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Professor’s book fills gap in trauma studies by adding personal perspective

Philosophy professor Karyn Freedman took risks by using her own rape as a way of analyzing sexual violence and trauma.

BY NATALIE SAMSON | AUG 05 2015

Exposing the gritty details of your personal life might not seem an obvious way of endearing yourself to colleagues, but by doing just that Karyn Freedman has opened up a new phase in her career. With the 2014 publication of One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery with trade publisher Freehand Books, the associate professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph has won a wide audience, critical acclaim and the prestigious B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction for the book – part memoir and part analysis of the psychological, neurobiological, social and political dimensions of sexual violence and trauma.

In the summer of 1990, Dr. Freedman, then 22, was celebrating the end of her first year as an undergrad at the University of Manitoba with a European backpacking trip. On Aug. 1, she arrived in Paris for the last leg of the journey. It would turn out to be a short and life-changing stay: that evening a new acquaintance held her captive and raped her at knifepoint over the course of an hour. She spent the next 10 years of her life trying to ignore the long-term effects of that night, a time she says was marked by heavy drinking, debilitating panic attacks, insecurity in intimate relationships, and shame – and all this as she earned her PhD from the University of Toronto. It wasn’t until she discovered the practice of somatic psychotherapy, an approach that combines “talk therapy” with sensation and movement to recall traumatic memories and reshape one’s experience of them, that she began the process of recovery.

The more she dove into the therapeutic process as a patient, the more it fascinated her inner philosopher. That’s how she came to the field of trauma studies. “The concept of psychological trauma has such an interesting history,” she says. “Somehow, my personal experience and then the hard work I started to do in therapy was supplemented by this theoretical research I started to do.” As she read up on the field, she came to notice an important gap in the literature: the perspective of the traumatized. “These people were writing about our beliefs in the world … but were doing so without the benefit of this personal experience of having some of those beliefs shattered,” she explains. “I thought I had something to offer.”

Dr. Freedman says that with time, she began to see her experience as a rape survivor not as a liability, but as a lens through which she viewed the world. This allowed her to make sharp observations of how trauma manifested itself in her daily life and how the culture we live in leaves women inherently vulnerable to violence. “It took me a long time to get to a place where I was able to write about it from an intellectual standpoint without being too immersed in it emotionally and physiologically,” she says.

In 2006, four years into her academic career at U of Guelph, she published a paper on trauma in the journal Hypatia in which she disclosed her status as rape survivor for the first time in her work. “I thought that I had outed myself and, of course, not even my colleagues had read it. I realized I wasn’t going to get far that way,” she recalls.

When it came time for her sabbatical in 2008-09, she knew she would write about rape again, but this time she would lay bare the details of her own rape and the setbacks and progress she experienced in her recovery as a jump-off point for her analysis. Though her colleagues by then knew about her rape, she opted to keep the book’s development to herself.

“I kept the fact that I was writing the book to myself for a while … not because I was apprehensive about the fact that it was about rape, but because it was a very non-traditional book from an academic standpoint,” she says. Her concern was that her foray as a creative non-fiction writer wouldn’t be taken seriously by her colleagues, and this compelled her to qualify that it wasn’t a tell-all book but rather criticism driven by first-hand experience. “I wanted there to be this broader appeal to it,” she says. “I was trying to write a good story. It was the most creative experience I’ve had.”

By the time she sat down to write the book, she had already been in therapy for nearly a decade and held a tenured faculty position. In short, she says, she held a privileged position that afforded her security in her employment and her emotional well-being.

“There are lots of good reasons to tell these stories, but there are some risks. Mostly, I think, those risks are personal ones, like emotional vulnerability. But if you’re at a stage that … you’re invulnerable to reactions [from others], there’s lots to be gained. You have to look at your own profile as an academic and decide whether or not that would be too risky.”

Read an extended Q&A with Karyn Freedman here.

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