Abusing Not Only Children, but Also Science


Given the vested interests lurking all over the current medical landscape, it is no wonder that the scientific method is so often mauled a little in transit. Cases of data ignored or manipulated to serve an agenda are like muggings in a bad neighborhood: you hear about them all the time, but in fact relatively few are ever openly examined.

And so even readers with no personal or professional connection to the sexual abuse of children may be edified by “The Trauma Myth,” a short tale of one such particularly fraught episode.

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.

Dr. Clancy questioned her findings, reconfirmed them and was convinced. Her audience, when she made the data public, was outraged.

First, her data flew in the face of several decades of politically correct trauma theory, feminist theory and sexual politics.

Second, Dr. Clancy found that the world had little appetite for scientific subtlety: “Unfortunately, when people heard ‘not traumatic when it happens,’ they translated my words to mean, ‘It doesn’t harm victims later on.’ Even worse, some assumed I was blaming victims for their abuse.”

Dr. Clancy reports that she became a pariah in lay and academic circles. She was “crucified” in the press as a “friend of pedophiles,” colleagues boycotted her talks, advisers suggested that continuing on her trajectory would rule out an academic career.

All that fuss about one little word — “trauma” — and a change in its timing. Why should it matter one way or the other?

Dr. Clancy suggests several reasons her data aroused such passion. For one thing, a whole academic and therapeutic structure rides on the old model of sexual abuse; her findings had the potential to undermine a host of expensive treatment and prevention projects.

Meanwhile, she argues, it is her model that may really help victims. Adult survivors of childhood abuse are commonly mortified by their own behavior as children. By not fighting back or calling for help, they blame themselves for effectively colluding with their abuser. It can be intensely comforting for them to hear that their reaction, or lack thereof, was completely normal.

Dr. Clancy’s model also makes some sense of the whole sticky question of repressed memory. Most traumatic events are likely to be vividly remembered. But if instances of sexual abuse are simply among the many confusions that characterize childhood, they are perfectly forgettable: “Why should a child remember them if, at the time they happened, they were not particularly traumatic?” Only when reprocessed and fully understood do the memories leap into focus.

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.

Dr. Clancy writes with the precision and patient repetition of a good teacher on complicated terrain. Her prose could not be clearer, and her points are restated many, many times over. But at Amazon.com, an outraged customer-reviewer has already pounced.

“It is appalling,” the reviewer wrote, “that ‘experts’ like Susan Clancy can get away with having a book published with a title that is not only false, but one that tells sexual perpetrators, ‘Go ahead, sexually abuse children, they like it, and they aren’t going to be traumatized by it.’ ”

Science is sometimes no match for conviction, and often, evidently, good writing is not either.

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