New experiences, though, are triggering old trauma, she says. Preparation for the court proceedings in her asylum case was dredging up painful memories of powerlessness. Meh Vivien's experience with torture began the second time she was arrested, when she was held for seven days and flogged on the bottom of her feet (a form of torture known as falaka, which the United States has been accused of using against detainees in its "war on terror"). She was given no food or water for 48 hours and forced to sleep on a cold concrete floor, which, she says, has given her an ongoing infection, the details of which she didn't want to discuss. Hanscom nods and explains that respecting her choice of what to talk about is part of the strength-based paradigm. For Meh Vivien, being able to decide what to say and what not to say is empowering—the exact opposite of what happens during interrogation and torture. "In Cameroon they can kill you—who can you complain to?" she says.
Hanscom and Meh Vivien talk about the upcoming court case and what Meh Vivien should expect. The young woman thanks Karen and goes upstairs to pick out a new coat from the clothes closet.
Donated clothes fill the closet; the center itself is designed to feel like a home, a place where clients can make their own tea and the walls are hung with bright fabrics and other gifts they've brought to decorate the place. From the start, survivors are given a full tour of the building, from the communal kitchen to the offices—even the basement—so that they see there are no dark places, no secret rooms. The center is designed to break down old fears of being raped in a shadowy corner or disappearing from the world into "ghost houses" devoted to torture, and to build instead a climate of trust among people who, for the most part, have never before spoken about what happened to them. (Sixty percent of ASTT's clients are women, 90 percent of whom have been raped; among the male clients, more than half have been sexually violated.)
After Meh Vivien's session, there are a lot of knocks on Hanscom's door. She meets with her counselors to discuss how to respond to unexpected moments with patients—when, for example, a small cut on a client's hand caused him to flash back to his torture, run away from work, and show up at ASTT. Or how to prepare a client to testify in court when he has promised his mother he would never tell anyone they both had been raped. Two law students call to ask how to talk to their client, a torture survivor seeking asylum. "Humanize yourselves, because the torturer didn't," she tells them. "Stay with silence for a moment longer than we are accustomed to. Trust your hearts on this—it's clear you have a great sense of professionalism and are human, so just mix the two together." (Hanscom is also an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University. Five years ago, she went there to discuss how to work with asylum seekers who'd been tortured, and the school asked her to teach regularly.) She did all this in between planning a tentative trip to Iraq and beginning an analysis of data to evaluate the quantitative success of the strength-based method.
We Hear You!