FACETIME- Sacred history: She helps violence survivors get bearings

Roberta Culbertson

In 1955, as the five-year-old daughter of an American humanitarian aid official, Roberta Culbertson was kidnapped in Lebanon by a violent fringe group and saw what she now describes as "truly awful things." Today, at 57, she is a survivor– not only of her own disturbing past, but of thousands of real stories about the darkest side of humanity.

Some of those stories get published in Tough Times Companion. The expansion of a past project titled Sacred Bearings, it may be the world's only literary magazine written for survivors of violence. As the editor-in-chief, Culbertson has the job of listening to tales of genocide and other atrocities, and trying to find a way to help the victims come to terms with their horrors.

Culbertson, who holds a doctorate in anthropology from UVA, has worked with survivors from India, Pakistan, Burundi, Rwanda, Guatemala and Cambodia to name a few. As the founding director of the Institute on Violence and Community at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, she uses what she describes as a non-academic approach while still drawing on research, education, spirituality, science, and art.

"We try to serve the public," says Culbertson. "We bring in survivors as fellows so they can do research with themselves as tools, using their bodies, their memories."

But Culbertson insists she isn't a counselor or clinician; she's merely a listener and mediator. "It's not about fixing it," she says, "it's about release."

"She is brilliant," says Robert C. Vaughan, president and founder of the VFH and the man who gave Culbertson her job at the foundation in 1989. "She lives her work."

But her life and work is not without its cost. Culbertson says the emotional strain has incapacitated her at times, and even made her sick. She believes a recent benign tumor that required surgery was the result of her body's internalization of the difficult truths her life's work exposes her to. 

"Violence has weight," Culbertson says. "This work is very hard, very passionate. It takes a lot out of you."

But she says her dedication to the field remains undaunted. "The times I feel most alive," says Culbertson, "are when I'm listening to people's near-death experiences."

Culbertson is working under the deadline for a fall release of another issue of Tough Times, as well as working on a book of her own, a survivor's manifesto of sorts.

Looking farther ahead, Culbertson says she wants to do more training and build international partnerships of survivors. "I've always been interested in how people communicate suffering," she says. And she believes in the continued need for her work with the undiscovered dynamics of human trauma: "We don't know what we're playing with when we get violent," she says.