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Women Who Encourage People To Question, Challenge, Or Disagree ‒Interview With Jennifer French

Jennifer French is a coercive control expert witness with an advanced degree in Coercive Control from Salford University, England. A survivor herself, she supports and educates those who have experienced coercive control in a variety of situations, including cults, harmful religions, and domestic environments. She offers services both within the US and Internationally. Jennifer is a Research Associate at Salford University where she conducts research on topics related to coercive control. She is also the host of the Project Hope Podcast, for families and friends with a loved one in a group of high control / high demand.

Jennifer French Tomasic, Expert Witness for Coercive Control Cases

What is your business name and how do you help your clients?

Hello! Yes, my business name is Jennifer French and I have a private practice as a mental health professional. If we’re getting into credentials, I’m a Certified Clinical Trauma Professional and often work with clients using Internal Family Systems, or IFS, for those who may be familiar with that wonderful modality of psychotherapy. In my experience, the IFS model is empowering because it fosters continued connection with one’s most wise self. As we approach parts of ourselves with compassion and curiosity, we discover purpose and meaning behind these aspects of ourselves. This in turn supports the release of shame, self-judgment, and self-criticism. We naturally begin to discover that all parts of ourselves we once related to as ‘bad’ or negative in some way, actually have a purpose, an intelligent role to play within us, even if the manifestation looks extreme or unbalanced. When we pay attention to or give voice to parts of ourselves we’ve rejected, we begin to discover solutions that are very personal and particular to that individual. I also appreciate that this work is client driven and permission-based so those who have experienced feeling violated or manipulated, tend to feel safe and in control of their process.

It sounds like that would be very important, especially if clients have a trauma history?

That’s right. These qualities about IFS that I mention, while supportive for anyone, are why, I believe, we see the IFS research validating that it’s especially helpful for those who have PTSD or C-PTSD, which is Complex-Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

What inspired you to work with trauma survivors?

That’s a great question and gets us into an area of personal expertise that is affected by my own history. I myself am a cult survivor. I had always been a spiritual seeker and in my early 20’s I encountered a mystical Christian group that I ended up in for eleven years of my life. The part of that story with the deepest impact was that I cut off communication from my family for 8 years of the eleven. It may also be helpful to put into context that I had been extremely close with my family, both my parents, and my brother who is 2.5 years younger than me. So this was very unnatural for me and not a choice I would have ever made, left to my own devices. You’re welcome to hear my story of how I got into the group and how I left, in episodes 1 and 2 of the Project Hope Podcast. This is a part of my business that’s a passion project. It’s for anyone curious about cults and has been designed for families and friends with a loved one in a group of high control, high demand. I invite survivors who want to share their stories and also experts in the field.

Wow. So how does this factor into your client work?

It’s actually a core part of my clinical and advocacy work. I have a Master’s in the Psychology of Coercive Control and this happens to be a phenomenon that is still not well understood by society at large. So part of my advocacy work is education around what coercive control actually is, how it happens, and what the impacts are. Also, these patterns of emotional and psychological abuse were initially acknowledged in domestic and family laws so we are beginning to see some changes there. But these same patterns of control and coercion are also found in gangs, in sex trafficking, and cults of all sorts which be a one to one relationship or can span from unhealthy political groups, to self help, meditation, and yoga groups, to certain multi level marketing groups, or even extremist religious groups.

Do you have a particular way that you work with those recovering from cult or religious abuse?

I do! I’m actually certified in a specialized approach that is rooted in the incredible work of Dr. Gillie Jenkinson. It’s based on decades of research with survivors and is the most thorough and flexible approach that I’ve come across in this field. Research has shown that there are two important aspects in this type of healing that need to be considered; trauma and psychoeducation. Many survivors have experienced trauma so that’s something I’m aware of and noting as we begin to discover what the impact of the individual’s experience has been. What’s interesting is that we have found that it is not just incredibly helpful, healing, insightful and even grounding for survivors to discover the information that helps them sort through what happened to them and how it happened, it’s also critical to healing. In this process, some of the things we address include building and reclaiming one’s authentic identity as we sort through messages, beliefs, or behaviors from the group, and decide if we want to reject or reclaim them for ourselves. There is education and support in understanding principles such as spiritual abuse, thought reform, narcissism, undue influence, and even the basics of understanding trauma theory. We also address topics around shame and the allowance of feelings, needs, and desires. We provide tools that support personal explorations around these concepts so that survivors can revisit the work beyond our time together if they want to. Part of what’s so fulfilling for me is knowing that this information, while clarifying, also serves the purpose of protecting the individuals who receive it.

This type of experience is not an easy thing to untangle. It’s fundamentally confusing when one’s entire belief system or life has been consumed by a particular viewpoint or way of being that they are now breaking from. In addition, most people don’t understand the dynamics of an unhealthy group environment, let alone the principles of psychological manipulation and influence that affect and infiltrate the psyche that’s exposed. It’s really eye-opening and empowering for survivors to understand these dynamics and then to also evaluate the ways they were personally affected. Many survivors have been abused within a hierarchical system, so we also acknowledge this dynamic and I encourage clients to question, challenge, or disagree. Essentially, I support them in a reclamation or return to themselves and that’s a collaborative process.

What inspires your work?

Firstly, my clients. It truly is an honor to work with individuals who are opening their precious lives to me. But another area of passion is around public and legislative advocacy work regarding coercive control. It’s my belief that the more we expose the public to an understanding of what coercive control is and the variety of environments in which it takes place, we help protect, especially the younger generations. So this is a big element of my public speaking work and also research that I conduct as a Research Associate at Salford University. I really do envision education as the path that can help us build a compassionate and safe world that recognizes and stands up to psychological and emotional abuse. This is key to deciding who we want to be as a society, and to thriving as empowered individuals.

Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and visit my website for more info!



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