The Magazine

The End of a Delusion

The psychiatric memory wars are over.

May 26, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 36 • By PAUL R. MCHUGH
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Remembering Trauma

by Richard J. McNally

Belknap, 420 pp., $35

AT THE END of the nineteenth century, Sigmund Freud--ever anxious to present an overarching, universal explanation for mental unrest--suggested that "repressed memories" of childhood sexual abuse are a common cause of adult mental disorders.

He quickly abandoned the idea (replacing it with the concept of infantile sexuality) when he saw that it harmed rather than helped his patients. But such ideas seem to have lives of their own, and a hundred years after Freud first proposed it, the idea of repressed memories rose again in new and even gaudier clothing. Grown beyond Freud's unadorned view of domestic misconduct, it came to include beliefs that many of these sexual traumas--which the troubled patients' shocked minds had repressed--took place during Satanic rituals and experiments aboard alien spacecraft.

It is today almost impossible to understand how anyone ever believed this absurd and ridiculous notion, but it was less than a decade ago that the idea was flourishing in America. The American psychiatric and psychological establishment bears a shame that will be hard ever to wash away. Thousands of patients--thousands of sick, damaged people who had come to medical professionals for help--were destructively misdirected into trolling through their pasts in search of hidden sexual trauma. By the late 1980s, wards and clinics in university psychiatric departments, eminent hospitals, and even the National Institute of Mental Health were devoted to uncovering these repressed memories.

The craze for this psychiatric madness was never universal, and, to their credit, some theorists and practicing psychiatrists resisted the practices and ideas in what Frederick Crews aptly dubbed the "memory wars." The importance of Richard J. McNally's new book "Remembering Trauma" lies not just in the superb and definitive survey McNally makes of the history of repressed memories, but also in what the book stands for: "Remembering Trauma" is the monument built to mark the end of the memory wars. The repressed-memory diagnosis has finally been repressed.

WHEN THESE WARS STARTED, orthodox Freudianism--the concepts of psychoanalysis based on infantile sexuality and the dynamic unconscious that Freud developed on abandoning his child abuse idea--was losing influence after dominating psychiatric thought for over two generations in America. The Freudian explanation and treatment were weak in practice, whatever their intrinsic intellectual interest. New and simpler treatments of psychiatric patients, as with medication and cognitive counseling, were emerging to replace it.

The idea of repressed memories was in many ways anti-Freudian, anathema to the orthodox Freudian view. But the explosion of interest in repressed memories was nonetheless a result of Freudianism--a notion born from the Freudian movement's death throes, something we might have anticipated had we reflected on the situation faced by therapists accustomed for so long to remarkable social and professional standing in America as keepers of the deep secrets of our minds.

More clamor about the Oedipus complex, castration anxiety, penis envy, and all the rest of the classic Freudian elements was not going to revive attention and energy for the sect. New kinds of secrets about human mental life and its disorders were needed. And what better than the idea that our parents--particularly our fathers--betrayed us as children and used us as sexual objects? Our failure to remember such abuse presented no problem. Surely the abuse was so shocking, so villainous, we could not believe it was happening. Hence, the theory held, we repressed all memory of the experience into the unconscious where it would work its mischief over time, all unknown and even unsuspected.

If this wasn't Freudian in content, it was nonetheless Freudian in shape--not orthodox Freudianism, but what we might call "manneristic Freudianism." The mannerists lacked Freud's originality and literary gifts, of course, but they tried to follow him as best they could.