Institute News

Center collaborating with USC faculty member on its first original study: the impact of engaging with testimony

“What would it be like for any of us to spend pretty much all day, every day listening to some of the worst things humanity can do?” asked Beth Meyerowitz, Professor of Professor of Psychology and Preventive Medicine at USC. “Testimony from genocide survivors contains many stories about the resilience of the human spirit. Yet much of the material might be difficult or painful to hear.”

Professor Meyerowitz and the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research have partnered on a research project that takes a scientific approach to this question. Directed by Professor Meyerowitz and Martha Stroud, the Center’s Associate Director and Senior Research Officer, the project is the first piece of original research by the Center, which to date has fostered other scholars’ research but has not yet pursued research of its own design.

This project is just the latest step in the USC Shoah Foundation’s longtime collaboration with Professor Meyerowitz. When the USC Shoah Foundation began its work in Rwanda, the Institute’s director invited the participation and contribution of Professor Meyerowitz, who had been conducting research in Rwanda with the survivors of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Professor Meyerowitz contributed to the Institute’s Rwanda Peace Education Program.

When Aegis Rwanda and the Kigali Genocide Memorial embarked on collecting testimonies about the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, Professor Meyerowitz, in collaboration with Karen Jungblut and Edith Umugiraneza of the USC Shoah Foundation, developed and led professional development workshops on traumatic stress for people working in the field. Many valuable insights emerged from the workshops about the experiences and challenges of collecting testimony and listening to others’ stories of genocide. “It became clear that we needed to know more about the effects of doing this work on the interviewer, videographer, and on memory workers in museums,” Professor Meyerowitz said.

When she approached USC Shoah Foundation with the idea for a research project on the challenges and rewards of engaging with testimony, the Center for Advanced Genocide Research realized how relevant her questions were to the scholars, faculty, and students engaging with testimony as well. When USC undergraduate student Nisha Kale spent a month at the Center as a summer research fellow, she knew she’d be watching many hours of genocide testimonies filled with difficult material. What came as a surprise was the effect this had on her own mental well-being.

“I definitely had trouble sleeping and I had some nightmares,” she said during her research presentation in April of 2017. “I would find that I would be having a conversation with friends or people and I would get flashbacks of things people had said in the testimonies that I didn’t necessarily want to be thinking about.”

Throughout the Center’s four-year existence, several research fellows have described similar distress from watching testimonies of Holocaust and genocide survivors.

But no large-scale studies have been done to assess the range of psychological impacts of engaging with testimony. To fill this gap, Meyerowitz and Stroud are deep into the data-collection phase of a broad study to interview and survey people who have engaged with testimony as interviewers, indexers, archive managers, videographers, curators and scholars.

So far, interviews reveal a range of complex reactions. Meyerowitz and Stroud have thus far interviewed over 40 people and plan to continue collecting data through November.  They are looking forward to the upcoming analysis phase during which they will identify and analyze patterns that are emerging in the interviews about the range of reactions and how people cope with them.

“In addition to investigating the challenges of engaging with testimony, we are equally interested in hearing about the rewards of doing this work and how engaging with testimony affects how people see and experience the world around them. The study will help us to understand not only the impact of working with the material, but even the motivations for doing the work in the first place,” said Stroud.

The study is raising a number of important questions and exciting avenues that they hope to continue pursuing, funding permitting.

One purpose of the study is to develop research-driven insights that can inform a discussion with thought leaders about producing a set of guidelines for professionals who interview survivors of mass violence or for scholars or students who engage with this material. As an internationally recognized leader on gathering and preserving testimonies, the Institute is uniquely positioned to contribute fruitfully to that discussion.

Creating guidelines would not only help interviewers prepare themselves emotionally; it could also result in better interviews.

One Rwandan survivor who had been interviewed once told Professor Meyerowitz that the way an interviewer reacted to a story she was telling during her interview caused her to skip over some harrowing details since she didn’t want to disturb the interviewer further. “When interviewers are emotionally prepared, it creates safety for the survivor to be completely honest about their story and not feel that they have to protect the interviewer,” Meyerowitz said. “No one wants a situation where the interviewee – the survivor – is withholding disturbing details in order to shield the interviewer.” 

Other studies and scholarly papers have examined the impact of exposure to stories of trauma. They have explored, for instance, the mental wellness of psychotherapists working with victims of child abuse, or of attorneys who represent clients in war-crimes trials.

“One difference, in my mind, is that in most of those other cases, there’s an expectation that the primary goal of the interaction is to be helpful in some direct, immediate way to the individual survivor,” Meyerowitz said. “By contrast, when engaging with testimony, people have a variety of goals. Maybe they’re there to film an interview, maybe a scholar is watching a testimony for her own research, maybe someone is indexing or cataloguing a testimony. Their goals for engaging with testimony are more diverse and may not entail direct contact or assistance for the survivor, but are designed to provide invaluable information to a wider audience.”

The study is not limited to affiliates of USC Shoah Foundation.

“We want a range of institutions and types of testimony to be represented in the study,” Stroud said. “This is something people are increasingly talking about. But what we’re not seeing is the research that can inform these conversations, and that’s what we are hoping the insights and wisdom of the people who are participating in this study will contribute.”

If you are interested in learning more about the project, please contact the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research at cagr@usc.edu.