Christine Metz Howard
KU News Service

Shifting narratives may slow healing process for domestic violence survivors

Fri, 04/25/2014

LAWRENCE – Across the country, domestic violence shelters provide a safe harbor for women and children fleeing terrifying predicaments and abusive relationships. However, research at the University of Kansas shows that survivors’ overall recoveries may be impeded when they are forced to "box" themselves into certain narratives in order to receive assistance.

Adrianne Kunkel, a professor of communication studies, found survivors’ stories could shift several times while navigating the constraining labyrinth that exists to rescue and serve them. This may slow the emotional healing process, which is linked to having people portray their individual struggles as personal narratives.

Kunkel has spent several years as a volunteer and advocate at a women’s domestic violence shelter, collecting data on employees and survivors. Analysis of 28 interviews with women who stayed at the shelter shows that a survivor must accommodate her story of abuse relative to who is listening. That story varies depending on whether she is calling 911, seeking help from a crisis hotline, asking for shelter, obtaining a protection from abuse order, seeking housing or providing proof that she is fit to parent.

“It’s not that they aren’t telling the truth. It is just that they are in a position, depending on the audience, to have to tell their stories in different ways to acquire the particular resources they need,” Kunkel said.

Kunkel, along with Suzy D’Enbeau, assistant professor of communication studies at Kent State University, and Jennifer Guthrie, one of Kunkel’s former graduate students who is now an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, is working on a research program that examines the empowerment and disempowerment processes associated with domestic violence centers and with survivors sharing their narratives to center staff. Led by Kunkel, the team will present on the topic throughout the year.

As a volunteer, Kunkel observed advocates coaching women to share their experiences and stories in such a way so criteria could be met to receive assistance such as housing or an extension at the shelter. Unfortunately, this coaching process can marginalize the survivor’s perspective and her role in her own recovery.

For Kunkel, this coaching contradicted the organization’s mission of empowering the survivor to represent herself and make choices to improve her own life.

“Throughout the training, we were told again and again, trust the survivor. It is her story, her lived experience, and we are there to listen and be supportive,” Kunkel said. “Yet there is a lot of coaching that goes on and changing of what might have actually happened.”

For example, Kunkel points to a series of questions that volunteers and staff ask when women seeking shelter call the crisis hotline. A woman who may be scared of her abuser, but in a safe location, may not meet the checklist for staying at the shelter. However, if the woman says she feels endangered, that could be enough to receive refuge.

“They have to change the way they construct their story just to get into the shelter, but really it goes even beyond that,” Kunkel said.

While it's beneficial in that survivors receive the resources they need to move past abusive relationships, Kunkel claims that requiring survivors to adapt and fragment their stories can be detrimental to processing their experiences and reaping the subsequent mental and emotional health benefits.

“The stories are getting told in so many different ways, you don’t actually know what the real story is anymore. Part of that is just life. But when survivors tell their full, unedited story, they actually get a chance to heal and make sense of the potential trauma they have endured,” she said.

Kunkel’s work on survivors’ narratives is just one of several research areas she has explored since volunteering at the women’s shelter.

In 2013, with D’Enbeau, she published an article in the Journal of Applied Communication Research that identified the paradoxes of a domestic violence center, which espoused empowerment for survivors but whose policies actually hamstrung them and the staff that tried fervently to assist them. They also studied the shelter employees, who work long hours, receive low wages, experience burnout and have high turnover rates.

In addition, she is working on a first-person account of what it is like to deal with the support dilemmas and dialectical tensions faced when volunteering at a domestic violence shelter as a feminist scholar and professor of communication and gender studies.

At the heart of Kunkel’s research is studying ways for survivors to use social support networks to break out of the cycle of violence. Kunkel would like to see an environment where survivors can fully and accurately express their experiences and feelings without jeopardizing their chance of receiving assistance. Kunkel hopes to share her findings with domestic violence centers across the country so that they may then best help the survivors they serve.

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Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.

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