Matthew Cohen, MSW

Matthew Cohen, MSW

Social Justice Solutions | Staff Writer
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What Clients Can Teach Us: A Lesson on Domestic Violence

A helping professional is almost always at a disadvantage when performing their admirable services. Although they listen and empathize with the client, our understanding of the client’s experience is always a step removed. It never resembles the raw feeling of emotion and confusion that the client is trying to impart. A therapist can sift through their memories, searching for an example of some similar feeling from personal experience, but the emotional reality of each person has a unique shape that ensures that there is a never a perfect match. This holds especially true in cases where the experience was ultra-traumatizing, as in the case of domestic violence. The day to day experience of being abused, mentally and physically, by a person who is supposed to be caring for you is almost impossible to grasp without a first person experience.

The educational structures for helping professionals try to close that gap. The texts that students cling to to help them make sense of the senselessness of our world often contain case studies that are meticulously dissected by author. Case studies attempt to act as a bridge that allows the student to cross that experiential divide. Yet, they are often a step removed as well, focusing on the sessions, not the traumatic events per say, or only including a recap intended to summarize the client for the student. Such efforts leave the student in a position to learn something about treatment, but  lacks the raw personal tone that would really bring the experience home. Helping professions are left confronted with a dilemma, to provide the most ethical service possible the professional must understand the experience as intimately as possible, but where are they to get it?

An often overlooked source is the client. Rarely is a glimpse of the client given from a first person, personal perspective. Case studies hardly ever present the experiential information without the filter of the Author, yet who has more of a right to teach us, who has more of a right to be the author then the survivor?

I am happy to say that one such project has come to my attention, Stories of Survivors: Stories from those who have overcome abuse.

“… a collection of stories written by survivors of domestic violence about the their abusive relationship from the start of the relationship, the abuse, the leaving, and how they healed and recovered after they left.

Poems written by domestic violence survivors are also included, many of these poems offer a unseen glimpse into domestic violence. Poems were written not only after abuse, some were written during the abusive relationship as a way of coping with the abuse.”

It is the sort of work that embraces the power of a peer helping a peer, but this work is more than that. It is the sort of thing that should be required reading to anyone in the helping professions because it allows us to face scary possibilities head on. As a result, they will bring that much more empathy as a result of spending some personal time in between the pages with the survivors. This should not be optional, it should be required. This should not be the place where a students ends their studies, it should be the place they begin.

This is the type of project embraces the idea of social work and the understanding that everyone has value. It also takes a step back from the idea of clinical aspects of domestic violence which is so often put forth by experts and allows those who have experienced domestic violence to help other survivors.  As social workers, as advocates, as teachers, this is a project which we must stand up and support.

More information about this book, organization, and their shelter project can be found at

Written by Matthew Cohen, MSW
SJS Staff Writer


Updated 11/21/2013

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One Response

  1. Allen Corben August 4, 2013

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