Benefits of Community Involvement
Community involvement can help victims overcome feelings of low self-esteem, isolation, powerlessness, fear and anger. The process of connecting with others, confronting and overcoming real-life challenges, striving for justice and giving something back to the community can provide recovery benefits not achieved solely by traditional counseling or therapy.
Rebuilding Low Self-Esteem
Participating in peer self-help groups can improve victims' self-images by demonstrating they are neither abnormal nor guilty for the victimization. Before joining groups such as Families of Homicide Victims, survivors often blame themselves for their children's deaths, seeing themselves as inadequate parents because they could not protect their children from harm. By talking with other parents who seem nurturing and loving, they are able to look at them- selves and the question of blame more realistically. When those who once lamented, "If only we had moved to a safer neighborhood," meet residents of safer neighborhoods who have also lost family members, they begin to recognize that it was not their fault. Self-help groups can create an "adaptive spiral"; acceptance by other group members boosts the individual's self-esteem, in turn increasing his or her empathy and support for others.11
Community involvement generally involves some degree of risk; there is no guarantee that victims' efforts will pay off. Efforts to pass legislation, increase services for victims, or establish prevention programs will often be disappointing. By standing up to these challenges and failures, victims prove to themselves and others that they are neither weak nor helpless, and that they are able to fight their own battles.
Self-esteem also can be enhanced by joining a particular cause "from which one derives reflected power and glory."12 Creating psy- chological strength through numbers-banding together to advance the cause of victims or to reduce violence-can provide a dividend of empowerment that may be considerably greater than victims might receive through individual action. When victims share their personal experiences with others, they are no longer alone in their struggle.
Victims of crime often feel alienated from family, friends and community. They may consider themselves stigmatized or tainted by the crime, a feeling reinforced by insensitive treatment from those who "shun victims, sensing their 'spoiled identities.'"13 Battered women are especially at risk of feeling isolated because they are often separated from society by their abusers. According to Stark, "the hallmark of the battering experience [is] 'entrapment'. . . a pattern of control that extends. . .to virtually every aspect of a woman's life, including money, food, sexuality, friendships, trans- portation, personal appearance, and access to supports, including children, extended family members, and helping resources."14
Lebowitz, Harvey and Herman describe the process of overcoming this isolation and reestablishing ties with others as one of the key stages of trauma recovery.15 Social action can serve as one effective means of achieving this reconnection. When victims work with those who have had similar experiences, they begin to realize they are not alone.
Peer support groups or victim-initiated advocacy groups may help to create a new community for victims that can be strengthened by grappling with the larger social problems that affect it,16 and may serve as a bridge to relationships outside the group.17 Publicly embracing the victimization experience through advocacy or other public actions can reduce feelings of deviance and stigmatization that perpetuate isolation from others.
Regaining a Sense of Power
A common reaction to crime is to ask, "Why me?" Unable to find a reason for their victimization, crime victims may feel a loss of control over their surroundings. By joining with others to prevent violence or improve the treatment of crime victims, victims can have an impact on the community and recapture a sense of power. They "transform the meaning of their personal tragedy by making it the basis for social action."18 Victims who are able to answer "Why?" perhaps by taking on a survivor mission, may be less likely to be psychologically incapacitated;19 they create something positive out of a negative experience by carving out an area of their lives where they are in control. Sarah Buel, a battered woman who became a district attorney specializing in domestic violence cases, said, "I feel very much like that's part of my mission, part of why God didn't allow me to die in that marriage, so that I could talk openly and publicly. . .about having been battered."20
Dealing with Fear and Anger
Fear of revictimization, which is related to feelings of powerlessness and isolation, is a powerful, sometimes paralyzing result of crime. Fear of crime can be "divisive. . .creat[ing] suspicion and distrust,"21 but it also can "motivate citizens to interact with each other and engage in anti-crime efforts."22
Crime victims can master their fear by working on community crime prevention projects. In a study not limited to crime victims, Cohn, Kidder and Harvey23 found that those involved in community anti- crime projects felt more in control of their surroundings and had less fear of crime. Other studies linking isolation from the community with fear of crime suggest that, as victims become more involved with others, they become less afraid.24 After witnessing the murder of his father, a student in a school-based victim assistance program over- came his fear of being victimized again by launching an anti-violence campaign in his school. By finding a more positive way to increase the safety of his environment, he no longer felt the need to be overly defensive or to resort to violence to protect himself.
The anger that follows victimization-at the offender, at the criminal justice system and at society for letting it happen-can productively be redirected through activism. By speaking out at conferences, schools, churches and public hearings, Tom McDermott found that he "transferred [his] hatred, bitterness and white-hot anger into some- thing positive." Some victims may focus on the pursuit of justice, not only for their own suffering but also because they recognize the detrimental impact of crime on society. Herman notes that in the later stages of recovery, victims often embrace abstract principles that "transcend [their] personal grievance against the perpetrator [and]. . .connect the fate of others to their own."25 Thus, in addition to wanting the individual offender brought to justice, they might work to ensure that victims are given the support they need or to fight the social conditions that may have contributed to the crime. In these ways, feelings of rage and anger are transformed into constructive social action.
Some victims find release by sharing their experiences with others, who also are helped in the process. After telling the story of his son's murder at conferences, Ralph Hubbard found that his words helped other men talk about the loss of their own child after years of silence and denial. Hubbard describes this experience as "one of the most rewarding things ever." Similar benefits from sharing have been described by victims of AIDS and other serious illnesses who, as Susan Sontag describes in Illness as Metaphor, have historically been ostracized and silenced.26
Others feel compelled to testify publicly about their victimization-in court, in church, to community groups, or in print. Like the physician narrator of Albert M. Camus' The Plague, whom Felman and Laub describe as feeling "historically appointed 'to bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people, so that some memorial of the injustice done them might endure,'"27 victims sometimes need to testify to feel that some degree of justice is achieved. Describing the survivors of the Holocaust, Felman and Laub note that, "The witness's readiness to become himself a medium of the testimony-and a medium of the accident-in his unshakable conviction that the accident [or the crime]. . .carries historical significance. . .goes beyond the individual and is thus, in effect, in spite of its idiosyncrasy, not trivial."28 By continuously reminding the populace of the injustice, victims prevent society from acquiescing to what they may prefer to deny or forget. Lorna Hawkins was frustrated that no one else seemed outraged by the death of her two sons by gang violence; random shootings were so common in Los Angeles that her story was not considered "news" by the media. To raise awareness about the pain, suffering, and injustice of urban violence, Hawkins began "Drive-By Agony," a weekly cable show.29 Countless other victims have spoken out against violence and advocated for reforms. Since 1990, 72 noteworthy activists have been recognized by the President's annual National Crime Victim Service Award.
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