I visited Hanscom one morning at her home in rural Maryland, as she toasted spelt bread in her makeshift toaster (a George Foreman grill). She explained how she'd ended up with such a harrowing job: In the 1970s, when she was in her 20s, she taught children in rural Pennsylvania who worked picking mushrooms before and after school. "Back then, if a woman wanted a professional career, she had to choose between being a teacher and a nurse," she says. At the time, rural communities were reluctant to embrace traditional therapy. The state began a pilot program for members of the community whom people naturally turn to for help—hairdressers, bartenders, and teachers like Hanscom—to instruct them in fundamental therapeutic skills, including how to listen effectively. "That's listening with the body," Hanscom says. "It's about looking someone in the eyes, not fidgeting, sitting as they do, attuning your whole body to theirs."
As one of these local leaders, Hanscom was called by the police every time a case of domestic violence turned up at the hospital. When she realized that treating these victims required more training than she had, Hanscom decided to go back to school. After completing a second master's in clinical psychology (in addition to one she had in education), she began to work with parents of children with severe birth defects. To keep their children alive, the parents had to agree to terrible procedures they knew would cause their kids terrible pain, she says. That's where she sees the roots of her work now: helping people who'd been through unimaginable circumstances, in this case, parents who had to allow what amounted to torture because they had no other choice.
At 43 Hanscom moved to Baltimore, where her marriage fell apart. "So here I'm divorced, I've got two kids," she says, "I've got no money coming in." On top of everything else, she found she needed a doctorate degree to work as a licensed psychologist in Maryland. Despite raising two children and working full-time, she finished the program a year early and soon built a reputation for working in Baltimore with victims of trauma—amputees, people who'd gotten burned in factory fires, fishermen who'd had near-drowning experiences—survivors who were attempting to rebuild their lives.
In 1998 the Guatemala Human Rights Commission asked her if she'd be willing to take to Central America the model she'd developed through her work. She began spending two weeks every six weeks in Guatemala, which had seen 36 years of civil war, training elders in various communities to recognize and treat the symptoms of PTSD. It was difficult work, and the terrain was dangerous. Hanscom's Quaker friends made her carry a letter in her pocket that listed the good things she was doing for victims in Guatemala and warned that if she went missing, there would be hell to pay.
Hanscom could see that her efforts were easing the symptoms of PTSD, but quantitative analysis wasn't possible because many of her subjects couldn't fill out surveys. Initially, Hanscom says, "other counselors with medical backgrounds ridiculed me. They said, 'How can illiterate village people learn to counsel torture survivors? You need to have a degree to do that.'" (Three years later, in 2001, Hanscom received the International Humanitarian Award from the American Psychological Association for her work in Guatemala.)