Fragile community: Trauma, truth, transformation and the social construction of suffering among Latin Americans and the staff of a United States torture treatment center
Hill, Tami Rene, 1967-
This dissertation focuses on Latin American survivors of political violence and the staff members involved with one of the few torture treatment centers in the US. Relying primarily on life histories and semi-structured interviews, my research focuses on the social construction of suffering (Kleinman et al. 1997) created by the staff and participants over the course of three different eras of the center. While the clients of this center lead lives that are tremendously impacted by the violent histories of their home countries, they do so while living in a country where this history is almost completely invisible. As exiles, they are removed from the arena of collective memory reflected in debates in postwar transitional Latin American societies about the meaning of the past, the reasons for their suffering, and the need for historical truth. Consequently, I examine the torture treatment center as one arena where this history and the suffering of survivors is acknowledged. As such, I argue that the staff serves as a critical social network--indeed, perhaps the only one--that influences the individual interpretations, narratives, and actions of survivors about the meaning of trauma, the importance of the past, and how one best heals from violence. First, I illustrate how the biographies of staff shape their involvement with the center and the meaning the center has for them, which, in turn, leads to both the promise and predicaments of their work for social change. Second, this research illustrates the diverse forms that trauma can take and argues for a connection among structural, transitional, and political violence. Third, I explore how the meaning attributed to trauma and the past shapes notions held by the center's staff and participants regarding how one best heals from trauma. Throughout the exploration of these themes, my work identifies the presence of certain discourses and the absence of others--the frictions and fragments occurring in engagements between social service networks and those they serve (Tsing 2005)--that reflect the possibilities for and limitations of individual healing and collective change and that make this center a "fragile community."