A mental health clinician who works with Latino immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, reflects on a client’s struggle to—through the writing process—create meaning from painful past experiences. The second installment of our refugee storytelling series.
I asked Celia* to tell me her story. The black chair in which she sat was low to the ground and seemed to swallow her. Her dark, wavy hair was tied in a ponytail that grazed the tops of her shoulders; she was small, but curvy. Though it was the middle of winter, she had arrived without a coat, instead wearing layers upon layers of sweaters. She nervously clasped her hands in her lap, her eyes cast downward, answering my questions in a low tone. She only spoke when questioned and chose her words with care, perhaps uncertain of what to say or where to begin. Her demeanor suggested to me years of abuse. Yet I also sensed Celia’s urgency to have her story be known, so that she could initiate the asylum process and be reunited with her two children, who remained in Guatemala. This was, after all, the primary reason she was here: for help processing her asylum claim. As a therapist, my job was to help Celia tell her story.
Celia had been physically, emotionally, and sexually abused by her husband over the course of thirteen years. During her marriage, she had been threatened at gunpoint on numerous occasions, she was made captive in her own home, she was not permitted to visit her family in the next town over, and her husband would use his fists or various objects to beat her head or belly. These were only some of the chilling incidents that made up her story. The key factor that separated her case from many others was that her husband was an official in the police force, and he had used the power of his position to control, kidnap, and keep her captive.
After such a long period of abuse, Celia—who had found work at a small Latino restaurant, bussing tables six or even seven days a week, often for more than twelve hours a day—was suffering a tremendous amount of physical pain on a daily basis. I volunteered to escort Celia to her medical appointments, something that most therapists typically don’t do. (At my agency, therapists were encouraged to accompany clients to their medical appointments, since many of them had recently arrived in the United States and did not know how to travel within the city or use public transportation.) Celia additionally required an interpreter and had no other person in her life who she wanted to accompany her. Although it was never quite clear with whom she lived, Celia had family in the local area, though she was cautious to involve them. She was experiencing severe somatic symptoms from the trauma that she had endured, yet even after several medical appointments and examinations, the doctors reported that they could not find a physiological reason for her discomfort or pain. This meant that her physical well-being was dependent on her psychological healing.
Storytelling is a form of therapy often used by mental health clinicians to deal with emotional trauma. Celia’s initial therapy sessions with me involved various assessment tools, such as The Harvard Trauma Questionnaire, to gauge the kind, severity, and intensity of trauma. This questionnaire consisted of several pages of checklists—from stoning, electroshock weapons, and humiliation, to threatening to kill a family member, and falanga (foot whipping)—that measured the magnitude of the traumatic experiences.
Another psychological treatment method commonly used for victims of torture, violence, and war is writing. It can help a victim organize his or her thoughts and feelings. But for Celia, who had only completed up to the third grade in Guatemala, writing posed a significant challenge. Many clients seeking asylum are completely illiterate or have very little education, which often makes it more frustrating than helpful for them to write down their stories. At times, the clinician may record the client’s story as their client recounts it to them. But I asked Celia how she felt about writing her story on paper to document her experiences and organize her memories, and she agreed in a trusting manner (though I also wondered if this may have been because she was accustomed to doing as she was told when she lived with her husband). I gave Celia a thin journal and asked her to describe her experiences with as much detail as possible. Celia was different than other clients of mine; even from the very beginning, she enjoyed writing.
Celia wrote her experiences in Spanish. Writing helped her release the anger living inside her. She once told me, “I just hope this anger goes away and I won’t continue to live with it.” Writing stimulated her memory, too. She informed me at one point that, while writing, she recalled memories that she had forgotten. Even so, Celia often could not remember specific dates, times, and the order of things that her abuser did to her. After suffering different kinds of abuse over an extended period of time, it is common that a person will have difficulty recalling the specifics of an event when reflecting back from the present moment. Time lost its relevance when he held a gun to her face or beat her head with the heel of his boot. Writing allowed us to jointly put the series of events of her life in order, offering a chronological rendering of her past experiences. By organizing her memories and experiences in this way, I hoped to bring order to Celia’s thought process and perhaps give her some peace. Celia would write on her own time, bring her writing to our sessions, and we would discuss the events and put them in order together.
She hadn’t always wanted to talk aloud about her experiences; it was often as if her story—or even just talking about her feelings, to me or to her family—was burdensome. Writing gave her an escape, and in turn, a sense of pleasure. During our last session, she asked for her journal back, so I returned it to her. “Of course!” I thought to myself, “This is yours.” This was her way of extracting what had pained her for most of her life and setting it aside so she could move forward without it.
For her asylum claim, filed with federal immigration authorities, Celia had to tell her story in a different setting, in a different format. She provided letters from family members who had witnessed the abuse between her and her husband. She had to prove that she was being persecuted on the basis of her gender. Out of all of the reasons people seek asylum, gender is one of the least common. A gender-based asylum claim is often more difficult to prove than other attempts at asylum. This is true because gender-based violence is recorded on an individual basis, rather than on a group or population basis. With political asylum claims, for example, evidence is available from organizations, government bodies, and news broadcasting stations that record and follow the political state and situation of groups or populations in a country. In contrast, gender-based asylum is examined on the circumstances of an individual’s experiences within their country of origin. Not all asylum seekers are able to provide such evidence to the courts, which is needed to display a level of “unfounded fear” to return to their country of origin, one of the main criteria for such claims.
Unfounded fear is difficult to prove without a storyline to support it. Victimizers tell their stories by torturing or killing others—their stories are written in the scars left on the bodies of the survivors. In contrast, trauma has a tendency to leave its victims speechless. If violence takes away a victim’s voice, writing can return it. By writing down their feelings, victims of trauma know that even if they’re not speaking out loud, their thoughts are being shared. Writing provides them with a method of proving their story, but it also validates their experiences without judgment or scrutiny.
Celia used her story for self-protection; it had brought her to the United States to live in safety and had protected her from deportation to Guatemala (and her death: if she ever returned to her country of origin, her husband would surely find and kill her).
The act of writing allows survivors to draw meaning and social purpose from their traumas. Some asylum seekers or refugees learn to use their stories as a medium for political advocacy, raising public interest, or international awareness. Not only do these stories encourage personal healing, they supply the ammunition for lobbyists, lawyers, and political activists to raise awareness about the struggles of persecuted peoples.
In Celia’s case, the written word guided her back to a place of strength and confidence so that she could withstand the lengthy and arduous legal process of asylum. She continued providing for herself and complained less of physical discomfort and pain. Recently, after two years, Celia was granted asylum and was able to petition for her children to live with her here in the US. To this day, she and I remain in contact and she continues to share her stories with me as a friend.
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the person.
Karin Gorseth, LMSW works as a mental health clinician with Latino immigrants in Brooklyn, NY and is a participant in Rethinking Refuge, a group devoted to creative, critical thinking about issues in forced migration. To learn more, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.