Thursday, April 28, 2011


I recently came across the 2009 book “The Trauma Myth” by Susan Clancy, Ph.D. As a psychology grad student in the 1990s at Harvard she became interested in the burgeoning sexual-abuse field.

As it turned out, she received a palpable professional shock when, during the course of research and interviews, she came to realize that numerous adults who – AS CHILDREN – were abused, reported to her that the experience did not feel “traumatic” at the time, and that it was only later in life that they came to realize the many consequences of that early experience

This was a bit of a shock to her because the reigning theory (then and now) about child-sexual abuse holds that it was and is always “traumatic” at the time of the experience, and that if a person does not recall it then the only possible explanation is that the child-victim was so vividly “traumatized” that s/he literally forgets (represses) all memory of the experience. (You might already notice that if Clancy’s observations are accurate, then a great deal of ‘under-reporting’ and ‘forgetting’ is not due to “traumatic repression” but rather due to the simple and common obliviousness to an experience that did not at the time seem worthy of note or recall – but don’t run ahead of the process with this possibility and do read on.)

In best truth-seeking fashion – which is what she presumed scientists do – she followed up to do further research. Which, she then discovered, was getting her into trouble with many (but thankfully not all) academic and clinical professionals in the field. (One recalls that in the run-up to Field Marshal Montgomery’s horribly ill-conceived Arnhem raid of autumn 1944, the one junior intelligence officer who kept saying that there were a lot more difficult facts that had to be dealt with than the Marshal’s robustly cheerible calculations and dampdreams were taking into consideration, was roundly abused by his peers and seniors on the planning staffs and was finally sent off ‘for a holiday’ just before the raid was staged, with shocking results now indelibly scored into the historical record; one also recalls what happened to junior staff officers who kept saying that General Westmoreland’s assessment of the military challenge in Vietnam was greatly inadequate to the realities on the ground.)  She wrote this book recounting her experiences and conceptual findings and concerns.

I want to look at some of her material since it encompasses not only substantive and significant conceptual information but also passes through the dark and smokey process by which the SO Mania was developed – constructed and cobbled-together are also accurate descriptors here.   Her primary question is why the now-adult victims of childhood sexual abuse are reporting experiences that do not correspond to the explanatory model insisted upon by the Correct reigning theory. And in the process she traces some ominous reasons why that might be so.
She makes an acute distinction between a) how the event of abuse was experienced at the time and b) how the event was interpreted and understood much later when the person was an adult. This is an approach that might be considered as ‘thinking too much’ or ‘unhelpful’ or ‘too complicated’, but it’s what scientific method requires: you constantly compare the facts that you are encountering in your experiments and research with the theoretical framework you are working from, and in that ongoing dynamic interplay between discovered-facts and explanations of those facts you continually refine your comprehension toward greater and greater accuracy. It’s the Scientific Method. (And you might also realize that there is going to be more than a little disconnect if you approach any research subject with the assumption that ‘facts don’t matter’, the popular mantra of various Correct approaches to life and national affairs.)

Historically, for most of its century-long existence, the psychology field had done little research into the matter of childhood sexual abuse. But once matters began to shift in the 1970s, it became clear that any sexual-interaction between an adult and a child (the social-psychological parameters of those two definitions can get a little mushy in the teen years, especially nowadays) was going to have consequences for the child’s future adult life: although there is no absolute way of knowing just what adult dysfunction is directly and clearly attributable to abuse-experiences as opposed to the numerous other possible causal factors, yet those who present in adulthood and report they were abused as children clearly have a larger-than-average panoply of problems in a wide range of areas (emotional and psychological, behavioral, physiological, cognitive, and in ‘maturity’ generally) ranging along a spectrum of severity.

The vast majority (90 percent or so) of cases involve persons known to the child, and mostly involve ‘touching’ and activities of an “oral” nature, with much less of the horrific actual penetration and rape (which, let me affirm, is not intended to ‘minimize’ the horrific reality of genital penetration of a child by an adult).   In that complex ‘coincidence’ of interplay that is often seen in large social and cultural developments, the 1970s that saw an increase of concern for sexual-abuse, especially of children, also saw psychology’s efforts to come to grips with the experiences of returned Vietnam vets who could not seem to ‘shake off’ the effects of their combat experiences.

These patients reported a wide range of problems, including the persistence of intrusive memories (called “flashbacks”) that continued to envelop them, they reported, years later. In many cases, the memories were so vivid and powerful that the patient would actually respond as if he were again back in combat, either reacting with violence or with some form of self-stifling behavior; all of which made adjustment to post-military civilian life difficult if not impossible.

The diagnostic model of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was developed, in order to efficiently help professional and volunteer helpers get a better (if not comprehensive) understanding of what was going on with the patient (and also to qualify for insurance payments under industry guidelines).

The core theoretical picture was that combat can present such a powerful experience of violent shock that the entire person is somehow thrown off balance, a consequence that could last for the rest of his life and seriously impair healthy functioning, especially in civilian life. The spectrum and severity of the consequences seemed to vary with individuals, some being vividly and violently deranged or seriously impaired, others condemned to a life of less-vivid but equally life-sapping complications. (Among which, as noted above, was the persistence of memories that would not go away.)  Given that these combat experiences were imposed upon soldiers who clearly did not seek such experiences, the soldier-as-unwilling-victim rather accurately conveyed their sad situation; the public heart was rightly touched.

With the PTSD ‘model’ enjoying a wide and rapid acceptance in professional and public consciousness (although there are difficulties with it, to be sure), it cannot be surprising that the sex-abuse advocates – among whom were feminists of assorted types and varying degrees of radicalism – became attracted to it as perhaps a useful vessel for their own concerns and agendas.

Clancy does a good job here, describing how the ‘traumatic stress model’ was rather quickly shoehorned into service as a general paradigm for interpreting and ‘framing’ (and perhaps ‘spinning’, to use a public relations term) sex-abuse. And she notes acutely – and it has to be said – that in April 1971 the first general meeting of a major New York feminist group concerned itself not with the sexual abuse of ‘women’ but of ‘children’, who seemed most easily adaptable to the ‘traumatized and utterly innocent victim’ position assigned in the PTSD model to the soldiers exposed to the awful vicissitudes of sustained jungle and ‘non-conventional’ combat.

The definition of ‘trauma’ was posing notable problems in the implementation of the PTSD model even among veterans. There was a problem of ‘definition creep’ (the ‘creep’ concept comes from bombing in World War 2: once the first bomber in the stream or line had dropped its bombs, each following aircraft – under the understandable pressure of seeking to escape anti-aircraft fire – tended to drop its bombs just a bit before the previous plane, with the result that on the ground the bombs would increasingly fall short of the target unless the lead plane had steeled itself to fly all the way to the ‘far end’ of the target to make its drop).

Clinicians were finding themselves pressured to extend the definition of the initial traumatizing experience to include not simply a shell-detonation close to the patient, but to, say, the sustained experience of being in the vicinity of such a thing, day in and day out. By a similar dynamic, consequences of stress were ‘creeping’ toward a much wider and more vague panoply of bad feelings, drug and alcohol dependency, and the always-difficult ‘personality disorders’ – all of which might have had causes not actually or easily connected to the combat experiences that had been the initial focus of the model.  

But the model was the best that ‘science’ could come up with, there were numerous vets of that unpopular war now seeking attention for a wide range of life-problems, there was a political factor, and public opinion expected some ‘help’ and some ‘action’, and there was much money and funding at stake, not only for actual therapy programs but for university and medical school research as well as commercial research into therapies and drugs. In such an environment, careful attention to Scientific Method – seeking accuracy above all – had to yield.

And, of course, the media found the ‘story’ – and the model – highly attractive for gaining and keeping the attention of readers and viewers, especially if some particularly horrific episode involving a ‘vet’ could be ‘explained’ by ‘stress from the war’.

Clancy notes that there are three fundamental assumptions that supporters of the “traumatogenic model” must make (and expect you to accept without further complications or obstructions): first, that the trauma model is THE accurate (or at least Correct) explanatory framework for understanding  childhood sex-abuse; second, that the pathway of causality is direct – a straight and uncomplicated and clear line from traumatic incident to the sustained later-life consequences; and third, the more traumatic the abuse incident, the more severe the consequences.

Any one of these assumptions would be extremely difficult to conclusively validate through the workings of Scientific Method.   But the early ‘abuse advocates’ and ‘abuse writers’ latched onto the ‘traumatic stress model’. Lenore Terr did some mixing and matching, likening childhood sex abuse to the clearly medical model of “childhood rheumatic fever” which – as everybody knows – inflicts consequences far beyond childhood, and then going on to use the PTSD model to limn the effects of those consequences. Judith Herman, a psychiatrist and professor, asserted that “there is a simple, direct relationship between the severity of the trauma and its psychological impact”. (These writings date from the later 1980s and early 1990s, the heyday of the movement.)

You might notice that if the initiating abuse experience, therefore, were not so traumatic – or not perceived as traumatic by the child – then the consequences, according to these assumptions, would not be so dire. But the ‘solution’ to that conceptual problem is, neatly: if the consequence has lasted into adult life, then by definition it must have been traumatic for it to have lasted so long. Sort of like a baseball: one that makes it over the left-field fence was obviously hit much harder than one that only made it to the near-infield. So – like the bat whacking the ball – then all childhood abuse-experience is ‘traumatic’ simply because a person who is now an adult and long out of childhood still ‘reports’ about it now. If you report it as an adult, in other words, then the model instantly classifies it as ‘traumatic’.

And if you sort of wonder if all this ‘explanation’ actually hangs together well, if it is actually coherent logically … well, now you see why the Scientific Method had to be sent to another room in order to get things going and keep them going.   And the consequences must be dire and quite probably, it ‘logically’ follows, are responsible for all the problems that the adult-reporter is now suffering in life. Which is a very large assumption to make indeed. But it has a certain script-like ‘sense’ to it, and Clancy notes that films such as “Mystic River” (made in 2003 from a mystery-thriller book published in 2001) rely on this theory: a single early instance of some (vaguely limned) childhood sex-abuse turned a kid into a hugely troubled adult and a murderer. Publishers and Hollywood find the whole model very useful and attractive indeed.

And thus, if the adult-reporter does NOT report a ‘traumatic’ experience … well, what then? The solution to THAT problem: either the researcher did not know enough to ask the ‘right’ questions or else the adult-reporter was SO traumatized that s/he cannot recall the incident. That the ‘stress’, therefore, was so awful and overwhelming that the memory ‘repressed’ it, for years and decades.

But in the actual original military PTSD work, the patients were not reporting memories they could not remember; they were precisely tortured by memories that they could not escape (those ‘flashbacks’ and repetitive, intrusive memory play-backs of some vivid experience).

The gambit then was to import into the ‘model’ (from far left field, as it were) Freud’s abandoned theory of ‘repression’: that feelings can be repressed if a person doesn’t want to deal with them or face them. The quick assumption was made that if ‘feelings’ can be repressed, then ‘memories’ can be repressed too.  Although in the actual original military PTSD work it was precisely the ‘memories’ (those flash-backs) that kept reminding the patient of those powerful un-faced and un-processed feelings generated by his combat experience.  

Further, of course, is basic evolutionary theory: the species would not last very long if its members could ‘forget’ unpleasant experiences. A baby that keeps sticking its hand onto a hot stove because it has ‘repressed’ the ‘trauma’ of its previous one or ten experiences in doing so is not going to be in business long. And, unsurprisingly, research into brain architecture can find no actual pathway by which emotions (in the ‘feeling’ subsystem)  can ‘repress’ a memory (in a sub-subsystem of the hugely complex ‘mental’ subsystem).

But hey! It’s all in a good cause.

Even more ominously, she raises the point that adult-reporters of child sexual abuse who do NOT claim they were ‘traumatized’ in the very instant of the experience, are themselves ‘silenced’ in order to protect ‘the Model and the Theory’ by preventing them from introducing evidence that it cannot account for. There can be no more lethal and – I would say – vicious form of ‘re-victimization’ than such adult-reporters being subtly manipulated by putative ‘professional helpers’ for the purpose of accepting – contrary to their own experience and assessment – the Correct interpretation of their past and present experience.

It reminds me very much of that rather dark bit of Saul Alinsky’s ‘community organizing’ philosophy wherein he cheeribly asserts that sometimes ‘people’ don’t know that they are being ‘oppressed’, don’t know what’s good for them, and have to be manipulated into seeing things the ‘right’ way. This is a political or agitprop and propaganda gambit that is of highly dubious value in politics, but is by its very nature contrary to the principles of genuine therapeutic intervention in the vastly complex and genuinely mysterious workings of the human self.  

It can be no greater evidence of the professions’ debasement than that they have allowed such an alien approach to infiltrate their practice and even their principles and so fundamentally undermine their integrity as a profession and as practitioners. And this, I think, is intensified at the lower end of the ‘professional’ spectrum by far less-trained persons whose idea of professional helping is far more akin to simply deploying Alinskyite community-organizing manipulation (in a good cause, of course) into ‘therapy’.

Clancy notes that accomplished and long-experienced child-sex-abuse researchers have doubts as to the applicability of the ‘traumatogenic model’ to most incidences of childhood-sex-abuse: the PTSD model will work for overt combat experiences, and quite possibly for incidences of violent rape, but not for the much much larger proportion of childhood-sex-abuse experience that does not involve such extremes of violence, including the ‘sexual touching’ which is the descriptor the majority of adult-reportees recall to her.

Which would also offer an alternative explanation for persons ‘not reporting’ or ‘forgetting’ such experience: NOT because it was so utterly and naturally ‘traumatic’ that they repressed it and only ‘recovered’ it after ‘therapists’ asked ‘the right questions’, BUT rather because they did not experience the event as traumatic when it happened; in other words, the event as experienced and when it was experienced was not worth remembering. (Which, again, is not to say or infer that the consequences of such experience might not manifest later in life or that the consequences will not undermine and obstruct maturity and successful functioning even if they are not recalled or assessed-as-harmful by the patient.)

All of which did nothing for Clancy’s popularity among certain large swaths of the profession. One practitioner, at a conference, actually stood up after the presentation and – after all that Clancy had put forward – asked why it was necessary for the profession to change its reliance on the traumatogenic-model: people were being ‘helped’ so what’s the deal and what’s the diff?  

It stuns to realize that this type of ‘thinking’ exists in professional circles. If a conceptual diagnostic model is clearly deficient in the accuracy of its grasp on the causes and dynamics of a malady, then not only the integrity of the profession but also the integrity of the ‘help’ is undermined and compromised. The ‘therapy’ may well be pouring water ‘on the smoke’ (and not ‘on the fire’, as the firemen say) or indeed the ‘therapy’ may actually be pouring gasoline on the flames (or – more specifically – as in the case of misjudging the cause of a fire and, say, putting water on a magnesium-fueled fire, you actually feed the fire rather than extinguish it).

But, I would say, for far too many persons in authority – professionals and semi-professional ‘therapists’, legislators, media, and assorted law enforcement personnel and civil attorneys – the unstated motivational dynamic in operation here is best captured by that great line from the character of the baseball player on the old ‘Saturday Night Live’: “Beisbol been bery bery good to ME!”

It doesn’t help to read of the same cartoonish and illogical accusations tossed at her by ‘professionals’ as would be tossed at her in far less educated venues: she must be “insensitive”, she is “re-victimizing”, she is a “friend of pedophiles”.
And more ominously, Clancy acutely (and rather courageously) proposes that the model is uniquely capable of tapping into fear among the public. Awful trauma with sempiternal awful consequences, imposed upon innocent children … it’s a scenario that demands immediate action. A wagon-train of children besieged out in the desert absolutely demands the dispatch of ‘the cavalry’, and the more cavalry the better.

She makes reference to a 1999 book, “The Culture of Fear”, by Barry Glassner. That author notes that he found it extremely odd that during the 1990s, when crime rates were declining noticeably, the public was consistently bombarded with lurid reports of “crime”.* And, he notes in passing,  all the while – during those 1990s – ‘downsizing’ and ‘outsourcing’ were heating up, and jobs were becoming less easy to find … yet “the problem” was considered to be crime and the government was simultaneously eager to be seen making progress in that while also supporting the expansion of the definition into vast new areas of sexual and familial activity.

The SO community will note that this was precisely the era when both the Sex Offense Mania Regime and its predecessor the Domestic Violence Regime were whipped up.  The USSR was gone, crime rates were down, yet the ‘children’ and the dangers to them could be quickly raised up to capture and inflame public opinion. The lunacies of the early 1980s Satanic Ritual Sex Abuse in Day-Care mini-mania were utterly forgotten, the Family was declared to be the greatest crime-scene in American history (joining ‘Men’, the great natural predators and perpetrators), and vast damage was done to the integrity of the helping professions (either the researchers and professors and clinicians could be labeled as ‘clueless’ by advocates or they could debase themselves by lending their authority to the project of creating and sustaining the Manias).

And although Clancy doesn’t get into it, I would add the integrity of the legislative process and the legislators’ own general basic concept of what their responsibilities are: politics became simply the art of ‘closing the deal’ between whatever groups – with whatever demands and ‘justifications’ they brought with them – managed to generate enough clout to get into a closed room ‘around the table’.

Indeed, Clancy quotes Judith Herman who acknowledged (with uncharacteristic candor as these things go) that “without the context of a political movement” it would not have been possible to pull the thing off; although Herman then quickly characterizes the whole thing as “advancing the study of psychological trauma” – which is not quite accurate at all.  

By and large, any thoughts or concerns about the integrity of the Legislative Method went the way of the Scientific Method.  

Clancy thus gets to one particular conclusion with which I can’t agree: she has established (with copious references to studies provided in the Notes) that many persons who suffered some amount of sex-abuse as children do not come to an awareness of what was done to them until later in life, perhaps much much later. And not because their original experience was so vividly traumatic that they ‘repressed’ the memory, but rather because their experience was so un-traumatic at the time that they did not classify it as worth remembering.

This should be an important factor in conducting therapy and in no way would detract from the patient’s present needs to deal with whatever consequences remain operational in adult life. (Although given the hugely difficult task of establishing just what current dysfunction can be ‘connected’ (like knee-bone to leg-bone, as it were) to just what experience of abuse, I would imagine that the primary focus would be on the current dysfunction, with secondary focus on the abuse-experience itself.)

But she then goes on to say that therefore she favors the dropping of most Statutes of Limitations in regard to allegations of child-sex-abuse since the crime is “unique” (i.e. it is perpetrated upon persons who are not, like adults, able to be aware that it is being perpetrated upon them). Such persons should not be deprived of “the right to seek justice”.

But I see significant problems here. While she acknowledges that the Statues are in place “to protect defendants in cases in which time will degrade the evidence required to prosecute them” (or, I would add, exonerate them), yet child-sexual abuse “should have no finite reporting period”.

My first point is that in the therapeutic forum this is a non-problem: the task of therapy is to take the patient’s presenting complaint or dysfunction and work through it toward an enhanced life-skill capacity. The relationship is between the therapist and the patient and the therapist’s authority, such as it is in this forum, is limited to exercising a constructive and supportive influence on the patient. The matter is not one of ‘guilt’ but of enhanced health, and the patient leaves therapy (it is to be hoped) enhanced (or at least no worse off). 

But in the legal forum, where the sovereign police power of the State is to be deployed (in criminal cases) or the sovereign dispositive power of the State is to be deployed to take property and even reputation and good-name (in civil cases and ‘lawsuits’), there is much more in play. If no sufficient evidence can be produced to justify the deployment of the sovereign authority, then a very lethal corrosive process is furthered, by which the integrity of the Law (and perhaps of the State’s authority and legitimacy itself) is stretched beyond the envelope of any discernible justification. Ultimately, even if this or that particular ‘victim’ ‘wins the case’, a dangerous road is traveled for the State and the Law, and that cannot end well.

The ‘deal’ devised to solve that problem was to weaken evidentiary rules and Statutes of Limitations so that the appearance of legitimate jurisprudence can be kept up even though the substance has been weakened. The SO community knows – perhaps better than the ‘average’ American – just how lethal and ultimately corrosive this type of ‘deal’ really proves to be.

As I have often noted however, this sort of arrangement provides yet another component ‘interest group’ to the Mania complex of professionals, media, advocates, and law enforcement: attorneys who, taking advantage of both strategically heightened public agitation and weakened evidentiary rules, can make much money by filing lawsuits and avoiding trials by ‘settling’ with deep-pocket institutions and insurers who figure that this type of case isn’t going to get a careful hearing in court in the first place.**

Further, there is a confusion as to just what ‘justice’ means in the legal forum. The only Authority that can ensure with total and utter certainty the accurate matching of historical deed and just desserts is (or was) God. Human courts are limited in that regard by their very humanity: human beings cannot know fully and can only, at best, try to ascertain from reliable evidence what happened, who did it if it did happen, and then what punishment should be imposed if necessary.  

Thus the effort to achieve ‘justice’ in God’s sense is different from ‘justice’ in the Law’s sense. And if you are going to demand that a human government be presumed to have the knowledge and judgment of God (or a god) then you are on your way to equating the State with God and to ‘idolizing’ the State. For the Law, trying to administer a Divinity-level type of ‘justice’ is surely a bridge too far.

And it is certainly contrary to the spirit of the Constitution and of the American foundational vision (the State was not only going to stay out of religious affairs, but it was certainly not going to put itself forth as having the powers of God (or a god) nor of actually being for all practical purposes God (or a god).

This dynamic, oy, has become far more pronounced in recent decades here, and as I have often said, is evident now in foreign affairs as well as domestic.

The practical (if not formal) deification and idolization of the government, may be unintentional: politicians nowadays, I think, rarely think beyond the advantage of this or that particular ‘deal’ and certainly don’t intend, perhaps don’t even consider, the deeper and more profound consequences to the common weal. But intentional or not, this idolization is utterly alien to the ethos and health of a Constitutional Republic and actually resembles totalitarian regimes of recent unhappy memory.

These are most surely memories that should not be repressed, or if they have been repressed, must be recovered as quickly as possible.


 *I can’t help but note that in this book, published in 1999, Glassner makes passing but insightful reference to the priest-pedophile “panic” as if it were in the past, a small indicator of the curious and suspicious stubbornness and repetitiveness of this particular mutation of the Mania, which would be re-ignited in 2002 as if it were ‘brand new’.

**As may have occurred to you, the development of the Mania Regime into a ‘complex’ with its interlocked sets of ‘interests’ mimics with uncanny faithfulness the development of what Eisenhower called ‘the military-industrial complex’. In his era, tolerance for the tremendous novelty of interlocked and continuous military research and manufacture was achieved not only by the generation of fear (a bomb gap, a bomber gap, a missile gap) but also the distribution of such work throughout the country and among many States, involving universities and unions as well as factories and facilities.

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