The Trauma Trap

Every now and then a book appears that can be instantly recognized as essential for its field—a work that must become standard reading if that field is to be purged of needless confusion and fortified against future errors of the same general kind. Such a book is Remembering Trauma, by the Harvard psychology professor Richard J. McNally. To be sure, the author’s intention is not revolutionary but only consolidating; he wants to show what has already been learned, through well-designed experiments and analyses of records, about the effects that psychological trauma typically exerts on our memory. But what has been learned is not what is widely believed, and McNally is obliged to clear away a heap of junk theory. In doing so, he provides a brilliant object lesson in the exercise of rational standards that are common to every science deserving of the name.

McNally’s title Remembering Trauma neatly encapsulates the opposing views that, for a whole generation now, have made the study of trauma into psychology’s most fiercely contested ground. Are scarring experiences well remembered in the usual sense of the term, or can some of them be remembered only much later, after the grip of a self-protective psychological mechanism has been relaxed? This is the pivotal issue that McNally decisively resolves. In the process, he also sheds light on a number of related questions. Does memory of trauma stand apart neurologically from normal memory? Does a certain kind of traumatic experience leave recognizable long-term effects that can vouch for its historical reality? What memory problems typify post-traumatic stress disorder, and does the disorder itself “occur in nature” or is it a cultural construct? And is memory retrieval a well-tested and effective means of helping adults to shed depression, anxiety, and other psychological afflictions?

One extended trauma, a public one, that won’t be soon forgotten by the involved parties is central to McNally’s argument. I refer to the great sex panic that gripped this continent from about 1985 to 1994. It wasn’t just an epidemic of runaway fear, rumor, and persecution but a grimly practical test of the theories whose currency made it possible. And the theories at issue were precisely those that are exhaustively reviewed in Remembering Trauma. McNally uses that chapter of our history to show just how much damage can be done when mistaken ideas about the mind get infused with ideological zeal.

In the 1980s, as McNally relates, day care workers risked prosecution and imprisonment on the coerced testimony of bewildered and intimidated three-year-olds who were prodded to “remember” nonexistent molestations. Meanwhile, poorly trained social workers, reasoning that signs of sexual curiosity in children must be “behavioral memories” of rape, were charging parents with incest and consigning their stunned offspring to foster homes. And most remarkably, whole communities were frantically attempting to expose envisioned covens of Satan worshipers who were said, largely on the basis of hypnotically unlocked “memories,” to be raising babies for sexual torture, ritual murder …

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