Judith Lewis Herman

Judith Lewis Herman

Judith Lewis Herman is a contemporary psychiatrist who studies trauma and posttraumatic stress (PTSD). She developed the diagnosis of Complex PTSD. 

Professional Life

Judith Lewis Herman was born in 1942 in New York City. She attended Radcliffe College as an undergraduate, and she received her MD from Harvard University in 1968. She completed her residency in psychiatry at the Boston University Medical Center. She has been a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University since 1981, and she has worked as psychiatric director at the Women’s Mental Health Collective in Somerville Massachusetts since 1973.

Herman has spent the majority of her career addressing issues arising from posttraumatic stress and in particular, incest. On the topic of incest, Herman wrote Father-Daughter Incest in collaboration with Lisa Hirschman in 1981. Herman also wrote Trauma and Recovery in 1992. She has received awards for her work, including the American Medical Women’s Association award in 2000, and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition, the American Psychiatric Association bestowed the title of Distinguished Fellow upon Herman in 2003.

Contributions to Psychology

Herman's best-known contribution to the field is her development of the diagnosis of Complex PTSD. Herman found that victims of prolonged or multiple traumas frequently developed symptoms that were markedly different from those associated with traditional PTSD. The development of Complex PTSD commonly results from a feeling of captivity or powerlessness that lasts for an extended period of time rather than just for the duration of one traumatic event. Victims of sex trafficking, domestic violence survivors, people who have been repeatedly raped or assaulted, prisoners of war, and those who have experienced several different traumas are susceptible to the disorder.

Unlike PTSD, people with Complex PTSD may experience emotional flashbacks. During these moments, a person will re-experience the emotions he or she felt during the original trauma. For example, a woman with a history of abuse may cower in terror while arguing with her husband, even when her husband poses no real threat. People with Complex PTSD often struggle with attachment issues and are terrified of abandonment. This symptom is especially pronounced with children. Difficulty assimilating the experience is also a hallmark. Survivors may not be able to remember elements of the trauma, and may vacillate between loving and hating the perpetrator. A boy who was molested by his mother, for example, may adore his mother one week and then completely sever contact with her the next.

Traditional PTSD treatments are less effective with Complex PTSD. Some researchers have argued that Complex PTSD is a form of borderline personality disorder (BPD). Herman agrees that some symptoms are similar, but points out that the diagnostic criteria for Complex PTSD differ significantly from BPD. While the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) does not currently list Complex PTSD as a diagnosis, many in the mental health community view it as scientifically and clinically valid.

Herman is seen as an expert in the treatment of trauma and is an advocate for victims of traumatic crimes. Herman uses her experience and education to enlighten professional and legal communities and the public to the sensitivity of victims after traumatic events. She has educated family members, counselors, therapists, and other educators on how to interpret the hesitation, denial, and fear expressed by survivors of incest and other abuses. This information has helped clinicians better understand a survivor’s perspective and has paved the way for more empathic communication between professionals and survivors of trauma.


  1. Johnson, S. (2011, Jan 16). Oakland Effect: Rethinking Trauma in Oakland and Beyond. Oakland Tribune. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com
  2. Judith Lewis Herman. (2002). Contemporary Authors Online. Biography In Context. Retrieved from http://www.gale.cengage.com/InContext/bio.htm

Last Update: 07-08-2015

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