Remembering Trauma

Richard J. McNally. Remembering Trauma, Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2003.

Richard McNally, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, studies the evidence for massive repression of traumatic events and finds it lacking. Indeed, victims of real traumas are often painfully unable to forget traumatic memories, and if they have any problems with remembering, it is with everyday, non-traumatic events. McNally agrees that people can sometimes forget memories of childhood abuse, among other things, until specifically reminded of them, and in some cases they can forget that they have remembered and talked about the issue for years.

The issue of how far any of these memories can be assumed to be real in the absence of corroborating evidence is also discussed, with often tales of confessions and other corroboration resting on the word of the 'victim' only. Magonia readers will recognise these issues from tales of multiple-witness UFO cases and paranormal events.

McNally argues that many traumatic memories are created by therapists using techniques of guided imagery, hypnosis and other dissociative therapies. Experimental studies on the introduction of less traumatic false memories are discussed in this context. McNally argues that 'fantastic' tales of Satanic abuse, alien abduction or child abuse in past lives act as a kind of control: sets of memories which are almost certainly false. A group of abductees studied by McNally and co-workers showed increased scores on levels of absorption similar to those reporting repressed memories of childhood abuse; some also showed partial symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and showed PTSD-like symptoms when hearing stories of alien abductions, though unlike 'real' sufferers from PTSD they showed similar responses when read accounts of other kinds of trauma.

McNally also questions whether PTSD is itself not a culture-bound syndrome, and points out that in good times the notion of what is 'traumatic' can get very broad indeed. A situation in which hearing off-colour jokes in the office is thought to be in any way equivalent to being a concentration camp or earthquake survivor is to put it mildly absurd ('obscene' might be a better word).

Yet there remains through this study a central mystery which McNally barely touches on. How is it that apparently rational and mentally well people can be convinced that, unknown even to themselves, they are victims of some terrible trauma existing in the interstices of their normal life? Maybe these extreme narratives are metaphors which allow much vaguer discontents to be articulated, and that the idea of suppressed traumas and lost memories is some kind of symbol of the pervasive false consciousness of the bourgeois world and nuclear family. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 84, March 2004.

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