Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: The Ohio Kidnapping Case:The Moral Injury of Witnessing Atrocity

oldcoupleonbenchIn the past two weeks it has been difficult to be anywhere without reading or hearing about the Ohio Kidnapping, 10 year captivity, sexual abuse, torture and beatings causing miscarriages to three young woman and one daughter, locked in a neighborhood house by one man.

Both in and outside of my office people have commented and questioned:

  • How does something like this happen?
  • I can’t watch the news anymore.
  • How could the neighbors not know?
  • Why is there such evil in the world?
  • I could never have survived. 
  • Can these women ever be the same?

Judith Herman tells us that a traumatic event is one that has the capacity to provoke fear, helplessness, or horror in response to the threat of injury or death, or witnessing that in another.

When the trauma is that of nature, we speak of disaster.

When the trauma is man-made, we speak of atrocities.

It is worth considering that in face of this Ohio atrocity, whether we live in that neighborhood or witness the horror in the virtual community of viewers, we cannot easily shake this inhumanity because it is not only traumatizing— it evokes moral injury.

According to psychologist Brett Litz, moral injury is the (social, psychological, spiritual, behavioral) impact of perpetrating, failing to prevent or bearing witness to acts that transgress our deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.

Much like the impact of bearing witness to the horror of the Holocaust, the Genocide in Rwanda, or the modern slavery of human sex trafficking, the Ohio kidnapping transgresses our moral code.

  • We are compelled to talk about it, read about it, rage and despair in face of it because it assaults our beliefs and implicates our humanity.
  • We not only identify with the fear and terror of victims, we fear that we could resonate with the guilt and shame of perpetrators.
  • It disturbs us on many levels.
  • As humans it is beyond us to accept that one of us could do this to another.
  • Yael Danieli suggests that in face of moral horror, we suffer the “Guilt of the Just.”

How Do We Deal With Moral Injury?

Drawing upon the efforts of military psychologist Brett Litz and colleagues who study the repair of moral injury, three guidelines might be considered.

They may help us in face of atrocities like the Ohio Kidnapping Case as well as with feelings stirred by personal transgressions or injustices we have witnessed or suffered in our own lives.

Sharing the Story with an Empathic Listener

  • We know that there is both the need to remember trauma and the need to forget. We understand that when the traumatic event involves shame and culpability, the chance of it becoming hidden, unclaimed and silenced is even greater.
  • An antidote is sharing and risking being heard.
  • Finding the words to what feels unspeakable in the company of others who want to listen helps the translation, creates the narrative, lifts the terror, and starts the healing.

Seeking Forgiveness From A Respected Or Revered Authority

To bear witness to one’s transgression (large or small) in the eyes of someone respected and trusted (be it a higher power, a spouse, a parent, a special group) and to feel forgiveness is possible, is to dare to forgive self and make amends and change possible.

  • In the book, Narrating Our Healing, a scene is described of a young German student who amends the intergenerational legacy he carries by asking forgiveness from an elderly woman, a Holocaust survivor. Her tears and warm embrace with him share the healing with all who observe.
  • An Iraq veteran feels compelled to return to Iraq to seek out the family of civilians caught in a firefight in the war. He wants them to know that someone recognizes their sacrifice. He goes to make amends. They welcome his visit as a return of respect to their loved ones.

Living A Corrective Experience

A powerful response to the moral transgressions we observe with horror in others or that we may glimpse in our own lives is the effort to live a corrective experience–in some way.

  • The former gang member who becomes a youth counselor and returns to the streets with a different mission.
  • The retired accountant who misses the parents she ignored and begins to volunteer in a nursing home.
  • The parent who has missed his chance to be there for his children but steps up as a grandfather.
  • The prisoner whose mission is to train companion dogs for wounded veterans.

To act within one’s moral beliefs and expectations is to reduce moral injury and add something hopeful to self and to the rest of the world.

Given that atrocity is not likely to stop in this complicated world, it is important to know from the inside out—Goodness is Renewable.

Couple on a bench image available from Shutterstock.