Back in the '90s when I was studying psychology for my master's degree and commuting every other month to California for training, the trendy diagnosis was multiple personality disorder. What had long been considered a rare condition suddenly became epidemic.
I got a clue to how bogus this was in my own apartment. One day I found my new cleaning lady stuffing herself in front of my refrigerator. She was making sounds reminiscent of Linda Blair in The Exorcist.
"Hey, Regan," I snapped, "how about leaving me something to eat?!" She looked at me blankly and, acting like someone coming out of a trance, said, "Oh Lord, one of my alters must have got hungry." She then told me she was being treated for the decade's most popular mental illness.
A few weeks later, she failed to clean my bathroom. I called to point this out. "Oh Lord, Cliff," she said. "My alter just wouldn't let me go in there." I fired her and began to view multiple personality disorder with skepticism. I noticed that many suffering the mental malady du jour were engaged in avoidance behaviors. Interestingly, by the close of the '90s, the epidemic of multiple personality went into mass remission. Coincidentally, a huge body of evidence had developed to discredit the "cause" of MPD: repressed memory of traumatic events.
The specific explanation for MPD - since given the more marketably vague name of "Dissociative Identity Disorder" - was unremembered childhood sexual abuse that caused the psyche to divide itself.
Repression is central to all psychoanalytical theory. Freud attempted to blame much mental illness on forgotten memories whose recovery, he postulated, would bring about a cure. But he had his own doubts and ended up calling basically anything dismissed from awareness "repressed." That what is dismissed from awareness, either consciously or unconsciously, can affect us is demonstrably true. But the extreme notion that profoundly traumatic events - such as ongoing childhood sexual molestation - can be completely forgotten is not supportable.
At least, that's the conclusion of a remarkable essay, "The Trauma Trap," published in the March 11 issue of The New York Review of Books. The essay, by Frederick Crews, compares two books. The first, recently published, is Harvard psychologist Richard J. McNally's Remembering Trauma. The second is Memory, Trauma Treatment and the Law by Daniel Brown, Alan W. Scheflin and D. Corydon Hammond. The latter was awarded the American Psychiatric Association's 1999 award for what it considers the best recent publication on legal psychiatry.
McNally's book, according to Crews, definitively debunks the "recovered memory movement" that swept therapy offices in the '90s and still, he shows, has considerable influence among practitioners who use guided imagery, hypnosis and regression to elicit memories. By studying everything from the bogus best seller Sybil to those cases when daycare workers were convicted for sexual molestation on the basis of testimony of children whose memories were "encouraged" by therapists, McNally paints a horrific picture of the way psychology can cultivate falsehood.
One embarrassing example is a study cited in Memory, Trauma, Treatment and the Law: "... two of the 38 children studied after watching lightning strike and kill a playmate had no memory of the event." But, McNally clarifies, it wasn't repression. Those two children were actually struck by side flashes of the lightning and knocked unconscious.
Consider, too, what Crews reveals about D. Corydon Hammond, one of the authors of the American Psychiatric Association book. In 1992, Hammond gave a lecture in which he maintained that MPD patients had been secretly programmed to produce remotely guided "alters" by members of an "Illuminatic council" headed by a Hasidic Jewish collaborator with the Nazis. The function of these slaves is supposedly to engage in prostitution, child pornography, drug smuggling, etc., to help create a "Satanic order that will rule the world."
Another example is the way "combat fatigue" and "shell shock" were renamed post-traumatic stress disorder after the Vietnam War. McNally explains that this wartime disorder - something resulting from an experience far outside normal human experience - became the culture's explanation for people suffering from being fired from a job or being kissed in public. Such people "forget" how much they are traumatized by ordinary events. A little hypnosis can make humiliation equal to a wartime helicopter crash.
Most disturbing, the professional associations for psychologists and psychiatrists still refuse to take a stand against a theory that is no longer supportable.
The fantasies, dreams and memories of people are useful symbolic narratives that describe their felt experience. But making literal a "memory" of enormous trauma previously not recollected only pushes people deeper into a sense of powerlessness and dependency - unless you value the power of lies. Crews' essay demonstrates how easily psychology validates itself with its own self-aggrandizing fantasy.
I suspect, by the way, that my cleaning lady got "well" when her insurance lapsed.
Cliff Bostock, M.A., is in private practice. Reach him care of his website, www.soulworks.net, or at 404-525-4774.
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