Military criminal investigator Russell W. Strand has news for journalists who report on intimate violence: Old-school, just-the-facts-ma’am, Joe-Friday techniques do more harm than good.
“You do actually cover these stories in a way that, without intending to, can re-traumatize people,” said Strand, chief of the Family Advocacy Law Enforcement Training Division at the U.S. Army Military Police School at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. “Military sexual trauma takes away everything you are in minute. It’s the situations afterward that can define who you’ll become, whether you’ll be a victim or you’ll be a survivor. The media can do so much good, and they can do so much damage.”
Strand has received international recognition for his innovative model for interviewing victims and survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. Last April, he was awarded the 2012 Visionary Award by the advocacy organization End Violence Against Women International. The group cited Strand’s training model and interview techniques as a model for military and civilian agencies worldwide.
In his training sessions, Strand says, he employs an example from the media to demonstrate how quickly insensitive questioning can shake and shut down a trauma survivor. He shows a video clip from a 2009 CNN interview in which talk show host Larry King induces a visibly painful reaction from a rape survivor. The woman being interviewed was a 1976 victim of Bay Area rapist Phillip Craig Garrido. The segment appeared just after the Northern California man was arrested for abducting 11-year-old Jaycee Lee Dugard in 1991 and holding her captive for more than 18 years. During Dugard’s ordeal, Garrido repeatedly raped her and forced to bear two children.
“Military sexual trauma takes away everything you are in a minute. It’s the situations afterward that can define who you’ll become, whether you’ll be a victim or a survivor.”–Russell W. Strand
“In the interview, King is actually asking (Garrido’s early victim) some of the standard who-what-where-when-why and how questions,” Strand says. “You can just see the visceral reaction she was having. And this was almost 25 years later.”
Strand says the clip illustrates why journalists can benefit from familiarity with concepts he teaches police and first-responders, military leaders and medical personnel. “Number one, you won’t re-victimize them as much or at all,” he says, “and number two, you’ll get more accurate information.”
Strand’s interviewing model — forensic experiential trauma interviews, or FETI — is built on emerging research on brain function and memory. He begins with a premise from Harvard psychologist and trauma researcher Jim Hooper. Hooper likes to say that human memory doesn’t work like a tape recorder; you can’t hit replay and get accurate information. That’s especially true, Strand says, when someone is asked to recall frightening or life-threatening events.
Under high stress and trauma, people experience involuntary fight-flight-freeze reactions common to all mammals. The amygdala, the brain’s almond-shaped equivalent of a threat-detecting radar, releases a cascade of chemicals and hormones to prepare the body to react quickly. Those reactions will begin before a person registers conscious thought that they’re facing possible threats or danger.
In the ensuing physiological process, the advanced part of the brain that governs reasoning and linear recall takes a backseat or goes offline entirely. That means emotional centers of mid-brain and survival functions of the brainstem are in charge of actions and reactions.
“You don’t react the way you think you’re going to react,” Strand says, “because your prefrontal cortex is going to shut down.”
That’s why people who experience trauma are often unable to provide coherent, start-to-finish, narrative accounts of what happened to them, Strand says, particularly in the immediate aftermath of trauma. Someone who has experienced high stress or trauma may not be able to recall peripheral information such as numbers on a license plate, the timeframe in which an event occurred or physical details like eye or hair color or clothing worn by other people. Strand notes that human brains under high stress focus on central details such as sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and emotional and physical feelings.
Strand’s model also draws on the work of Dr. Bruce Perry, a Houston psychiatrist who has advanced understanding of how trauma impacts brain development and function. Perry advises that it’s a mistake to treat crime victims as witnesses to their own crimes. Victims or survivors aren’t observers and bystanders. In the face of extreme stress and trauma, they may experience terrifying, uncontrollable, full-body reactions. And when asked afterward about what happened, they may re-experience sensory and emotional and physiological responses from the original trauma – reactions ranging from elevated heart rate to shortness of breath, dry mouth, sweaty palms, shaking, involuntary eye movements, and altered cognitive processing.
“Disclosure is a process, not an event. When anyone experiences a highly stressful or traumatic experience, they generally do not consciously understand or know why they may have reacted the way they did, may not understand why they feel the way they do, or may not understand why they can’t remember something they want to remember or forget something they don’t want to remember,” Strand says.
“We all need to be patient and understanding. We also need to understand the neurobiological consequences and impact which will assist us all in understanding the context of the experience and the behaviors and reactions of that person within the context of the experience.”
People who experience trauma are often unable to provide coherent, start-to-finish, narrative accounts of what happened to them, Strand says, particularly in the immediate aftermath of trauma.
As a military criminal investigator and instructor, Strand observed that trauma survivors give more detailed and accurate information when asked empathetic, open-ended questions. He also learned that it is effective to begin interviews by drawing out sensory memories and associated recollections of feelings or thoughts. Conversely, beginning with what cops, other first-responders, and journalists typically ask – who, what, where, when, why and how or the five W and H questions – often jars interview subjects and creates distance between them and their interviewers. Even at best, Strand says, such questions often elicit far less accurate and detailed information.
He says neurobiology explains why: “Those questions are interviewing the prefrontal cortex, which wasn’t there.”
Strand formalized his FETI model after being dispatched to Fort Hood, Texas, after 13 soldiers and one civilian were killed and dozens were wounded in a mass shooting in November 2009.
By the time he began talking to first responders, survivors and other witnesses of the massacre at the Central Texas post, they had been interviewed by criminal investigators. Many voiced frustration to Strand about their inability to give “very good answers to some of the questions.” He decided to try conducting debriefing sessions, asking open-ended questions. “I was using what I’ve learned from neurobiology, interviewing basically the emotional part of the brain,” Strand says. “And I was amazed at was I was able to find out that we were not able to get with traditional interviewing techniques.”
After leaving Fort Hood, Strand searched for any scientific research that might support or explain the efficacy of the five W and H questions. “There wasn’t any,” he says. The research he received also made it clear, he says: standard story-gathering and investigative questions had a tendency to produce distorted recollections.
Strand says the five W-and H-based questions that anchor journalism can often make victims guess or try to fill gaps in fragmentary recollections of traumatic events. Because they tend to push survivors to focus on why an event occurred, such questions can make survivors feel doubted or disbelieved and induce guilt, shame, or self-blame – the kinds of reactions that make survivors shut down.
In contrast, Strand’s FETI model proposes beginning every interview or interaction by making survivors and victims feel as safe as possible. When an interviewer shows and voices empathy and acknowledges someone’s trauma and pain at the outset, that increases a survivor’s trust, Strand says. “Their brainstem is not going to be so much on guard.”
FETI-trained interviewers are also advised to start interviews with a specific question: ”Help me to understand what you’re able to share about your experience.” Strand says the verb able conveys that someone isn’t going to be expected or pushed to do something they can’t. And asking for information about a survivor’s experience signals that they aren’t expected to regurgitate a linear story from the beginning to the end.
“Anybody who has worked with a language interpreter knows that oftentimes there’s bad information passed through translation. It’s much the same here. The prefrontal cortex will be trying to answer questions with guesses and approximations,” Strand says.
“The brainstem or the emotional brain is focused on the central details. Central details are not chronological. They’re not a storyline or a narrative. The narrative for a lot of people comes later,” he says. “Pushing for a narrative, we’re inviting the prefrontal cortex back in to try to make sense of it.”
“Anybody who has worked with a language interpreter knows that oftentimes there’s bad information passed through translation. It’s much the same here. The prefrontal cortex will be trying to answer questions with guesses and approximations.”
A survivor or victim may respond to initial questions by expressing disbelief. If so, an interviewer would ask what the survivor is able to share about the experience that they can’t believe.
“Then,” he says, “shut up and listen.”
When the survivor stops speaking, an interviewer can gently prompt for more information. For example, if someone says they were pushed down on the ground, an interviewer might ask, “Tell me more about what that felt like.” If a survivor’s hand begins shaking, that might prompt questions about any emotions or thoughts or memories they might associate with their shaking hand. Or if a survivor recounts that they froze and were unable to move, the interviewer might ask what they are able to recall thinking while frozen.
Throughout the process, Strand says, FETI interviewers are advised to focus on and request the survivor’s help in understanding whatever sensory and emotional details they offer. “With some people it’s the sight. It’s the sound. It’s the feeling. The texture. It’s the emotional feelings that actually start to bring out more information.”
“We’re actually going where they’re going and trying to get more detail. What we want to do is drill,” he says. “It really gets at the experience in full.”
And as that happens, a survivor or victim often recalls more peripheral details.
“You have to meet the victim where they’re at. Be sensitive to their needs. Tell the victim and remind them if it becomes too much or they need to take a break,” Strand says. “Be sensitive. Relate the concern that this is not about you getting information but this is about hearing about their experience.”
If someone begins crying, a questioner should have water and tissues available. Survivors and victims should also be encouraged to bring a supporter or advocate to be with them during interview sessions. “We’ve found it’s really helpful to have that person there,” Strand says, “because that person who’s there with them is going to leave with them.”
If a survivor or victim becomes excessively emotional or agitated or their eyes begin to dart around, an interviewer should pull back and shift to another topic or propose ending the interview session.
At the end of questioning, interviewers should express empathy and support and thank the victim or survivor for being able to share information. “We want to acknowledge that we know this was difficult for them,” Strand says.
He also suggests stating that it is normal to continue remembering sensory details, and the survivor shouldn’t hesitate to ask for help or support if they begin to feel overwhelmed.
In one recent case, Strand says, he heard from a Navy attorney that FETI techniques helped convince a prosecutor that a woman reporting a sexual assault was telling the truth. The prosecutor had become suspicious because the woman was guarded and unemotional and offered sketchy information about some aspects of the incident. She began to open up when the Navy attorney approached her with Strand’s FETI model — “I don’t like that question. It makes me feel about this, and I don’t want to feel,” she blurted early on. “I don’t want to remember.”
She gradually shared key details that she had previously been unable to provide, Strand said. “It was so different because she was approached differently.”
In another recent incident, Strand said, he used the questioning techniques to help after robbers attacked his brother during an early morning walk and tried to snatch his brother’s watch. He said his brother instinctively clutched his arm to his chest when robbers swooped in, brandishing hammers. The assailants beat his brother in the head with their hammers until he dropped and rolled from the sidewalk into oncoming traffic.
As his brother was being treated in an emergency room, a young cop questioned him about where and how long the attack occurred and what his assailants looked like. When Strand later called, his brother was bewildered and dismayed that he couldn’t answer most of those questions.
Strand said his brother was particularly troubled that he had held his arm to his chest and didn’t surrender his watch. Strand says he was able to explain that was probably an instinctive defensive move. He recalls saying, “There are a lot of things you can’t remember, and I understand that. Let me ask you a question: What is it that you can’t forget?
“That was just an amazing thing for him. He said, ‘Why didn’t he ask me that?’ He said, ‘I can’t forget the sound of the hammers on my skull and I can’t get this out of my mind.’ That was what he was focused on,” Strand says “It’s not what you can remember sometimes. It’s what you can’t forget. And that actually brings out the experience better than anything else.”
Strand says reporters sometimes ask whether what he’s proposing amounts to therapy. Though he says it’s not, he maintains that FETI techniques support therapeutic process.” Most of the people we talk to say, ‘This is very cathartic. I didn’t realize this stuff was still part of me.’”