As some of you know, I'm both a sociologist of mental health and a journalism junkie. A few of you may even know I'm working on two books, one a co-edited (with my husband) volume on immigration and the other on the sociology of mob violence. These three things have come together, in the most unexpected of ways, in the past few months, with the publicity and news surrounding Lara Logan's horrendous assault in Egypt and the gang rape of Iman al-Obeidy by Qaddafi forces in Libya. Both women have shown INCREDIBLE courage in telling their stories publicly. One, because she was able to escape and go home, has been the rather lucky recipient of a great deal of support -- medical care, letters from strangers, notes from colleagues, pictures drawn by school children, stories shared by other women, notes from soldiers, even a phone call from President Obama. The other, however, has been denied the most basic human right of going home and, according to the Free Iman al-Obeidy Facebook page, has suffered greatly by being denied that access to her support system.
Last night, like millions of others, I watched Lara Logan's interview on 60 Minutes. Having followed the story carefully, I have to say I wasn't all that surprised by the details. My first clues to the severity of the assault were actually in the original CBS news statement itself: brutal and sustained sexual assault, on next flight out of the country, four days in a hospital. You don't have to be a mind reader or a genius to have figured out that it was a horrible, possibly life-threatening assault. Nobody -- least of all a war correspondent with 18 years experience working in the most war-torn places on the globe -- leaves a foreign country in the midst of celebration for something minor. Nobody -- even somebody with means -- spends four days in a hospital for the trivial. Hospitals just don't do that anymore. Nonetheless, hearing her tell her own story and seeing her tears made my heart race, my body turn cold, my tears flow. I wish I could do more for her than simply leave the notes of support that I (like hundred of others) have left on her official Facebook page.
In some ways, however, the part of the interview available online at 60 Minutes Overtime was actually the more heart-wrenching. Logan emphasized in that segment exactly how grateful she was for all the letters and cards she has received. She, unlike so many other victims of similarly horrible crimes, has tangible evidence that people care. Not just that her immediate family and friends care, but that strangers care. How unbelievably wonderful. Though Iman reportedly knows that she, too, has supporters, it is unlikely that she has the same amount of tangible evidence that people are on her side.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if all victims of violence could receive abundant evidence that people care?
Conveniently for me, I was already scheduled to lecture today on perceived social support. I used a portion of Logan's 60 Minutes Overtime segment in my lecture; the students were silent and clearly moved. The segment made the point: perceived social support matters. Various sociological studies have shown that it is perceived social support that matters most to people's mental health -- even more than tangible supports that are more easily measured (such as how often people make meals for you or take care of your children). Those who perceive they have more support are better at coping, more apt to seek help if they need it, and have lower rates of both mental and physical health problems. Those with higher levels of perceived social support also report what psychologists call post traumatic growth -- a trend among trauma survivors to report (in retrospect and only after much time has passed) that there was something good that came out of their healing.
We cannot make the traumas go away. We cannot make the traumas themselves "good". The traumas always will be indescribably evil and horrifying and they tend to stay with people in some way or another. But we can, by supporting each other, make it possible for people not only to survive a trauma, but to thrive afterward.
Logan has said she does not want this assault to define her. Of course not. And of course it doesn't. She, like all survivors, is so much more than what she survived. She's an amazing reporter. An incredibly brave, honest, intelligent woman. Somebody who by her courage and brutal honesty has managed to launch herself into my pantheon of heroes.
And now, for those of us who are her fans, it's up to us to do two things: continue to show her our support for as long as she needs it (these traumas don't disappear very fast, I'm told), and keep our promise to her that we won't define her by this event. We might define her by her bravery, however. But I think she'd be OK with that.
And we owe Iman the same thing -- to define her by her strength and not by her victimization. All survivors of the unimaginable are due this.
Got a little free time today? Drop a card to somebody. Remind them how strong they are. Remind them that they are loved. Such things matter.
It's the least we can do.
1. Thoits, Peggy. 2011. Perceived social support and the voluntary, mixed or pressured use of mental health services. Society and Mental Health 1 (1): 4-19.
2. Joseph, Stephen and Linley, Alex P. 2008. Trauma, Recovery and Growth: Positive Psychological Perspectives on Posttraumatic Stress. New York, NY: Wiley.
3. Lian, Tam Cai. YEAR. Perceived social support, coping capability and gender differences among young adults. Sunway Academic Journal 6: 75-88.
4. Cadzow, Renee B. and Servoss, Timothy J. 2009. The association between perceived social support and health among patients at a free urban clinic. Journal of the National Medical Association 101(3): 243-250.
5. Wethington, E. and Kessler, R.C.. 1986. Perceived support, received support, and adjustment to stressful life events. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 27: 78-89.
6. House, J.S. 1981. Work Stress and Social Support. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
7. Vaux, A. 1988. Social Support: Theory, Research and Intervention. New York: Praeger.
8. Turner, R.J. and Lloyd, D.A. 1995. Lifetime traumas and mental health: The significance of cumulative adversity. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 36: 360-376.
9. Turner, R.J., Wheaton, B., and Lloyd, D.A. 1995. The epidemiology of stress. American Sociological Review 60: 104-125.
- My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.