Systematic abuse at the hands of a stranger, particularly when it takes place during a long period of confinement, can create in victims intense feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness. Recovery can often be affected by how victims deal with these raw emotions.
“Being held and traumatized for a long time, you often develop questions like, ‘Why me?’ or ‘Will this ever end?’ and will try to determine the meaning of the trauma,” says Megan Berthold, a clinical social worker at the National Association of Social Workers, who has worked with refugee survivors of torture. “Often you don’t know if you will survive, so being able to make some sense out of it, and developing strategies to cope, to be resilient in the process, can make a huge difference on whether one survives the ordeal, and in shaping their response afterward.”
Elizabeth Smart, the Salt Lake City girl freed in 2003 after nine months in captivity, says tormentors use sexual violence to devalue the victim’s individual worth, making them feel they have to remain under their captor’s protection. Speaking at a human trafficking forum at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore last week, Ms. Smart said her captor reduced her to feeling like “a chewed up piece of gum.