In the Presence of Wounded Healers

A “wounded healer” leverages their own experiences of pain and tragedy to help others heal from theirs. Originally coined by psychologist Carl Jung, the term was further popularized by theologian Henri Nouwen in his 1972 book of the same name.

I’m fortunate to have spent the better part of the last two years, while working on a book project, in the presence of wounded healers who are active in the field of restorative justice. These seasoned wounded healers – whether crime victims or, unexpectedly, perpetrators – showed me ways of healing with which I was unfamiliar. Like a bluebonnet that grows and produces its blooms from a crack in the pavement, healing can spring forth from unanticipated sources.

While doing the initial research for the book project, I interviewed an Austinite named Ellen Halbert. This wounded healer told me, “Every time I share my story, I heal a little bit more.” I immediately sensed that her words would guide my subsequent research and writing.

Revenge, at its most basic level, is a strategy for human survival. When a tragic event or hurtful person has caused us pain, the option to strike back lurks. Revenge says, “Don’t ever do that to me again.” Revenge-themed movies like “Carrie” and “Rambo” strike chords that are deeply anchored in the human psyche. But, quite often, there is a heavy price to pay for choosing revenge – such an act can transform a crime victim into a perpetrator, and vengeance can beget more violence.

The biblical counsel “‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord,” urges adherents to choose options other than revenge. Religious systems do some of their best work when they mitigate the primal urge for vengeance in situations of wrongdoing, and encourage the victimized to seek alternatives.

Our legal or retributive justice system – laws, cops, courts, jails and prisons – is a necessary part of our social contract, and the first option in situations of serious wrongdoing.

The legal system, however, does not primarily concern itself with healing. “Repairing the harm done by crime – beyond what happens in the courtroom” is a good working definition of restorative justice. The practices of restorative justice, many have discovered, offer the best options for healing in the aftermath of wrongdoing.

Typically, restorative practices utilize face-to-face encounters between adversaries in safe settings in the presence of support personnel. It’s not a “mediation” – some type of compromise understanding about the wrongdoing – but an opportunity for the perpetrator, after hearing out the victimized person, to be accountable for what they’ve done. Oftentimes, when a wronged person sees that the one who caused their pain has taken responsibility for what they’ve done, healing emerges. Restorative practices do not necessarily involve forgiveness and reconciliation, but can if desired by the participant who was originally victimized.

In 1986, Ellen Halbert was brutally attacked by a drifter who left her for dead. She was fortunate to physically survive the ordeal. Years later, she experienced emotional healing – she wasn’t able to meet with her imprisoned attacker because he was unrepentant – by sharing her story publicly at crime victims’ rights events. “It was all I had,” she told me. “When I told my story, a sense of power and control [about her crime victimization] came over me like never before.”

She was consequently the first crime victim appointed (by Governor Ann Richards) to the Texas Board of Criminal Justice and she helped introduce restorative justice programs to the massive Texas criminal justice system. Later, she worked for former Travis County DA Ronnie Earle as the office’s Victim Services liaison, directing victim-offender dialogues prior to sentencing, one of the early efforts in the nation of a public prosecutor’s office using restorative principles.

Ellen Halbert is now retired, but her work and the telling of her story have brought healing to thousands.

Many wounded healers, like Ellen Halbert, are advocates for restorative justice principles which help repair the harm produced by wrongdoing, and have the power to pacify the ingrained human tendency toward revenge.

Ellen Halbert and T. Carlos – May 2019


T. Carlos Anderson is a Protestant minister and the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System.

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4 thoughts on “In the Presence of Wounded Healers

  1. Kathy Pustejovsky

    I just finished my second reading of There is a Balm in Huntsville (I’m sure it will not be my last) and I have my spare book ready to share with my friends and family. Along with being intrigued by. S the restorative justice that takes place in the book, I found a very personal feeling of healing and hope from the intense grief I had been suffering from the recent loss of my father. So the ‘balm’ is in Houston, as well as Huntsville.

  2. Byrom Judson Smith

    Ellen Halbert’s story is very interesting. She dedicated her life to restorative justice but never had the opportunity to interact with her own attacker. She received healing through her work. Richard Speck, the mass murderer, raped and killed eight student nurses in Chicago in 1966. One of those women was the daughter of a couple who were members of our congregation, Providence Lutheran Church in Holland, Ohio, back in the late sixties and early seventies. We were in an adult Sunday School class one morning, dealing with our Christian charge to forgive those who do us wrong, when the father shared his story. They had tried to meet with Speck, but, like Halbert’s attacker, he was unrepentant and refused to see them. Bottom line, this man confessed to our small group, through anger and tears, that he could never forgive Speck for killing his daughter and he prayed to God every day for this psychopath’s eternal damnation. I wish your book had been around back then and maybe our friends could have received the healing that restorative justice might have afforded them. Jud Smith

  3. Wow, Jud. That’s quite a connection to one of the most horrific crimes of recent US history. Richard Speck, here like anywhere else, receives no sympathy. He created a hellish purgatory for the families of his victims . . . showing little to no remorse or regret.

    How incredible that the family members of the victim stayed connected with the faith community there in Holland, Ohio, and that they sensed the permission and space to share from the depths of their hurt, pain, and misery. Prayers for Speck’s eternal damnation? Chilling. And understandable.

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