How the media can help heal Gilad Shalit
For five long years, a media campaign swirled around the abduction and internment of Gilad Shalit, gaining momentum with every passing day. Without a doubt, it was the media that helped keep his story alive and contributed significantly to his release, creating public pressure in favor of the historic (though unsettling) exchange of more than 1,000 convicted terrorists for Shalit’s freedom.
But now that he has been freed, will the media claim its “pound of flesh”?
Aside from the interview he was forced to give Egyptian television immediately following his release, Shalit has yet to speak publicly about his 1,941-day ordeal. His father, Noam, continues to serve as his mouthpiece, and his family and friends have formed a protective shield around him, disallowing any media contact. As they see it, the media can only harm Shalit at this point, slowing his recovery and reintegration into normal life and society.
But is that true?
The experiences of survivors of captivity, maltreatment and torture from many parts of the world teach us that the phase of re-entry into society plays a critical role in the quality of recovery. The societal attitudes and the degree of acceptance and assistance available to survivors as they return from an ordeal determines their success in psychologically reintegrating their traumatic experiences into a sense of themselves that feels continuous and consistent.
When survivors are met with a “conspiracy of silence” where society and even relatives are not able to listen to their experiences, as with many survivors of the Holocaust, the survivors do not speak of their trauma. And when war veterans and prisoners of war are met with negative attitudes toward the war in which they participated, as was the case with Vietnam veterans, they also refrain from sharing their experiences.
In such cases, where the trauma cannot be discussed and shared in an accepting and truly empathic context, survivors attempt to cope by hiding or denying their distress. Paradoxically, the more dissociated the traumatic experiences become, the more they interfere with daily life.
Newly acquired scientific insight into brain functions and structures have illuminated much about how trauma is registered, stored and remembered. Extremely traumatic events are initially stored in nonverbal images, sensations and feeling states. As such, they can continue to remain vivid and timeless, disturbing the survivor’s habituation and integration into normal life for years.
The presence of supportive, empathic listeners who are genuinely interested in hearing what the survivor has to say is critical to the healing process. Such listening must be truly motivated by sensitivity and deep care and attuned to the needs of the survivor. Listening that is motivated by other, voyeuristic or self-serving interests will lead to additional trauma.
From what they have stated, this is the concern shared by Shalit’s family and friends regarding his exposure to the media. There are no guarantees that the media will be the sensitive, empathetic listeners he requires, and it simply isn’t worth the irreparable damage.
Furthermore, because he was only a teenager when he was abducted, he has a lot to learn in order to catch up with his 25-year-old self, a great deal to re-learn about normal life and a tremendous amount to unlearn from his years in captivity. Most important, he has to regain a sense of ownership and control over his life and the freedom to explore who he is.
Exposure to the media, even in the best of circumstances, is often accompanied (true or not) by a feeling that one’s words were “twisted” to mean something else and that the message intended was hijacked and misrepresented. While generally irritating for the masses, such experiences might be truly damaging for an individual attempting to achieve a personally meaningful integration of his own traumatic experience, and might constitute a repetition of loss of control over one’s words, self-definition and life.
It goes without saying that a relentless pursuit by the media would interfere with Shalit’s ability to explore and re-establish his personal life. Many bereaved individuals express feeling an added burden of having to live with the image that others project upon them as “the bereaved.” Having become recognizable to every Israeli, he will have a difficult enough task returning to normal life. Having the paparazzi chase him and “experts” volunteering their interpretations for every move he makes will only make the transition that much more difficult.
However, the media could play the hero if it so chooses.
It has been shown that the method of giving testimony has particular value for survivors of captivity and torture. Even decades after their traumatic experiences, survivors of the Holocaust showed significant positive changes after giving testimony. While the processing of traumatic experiences in therapy and other private settings might confront the survivor with feelings of fear, loss of control, irreversible damage and shame, the process of testifying restores the right order of things, as it establishes who did what to whom and places the moral burdens where they belong, with the aggressor. Due to its public format, testimony creates a social and cultural context for the individual trauma and accelerates the healing process.
This might be a benign role that the media can play, providing Shalit, at his own pace, with the opportunity to heal and add his personal story to Israeli society’s collective narrative about the painful cost paid by everyone’s children in war.
So, now it’s up to the media, the very entity that helped bring about Shalit’s release. Will they move in for the “scoop,” or do whatever they can to help free him from his painful past?
Irit Felsen is a clinical psychologist and trauma specialist, and an adjunct professor at Yeshiva University’s Ferkauf School of Psychology.