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by Richard J. McNally
Belknap Press, 2003
Review by Gerda Wever-Rabehl, Ph.D. on Sep 16th 2005

Remembering Trauma

"If faced with a choice between being miserable and not knowing why, and being miserable and being able to blame someone else, may people will choose the latter". (McNally, p. 231)

Remembering Trauma by Richard J. McNally is a refreshing text. It bluntly challenges some of the most contested and controversial issues in the study of trauma and its effect on memory and deflates the many myths and illusions that are still obscuring our understanding of memory and trauma.

Take for example the still commonly held belief that survivors of trauma somehow develop skills to get rid of disturbing thoughts related to the traumatic event. McNally calls this commonly accepted theory of traumatic amnesia "psychiatric folklore" as there simply is no convincing evidence to believe that we can banish traumatic memories and retrieve them later on. Laboratory research for example, reveals that abuse survivors are no better at forgetting than anybody else. Survivors rarely forget trauma, unless there is physical damage to the brain. And the intense emotions experienced by people during a traumatic or stressful event enhance the memory for central aspects of the experience rather than making them subject to amnesia. This, asserts McNally, makes perfect sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Indeed, it is hard to envision how for example the Cro-Magnons would have made it through the ice age for as long as they did had they suppressed all memories of stressful saber-tooth attacks. From an evolutionary standpoint, one can really only image memory-structures allowing for, even enhancing, memory for dangerous or otherwise significant events to evolve. McNally exhibits much of the research in support of traumatic amnesia as troubled by sloppy data, misinterpretation and conceptual as well as empirical problems. The evidence for traumatic amnesia is, in a word of McNally, seriously flawed.

Another contested issue in the field of trauma that McNally challenges in Remembering Trauma is that of false memories. Would you think it is possible for someone to remember a traumatic event that never actually happened? Well, it is. No matter how absurd the idea may seem, McNally explains how people do occasionally remember violence that never came about and how they end up experiencing the emotional distress befitting the traumatic nature of the "remembered" events. One of the most amusing examples given by McNally to illustrate this remarkable notion is that of "alien abductees" -- people who recover, usually under hypnotic procedures, memories of having been abducted by space aliens (coincidentally, McNally notes that seventeen percent of Americans believe that space aliens have abducted people for use in medical experiments). McNally describes and evaluates the research on recovered memories. Not only, says McNally, do the narratives of "alien abductees" clearly show that people can develop false memories, psychotherapy sometimes contributes to this phenomenon when suggestive and flawed psychotherapy produces false accounts that clients take for genuine memories. Memory is, says McNally, reconstructive- and the nightmares and flashback often associated with the recollection of traumatic experiences are not, despite the pervasive and persistent tendency of popular culture to portray them as such, anything like reruns of the same horror movie. Instead, recollection requires reassembly and this reassembly is not flawless. Stronger still, it is possible to reassemble a memory of something that never took place. Throughout the 1980s for example, many people recovered memories of horrifying but non-existent satanic abuse rituals. During the same time-span, children began disclosing memories of ritual abuse at the hands of day care workers- that never occurred. These memories were by and large recovered in psychotherapy, prior to which very few people knew they had been victimized.

McNally also touches on other controversies surrounding the field of trauma and memory, such as the PTSD debate and the massive fraud associated with "phony combat vets." And as many experiences -- including overhearing obnoxious sexual jokes and fender-benders -- are now, no doubt guided by courtroom profits (McNally devotes one section to PTSD in the court-room), endorsed as traumatic, McNally contemplates the question as to what "counts" as trauma.

The one controversy McNally regrettably remains silent on is the politics of (false) collective memory. Collective memory too can be distorted to fabricate positive images of the "we" group, and negative images of the "them" group. The Dutch, for instance (my own origin) quite happily preserve, despite a rather poor track record as far as active resistance during the German occupation during WWII is concerned, a collective illusionary memory of joint resistance against the German occupation. Collective memory is distorted to allow for a more positive image of the Dutch than reality might have it, and this "new", false and collective memory is sustained with all its side effects (Dutch-German soccer match hostilities being just one of those). In a global context rife with ongoing ethnic conflict the question of the political nature of collective memory would have been worth discussing.

Nonetheless, McNally covers in Remembering Trauma much of the vast body of literature on the effects of trauma on mental processes, especially memory. This wide scope covered in Remembering Trauma makes it an invaluable book for anyone interested in trauma and its effects on mental processes, especially memory. McNally's down to earth approach and his plain and accessible language make the complexity of the topic comprehensible also for readers who are new to the topic and more comprehensible for those already familiar with it.


2005 Gerda Wever-Rabehl


Gerda Wever-Rabehl holds a Ph.D from Simon Fraser University, and has published extensively in the areas of social science, philosophy and philosophy of education.