cw: sexual violence
by Radhika Saxena

About two years ago, I was on my way to work on a summer day. My car had broken down, so I called myself an Uber to get to the office, which was about half an hour away in Nizamuddin, New Delhi. It was sometime in May during the court vacation, so I remember being very relaxed and unusually chirpy for a vacation workday. As I was stepping into the cab, I heard my phone ring. I answered it without really noticing who was calling, assuming it to be one of those telemarketing calls, which I would hang up on in a second as usual. But something was different this time. When I answered the call, there was a strange silence, and when I said “hello!” I heard a woman’s voice, one I was familiar with. In between deep, uncontrollable sobs, Aparna, who sounded frantic and disturbed, told me that she didn’t wish to live anymore. I panicked as I realized that I had just received a call from a client telling me that she was planning to kill herself.

Aparna, a lawyer, faced grave cruelty at the hands of her matrimonial family. During her short but turbulent married life, she was abused, poisoned, physically assaulted, and on one occasion, gang-raped by several male members of her matrimonial family. Frustrated with the justice system, she attempted suicide in the court of the Chief Justice of India in 2014. The Supreme Court—shocked into action—intervened by staying criminal proceedings, summoning her case records from various courts, and providing for her rehabilitation. 

When she called me three years later, she could not wait any further for justice. Continued threats and sabotaged legal proceedings characterized her life these days. I struggled through the conversation—trying my best to calm her down—reminding her of the progress both her case and she had made since the Supreme Court took charge. Finally, she relented and promised me that she would not harm herself—for the time being. 

This incident had a profound and lasting impact on me, affecting my work and even my personal life at times. I didn’t give my feelings much attention, and I constantly dismissed the idea that my work affected me. “Vicarious trauma” was first defined and coined by Lisa McCann and Laurie Anne Pearlman in their 1990 article, “Vicarious Traumatization: A Framework for Understanding the Psychological Effects of Working with Victims,” as a condition where helpers begin to display a range of symptoms comparable to those of their traumatized clients. Though originally conceptualized in the context of therapists’ work with survivors of trauma, the phenomenon has since been recognized as prevalent among lawyers, judges and caregivers. I was amazed at how many times I have joked with my friends about wanting to enjoy a trip vicariously through pictures and stories that they share later, but that I couldn’t make such a simple connection to what I experienced while working in India. 

As a lawyer in India, I worked to advance women’s rights, primarily representing clients who had faced gender based violence before different adjudicatory bodies including the Supreme Court of India. My first interaction with Feminist Theory was as an undergraduate student of literature. It was around this time that I began challenging stereotypical notions of how men and women are “supposed” to behave or tasks they’re “supposed” to undertake. It was only when I faced discrimination based on sex in my own house about six years ago, that I first understood that “one is not born, but rather, becomes a woman.” On one occasion, while helping my mother with domestic chores, I told my mother to also ask my brother to sweep his room. She remarked in ridicule, “Have you gone mad? Your brother can’t do all these things!” This and countless other incidents of sexism became my motivation to work for women’s rights in India.

Realizing that Indian laws on the subject were modeled on laws in the US, I decided to pursue a Masters in Law (LL.M.) degree to further my knowledge on the context in which those laws came about and their present day implementation. After enrolling at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, looking to engage more deeply with the law here, I decided to apply to the Transnational Legal Clinic. The Transnational Legal Clinic engages in human rights litigation and advocacy in the immigration setting.

In February this year, the Clinic took us to Lumpkin County, Georgia, where we worked with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative team to provide immigration relief in the form of parole and bond requests to detainees at the Stewart Detention Center. While conducting an intake interview at the Center, my classmate and I met with an individual whose detention, as he put it, was “almost by chance”. He told us the police “were in his neighborhood looking” for another person. They stopped him to ask about that person and he told them he did know who this was. They then started questioning him about his own status, which led to his detention. As we interviewed him, we realized that he didn’t seem to have a strong case for asylum or cancellation of removal, which could affect his bond or parole request. He had come to the US looking for better work conditions and economic prospects. He had lived in the United States for over ten years, he was in a relationship with a citizen but not married, and a caretaker for his partner’s family member. He also informed us that his partner had two children who are citizens. We then explained to him that his case offered little chance for relief, and I saw the color drain from his face. During a discussion with our professor and other students later that night, I dissolved into tears and shared how just watching him contemplate his future sitting behind a glass screen was too much for me to bear. At the time, we were certain that there was no solution for his particular circumstances; so informing him of his impending deportation (and resultant consequences of poverty, trauma, and extreme hardship to both him and his partner) was tough. As an immigrant myself, I was hit hard by the reality of immigration in the US and was thus more emotionally vulnerable.

Or perhaps this interaction affected me more due to my three-year experience in India litigating on violence against women and sex-discrimination. The fact that it affected me in such a manner concerned my professor as well, who offered her support. But somewhere, it led me to finally face my demons and explore vicarious trauma and its effect on my life.  

I eventually reached out to Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) here at the University of Pennsylvania but increasingly felt a lack of support when it came to vicarious trauma. I also explored the Columbia Human Rights Institute’s Initiative “Resources for Resilience” and found myself wanting more.

In a supervision meeting with my professor, I expressed to her that I had felt unprepared for our trip to Georgia and that my past experience continues to interfere with my life and work today. I suggested that the clinic dedicate more time to educating students on vicarious trauma and on ways to cope with it. Among many suggestions, I pressed on the need for a support person to be present on clinic trips especially to detention centers and border camps, and for the support person’s contact information to be distributed to students through various media. My professor, resilient as always, was extremely receptive to my comments.

Reflecting on my experience in India as a human rights litigator, I can say that vicarious trauma is not an issue that is discussed or addressed. The very fact that after three years of directly engaging with clients and hearing their stories, I didn’t know what I was going through or what it was formally referred to is an adequate indication of the state of affairs. Socio-cultural barriers to seeking mental health support in India further compound the problem. I’ve participated in a clinical course in India too, but it was not client focused and the need for stressing upon vicarious trauma perhaps didn’t arise. 

In the United States, however, despite awareness of the issue, I felt enough isn’t done on the subject. In our seminar classes before heading out to Georgia, we barely scratched the surface on this topic. It was only at the close of the semester that we had a class dedicated to self-care. In Georgia, the discussion about our intake interview and what transpired after was focused on teaching moments framed more as “what would you have done in that situation?” and didn’t at first take stock of any vicarious trauma issues. My experience with CAPS was rather generic—the therapists there are a wonderful resource when it comes to stress management and other regular student life issues, but a conversation on vicarious trauma isn’t necessarily fruitful. Though the Executive Director of the LL.M. Program, who is a mindfulness teacher and practitioner, encouraged us to explore mindfulness when we started the LL.M. Program, I was unable to take out time to build a practice for myself and have found it difficult to meet with groups or attend other sessions at the law school. Something that helped me a lot was discussing things with my clinic partner or other colleagues. I cannot, however, say the same for my clinic partner because different things work for different people. 

While I understand that such an important conversation cannot be forced, especially in a clinical setting where students may not yet be ready to explore or share their feelings on the subject, I do feel there can be some direct messaging or discussions that can be done at the very basic level so that vicarious trauma doesn’t go unnoticed and unaddressed. I am unable to offer more suggestions on what might help students or practitioners navigate this, but I feel that building more awareness and exploring ways to help in a participatory manner is essential, especially since vicarious trauma is easy to ignore and tough to spot.


Author: Radhika Saxena is a recent graduate from the Masters of Laws program at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, with a Certificate in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies. A version of this essay was presented at the Human Rights Clinicians’ Conference in April, 2019, at Penn Law.

Illustrator: Diane Lin

Posted by:The F-Word Magazine Staff

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