By Richard McNally. Publisher: Harvard University Press. Date: 2003.
Anyone interested in understanding how trauma is remembered must read this book. Remembering Trauma is essential for its field – a work that must become standard reading if that field is to be purged of needless confusion and fortified against future errors of the same general kind. In his own laboratory’s studies of people who report recovering previously repressed memories of trauma, Richard McNally concludes that traumatic experiences are indeed unforgettable. Although some survivors of trauma can avoid thinking about their experiences for long periods of time, a failure to think about trauma is not the same as an inability to remember it. In fact, the evidence for repressed memories of trauma – or even for repression at all – is surprisingly weak.
“Every now and then a book appears that can be instantly recognized as essential for its field—a work that must become standard reading if that field is to be purged of needless confusion and fortified against future errors of the same general kind. Such a book is Remembering Trauma, by the Harvard psychology professor Richard J. McNally.”—Frederick Crews, The New York Review of Books
“Richard McNally calls this theory of amnesia ‘psychiatric folklore.’ As a therapist and a professor of psychology at Harvard, he has spent years studying the effects of trauma on people’s mental processes—including memory. He is on top of the research and has done some of it himself. The investigational literature is vast, and Remembering Trauma covers virtually all of it… Elegant and impassioned. [This book] makes a supposedly complex topic simple. Or at least simple enough to make readers wonder about the ready acceptance of a notion that goes against common sense and experience.”—Debbie Nathan, The Washington Post
“McNally…is both a clinician who studies anxiety disorders and one of the leading scientific investigators in the field of trauma and memory. Remembering Trauma is an exhaustive review of the scientific research and clinical evidence pertaining to trauma and memory, including what is known about dreams and nightmares, flashbacks, repression, dissociation, amnesia, and post-traumatic stress disorder.”—Carol Tavris, The Times Literary Supplement
An Amazon reviewer has noted:
- People remember horrific experiences all too well. There is little, if any, compelling evidence for the repression (inability to recall) of traumatic memories. Trauma survivors, compared to others, do not have a superior ability to banish upsetting memories from awareness; “The notion that the mind protects itself by repressing or dissociating memories of trauma, rendering them inaccessible to awareness, is a piece of psychiatric folklore devoid of convincing empirical support” (p. 275).
- Some people do not think about disturbing events for long periods of time, but that does not mean that they were ever unable to recall the events. There is no reason to postulate a special mechanism of repression or dissociation to explain why people may not think about disturbing experiences for long periods of time – a failure to think about something does not entail an inability to recall it.
- Contrary to the view voiced by some clinicians, there is no compelling evidence that repeated episodes of abuse lead to impaired recollection (repression or dissociation) of abuse. In fact, repetition strengthens memory for abuse, although the person may not be able to recall every specific instance of abuse.
- Contrary to advocates of the concept of “recovered memories”, there is evidence that many or perhaps all recovered memories are false memories of horrific trauma. Recovered memory therapies – involving suggestion and leading questions that the patient has been abused, along with guided imagery and hypnosis – can induce false memories. In turn, these memories can induce PTSD or other forms of psychiatric disturbance.
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