CSEAS Seminar: Testimony as Transformation: Resilience, regeneration and moral action through spiritually-adapted narrative therapy in Cambodia

Event time: 
Wednesday, November 10, 2021 - 12:00pm to 1:00pm
Location: 
Online () See map
Event description: 

Anthropologist Elena Lesley will discuss her ethnographic research about spiritually-adapted “Testimonial Therapy” for survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Testimonial Therapy, or “TT” as it is called by staff of the implementing NGO, was first introduced to the country in 2009 as a potential form of “symbolic reparation” in the context of the Khmer Rouge tribunal. In this treatment approach, survivors work one-on-one with a counselor to collaboratively create a narrative of their experiences during the Khmer Rouge and surrounding years of warfare, which is then read in a public ceremony. The ceremony is partially modeled on an adapted Bangsokol funerary ritual, in which merit is transferred to the spirits of the dead.
For 16 months, Lesley tracked the treatment experiences of 35 survivors undergoing NGOadministered “Testimonial Therapy” as well as those of 27 survivors using only traditional healing methods. She recorded narrative change over time and also tracked symptoms using a locally-derived mental health instrument, the Baksbat Inventory. Although the implementation of TT faced a number of challenges – including a potentially foundational conflict with Buddhist ideals of “detachment” and escalating political tensions leading to the 2018 National Election – the therapy nonetheless proved successful in several respects. Lesley found that survivors and local mental health counselors were able to extract and regenerate valuable elements of the transitional justice-linked intervention, fortifying personal reservoirs of psychological resilience. In addition to anthropologists, her work will be relevant to scholars and practitioners who are interested in cross-cultural illness and healing and the possibilities for spiritual adaptation of international health interventions.


Elena Lesley is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Emory University. She first came to Cambodia as a Henry Luce Scholar at The Phnom Penh Post in 2004 and has lived and worked for extended periods in the country over the past 16 years in projects related to memory of the Khmer Rouge regime, tribunal-related outreach and mental health. Findings from her research have been published in Ethos: Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology, Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology, Genocide Studies and Prevention and multiple edited academic volumes. Her work has received support from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Blakemore Foundation, the Center for Khmer Studies and a Fulbright Fellowship, among others.

Speaker/Performer: 
Elena Lesley, Department of Anthropology, Emory University