by Mary Ragan, PhD, LCSW
and Executive Director of PSI
“What Good Will Talking Do?”Quite a lot, as it turns out.Sometimes people come into therapy saying some version of: “What good will talking do? I know what my problem is and I know what I need to do. Nothing you can say will change the facts; nothing will undo what has happened.” All true. Nothing changes facts or rewrites history.
What can be changed, however, is the meaning you make of that history and the way you understand your choices as a result of it. What can be changed, eventually, is your ability to gain some mastery over feelings that previously left you panicked or depressed or dissociated. What can be changed is feeling like you’re held hostage to the narrative you inherited from your past and continue to live out of in the present.
I know this is true because I’ve seen it happen so often in my clinical practice. I’ve been witness to people who give voice to their own story by confronting the prohibitions against speaking the truth out loud. I’ve seen people heal from unspeakable trauma in ways they would not have believed possible. It begins with speaking.
Sometimes that speaking is very personal, in the intimacy of a loving relationship or with a trusted person in a therapeutic setting. Other times it is communal and political.
We are living in a time now when women are speaking.
In 2017, Time named the “Person of the Year: The Silence Breakers,” those women who were the catalysts for what was to become a tsunami of revelations about sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace. These women, and some men, told their stories, in graphic and often horrifying detail.
#MeToo, a movement now global in scale, is a stunning example of what can happen when truth-telling goes viral. It feels like an organic, living example of the “Butterfly Effect” from chaos theory which posits that the tiny motion of a butterfly’s wings on one continent can trigger a tornado half a world away.(1)
Catherine MacKinnon, legal scholar and author of Butterfly Politics (2017), calls Ashley Judd, the actor who began the groundswell of accusations against Harvey Weinstein, the butterfly of this moment. Judd is the one who had the courage to name what many women had experienced and made it possible for so many others to speak.
MacKinnon suggests that under the right conditions, small actions can produce major social transformations.
The person who preceded the MeToo movement was Anita Hill, currently a law professor at Brandeis University. She testified at the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas in 1991, detailing her experience of harassment from him. In televised public congressional hearings, Hill’s credibility was attacked, her character smeared, and her sworn testimony dismissed as an unresolvable “he said, she said” conflict. After Thomas described the process as a “high-tech lynching”-despite the fact that both he and Hill are African-American-the Senate confirmed him. (2)
During these hearings, some women wore buttons that said: “I believe Anita Hill.” In the current #MeToo moment, women are not identifying with someone else’s story; they are telling their own. Again. And again. And again.
It has happened in Hollywood and in boardrooms, with clergy and with coaches.
And it happened in the courtroom of Judge Rosemarie Aquilina at the trial of Larry Nassar. She created a therapeutic space for over 150 women to speak about the abuse they endured at the hands of this predator. To Rachael Denhollander, the former gymnast who was the first to file a police report against him, Judge Aquilina said: “You are the bravest person I’ve ever had in my courtroom.”
What good will talking do?
It may just be the first step on the road to healing and wholeness. It may even be a spiritual practice that goes well beyond personal recovery to embrace an ethic of justice for all.