Remembering Trauma 1st Edition

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ISBN-13: 978-0674010826
ISBN-10: 0674010825
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Editorial Reviews

From Scientific American

Many science books earn praise for taking a topic that the public might consider dull or irrelevant and turning it into a fascinating drama. But there is something to be said for doing the opposite—stripping down a controversial topic to the science at its core. "How victims remember trauma is the most divisive issue facing psychology today," writes Harvard University psychologist Richard J. McNally in the opening lines of Remembering Trauma. It is also central to headlines about whether men are accurately portraying childhood abuse by their clergy. McNally quickly summarizes the history of the repressed-memory debate to help readers frame the science he later presents. The issue first became big in the 1980s, when therapists began to diagnose sufferers of depression and other mental health problems as victims of childhood sexual abuse, the memories of which were said to be repressed as a defense mechanism against reliving the pain. Reports of recovered memories of sexual abuse peaked in the mid- to late 1990s and were followed by a backlash from accused family members who denounced what they called false-memory syndrome. Practitioners of recovered-memory therapy defended their methods, even as some patients retracted their claims of abuse and sued their former therapists. At the same time, extensive clinical research on the nature of memory and trauma was being conducted. Indeed, McNally’s analysis of it makes up the bulk of the book. From simple word memorization experiments in the laboratory to interviews with Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the author summarizes dozens of studies while providing clear explanations of psychological concepts and expert insight into the strengths and limitations of the findings. The overwhelming evidence leads him to conclude that people do not forget experiences that were truly traumatic. Although some victims can go for long periods without thinking of past events, this should not be confused with an inability to remember their ordeals. Even though at times McNally may overgeneralize, he ultimately debunks theories of repressed memory and the "trauma industry" that has sprouted to cater to this purported condition. Although his exhaustive recounting of cases may be tedious for casual readers, those with an interest should appreciate the wealth of information and McNally’s sober approach to this emotionally charged subject.

Daniel Cho

From The New England Journal of Medicine

Books with nearly 100 pages of references, not to mention notes, are treasures as resources, even if their content and the discussion they contain require much work of the reader. Remembering Trauma is such a book. It is not, however, about remembering trauma. Rather, it is about the debate over the recall of childhood sexual trauma. It also is not without a point of view of its own. McNally begins with a useful and dramatic history of the debate about the recall of childhood sexual abuse. In this debate, issues of science, clinical care, and the legal system have come together, often without any acknowledgment of their differences. The failure, inability, unwillingness, or reluctance to recall an event leads to different hypotheses regarding the phenomenon we casually call "forgetting." To complicate matters further, we know that people often forget the times when they did remember. Evidence, data, methods of obtaining data, and criteria for establishing proof are quite different in the fields of science, clinical care, and the law. McNally provides a good review of the literature of cognitive psychology on the recall of traumatic events, reminding us that recall is a function of our experience, the neurobiologic limitations of our memory apparatus, and our present context. The process of recall often involves remembering an event that one knows but may not have thought of recently or even for a long time, rather than "remembering" an event of which one was never before aware. The book covers many aspects of this question, from amnesia to belief, perhaps dwelling too much on post-traumatic stress disorder, repression, and dissociation. Among the studies McNally discusses are two sets that address the specific questions of the recall of sexual abuse particularly well. The first set comprises prospective studies of abused children who were followed as adults. Although McNally tends to interpret these studies as supporting the view that adults nearly always recall documented childhood sexual abuse, the studies also indicate that some adults (10 to 22 percent) do not. Yes, this finding supports the conclusion that forgetting childhood sexual abuse is not the norm. However, it also indicates, within the limits of these studies, that such forgetting does occur. The second set of studies compares aspects of memory function in three groups of adults: those reporting unconfirmed recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse, those reporting repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse (i.e., they do not recall the sexual abuse, but they think they were abused), and those reporting no history of childhood sexual abuse. The author leads the reader by suggesting that there "should have been" differences in memory function among these groups according to whether the sexual trauma was repressed, dissociated, or forgotten. However, a more neutral interpretation of these studies would be that the null hypothesis was not rejected and that the three groups were therefore surprisingly similar. Interestingly, persons who reported repressed memories were more likely than those in the other groups to score high on tests that measure psychological distress. Either some adults with psychological distress come to believe they have been sexually abused in childhood or, equally possible (although inexplicably demoted to less importance in the book), those who report repressed memories do indeed have more psychological distress. The proverbial chicken-and-egg problem cannot be resolved by these studies. Is trauma a problem of memory? The recall of traumatic events (and post-traumatic stress disorder) is as much a problem of forgetting as of recalling. The inability to forget and the resultant generalization of the threat result in impairment rather than in protection from danger. The enduring questions regarding memory and traumatic events are not solved in this book, but we are educated about them. The recall of childhood sexual abuse is never established without independent confirmation -- a lesson that is taught well in this book and one that our scientists, clinicians, and legal system must not forget. Robert J. Ursano, M.D.
Copyright © 2003 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; 1 edition (April 22, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674010825
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674010826
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.5 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,230,767 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Richard J. McNally received his B.S. in psychology from Wayne State University in 1976, and his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1982. He completed his clinical internship and postdoctoral fellowship at the Behavior Therapy Unit, Department of Psychiatry, Temple University School of Medicine. In 1984 he was appointed Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Health Sciences/The Chicago Medical School where he established the Anxiety Disorders Clinic and directed the university counseling center. He moved to the Department of Psychology at Harvard University in 1991 where he is now Professor and Director of Clinical Training. He has more than 330 publications, most concerning anxiety disorders (e.g., posttraumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder), including the books Panic Disorder: A Critical Analysis (Guilford Press, 1994), Remembering Trauma (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2003), and What is Mental Illness? (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2011). He has conducted laboratory studies concerning cognitive functioning in adults reporting histories of childhood sexual abuse, including those reporting recovered memories of abuse. His research has been supported by the National Institute of Mental Health. He served on the American Psychiatric Association's DSM-IV PTSD and specific phobia committees, and he is an advisor to the DSM-V Anxiety Disorders Sub-Workgroup. He is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, winner of the 2005 Distinguished Scientist Award from the Society for the Science of Clinical Psychology, winner of the 2010 Outstanding Mentor Award from the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, and he is on the Institute for Scientific Information's "Highly Cited" list for psychology and psychiatry [top 0.5% of published authors worldwide in terms of citation impact].

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

48 of 57 people found the following review helpful By "steven_taylor" on June 14, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Traumatology is a field concerning the nature and treatment of traumatic stress reactions. Controversies in this field include theoretical contentions (e.g., do psychodynamic mechanisms like repression really exist?), diagnostic and phenomenological controversies (e.g., is psychogenic amnesia a common traumatic stress reaction?), treatment questions (e.g., are treatments like Eye Movement Desensitization really as powerful as their proponents claim?), and societal and political tensions (e.g., is it morally appropriate for scientists to disseminate findings showing that childhood sexual abuse is not as harmful as previously believed?). Each of these issues, along with many others, have been hotly debated, both in scientific journals and in the popular press. Although there are some rigorous, scholarly books in this field, there are probably more volumes of impassioned polemics, based more on vested interests and clinical folklore than on hard data. A welcome, scholarly addition is Richard McNally's new book, Remembering Trauma. This is a superb volume largely about the phenomenology, mechanisms, and modification of traumatic memories. McNally's book targets a broad audience - clinicians and the general reader - as is appropriate for a book on such an important, wide-reaching subject. The book focuses primarily on posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can be conceived as largely a disorder of memory; a disorder in which traumatic memories exert their influence in a variety of ways, such as by repeatedly intruding into the sufferer's stream of consciousness, and by coloring the way the person experiences and reacts to the world.
McNally focuses on the empirical literature, including the numerous experimental studies conducted by his research group.
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46 of 57 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 19, 2003
Format: Hardcover
We usually do not think of it this way, but ideas on how people remember trauma have had a profound impact on our society. Just ask the Boston Archdiocese, which now worries that people will come forward with "false memories" of abuse, greatly adding to their financial liability. How are we to know who is telling the truth and who is just making it up out of greed? Feminism, moreover, has been advanced by some writers based partially on the idea of "recovered memory" of widespread sexual abuse of daughters by fathers. The vast therapy and mental healh businesses also have a huge financial interest in whether or not there is merit to the psychoanalytic idea of repressed memory. Concerned parents, further, wonder if stress from war on trauma and related television images damage our children psychologically. What affect might the bombing of Baghdag have on the citizens?
With so much at stake in terms of money, politics, health care, and criminal court proceedings, scholars have been under severe pressure to lean this way or that even when writing in scholarly and scientific journals. So many controversies and professional attacks have been launched that until now it has been hard for people who need to know the truth to find an objective account of the facts about memories of past trauma and recent trauma.
In his book "Remembering Trauma," Harvard University Professor Richard McNally, one of the world's most distinguished behavioral scientist, has put forth a badly needed objective and balanced account of all major issues concerning how people remember traumatic events; he also covers postraumatic stress disorder and related issues.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful By William Scott Scherk on September 21, 2003
Format: Hardcover
McNally's book is required reading for those interested in the controversies over "recovered memories of trauma." His tone is even, sometimes wry, but never accusatory towards those who may not share his conclusions.
Of particular interest is his attention to various studies that have been used by both "sides" in the debates. For example, in his chapter "Traumatic Amnesia," a reader will find a sober evaluation of theories presented by such worthies as Terr, van der Kolk, and JJ Freyd -- here McNally drills down into the meat of the supporting data used to flesh out the theories, and in so doing, lays out the exact areas of dispute.
Ms Crook's review makes one important error: The Freyd study she notes did not assess for PTSD, and so is not comparable to McNally's laboratory work.
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By Jarkay on January 7, 2015
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I wish more professional books were as thorough and clear as this one (especially about the author’s biases). Although the focus is on memories of trauma, the trauma literature is somewhat more broadly summarized and research design errors and apparently mistaken conclusions carefully described so you can better draw your own conclusions (whether you agree with the author’s or not). It reminds you how important it is to take most research and expert opinion with a grain of salt until enough solid, objective evidence accumulates.
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In a world where every therapist is a trauma specialist it is important to have someone sort out the difference between what we actually know and the crazy mythology about trauma that pervades the general discourse. McNally is a respected psychologist and researcher. This book is a must read for any mental health professional especially those who think they know about trauma memories.
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