Paper published in: Sue Shore, (Ed.) Australian Council for Adult Literacy 21st National Conference: Literacy on the Line. Conference Proceedings. Adelaide, University of South Australia, 1998.

"But I'm Not a Therapist" The Challenge of Creating Effective Literacy Learning for Survivors of Trauma

Jenny Horsman 


Learners may start in literacy or other education programs with desperate hope to finally improve their literacy skills or education, and begin to make essential changes in their lives. Women who live with daily violence may believe that improved literacy skills will be a first step towards enough education to find a paid job and escape. However, if there is no acknowledgement of the impacts of trauma on learning, rather than a chance to improve their literacy skills and succeed, learners may get only a chance to fail, to confirm to themselves that they really cannot learn. Learners and workers alike may become frustrated, despairing over the lack of possibilities for real change.

In recent research, I looked at the impact of violence on women's literacy learning and program participation, in order to develop approaches to literacy work to help women learn better. My interviews involved literacy workers, literacy learners, therapists, counsellors and organizational staff in focus group sessions, individual interviews of various lengths and through computer networks. I concentrated on two key questions: What impacts of abuse do you see in your literacy program/your work? How can/should literacy programs address these impacts of violence? I interviewed women (and a few men) in five regions of Canada - British Columbia, The Prairies, Central Canada, Atlantic Canada and the North.

For the most part little is written or said about the links between violence and literacy. Anecdotal accounts of literacy workers who have discovered that all, or most, of the students in a class have experienced sexual or physical abuse as children, certainly suggest that a formal study might reveal that horrifyingly high numbers of adults - both women and men - in literacy programs experienced abuse as children. Although people often ask me about the statistics, I decided not to focus on that question. For me, the most pressing question is not how many literacy learners have experienced trauma but how literacy programs can teach most effectively. Even if the numbers of women in literacy programs who have experienced violence are no higher than the general population, we still need to know how to carry out literacy work in ways which are inclusive and effective for women who have survived trauma. We have to assume that every class will include at least some with this experience.

Exploring Violence and Trauma

The breadth of violence I heard about in relation to literacy during interviews and related reading gives an indication of the complex ways violence and its aftermath enters into the adult education setting. As I talked to people and read for this project, I heard layer upon layer of violent experiences, many of which I had not previously thought about. Literacy workers described a range of violence they had seen or heard about in their classrooms, and spoke of feeling ìineptî as they wondered how to respond to support learners and their learning.

Experience of trauma and its aftermath - whether in childhood or adulthood - is likely the present reality for many, if not most, literacy learners. In literacy programming, we cannot take refuge in the silence about such trauma, it is vividly present in the classroom in many dimensions. The experience of trauma cannot be framed as ìabnormalî and individualized, we cannot fall into the trap of suggesting that learners can go away and ìhealî from the trauma and come back to class when they are ready to learn. In literacy programming we must recognize the effects of trauma and create literacy opportunities that are viable for learners who are "familiar with trauma", enabling them to learn while they continue to "live beside the violation". To maintain silence about the extent of violence in society, or to understand their experience in terms of pathology and ill-health is to fail learners. Survivors of trauma are like canaries in the mine, rather than seeing them as dysfunctional, we need to recognize that they warn society about the dangers of normalized violence. We should honour the increased sensitivities that living with trauma brings, and design literacy programming that supports learners to value themselves and develop their literacy skills.

Beyond Appearing "Normal" 'Hidden' Impacts of Trauma

The impacts of trauma I heard about from the therapists, counsellors and literacy workers that I interviewed, led me to an exploration of these impacts and an examination of new possibilities for literacy practice. A range of issues, that are not usually visible take energy away from the literacy learning process for many students who are survivors of trauma. These issues create, in themselves, areas of learning that women must struggle with if they are to be successfully 'present' in the classroom and learn to read. The complexity of learners' 'presence', their lack of comfort with of ambiguity, a tendency to see everything as "all or nothing", are overarching challenges which interlock with a series of issues impinging on literacy learning. These issues include building trust, establishing boundaries, deciding which stories to tell, learning to move out of crises and assessing the level of safety in the class or group.

Seeing the complexity of awareness for both workers and learners around issues like presence, trust, boundaries and crises adds an awareness to why learning to read is such a difficult and lengthy process. Where the struggles around each of these issues are carried out by the literacy learner in private because to reveal her difficulties in these areas is to be judged 'abnormal', then the energy required is compounded. Energy is needed not only to struggle with the difficulties, but also to hide this struggle. It is crucial, therefore, that within the literacy program, the range of what is normal is broadened and the discourse is opened up to talk about the struggles that many learners will have in a broad range of areas. If the challenges learners face are an active part of the curriculum, then all learners can benefit. The challenges that need to become part of the curriculum include exploring what it takes to be fully present in the classroom and the knowledge gained from the times of less presence; discovering a deeper understanding of ambiguity and middle ground rather than staying with the stark contrasts of all or nothing; considering crises and how to live both in and out of crisis; examining questions of trust in terms of the possibility of trusting their own knowledge and trusting others in the class or group not to judge and put them down; learning to set boundaries and respect the boundaries of others; deciding which stories to tell when; and creating a safer place to learn.

Learning in the Context of Trauma: The Challenge of Setting Goals

The definition of trauma used by Judith Herman reveals connections between literacy and trauma. Herman states that trauma is caused by events which "overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection and meaning" (Herman, 1992, p.33). Many writers have suggested that therapy for trauma victims should be directed at helping the survivor to regain a sense of control, connection and meaning in her life. I suggest that a shift away from addressing these issues solely as aspects of individual healing and toward a focus on control, connection and meaning is integral to literacy learning. Control, connection and meaning are all centrally connected to the tasks of setting goals, a key aspect of how literacy programming is increasingly being organized. Setting goals may seem a straightforward task, where simple skills can be taught to those who have difficulty. But for survivors of trauma, setting goals is far from simple. The difficulty is not simply skills acquisition, but a far more complex intertwining of issues, requiring more nuanced learning.

Control is an important terrain for those who have experienced trauma. Feeling out of control, trying to regain control, not wanting to own any control, controlling in hidden manipulative ways, feeling responsible, disowning responsibility, all of this is a complex and fraught area. Seeking control, but feeling helpless and believing that control is an impossibility, is a contradictory dynamic. Being in control also entails being responsible, being blamed and blaming oneself. This complex dynamic around control is important within literacy. Many literacy programs stress learner-centred learning, learners designing their own individualized plan, controlling their own learning and setting goals. Some also seek to involve learners in sharing control of the program through participating on committees or boards of directors. This ìmine fieldî is often entered without preparation or even awareness of how complex and problematic raising control issues may be for some literacy learners as well as for some workers.

More and more in adult literacy work, the discourse of identifying measurable outcomes, (or at least 'observable' outcomes) and organizing learning around learners own goals is the dominant discourse that organizes literacy practice. It is hard to question such an approach. Who doesnít want learners to shape their goals and learn material that will help them meet their goals? Yet for survivors of trauma, working with the complexity of control, connection and meaning, goal setting may be a challenging, if not impossible demand, because to set goals you have to believe that you have some possibility of control, to have connection at least to the self, and to believe that life can have meaning.

Engaging the Whole Person in Learning

Recognizing the whole person offers new potential for literacy learning. My recognition of four aspects of the person came primarily from the various Canadian First Nations educators I talked to. They told me about the concept of the Medicine Wheel and of balance between four aspects of the person - body, mind, emotion and spirit. Aline LaFlamme, a metis healer in the Northwest Territories, made the concept most powerfully clear when she drew me the Medicine Wheel. Instead of a balance between the four quadrants, she drew most of the circle as the mind, two tiny ìquadrantsî for the body and emotions, and an even smaller section for the spirit. She said her drawing illustrated the lack of balance in North American society. She felt that the mind is given far too much weight. Aline helped me to see that, given that lack of balance, it is not surprising that literacy learners who are not judged as excelling in the mind, often feel that they are not valued. As I described this off-balance Wheel, a survivor and advisor to the project used it to illustrate that 'healing' for individuals can be problematic if we think of healing as learning to function better in a 'sick', off-balance world.

Looking at the person in terms of four aspects challenged me to think about how the damage I heard about in my interviews could also lead to new possibilities for literacy work and how a focus on the body, mind, emotions and spirit could be more than just addressing 'damage.' It could be a process where each aspect was fully engaged in a creative learning process, where literacy would be more fully holistic and part of a 'healing' process not only of the individual but of the educational process. Canadian First Nations literacy workers have begun to create models appropriate to their community. The challenge now remains for other communities to explore appropriate models. A further question - whether such models will be an alternative in literacy, leaving the mainstream unchallenged, or whether such shifts can be seen as valuable for all literacy learners - remains. Within literacy learning, there is potential to move away from diagnostic models which pathologize those who have experienced trauma and, instead, to support all literacy learners in learning and claiming their power and questioning the concept of "normal life."

Bridging the Divide between Literacy and Therapy

Traditionally, literacy and therapy are seen as entirely separate. Frequently, however, literacy workers are called upon to carry out a counselling role, though many feel unprepared to and unclear whether they should. There is tension between the value of clarity about boundaries between therapy and literacy and the value of recognizing that the division between the two fields is arbitrary and unreal. Through creating a variety of bridges between the two disciplines, and making therapy and counselling more visible within literacy programs, the frame that implies impacts of trauma are only to be addressed in isolation between a woman and her therapist (so that a woman can return to ìnormalî and resume ordinary life as soon as possible), is interrupted. It is important both to recognize the value of individual therapy and also to move away from assumptions that a woman should go away and heal and come back to literacy when she is 'better'.

Listening to the range of options currently available inside and outside literacy programs, it was obvious that no single answer would address the question of appropriate links with counselling organizations, or answer whether literacy workers need to be trained in counselling. The situations of literacy workers are so diverse. It did seem crucial that all programs recognize that some learners will be dealing with issues of trauma and may need access to culturally appropriate counselling or other services. This means programs need to assess what services are available in their community, and consider what capacity is needed within the programs to make good links and provide solid support for learners who are continuing with their learning in the program, and also seeking counselling.

Some knowledge of counselling within a program, and strong links with counselling services - whether offered internally or by another organization or organizations - would enable a program to function in a more balanced fashion. Few programs currently explore the links they might be able to generate with outside counselling programs or counselling departments in their institution. Programs could build greater visibility and more creative alternative possibilities for learners getting counselling support.

Examining the Costs of Bearing Witness

Literacy workers experience an enormous number of challenges in their work. The contradictory pressures in relation to violence silence talk about the extent of violence that they and learners experience, while at the same time leading many workers to believe they should be able to listen to anything learners want to share, provide exhaustive support to learners and successfully teach everyone to read in record time. Alongside such tension is the continual pressure in literacy for workers to do enormous amounts of work of all sorts, often for little pay, benefits or appreciation. Workers are frequently exhausted, frustrated and question whether their work makes a difference, while continually feeling pressure to work a little harder, show more progress and justify the value of their work. For those paid workers who work alongside volunteers, the pressure to take on extra volunteer hours themselves, as well as provide adequate training and support for the volunteers who may require much energy - as they need also to be listened to, encouraged, guided and appreciated - may create a whole other set of demands.

Women working in literacy bear witness to the violence in learners' lives. Sometimes they also experience an increased threat of violence in their own lives, because of their role creating a safer space for literacy learning. Many literacy workers feel they have little option but to hear disclosures of violence when learners ask. Whether workers are experienced at setting boundaries or not, there is a cost to themselves and a limit to what else they can take on in their lives as a consequence of their work in literacy. The day-to-day violence in some programs, and the level of anger vented upon workers, is experienced as toxic. In other programs, workers may be less aware of what causes the exhaustion they feel at the end of the day. Workers deal with witnessing pain through disclosures and through observing learners' lives. They also frequently struggle with feeling what they offer is inadequate. Frequently literacy workers spoke about how rarely the many dimensions of issues of violence were discussed in their programs or local networks. Yet even the possibility of taking up these issues in networks and programs will create more work for literacy workers themselves. Workers need a wide variety of places to talk to address these issues. They need peer support and supervision and far greater recognition of the cost of the work they do. They need support and encouragement to recognize their own needs and to look after themselves carefully.


This research challenges the literacy field to break the silences about violence in a myriad of ways. We must create new curriculum, discover new ways of working that normalize the challenges many literacy learners bring to their learning. We must recognize the complexity of many of the demands made in literacy work and provide innovative supports for learners to explore control, connection and meaning, and to learn to set goals and imagine possible change in their lives. Holistic programming may offer innovative ways forward. Links between literacy organizations and organizations offering counselling could support learners' access to counselling and the creation of new program models that do not exclude issues of trauma from learning. Workers need a variety of supports if they are to nurture themselves, to work supportively with learners, to create new options for programming and repeatedly break the silence about the violence in women's lives and make the links between the aftermath of trauma and difficulties with learning. 


In this short paper I cannot list the names of the many people who spent time talking to me, or all the people who supported the process. I can only offer a collective thank you to the many people who are part of this work. Many people contributed their wisdom to the process which brought together the ideas and analysis on these pages.

"But I'm Not a Therapist": Furthering Discussion about Literacy Work with Surviors of Trauma introduces these research findings in more detail. It is available from CCLOW: (416) 699-1909 or fax (416) 699-2145, or, or on the internet at I am currently working on a book to explore the findings in depth. (For more information contact CCLOW or the author:


Herman, Judith. (1992). Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence--From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: Basic Books.

Mitchell, A. (1985). Child Sexual Assault. In Guberman, C. & Wolfe, M. No Safe Place: Violence against Women and Children. Toronto: Women's Press 

The research was funded by the National Literacy Secretariat, Human Resources Development, Canada and sponsored by the Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women (CCLOW). 

The Badgley Report (1984) concluded "approximately 54 percent of the females under the age of 18 have been sexually assaulted. The definition of sexual assault here is sexual activity ranging from unwanted touching and threats of unwanted touching to rape causing bodily harm." Badgley also showed that about 31 percent of the males of all ages have been sexually assaulted. The majority of these males were under 21 when the first assault took place.î (Mitchell, 1985 p.88). Statistics Canada figures (1993) state that: "51 per cent of Canadian women have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence (as defined by the Criminal Code of Canada) since the age of 16. 25 percent of all women have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of a marital or common-law partner."

These concepts were articulated by Tanya Lewis as part of her thesis defence - I thank her for the tremendous insight of such metaphors for enabling a vision of something outside the all-pervasive imagery of a journey towards health

Women, Literacy and Violence - A Brief Bibliography

Background Material:

Agger, I. (1994). The Blue Room. Trauma and Testimony Among Refugee Women. A Psycho-social Exploration. London: Zed Books.

Butler, S. (1979 reprinted 1985). The Conspiracy of Silence: The Trauma of Incest. San Francisco: Volcano Press.

Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women (1995). Isolating the Barriers and Strategies for Prevention: A Kit about Violence and Women's Education for Adult Educators and Adult Learners. Toronto: Author.

Danica, E. (1996). Beyond Don't. Dreaming Past the Dark. Charlottetown: Gynergy

Gil, E. (1983). Outgrowing the Pain: A Book for and about Adults Abused as Children. New York: Dell Books.

Gowen, S. G. & Bartlett, C. (1997). "Friends in the Kitchen": Lessons from Survivors. In Hull, G. (Ed.) Changing Work, Changing Workers, Critical Perspectives on Language, Literacy and Skills. New York: State University of New York Press. pp. 141-158

Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books.

Horsman, J. (1995). Violence and Illiteracy in Women's Lives: Proposal for Research and Practice. International Journal of Canadian Studies, 11, Spring.

Lloyd, B. A. (1994). The Power of Woman-Positive Literacy Work: Program-Based Action Research. Halifax: Fernwood & Toronto:CCLOW.

Lloyd, B. A. (1994). Women in Literacy Speak: The Power of Woman-Positive Literacy Work. Halifax: Fernwood & Toronto: CCLOW.

Mcbeth, S. and Stollmeyer, V. (1988) 'East End Literacy: A Women's Discussion Group'. In Canadian Woman Studies, 9 (3 & 4).

Martinez, A. (1997). Teaching Survivors of Torture and Trauma: A Handbook for Teachers. Sydney, Australia: TAFE Multicultural Education Unit (Order from: Multicultural Programs Unit, 1st Floor, 6-8 Holden Street, Ashfield NSW 2131, Australia)

Rockhill, K. (1987) Literacy as threat/desire: Longing to be SOMEBODY. In Women and Education: A Canadian Perspective. Edited by J. Gaskell and A.McLaren. Calgary: Detselig.

Roeher Institute. (1994). Harmís Way: The Many Faces of Violence and Abuse against Persons with Disabilities. North York: Author.

van der Kolk, B.A., McFarlane, A.C. & Weisaeth, L. (1996). Traumatic stress: The effects of overwhelming experience on mind, body, and society. New York: The Guilford Press.

Material which could be drawn from for work with learners: A key resource with ideas for using a wide variety of materials is:

Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women (1996). Making Connections: Literacy and EAL Curriculum from a Feminist Perspective. Toronto: Author.

Other resources:

* Easy to read

Bass, Ellen & Davis, Laura (1993). Beginning to Heal: A First Book for Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. New York: Harper Collins.*

Bass, Ellen & Davis, Laura (1988). The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors or Child Sexual Abuse. New York: Harper & Row.

Baxter, S. (1988). No Way to Live: Poor Women Speak Out. Vancouver: New Star Press.

Breen, M.J. (1988). Taking Care: A Handbook About Women's Health. McGraw Hill: Toronto

The Change Agent: Adult Education for Social Justice: News, Issues and Ideas. Focus on Crime and Violence. New England Literacy Resource Center.

Del Tufo, A. (1995). Domestic Violence for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers Publishing.

Hudson River Center for Program Development. (1994). Sexual Abuse: Facts for Discussion, Prevention, and Management. Student Workbook. Health Promotion for Adult Literacy Students: An Empowering Approach. New York: Author.

LeFeuvre, J. With the YWCA of Canada. (1992). Fresh Start. Toronto: YWCA.

Louden, J. (1992). The Woman's Comfort Book: A Self-Nurturing Guide for Restoring Balance in your Life. Harper San Fransisco: New York.

Ludwig, S.E. (1995). After You Tell. Toronto: Sex Information and Education Council of Canada. (Translation in Bliss Symbolics.)

McEvoy, Maureen, (1990). Let the Healing Begin. Breaking the Cycle of Child Sexual Abuse in Our Communities. Merritt, B.C.: Nicola Valley Institute of Technology.

Moore, Anne and the Women's Group of Action Read. (1995). Growing Bolder: A workbook on growing older and herstory for women in literacy programs. Guelph: Action Read. *

NiCarthy, G. and Davidson, S. (1989). You Can Be Free: An Easy-to-Read Handbook. for Abused Women. Seal Press. Seattle, Washington. *

St. Christoper House Adult Literacy Program/Woman Abuse Program. (In press). The Right to Be Free. Woman Abuse in Intimate Relationships. Toronto:St. Christopher House. * (Order from: St. Christopher House Adult Literacy Program , Woman Abuse Program, 53 Argyle St. Toronto, Ontario M6J 1N8)

St. Christopher House Domestic Violence Program. (No date). We are not born to suffer: Six Portuguese women tell their stories. Toronto: St. Christopher House.

Stewart, Monique. (1993). Learning to Protect Ourselves. Toronto: St. Christopher House Adult Literacy Program Publications *

Stinchcome, T. & Partridge, S. (1993). Are you a woman? Disabled? Being hurt? What help? Look inside A Resource Guide for Assaulted Women with Disabilities. Toronto: ARCH/PUSH

Tschirhart Sanford, L. & Donovan, M.E. (1984). Women and Self Esteem: Understanding and Improving the Way We Think and Feel about Ourselves. Penguin Books: New York.

Women's Self Help Network. (1984). Women's Self Help Kit. Ptarmigan Press: B.C.

Experiences of violence: Allen, G. and A. Achtman, T. Kitagawa, P. Stanley. (1989). No More Masterpieces: Short Prose by New Writers. Canadian Scholars' Press Inc., Toronto, Ont.

Almack, Shirley. (1992). Street Mother. Guelph: Garlic Press. (Order from: Action Read Community Literacy Centre, 45 Cork Street East, Guelph, Ontario, N1H 2W7 )*

Battell, E & Nonesuch, K. (Eds.) (1996). If You Could See Me Now! Stories by women who survived abusive relationships. Salt Spring Island, B.C.: Key Consulting. (Order from: Key Consulting, 379 Woodland Drive, Salt Spring Island, B.C. V8K J6) *

Byrnes, Josie (1977). Never in a Loving Way. Manchester: Gatehouse Books. (Order from: Gatehouse, St. Luke's, Sawley Road, Miles Platting, Manchester, M10 8DB, England) *

Chong, N., Kofie, M. & Msingwana, K. (1993). Only Mountains Never Meet: A collection of stories by three new writers. Toronto: Well Versed Publications.

Doiron, Rose (1987). My Name is Rose. Toronto: East End Literacy Press. (Order from: Dominie Press, 2362 Huntingwood Drive, Unit 7, Agincourt, Ontario, M1S 3J1) *

Dueno, Aida, Alma Santiago & Rose Marie De Simone (1993). It Should Be Told: Oral Histories from the Open Book. Brooklyn: The Open Book. (Order from: The Open Book, 421 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11215).

Fay. Listen to Me: Talking Survival. Manchester: Gatehouse Books. *

Green, A. K. (1990). Coming Out of My Shell. St. John's, Newfoundland: Distance Education Program for Literacy Providers (Order from: Educational Planning and Design Associates Limited, 18 Leslie Street, St. John's, NF. A1E 2V6.) *

Roa, Edami, Basemah Jaber and Ivan Ramirez. I See a Part of Myself: Voices from the Community. Brooklyn: The Open Book.

Sapphire. (1996). Push. New York: Vintage Books.

Women's Writing Project (1990). Belles' Letters. Canberra, ACT, Australia: Homefront Belles (Order from: Homefront Belles, PO Box 64, Civic Square, ACT 2608, Australia)

Poetry and Other Writing from Programs: Allen, L. (1993). Women Do This Every Day. Toronto: Women's Press.

Braid, K. (1991). Covering Rough Ground. Vancouver: Polestar Books

Brandt, D. (1992). Mother, Not Mother. Stratford, Ontario: Mercury Press. Chapters. (1996). Butterflies and Bullfrogs. Camrose, Alberta: Chapters Project. (Order from: The Chapters Program, #206 4917 50 Avenue, Camrose, Alberta, T4V 0S2)

Edmonton John Howard Society. (1997). Each One of Us. A Collection of Writings and Art Work. Edmonton: EJHS Literacy Publications. (Order from: Edmonton John Howard Society Literacy Publications, 301, 10526 Jasper Avenue, Edmonton, Alberta T5J 1Z7)

Samaritan House PAR Group. Where There is Life, There is Hope. Winnipeg: Literacy and Continuing Education Branch. Department of Education and Training, Province of Manitoba.

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Tynes, M. (1990). Woman Talking Woman. Nova Scotia: Pottersfield Press.

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