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The End of a Delusion: The psychiatric memory wars are over.

Richard J. McNally

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Remembering Trauma
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...

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...

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...

It was in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well that many psychiatrists in teaching positions began to receive calls from families reporting how their adult offspring--mostly daughters--were accusing them of the most ferocious forms of sexual abuse when they were children. Casualties began to mount rapidly: mostly family breakup and estrangement, but also growing mental derangement in the accusers. They were under pressure first to "remember" the details of the purported abuse they had "repressed" and then to "relive" these experiences in their psychotherapy sessions for cathartic relief. Why was it a surprise when patients treated in this fashion got worse, not better? More symptoms of depression colored with anger, resentment, and fear emerged, and suicide attempts began to occur. Long hospitalizations were often required. All these unfortunate outcomes replicated Freud's original experience with recovered-memory treatment a hundred years before.

Read the entire article on The Weekly Standard website.



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