I just received an e-mail from someone who found my dissertation on the blog and asked me some questions concerning a radio broadcast that he had heard. (KPCC: http://www.scpr.org/programs/airtalk/2010/01/25/child-sexual-abuse-trauma-or-myth/) One of the things that he wondered was why Dr. Gail Wyatt was so upset, as well as what did I think about Dr. Susan Clancy's position as she discussed her book The Trauma Myth.
I haven't read Dr. Clancy's book but will probably send for it via inter-library loan during the spring after I finish teaching just to say I've read it. So the blog will be based on impressions from the radio show based on my own expertise.
My first comment would be God Save Us from Dilettantes!! I suspect that that is what Dr. Wyatt was also feeling.
What Dr. Clancy is saying is well known by any of us who are in the field. There are some people for whom the sexual abuse in childhood was a minimal event but, and its a big but, everything depends on what happened, and on the child's experiences up to that moment. The flasher can cause some children to giggle, for others it can cause trauma. Since most sexual abuse is caused by someone close to the child, the event is always accompanied by some trauma - confusion is trauma - children need to assign meaning to events and any "age-inappropriate sexual activity" requires meaning that a child does not have the experience to be able to find. The more traumatic the sexual activity is, the more likely the child is to block it at some level.
I have real suspicions that Dr. Clancy did not do her homework. She doesn't know Dr. Wyatt's work on child sexual abuse? (See the bibliography of my dissertation for Dr. Wyatt's early work) But that is being nice. I am more suspicious that she needed to be in the limelight again - alien abductees can only take you so far. Note the title of her book The Trauma Myth - makes for good copy in the media. Guaranteed to get her on those wonderful talk shows!
Dr. Clancy was talking about how the problem is that these people who are not "traumatized" still feel guilty. These means that she is deliberately avoiding what guilt does to a person - it can eat away at them - if that does not constitute part of trauma, what does? The callers on the show that wanted to support Dr. Clancy were, to my mind, doing just the opposite. Neither I nor Dr. Wyatt would ever suggest that to either caller, but it the first one is suspicious of babysitters and exerts extra caution when looking for someone to watch her children - if that is not trauma, what is? She has started thinking about it after she had children. Note how she said she never forgot it, she can remember every detail of every time the babysitter sexually molested her - that is trauma. It has changed the way she looks at other people, she cannot relegate it to the recesses of her mind (these are flashbacks and are seared in the brain). The second one is still angry and she is afraid for her little girls - that is trauma and the problem there is because she has not dealt with her anger and is overprotective of her daughters there is a good chance that if it does happen to her daughters then she won't recognize it (which is what Dr. Wyatt is trying very politely to suggest). It also begs the question: "If it wasn't a problem for her, why is she worried about it happening to her daughters?"
None of us want anyone to feel guilty about what happened to them as a child. However that is the norm. We know that children blame themselves when things go wrong (see my dissertation, probably best place is chapter 6 - section on guilt). Witness children whose parents divorce when they are young. They blame themselves for mommy and daddy splitting up and no amount of reassurance seems to change their minds. These traumas - big and small - are processed consistently as we age. As our experience and understanding grows, we re-evaluate our past experiences and put them in a different light. We seldom are able to go back and truly remember how we felt as a child, we tend to remember it through the veil of time.
Most people who are sexually abused as children survive fairly well. I suppose that I am a prime example. I have discussed this in earlier blogs. We manage, we get educated, we get married, we have children, we have jobs. That does not mean that we were not traumatized. In my case, it took a sexual assault when I was 27 to break open the dam that I had built around my memories. Even then I did not go into extensive therapy until I was in my early 30s. I was extremely resilient.
There is a lot of denial about the impact of sexual abuse in childhood. We don't want to believe that we were that impotent, that we were that stupid (witness the one caller who said it had taken her a long time to even talk about it - one of Dr. Clancy's supporters). I have heard so many survivors talk about how it didn't really have an impact on them - despite the lives that they are leading. It is not my place to push them; I no longer do any counselling. I just suggest that if it ever does start to bother them, then maybe they should find a counselor to just talk to for a bit. More often than not, they do. I have students who end up confiding in me when their lives are falling apart.If appropriate, I give them the odd tale from my life - it always helps to know that no matter how bad things seem, one can still succeed. It is not the end of the world, even if it seems like it sometimes.
To get back to Dr. Clancy. She talks about the New Hampshire university research centre and Dr. Finkelhor. However, she doesn't talk about the work of Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk and the research team that he works with at the same place.
I would suggest that everyone go to David Baldwin's Trauma Information Pages. Everything you ever wanted to know about trauma. From the sounds of it, Dr. Clancy should have gone there and read up on a topic of which she seems to have little grasp . When I read the book (not at the top of the pile), perhaps I am wrong about this, but somehow I doubt it.
And for the record, to relegate personal trauma to statistics is the biggest problem that we have. It is all part of just being a number. This is a subject that is almost impossible for people who have not been sexually abused as children, or who haven't spent a lot of time around people who were abused to grasp. Scratch any woman's surface and you will find a story, I suspect. I'll bet that there isn't a woman alive who hasn't at some point in her life been subjected to the unwanted sexual attentions from another person. As adults, these are seldom traumatic - unless there is an underlying childhood incident. They are just a pain in the butt. For children, they will cause some level of trauma; if dealt with immediately, there doesn't have to be a lasting negative impact and appropriate meaning will be attached to the incident.
To a better world - it's a long time coming. And people like Dr. Clancy and the media that support her don't help matters.