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On Testimonial Therapy & the Life Project
July 31, 2021 - 07:45
What testimonial therapy does is try & bring private suffering into public & political spheres.
Inger Agger (IA) is a psychologist, currently working with the Danish Institution Against Torture,(DIGNITY) and the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies. She visited Hong Kong in early March to conduct a workshop on Testimonial Therapy, which is her area of expertise. Basil Fernando (BF), Director Policy & Programmes, Asian Human Rights Commission, spoke with Ms. Agger, exclusively for Torture magazine. 1)
BF: First, could you start by sharing your personal background? How did you get involved with developing Testimonial Therapy?
IA: Actually it goes more than 40 years back, all the way back to the 1970s, when I was part of a consciousness-raising group, in a women’s movement known as the “Red Stockings Movement”, and there we worked with testimony. That was the first time I tried giving testimony. One of the main methods of the consciousness-raising groups was for women to give testimony about their private lives and try to see their personal experiences in a political perspective. Our slogan was “to make the private political”. So we tried in giving testimony about our own lives to see how we, as women and girls, had been oppressed by the patriarchal society, in which ways this oppression had shown itself in our own lives and become conscious of that. So that was the main objective of the consciousness-raising method. In this consciousness-raising group I gave testimony about my own early childhood trauma. For the first time I was able to speak about the loss of my mother and my separation from my family when I was four to five years old, and to see how this painful story related to the post-war situation in Danish society in the 1940s, in which many women – of which my mother was one – could not get any education that enabled them to support their children if they got divorced. When a child is separated from their parents they will often blame themselves and feel shameful about not being like other children. The consciousness-raising group helped me to see my “private pain as political”, and this empowering experience gave me the initial strength to start a lifelong process of liberating and healing myself. I was gradually able to formulate a “life project” of exploring ways of healing trauma – both for myself and for others. I actually wrote my thesis about it for my masters in psychology. So that was the first time I tried giving testimony and I thought it was such a powerful experience that I never forgot it and I have worked with it in different variations ever since, in everything I’ve been doing.
BF: Your Masters was in that?
IA: Yes, on the Consciousness-Raising Method in the Women’s Movement 2). It was published in 1977, in Danish, by the Danish Pedagogical Institute. This method included testimony as a main principle for connecting the private, individual level with the political level. One of the aspects of testimony that I experienced at that time and have met many times since is the fascinating way that testimony can change the energy in a group. When someone says: “Let me tell you what happened…” it can have an almost palpable, electric effect on the audience.
BF: You are touching the heart of the issue here. So what testimonial therapy does is try to bring private suffering into the public and political spheres.
IA: Exactly. I spent my first six years of in a so-called “free school” which had been created by a group of parents opposition to the “black” authoritarian school system we had in Denmark at that time. The “Free School Movement” was amongst others, inspired by Grundtvig, and think that the method of creating liberating testimonial narratives, which I met in the Movement, touched me at a deep because this spirit of freedom, poetry, creativity, and discovery had also been an important part of my learning experience in “free school”. It is so interesting that you Basil, have also been inspired by Grundvig have promoted his ideas in the “Folk School Movement” among human rights in Asia.
BF: Grundtvig was very important to my own development and that of the Asian Human Rights Commission. I fact, I discovered N.F.S. Grundtvig on my own.I came across one of his quotes in a book, and felt, it said something very close to the way I was beginning to see things. I then inquired about him and I was told that the library in the Lutheran seminary, may have some of his writings. In fact, I found three books there. Later, I told some friends at the Danish Institute of Human Rights that I wished to know more about him and his work. The Institute provided me a fellowship for three months. I came to Copenhagen, met many people associatedwith the Folk School Movement and was able to read a lot more about Grundtvig. I visited the home for elderly people where there is a large statue of him, close to the central bus stand in Copenhagen. During those three months I wrote a book, comparing the ideas of Gruntvig and the Indian political leader, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. It was later published under the title “Demoralization and Hope”. At the AHRC we adopted the folk school approach as a framework for our discussions and educational work. Everyone who participated in our programmes have expressed appreciation for the “folk school style”.
Now returning to your work, this, in fact, has quite strong philosophical roots. The whole idea of the development of consciousness and what you are really advocating is not just that public politics, but also that the private lives of individuals should be brought into the public sphere, and that a working method for implementing this should be created.
IA: Yes exactly, and I think it’s all connected with the radicalization that was also happening at that time among the students in the Western World – in the sixties and seventies. I thought a lot about that when I was in Hanoi last week, and visited the Hoa Lo Prison museum (called the “Hanoi Hilton” by the American pilots that were detained there during the Vietnam War). There I saw photographs from the demonstrations of the Vietnam Movement in France and the US, and I remembered how it was a very powerful experience for myself to participate in these demonstrations. In 1967 I worked as a volunteer at the Russell Tribunal, also known as the International War Crimes Tribunal or Russell-Sartre Tribunal, which was a private body organized by British philosopher Bertrand Russell and hosted by French philosopher and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre. One of its sessions, concerned with the US aggression towards Vietnam, took place in Roskilde, Denmark. Representatives of the Black Panther Movement also participated in the Tribunal and told us how “Black is Beautiful”. Of course, as everybody else I knew, I participated in the Vietnam demonstrations in front of the American embassy in Copenhagen, where we met regularly and in which we ran while we shouted “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh”. All this happened while I was studying psychology, and so I realized when I was standing there in the Hanoi museum, how important that had been for my own radicalization or politicization of my consciousness and that this inspiration had given me the wish to work politically with psychology, not just to view a person’s psychology as an individual phenomenon, but as connected with their context – their surroundings and society. It was very important for us at that time, for the radical psychologists, to fight for this viewpoint: we were not trying to change people so that they became better at accommodating a repressive system; no, we wanted to support them in liberating themselves from oppressive structures. This meant that we had to see and understand people’s suffering in political terms and not as an individual trauma or mental health problem. “They are not ill, they are suffering from the dictatorship and the oppression”, as the Latin American psychologists said at that time, and that brought me into the Latin American understanding of things which helped me connect psychology and the fight for human rights. In 1969 I had gone to Cuba and lived there for a year, and as many others at that time, I also went on pilgrimages to other communist countries: the Soviet Union in 1973 and to China in 1976 in search of alternatives to our own, capitalist societies. Later on, many of us became disillusioned with the ways in which these utopian dreams had been realised by authoritarian, centralized governments. Instead we turned towards the development potential of grassroots movements in local communities, and searched for other ways in which people could organize and liberate themselves.
I travelled to Latin America in the eighties and experienced the approach of the Latin American psychologists and psychiatrists, who saw mental health as strongly linked to human rights. Their discourse was based on the principle of connecting “human rights and mental health” (derechos humanos y salud mental). This was an approach they had developed as a response to the various dictatorships in Latin America, in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay at that time. Many doctors, psychologists and social workers who were part of the left-socialist movement had been imprisoned and tortured, and they developed their approach as a resistance against these dictatorships. As I had learned Spanish in Cuba I was able to read the documents of the Latin American psychologists, and in reading these conference papers I read – for the first time – about the testimonial method that Chilean psychologists had developed as part of their resistance movement. This method was very similar to the consciousness-raising method I had met in the Women’s Movement and I felt very familiar and “at home” with it. The Chileans had – sort of accidentally – discovered that when the lawyers from the resistance movement made testimonies with victims to keep as evidence against the dictatorship, it also had a beneficial and therapeutic effect on the victim. Lawyers of the resistance collected testimonies of human rights violations during the dictatorship in Chile under the protection of the Catholic Church. They kept these testimonies of torture hidden with the purpose of using them after the end of the dictatorship as evidence. But then, while recording these legal testimonies they discovered that this process also had a psychotherapeutic effect on victims. So they started working more consciously with this method and started writing about it. Later, in 1983, a Chilean psychologist and a psychiatrist under pseudonyms published a very famous article in English about their testimonial method3). The real name of the main author was Elizabeth Lira, a prominent Chilean psychologist whom I interviewed later as part of a research project in Chile in 1988-89.
In 1984, I started working for the Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims (RCT) 4) in Denmark, as a clinical psychologist, and this gave me a unique opportunity to work with political refugees from Latin America, and in this way work “politically” with psychology. I have to thank Inge Genefke for giving me that opportunity. I tried using the testimonial method with the refugees and I published my first international article about it in 1990 – that’s 23 years ago 5) . I also used the testimony method in my PhD research, in which I had made testimonies with 20 Latin American and 20 Middle Eastern women who had been tortured and were political refugees in Denmark 6).
BF: Could you say more about the Chilean approach? You said you started reading their papers during your visit to Chile. Can you say more about what they were doing, what those people were trying to do?
IA: Are you familiar with their work? The radical mental health professionals in Latin America worked on basis of the same understanding as the radicals in Europe and the US: that “the private is political”. Their way of phrasing it was by connecting human rights and mental health, and they were always emphasizing that we should not pathologize victims. They are not “ill” – they are suffering from the dictatorship. So the Latin Americans emphasized that we should always see the suffering of torture victims in a political perspective and that this approach would be the most healing for victims of human rights violations. One of the objectives of these Latin American psychologists was to try to re-establish the connection of the victim to his or her political project – the “life project” as they called it. At that time, torture victims in these countries were often politically active people in the socialist movement. They could be political party or trade union leaders – people who were active in politics and whom the dictatorship tried to crush. And so the therapeutic goal was then to strengthen the victim so that he or she could re-establish this project, the life project, which gave their life meaning. I describe this approach in detail in a book based on our research in the Chilean Human Rights Movement 7).
BF: Is this in English?
IA: Both in English and it was also published in Spanish, in 1996, in Santiago de Chile. The Spanish edition was edited and revised by Elizabeth Lira 8). I had received a grant to do a post-doctorate research project in Chile and based on this research I wrote the book in cooperation with my ex-husband, who is a psychiatrist. We went to Chile and interviewed psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers from the Human Rights Movement and that was just in the transition period at the end of the eighties, when Pinochet was ousted and they had their first democratic elections. So that was happening at the time of our arrival, actually. It was a very interesting period to be there. So, now the mental health people could talk freely about their work and we interviewed many mental health professionals who had been in prison and tortured themselves.
BF: Could you say more? Because I think you are now touching something dynamic. You are really linking the element of mental health and the political ethos. In the post-Hitler period, the psychologist, Alexander Mitscherlich, who wrote Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior, did his clinical work with patients and then he came to the conclusion that the things that his patients were complaining about had nothing to do with illness, but was a result of their inability to come to terms with Germany’s political past. The repression of the political problems that were associated with the Hitler’s regime period was causing the mental illnesses. In Asia, this has not been brought forth in a forceful way. Still, psychology is about individual health, the individual person. You try to< help them get out of depression or something like that, but the larger issue, that political repression is a cause of disturbed mental health, is ignored.
IA: I would say that the main conclusions we drew from the research in Chile was the importance of a movement, the Chilean Human Rights Movement, as a protective shield or context for the victims and for the mental health workers in the resistance movement: they were not alone. They were part of this large movement which they had developed very expertly in Chile. We also noticed the way in which the mental health people had developed a system of helping victims organize themselves in groups, such as groups of former political prisoners, or family members of torture victims, or mothers of disappeared people. These groups were very good at organising in Latin America and seemed to have a great therapeutic effect on the victims.
So we observed the activities of the groups and wrote about it. I guess that was the main conclusion from our research, how important it was to support these kind of protected networks in situations of human rights violations, and in Chile, the Catholic Church had an important role as a part of this protective network. When I later worked as a researcher from 2010-2012 in Cambodia, I did not see this type of protective organisations for victims to the same extent, although some NGOs were trying to promote it. In Cambodia, I found that Buddhism had an important protective and healing role.
BF: That’s very important. I think it was the Jesuit priest from El Salvador, Ignacio Martín-Baró, who, in his work on social psychology, pointed out the need for dealing with the structural issues, which cause mental illness.
IA: Yes he was a great inspiration for me also, and for the Chileans, definitely. I have during my whole career been opposed to a medical, clinical approach to torture, to what the Chileans call a “medicalizing” of political problems.
BF: Can you explain that, why you are opposed to it?
IA: Yes, because by medicalizing, by diagnosing, and pathologizing victims of torture, and victims of political oppression, you are in a way giving them the responsibility for their pain. It’s like saying they are sick or “crazy” because they are “weak” and could not resist. Mostly, victims do not appreciate that. You should instead place their cause of their mental suffering where it belongs, in the political structures. By doing this you might also support them in becoming conscious of the reasons for and the meaning of their mental symptoms, of how they have been persecuted, and learn that their symptoms are a result of that outer pressure, not because a personal illness or weakness or of being mentally ill, crazy, suffering from PTSD, or whatever people believe about themselves. This can enable them to become survivors and participate again in their “life project”.
BF: So it is getting a person to come to a recognition, or understanding, that his problem is related to what has taken place in his society and giving him a method of understanding the process of healing, while also trying to support him in engaging with his society.
IA: Yes absolutely. Many other psychoanalytic or psychological theorists have also emphasized re-connecting to the “life project”, but they have used other terms for it. I have found the writings of Carl G. Jung, the great Swiss psychoanalyst, very important, especially his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, in which he describes his own self-actualization process which has involved what he calls “transcendence”, the integration of the diverse systems of the self toward the goal of wholeness and identity with all of humanity. Transcendence also includes a spiritual or religious dimension, which is an integrated part of self-actualization.
BF: That is a very dynamic thinking process.
IA: Yes, and that is what you can encourage when you are making a testimony with an individual victim. That’s why the attitude of the human rights defender who is helping the victim make their testimony is so important, because the human rights defender can help the victim to become conscious of this. So the human rights defender is active in his or her response to the victim, and should help victims to contextualize their suffering. This includes helping victims to understand how their testimony can help other victims and how it can become a weapon in the fight against dictatorships. Essentially, this means helping victims to see the political meaning of their private pain.
You can work with testimony in many ways, and the model, which includes a culturally adapted testimony ceremony at the end of the therapy process, is a special Asian brief therapy version of the method. Supported by the RCT, I developed this model in an action research project from 2008-2010 with the RCT’s local partners. We started with a pilot project in India 9), and continued in Sri Lanka, Cambodia and the Philippines. This work with testimony ceremonies also brought me in closer contact with Asian spirituality and the great resources for healing, which are part of many Asian cultural and religious traditions, and inspired me to continue my testimony work with a research project in Cambodia on local approaches to healing of trauma.
BF: So the idea of developing the document, the testimony, is working with the victim to get him to realize that what he is going through is related to much larger issues, helping him to come to that recognition, and then holding a public ceremony where he makes a declaration about it.
IA: Completely correct and very well expressed. Yes. And this is why it’s so important to train human rights defenders to understand that this story is not just something which is out there that they just need to record, but that they are helping the victim to come to that understanding – to see their suffering in another perspective and to record that. The public ceremony at the end of the testimony process also plays a very important role, because it links the victim to the community through a public acknowledgement and mobilisation on basis of the narrative about the human rights violations suffered by the victim 10). This public ceremony can also be seen as a re-connection with the life project or, in Jung’s terms, a ritual in which the victim can re-connect with his or her spiritual and transcendent self.
BF: So the testimonial therapy method is really not a teaching process, it’s a dialogue?
IA: It’s a dialogue! Just as you and I are having an important dialogue right now about certain aspects of my life story.
BF: To get him or her to come out, to express their story.
IA: Yes, but one of the problems is, of course, to help those victims who were imprisoned by accident, or who were not politically active. It is quite common that people are arrested and tortured maybe because they have the same name as someone that the police is looking for, or by another error or just by accident. So it’s actually more difficult to provide psychotherapeutic help to these victims who maybe do not have a life project or a cause they are fighting for.
BF: So a person develops a meaning. A meaning! They are developing something to fight for; to live for. See, this is very different. Victor Frankl’s idea of looking for meaning comes in.
Now, the difference is now in Asia, in a number of places, there is an idea of dealing with mental illness by helping people to forget. Now, for example, in Cambodia, before this new period with the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, they had many ceremonies, rituals, conducted by the Buddhist monks, and various other people, including water purification ceremonies. The victim, who is feeling down and dark, is encouraged to go through a whole process in which the monk tries to make him feel happy internally. By these methods, the monks help him to become a little lighter and then the monk says “forget this”. The same thing was done in Sri Lanka.
IA: Of course I would be very much against that approach. You shouldn’t forget, but maybe forgive! In Buddhist Vipassana meditation and “mindfulness” which I have been working with over the past five or six years, the main principle is not to forget, but to accept and then let it pass. That is a very different process. I also think that meditation is very good for calming the nervous system. By including the body in the therapeutic process the victim can be supported to restore self-regulation and the sense safety and goodness, (which has often been destroyed by torture) as explained by Peter Levine in his book In an Unspoken Voice. In later years I’ve been very interested in combining the Asian spiritual knowledge – represented in the West by, for example, mindfulness andyoga – with the more political approach represented by testimonial therapy. In the testimony ceremony the two approaches come together. The political and the spiritual dimensions mutually reinforce each other. A human being is both mind and body and we must pay attention to both when we search for the restoration of resilience and involvement in the world.
2 Agger, I. (1977). Basisgruppe og kvindebevidsthed: En analyse af basisgruppemetoden som udviklingsproces (Consciousness-raising group and women’s consciousness: An analysis of the consciousnessraising
method as developmental
6 Agger, I. (1994). The blue room: Trauma and testimony among refugee women. London: Zed Books. Spanish edition (1994). La Pieza azul: Testimonio femenino del exilio. Santiago de Chile: Cuarto Proprio.
9 Agger, I., Raghuvanshi, L., Khan, S.S., Polatin, P., & Laursen, L.K. (2009). Testimonial therapy: a pilot project to improve psychological wellbeing among survivors of torture in India. Torture: Journal on Rehabilitation of Torture Victims and Prevention of Torture, 19 (3): 204-217.
10 Agger, I., Igreja, V., Kiehle, R. & Polatin, P. (2012). Testimony ceremonies in Asia: Integrating spirituality in testimonial therapy for torture survivors in India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and he Philippines. Transcultural Psychiatry, 49(3–4): 568–589.
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