sentence,” says survivor Lybia Rivera, who dropped out of her Harvard graduate studies after being harassed by a distinguished professor. Rivera calls for a system in which the rapist pays throughout his life with money taken out of his paycheck.

The 1984 Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) set up a national financial trust to distribute reparations both to individual victims and communities. It is funded by fines assessed to convicted offenders. But very few rape survivors seem to benefit from it, given the low conviction rate for the crimes.

Perhaps more effectively, at least in the workplace, women have been launching collective cases against sexual harassment and rape typified by the #MeToo movement. One woman, “Rose,” who was raped in her youth, takes a teaching job at a state college. When she arrives, a senior professor comments to everyone: “The new hire is so hot!” Over the next 18 months, Rose writes down every interaction with this man, takes her evidence up through the college ranks to the dean. She finds support among colleagues along the way. Under the threat of her civil suit, the college agrees to provide mandatory training in sexual harassment and the professor is removed.

This was justice for Rose. Herman also writes of her own employer, Harvard University, and the fight women have had against sexual harassment in their academic work.

The question about alternative healing and justice mechanisms is this: What to do about the offender? Survivors want them exposed and disgraced. But, Herman writes, they don’t want it as a way to “get even” but rather to mobilize the community and figure out what steps might be necessary to prevent the rapist from harming others. Their focus is primarily on their own need for healing and safety and for the community to embrace them. Some survivors even want to see their attackers rehabilitated.

Author Judith Herman. Photo: Trauma Therapist Project

Is it possible to rehabilitate rapists in an alternative justice system? How does society prevent future attacks if rapists are not taken to court and convicted? This seems to be the biggest question raised by Truth and Repair. And there doesn’t seem to be an answer.

Herman concedes that little is known “about what it would actually take to bring perpetrators to relinquish violence and feel genuine remorse for their crimes.”

“In reality, most rapists are not strangers to their victims; they are acquaintances, bosses, dates, boyfriends or husbands. Their odds of being caught or punished are close to nil,” she concludes.

On college campuses, members of all-male fraternal organizations or athletic groups are more likely than other young men to commit rape, according to two 2015 studies. Rape is sometimes a rite of initiation, with vulnerable females targeted ahead of time. For many young men, their informal sexual education comes from pornography, in which “domination is what makes sex sexy.”

Perhaps, suggests Herman, college and university campuses are paving the way to a safer future for women by working with young men. She cites a program at Northwestern University called MARS (Masculinity, Allyship, Reflection, Solidarity) which trains peer counselors to educate men on campus. According to a 2015 survey of 800 tertiary institutions by the Association of  American Universities, 61 percent of colleges and universities had sexual assault prevention programs. Pressure has come from the federal government through Title IX of the Civil Rights Act (1972), which prohibits sex discrimination.

There are an increasing number of programs to support rape survivors on campus these days. But the final element — that of disciplining the offender — is the hardest. Under former president Donald Trump, the Department of Education issued higher standards for admissible evidence in campus rape cases and provided rapists the right to cross examine their accusers in person. Is that progress?

Herman calls the persistent support and advocacy for rapists by their family and community the “Fine Young Man” narrative.  A typical example was the New Jersey judge who denied a prosecutor’s motion to charge a 16-year-old boy as an adult. He had filmed himself raping a drunk girl at a party. He came from a “good family” and was “a candidate for a good college,” the judge argued. The judge, who was later rebuked at the appeals level, wanted to protect the boy from lifelong ruin. There was no mention of the lifelong trauma his victim experienced.

Truth and Repair offers deep insight into rape culture and the pain suffered by survivors, proposing a fourth step toward “healing justice” through the entire “social ecology of violence.” For this to happen, there must be change in the way first responders handle rape cases and changes in the courts and the workplace. These changes, Herman argues, will come closer to meeting what survivor’s envisage as justice.

Herman calls for an expansion of sex education, to “counter the eroticized misogyny of porn” and to create a wider understanding of “how male dominance and female subordination shape the most basic concepts of masculine and feminine.”

For real change to happen, Herman asserts, “crimes of dominance and subordination would need to be approached as a matter of public health as well as public safety, with prevention as a primary goal.”

When truth and repair is found for survivors through acknowledgement, vindication, apology, and amends, “the damaged relationship between the community and the survivor is healed, trust is restored, and a better kind of justice is done.”

Pat Reber, 76, a retired journalist living in Maryland, has worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Washington DC, Germany, Kenya and South Africa. She covered the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa for the Associated Press and served as deputy bureau chief in Washington for Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa) during the Bush and Obama years. She last wrote a review for ArtsFuse on Abortion: A Personal Story, a Political Choice by Pauline Harmange.


  1. Helen Epstein on May 30, 2023 at 3:57 pm

    Important book by a pioneer in the field. Excellent and informative reviewed. Thanks!

  2. Miggie Warms on May 31, 2023 at 10:16 am

    Comprehensive review of what promises to be an enlightening book. Looking forward to reading Judith Herman’s latest.

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