A “wounded healer” leverages their own experiences of pain and tragedy to help others heal from theirs. Originally coined by psychologist Carl Jung, the term was further popularized by theologian Henri Nouwen in his 1972 book of the same name.
Working on a book project for most of 2017-18 put me in the presence of wounded healers active in the field of restorative justice. These seasoned wounded healers – whether crime victims or, unexpectedly, perpetrators – showed me ways of healing with which I was unfamiliar. Like a bluebonnet that grows and produces its blooms from a crack in the pavement, healing can spring forth from unanticipated sources.
While doing the initial research for the project that produced There is a Balm in Huntsville, I interviewed a crime-victim survivor named Ellen Halbert. This wounded healer told me, “Every time I share my story, I heal a little bit more.” I immediately sensed that her words would guide my subsequent research and writing.
Revenge, at its most basic level, is a strategy for human survival. When a tragic event or hurtful person has caused us pain, the option to strike back lurks. Revenge says, “Don’t ever do that to me again.” Revenge-themed movies like “Carrie” and “Rambo” strike chords that are deeply anchored in the human psyche. But, quite often, there is a heavy price to pay for choosing revenge – such an act can transform a crime victim into a perpetrator, and vengeance can beget more violence.
The biblical counsel “‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord,” urges adherents to choose options other than revenge. Religious systems do some of their best work when they mitigate the primal urge for vengeance in situations of wrongdoing, and encourage the victimized to seek alternatives.
Our legal or retributive justice system – laws, cops, courts, jails and prisons – is a necessary part of our social contract, and the first option in situations of serious wrongdoing.
The legal system, however, does not primarily concern itself with healing. “Repairing the harm done by crime – beyond what happens in the courtroom” is a good working definition of restorative justice. The practices of restorative justice, many have discovered, offer the best options for healing in the aftermath of wrongdoing.
Typically, restorative practices utilize face-to-face encounters between adversaries in safe settings in the presence of support personnel. It’s not a “mediation” – some type of compromise understanding about the wrongdoing – but an opportunity for the perpetrator, after hearing out the victimized person, to be accountable for what they’ve done. Oftentimes, when a wronged person sees that the one who caused their pain has taken responsibility for what they’ve done, healing emerges. Restorative practices do not necessarily involve forgiveness and reconciliation, but can if desired by the participant who was originally victimized.
In 1986, Ellen Halbert was brutally attacked by a drifter who left her for dead. She was fortunate to have survived the ordeal physically. Years later, she experienced emotional healing – she wasn’t able to meet with her imprisoned attacker because he was unrepentant – by sharing her story publicly at crime victims’ rights events. “It was all I had,” she told me. “When I told my story, a sense of power and control [about her crime victimization] came over me like never before.”
She was consequently the first crime victim appointed (by Governor Ann Richards) to the Texas Board of Criminal Justice and she helped introduce restorative justice programs to the massive Texas criminal justice system. Later, she worked for former Travis County DA Ronnie Earle as the office’s Victim Services liaison, directing victim-offender dialogues prior to sentencing, one of the early efforts in the nation of a public prosecutor’s office using restorative principles.
Ellen Halbert is now retired, but her work and the telling of her story have brought healing to thousands.
Many wounded healers, like Ellen Halbert, are advocates for restorative justice principles which help repair the harm produced by wrongdoing. Additionally, these practices have the power to pacify the ingrained human tendency toward revenge.
T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m also the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019).