The Power and Strength of Bearing Witness
A witness assures us that our stories are heard, contained, and transcend time
Posted Dec 03, 2013
Experiences in my own life and in my practice as a psychotherapist have caused me to concur with Maya Angelou that, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” But what produces the power and strength of witnessing, for the teller and often for the witness as well? How exactly does bearing witness benefit an individual? How is it reparative to us? And how do we, as therapists, help others bear nearly unbearable experiences?
Bearing witness is a term that, used in psychology, refers to sharing our experiences with others, most notably in the communication to others of traumatic experiences. Bearing witness is a valuable way to process an experience, to obtain empathy and support, to lighten our emotional load via sharing it with the witness, and to obtain catharsis. Most people bear witness daily, and not only in reaction to traumatic events. We bear witness to one another through our writing, through art, and by verbally simply sharing with others.
In legal terms, witness is derived from a root meaning "to bear in mind;" "to remember;" "to be careful." A witness in this light can be defined as one who has knowledge of something by recollection and experience, and who can tell about it accurately. By this definition, we are all witnesses for one another, whether or not by choice. Some instances of bearing witness, whether legally or psychologically, do not require the permission of the witness. At other times, the witness is a willing and active participant.
Art is a wonderful avenue for us to bear witness. I can think of no better example of this than Andrew Wyeth’s painting entitled, That Gentleman. The portrait depicts Tom Clark, who was Wyeth’s neighbor in Chester County, Pennsylvania. It is said Wyeth greatly admired Clark, once saying of him, “his voice is gentle, his wit keen, and his wisdom enormous. He is not a character, but a very dignified gentleman who might otherwise have gone unrecorded.” I remember standing in the enveloping presence of the painting in the Dallas Museum of Art, feeling the poignancy of the painting, unassuming yet unmatched in its nonverbal expression of the value of bearing witness Mr. Wyeth’s keen ability to bear witness to Mr. Clark through his art allows us all to bear witness to the life of Tom Clark, who, without Wyeth, may have otherwise gone unnoticed.
From a psychological perspective, it is widely confirmed in the literature on the treatment of survivors of trauma, sexual abuse, and incest that validation in the course of and bearing witness is vital and necessary in remembering traumatic memories and in the healing process. And what about a story that remains unacknowledged? Does our story hold the same weight, the same significance, in the absence of a witness? Is our reality different, less meaningful perhaps, if we have no one to bear witness? If no one empathically listens to the story of our life? It seems so.
We can cite numerous examples of horrific traumatic events like those described so hauntingly by Elie Wiesel in his bestselling novel, Night. Night is a deeply profound example of bearing witness to the unspeakable trauma of the Holocaust. “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”
Sometimes an experience is so profound, there are no words, and we endure in silence. Yet, the emotional price of remaining silent, without a witness, is costly. Elie Wiesel’s initial inaction, in which he waited ten years to share his horrors, is an example of prolonged silence. Sometimes the harboring, that is our load. Wiesel eventually found it impossible to remain silent, with the result not only of catharsis for him, but essential knowledge imparted to the world.
And what about our experience of bearing witness in psychotherapy? Trauma survivors often cite the importance of the therapist’s validating role in their treatment; the simple act of accepting an individual’s life story can be highly therapeutic. While bearing witness is vital in the therapeutic recovery from trauma, we all have our stories to tell, even in the absence of trauma. I fondly recall the gratitude I have felt toward my own analyst, whom I often refer to as an exceptional “memory keeper” and a “remarkable witness.” A witness to the story of my life, with all of its pain and joy. Sharing ourselves with others opens up a space where there once was none. Only through such space can positive memories occur and resilience prevail.
Although the tale of human experience is certainly universal, it contains unique elements for each us and we continue the art of storytelling, both verbally and nonverbally, each and every day. While some stories are sweeter than others, all long for the benefit and necessity of a witness, for a witness assures us that our stories are heard, contained, and transcend time; for it can be said that one is never truly forgotten when one is shared and carried in the hearts of others.
Shelley Galasso Bonanno, MA, LLP has been a practicing psychodynamic psychotherapist in the metropolitan Detroit area since 1987. Her writings have appeared in various publications including The American Psychoanalyst, The Division Review, and local mental health newsletters. This represents Ms. Bonanno’s third blog published for Meaningful You, Voices of Contemporary Psychoanalysis, Division of Psychoanalysis (39) of the American Psychological Association. You can follow her on Twitter @ShelleyBonanno