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A gesture can heal, but not when power dynamics are in play

RE "THE power of human touch" (Ideas, Nov. 1): While Paul Kix's article points to some genuine benefits of touch, it made some dangerous points that need to be addressed. The issue of concern is encapsulated in the following sentence: "The irony, [professor Tiffany] Field and others say, is that the very students at risk of reliving past traumas would most benefit from an authority figure, maybe even a professor, comforting them with a hug or a pat on the back."

The suggestion is that people who have experienced interrelational, or complex, trauma — for example, children who grow up in abusive homes — need to allow people in authority to touch them in order to heal. I find it to be irresponsible and unethical for anyone to propose such a treatment.


At least since the publication of Judith Herman's seminal book "Trauma and Recovery" in 1992, interrelational trauma has been considered a special case, different from other types of trauma in that power dynamics are a critical component. Our challenge is to understand and appreciate the benefits of touch for people in general, but to not make an unsubstantiated leap from high-fiving NBA teammates (relationships of equal power) into the realm of the long, patient work of trauma treatment. That work primarily revolves around our feeling safe and at home in our own bodies, and not whether we can tolerate the touch of a so-called authority figure —a relationship with an inherent power differential.

David Emerson, Brookline

The writer is director of yoga services at the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute.