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Holding, Containing and Bearing
The Problem of Helpfulness in
Encounters with Torture Survivors
Dick Blackwell
© Taylor & Francis Ltd, 1997.
Reproduced with the kind permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd.
This article first appeared in Journal of Social Work Practice, 11,2: 81-89, 1997.
[The Journal's website is:
Richard Blackwell is a Group Analyst and Family Therapist at the Medical Foundation.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture.

Medical Foundation Series
Holding, Containing and Bearing Witness
Holding, Containing and Bearing Witness: The
Problem of Helpfulness in Encounters with
Torture Survivors
Dick Blackwell
Presentations of extreme distress following horrific and traumatic experiences tend to evoke a powerful wish to be helpful and an associated fear of impotence. Helping activity, while not in itself unreasonable in appropriate circumstances can nevertheless serve the needs of the worker more than those of the client and obscure the more fundamental desire for holding, containing and bearing witness. This case is argued with special reference to work with victims of torture and organised violence.
What are we here for?
W. H. Auden once remarked that writers were guilty of every kind of arrogance except that of the social workers who say, "We are here to help others." "What", asked Auden,
"are the 'others' supposed to be here for?"
I believe Auden here grasps a truth that is essential for us to recognise in our work with torture survivors. So I want to begin by asserting quite unequivocally that I do not believe we are here, or that we should be here to 'help' our clients. I believe we are here to bear witness. That is something quite different, and it is that difference that is the concern of this article. Furthermore, it is something we do for ourselves, for our own society, our own history and our own place in that history.
Let me make one or two more assertions. First, it is much harder to bear witness than it is to be helpful. Good intentions are not hard to come by; so trying to be helpful is easy.
Nor is it difficult to convey a helpful attitude nor to find something one can do that a client might experience, in the first instance at least, as helpful. It makes them feel better and it makes us feel better. Bearing witness, on the other hand, may well make both ourselves and the client feel worse, at least in the short term. So it is a very powerful temptation for us to do our utmost to be helpful. But this helpfulness is in the long run of little real significance, certainly not historically. No more than giving alms to the poor, soup to the homeless, or shopping for a sick neighbour. It helps, but it doesn't change anything; certainly not history. .
Second, the only person we are really here to help is ourselves. The extent to which we recognise this is the extent to which we may be of real personal value to our individual clients, and historically significant in the field in which we are working.
What do our clients want?
Many of our clients come to us in a dreadful state. Putting them in this state has been precisely the intention of those persecutors from whom they have fled. The purpose of the oppressor is to place himself (or herself, though it is most often he) in the mind of

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