Rod Dreher

Here’s a favorable review in today’s NYTimes of a new book, “The Trauma Myth,” by a Harvard psychologist. Here’s the book’s gist:

For a graduate research project at Harvard in the mid-1990s, the psychologist Susan A. Clancy arranged to interview adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, expecting to confirm the conventional wisdom that the more traumatic the abuse had been, the more troubled an adult the child had become.
Dr. Clancy figured she knew what she would find: “Everything I knew dictated that the abuse should be a horrible experience, that the child should be traumatized at the time it was happening — overwhelmed with fear, shock, horror.”
But many carefully documented interviews revealed nothing of the sort. Commonly, the abuse had been confusing for the child but not traumatic in the usual sense of the word. Only when the child grew old enough to understand exactly what had happened — sometimes many years later — did the fear, shock and horror begin. And only at that point did the experience become traumatic and begin its well-known destructive process.

What followed was a sadly predictable attempt to deny Dr. Clancy’s conclusions, and to demonize her as someone who makes life easier for pedophiles. The reviewer, Dr. Abigail Zuger, writes that Dr. Clancy’s survey of the data makes it crystal clear that whatever the politically correct view is, it can’t be supported by science. The reviewer writes:

Even without all these practicalities, the moral of Dr. Clancy’s story is clear: science should represent truth, not wishful thinking. When good data fly in the face of beloved theory, the theory has to go.

As longtime readers will recall, this is a particularly sensitive issue for me, because I became emotionally involved in the Catholic sex abuse story to a destructive extent. Let me be clear: I do not believe the bishops should be cut the least bit of slack on these matters. Nevertheless, I also think we should look on Clancy’s work as a hopeful thing, because it suggests the hope of healing for sexual abuse victims. As she tells the reviewer, victims who are caught in a trap of self-loathing because they didn’t feel revolted at the time of their abuse might be relieved to learn that their childish reaction was normal.
At the same time, we must keep in mind the point the bishops have made in their own defense, time and time again: decades ago, psychologists were advising them not to worry so much about sexual abuse of children. I don’t believe the bishops should be given the benefit of the doubt because as Christian priests, they should have been properly revolted by clerics who did this sort of thing to children. Still, the point to remember today is that this was the best science of its day — and it was wrong.
One more thing [read on, below the jump]

I think it must be admitted that people can and do have very different reactions to the same kind of events. I was not badly bullied in high school, but the things that did happen marked me deeply, and changed the course of my life. I know people who endured far worse, and who, somehow, shook it off. I wouldn’t insult them by saying that they’re “in denial” or somesuch thing. They were for some reason more resilient. At the same time, I would resent being told that I wasn’t tough enough because I was traumatized by the things I endured. The point is, people who try to help those who have been traumatized, or putatively traumatized, must take into account the particulars of each situation, and each person. I know a fellow who was sexually abused as a young teenager by a predator who is now in prison for what he did. The victim has had a difficult adult life, one marked by erratic behavior, alcoholism and suchlike. I don’t know him well enough to say to what extent it was caused by abuse, or to what extent he used the fact of his abuse as an excuse to behave badly. The last time I saw him, which was over a decade ago, he wept and wailed and tried to get me to write a book with him on what he learned from his abuse, so he could go on Oprah’s show to “help people.” It could not have been more clear to me that he was simply looking to exploit his victim status to gain fame and money.

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