In our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017) Kristin Davisson writes as follows:
A sense of sameness. Of women sampled, many indicated feelings of closeness to the female victim, informing a felt sense of “sameness” between them. As the literature reviewing empathy in women suggests, this kind of “identification” in close female relationships is common (Surrey, 1991). Interestingly, approximately 50% of participants seemed to link (in discussion) their feelings of “sameness” to a personal fear or vulnerability following their friend’s assault. This might suggest that identification with a female victim can extend to identification with her traumatic event. Two women make this connection below:
It just makes you feel really vulnerable. If this can happen to her, it can happen to anyone…and I see so much of myself in her. I’m afraid I could be in a situation like that. This is so close to home. It’s very troubling.
Realizing this could happen to her- a girl from a small town- you know, a girl who’s pretty much just like me. That really scared me.
For the two women above, the realization of “sameness” (“I see myself in her”) is intimately linked with recognition of risk to the self. In psychoanalytic theory, secondary identification is defined as “an automatic, unconscious, mental process whereby an individual becomes like another person in one or several aspects. It is a natural accompaniment of maturation and mental development and aids in the learning process as well as in the acquisition of interests, ideals, mannerisms, etc.” (Moore & Fine, 1968, as cited in Basch, 1983, p. 104). As one might expect, the closer the woman interviewed was to the victim, the more likely she was to speak of this felt sense of sameness. Identification is also considered to be a mechanism in providing satisfaction to the self via adoption of aspects of a loved person, ultimately making separation or loss more tolerable (Basch, 1983; Freud 1917). The frequency with which these feelings were reported may suggest that identification with the traumatic event may serve to maintain a “needed” connection between two women (victim and “witness”).
Identification or empathy? In reacting to her friend’s violent sexual assault, one woman commented, “If it could happen to her, then who among us are safe?” She goes on to say, “I felt sad, like a part of it happened to me.” Certainly, feeling the pain of another can be likened to the experience of empathy, an important and desired quality in a close relationship. This proposes the inquiry, for these women, where is the line between empathizing with the victims and identifying with them? Which of these experiences makes it more likely that they will exhibit symptoms of secondary trauma? In differentiating between these two (often similar) states, Basch (1983) makes reference to the temporary nature of empathy, sometimes called “trial identification” (Reich, 1960) versus the more enduring transformation of identification. Presumably then, empathy by itself does not imply adoption of the victim’s traumatic feelings.
Correspondingly, one participant shared, “It was very sad for me to think that she experienced that intrusion, and she kept it inside. And then sad like a part of it happened to me…the second I knew she had been hurt like that, I felt hurt.” Another remarked, “I certainly hurt for her (begins to cry) and I hurt for myself and other women.”
Perhaps a function of identification, the two women above obtained the most profound elevations on the Inventory of Altered Self-Capacities (IASC), suggesting significant dysregulation of affect, relatedness, and identity in their lives in the six months preceding their interviews.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.