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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, and cannibal feasts around the patio grill.

In the same period many psychotherapists, employing hypnosis, dream analysis, “guided imagery,” “age regression,” and other suggestion-amplifying devices, persuaded their mostly female patients to “remember” having been molested by their fathers or stepfathers through much of their childhood, in some cases with the active participation of their mothers. The “perpetrators” thus fingered were devastated, embittered, and often publicly shamed, and only a minority of their accusers eventually recanted. Many, in fact, fell in with their therapists’ belief that young victims of sexual trauma, instead of consciously recalling what was done to them, are likely to develop multiple personalities. Disintegrating further, those unfortunates were then sent off to costly “dissociative identity” wards, where their fantasies of containing five, a dozen, or even hundreds of inner selves were humored until their insurance coverage expired and they were abandoned in a crazed condition. At the height of the scare, influential traumatologists were opining that “between twenty and fifty percent of psychiatric patients suffer from dissociative disorders”1—disorders whose reported incidence plummeted toward zero as soon as some of the quacks who had promoted them began to be sued for malpractice.2

What we experienced, McNally shows, was a perfect storm, with forces for mischief converging from every side. The fraudulent 1973 bestseller Sybil had already helped to relaunch the long-dormant fad of multiple personality and to link it to childhood sexual abuse.3 Beginning in the early 1980s, the maverick Swiss psychoanalyst Alice Miller taught many American readers what Sigmund Freud had once believed, that memories of early abuse are typically repressed and must be therapeutically unlocked if the resultant neuroses are to be cured. Jeffrey Masson’s melodramatic book The Assault on Truth (1984), misrepresenting Freud’s “seduction” patients as self-aware incest victims rather than as the doubters that they remained, fanned the feminist anger that Miller had aroused, encouraging women to believe that molestation by fathers must be pervasive.4 Self-help manuals such as The Courage to Heal (1988) then equipped scientifically ignorant psychotherapists with open-ended “symptom checklists,” ensuring that their patients would be diagnosed as suffering from buried memories of violation. And all the while, Geraldo Rivera and less cynical alarmists were whipping up fear of murderous devil cults.

If the origins of our mass delusion were complex, its dissipation in the mid-1990s is easily explained. Like the Salem witch hunt three centuries earlier, the sex panic had no internal brake that could prevent its accusations from racing beyond all bounds of credibility. The stirring motto “Believe the children” began to sound hollow when preschoolers who finally agreed that they must have been inappropriately touched went on to describe having been dropped into a pool of sharks or turned into a mouse. The medical records of some alleged rape victims showed that they had still been virgins at a later period. In one notorious case, influential at first in promoting recovered memory but later in discrediting it, a woman who got her father sentenced to life in prison for a murder/rape she had remembered in hypnotic trances went on to recall his killing of another person who proved to be wholly imaginary. And many patients, when urged to dig deeper after producing a vague scene or two, reduced the process to self-travesty by conjuring surreal orgies with Daddy’s bridge partners, visiting uncles, and the family pets.

One recovered memory case in particular, less absurd than most but nevertheless lacking in prima facie plausibility, set in motion what the movement’s loyalists now bitterly characterize as “the backlash.” In 1991 the future “betrayal trauma” psychologist Jennifer J. Freyd, after her therapist had pointedly asked her in their second encounter whether she had ever been abused, suddenly “remembered” that her father had continually molested her between the ages of three and sixteen. It was Freyd’s mother, Pamela, convinced that she would surely have noticed some effects of countless domestic sex crimes against her daughter, who then made contact with other recently accused parents and established the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. Under Pamela Freyd’s leadership, the foundation (on whose advisory board I serve) gathered and disseminated the most authoritative scientific judgments about trauma, memory, and suggestive influence—judgments that swayed enough jurists, legislators, and journalists to bring a healthy skepticism into play.

What put Jennifer Freyd’s “memories” in question wasn’t just their dissonance with her mother’s close observation. By alleging fourteen years’ worth of molestations that had been unknown to her conscious mind prior to a therapist’s prompting, Freyd was invoking an outlandish new defense mechanism. Granted, some psychologists still believed in repression, or the sequestering of a disagreeable thought or memory inside “the unconscious”; and others subscribed to dissociation, the more radical knack of “splitting the self” so quickly that no narrative memory of the trauma gets formed at all. But Freyd’s story, like many others that surfaced during the sex panic, stretched those principles to cover any number of serial traumatic incidents, as if a person could be subjected to the same outrage hundreds of times without taking cognitive note of it.
This cumulative forgetting of harmful experience is what the social psychologist Richard Ofshe disdainfully named robust repression—a startlingly maladaptive behavior that, if actual, ought to have aroused wonder and consternation from the earliest times until now, if indeed it didn’t lead to the extinction of our species. Before the American 1980s, however, it had apparently never once been remarked. Could robust repression itself have been robustly repressed throughout the millennia?

Most recovered memory advocates have ducked the conundrum of robust repression, and some have dismissed it as an alien notion devised by their adversaries. But the alleged phenomenon, McNally shows, is nothing other than the “massive repression” posited by such prominent traumatologists as Judith Lewis Herman, Judith L. Alpert, Lenore C. Terr, and Jennifer J. Freyd herself, each of whom understood that claims of sudden access to a long string of previously unsuspected horrors require a basis in theory. What could that basis be? McNally makes short work of the only systematic attempts, Terr’s and Freyd’s, to maintain that serial traumas are easier to forget than single ones. Moreover, all such efforts are doomed to be question begging, because the only evidence favoring robust repression consists of the very memories whose authenticity hangs in doubt.

The same stricture applies, however, to repression and dissociation per se. Those notions became current in the 1880s and 1890s when Freud and Pierre Janet independently attempted to trace the then fashionable complaint of hysteria to pathogenic hidden memories and to expunge the ailment through hypnotically induced recall. Freud, by far the more influential figure, clung to repression—though rendering it progressively more elastic and ambiguous—even while repeatedly distancing himself from the diagnostic and curative claims he had inferred from its supposed workings.

Before he was finished, Freud had conceived of repression as both a conscious and an unconscious process acting upon feelings, thoughts, ideas, and fantasies as well as memories. Such profligacy left repression without any operational meaning; “the repressed” was simply any material that Freud, who was given to ascribing his own punning associations to his patients’ minds, chose to identify as having been dismissed from awareness. Yet the long vogue of psychoanalysis kept the concept alive, enabling it to be virulently readapted, a century after its formal introduction, to the same task of recruiting patients to victimhood that had preoccupied its champion in 1895-96.
As McNally explains through deftly analyzed examples, it isn’t just therapists and their patients who fail to ask prudent questions about the repression or dissociation of trauma. The body of research purporting to validate those mechanisms is riddled with procedural errors, most of which stem from naÌøve trust in the retrospection of subjects who have already been led to believe that they must have undergone a trauma that was then sequestered from memory. Along with such other inquirers as David Holmes and Harrison G. Pope, Jr., McNally understands that a good test of repression or dissociation has to be prospective. That is, it must track down people who are known with certainty to have lived through ordeals that would be expected to have triggered a self-protective loss of memory, and it must then ascertain how many of those people are unable to recall the event.

  1. 1

    Bessel A. van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart, “The Intrusive Past: The Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma,” American Imago, vol. 48 (1991), pp. 425-454; the quotation is from p. 432.

  2. 2

    The fullest treatment of the recovered memory episode and its historical antecedents is Mark Pendergrast, Victims of Memory: Sex Abuse Accusations and Shattered Lives, 2nd ed. (Upper Access, 1996). For a concise and pointed account of the multiple personality fad, see Joan Acocella, Creating Hysteria: Women and Multiple Personality Disorder (Jossey-Bass, 1999). The best extended discussion is Nicholas P. Spanos, Multiple Identities and False Memories: A Sociocognitive Perspective (American Psychological Association, 1996). On Satanic abuse, see Jeffrey S. Victor, Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (Open Court, 1993), and Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker, Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt (Basic Books, 1995). The plight of daycare workers who remain imprisoned even today is treated by Dorothy Rabinowitz, No Crueler Tyrannies: Accusation, False Witness, and Other Terrors of Our Times (Wall Street Press Books/Free Press, 2003).

  3. 3

    For the current state of knowledge about “Sybil,” see Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, “Folies à plusieurs. De l’hystérie à la dépression (Les empêcheurs de penser en rond/Le Seuil, 2002), pp. 111-168.

  4. 4

    For Masson’s errors about Freud’s “seduction” phase, see Allen Esterson, “Jeffrey Masson and Freud’s Seduction Theory: A New Fable Based on Old Myths,” History of the Human Sciences, vol. 11 (1998), pp. 1-21. In his preface to a recently reprinted edition of The Assault on Truth (Random House, 2003), Masson at last concedes that Freud’s patients in 1895-96 resisted the incest stories that he tried to force upon them. Bizarrely, however, Masson still counts those patients among the likely victims of sexual abuse in Freud’s day.

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