Blasey Ford v. Kavanaugh: The Trauma Science SPEAKS
The trauma concept has become the epicenter of political hysteria in light of the allegations that psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford has brought against now-confirmed supreme court justice Brett Kavanaugh during his judiciary hearing. Ford has alleged that in the summer of 1982, Kavanaugh pulled her into a room, held her down, attempted to take off her clothes, laughed about it, kept her pinned down, and she eventually was able to escape the room. Those are the allegations.
Kavanaugh fiercely denied these allegations. And so, there was a mad scramble among journalists to conscript evidence on either side. While the investigation into the incident found no corroborating evidence, there stirred a parallel argument about how psychological science about the traumatic experience of victims of abuse, and in what sense it might give us some concrete grounding to confirm a bias for or against Ford’s allegations. In other words, journalists, politicians, and even Blasey Ford herself, turned to trauma science to authenticate the veracity of these allegations.
In this article, I only intend to speak to the science of trauma itself, and the bearing it has on this political issue. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the way in which boyhood abuse and trauma can shape the religious experience of abused boys as they became adults. I’m not a psychologist.
When Senator Dianne Feinstein asked “How are you so sure that it was he?” Blasey Ford answered: “The same way that I'm sure that I'm talking to you right now, just basic memory functions, and also just the level of norepinephrine and epinephrine in the brain," Ford said. "That neurotransmitter encodes memories into the hippocampus, and so the trauma-related experience then is kind of locked there whereas other details kind of drift.” Feinstein then asked: “what you’re telling is this could not be a case of mistaken identity.” Ford replied: “Absolutely not.”
Likewise, Richard Huganir, a neuroscience professor at Johns Hopkins University, commented to The Washington Post: “The person lying on top of you — who she’d previously met — you’re not going to forget that … There’s a total consensus in the field of memory ... If anything, fear and trauma enhances the encoding of the memory at a molecular level.”
One self-identified expert on sexual trauma commented: “"According to what we know about traumatic memory, it's more likely that her recall is accurate than it is that Kavanaugh's is … Because it's stored in the different part of the brain. All of the cortisol and the frontal cortex activity that occurs during a trauma makes it impossible for it to fade.”
We will here delineate the problems with these statements relative to trauma science, as well as their gross misuse in the political arena.
The Modern Use of Trauma in Politics
Ian Hacking calls the utilization of the trauma-memory relation by political actors “memoro-politics,” which is a way of using the trauma concept to vindicate or condemn certain other political actors by casting them as victims or perpetrators, thereby socially saving them or killing them.
Dr. Ruth Leys, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University, traces the history of the trauma concept in her University of Chicago monograph Trauma: A Genealogy. She recounts a time when trauma research was used againstvictims, to undercut the credibility of their testimony, explaining:
“One example of a painful conundrum: in the first legal test of the movement to make rape an indictable war crime, lawyers for the accused were able to exploit the fact the Muslim victim of repeated rape was diagnosed as suffering from PTSD by demanding a halt to the trial on the grounds that the traumatized woman’s suggestibility made her testimony and memories suspect.”
She concludes that it is common, for this reason, for apprehension about the trauma data to arise when “the attribution of trauma appears to be made by lawerly fiat.” All political utilization of trauma science ought to raise skepticism about this sort of utilization—not that the science can’t be utilized in legal settings, but when the appearance of a scholarly consensus is fabricated in order to justify bias for or against a particular allegation.
The State of Trauma Studies
This gives rise to a more fundamental issue about the trauma science itself. There is no consensus about what trauma is or how to approach it in the scientific community.
Richard McNally, professor of psychology at Harvard University, comments that “How victims remember trauma is the most divisive issue facing psychology today. Some experts believe that rape, combat, and other horrific experiences are engraved on the mind, never to be forgotten. Others believe that the mind protects itself by banishing traumatic memories from awareness, making it difficult for many people to remember their worst experiences until many years later.”
A classic conception of PTSD models the relationship between trauma and memory like this—the traumatic event is too overwhelming for the psyche, so it embeds itself in the subconscious. Certain artifacts which stimulate something approximating the subject’s ability to speak literally about the trauma induce an out-of-body experience that accomplishes the avoidance of the literal. We call this experience dissociation. Because trauma is a matter of subjective experience rather than objective fact, the relationship of trauma to memory in any given individual is dubious and uncertain—at the very least, there are no universal principles which dictate the mechanics of trauma in a way that can predict a strong relationship between traumatic intensity and the accuracy of memory about trauma.
Ford is right to claim that the release of norepinephrine and epinephrine stimulate greater cooperation between the amygdala and the hippocampus, which are, reductively, the affective and intellective neurocognitive anchors of our consciousness. The relationship between this noradrenergic system has been linked with improvement in memory function. And it makes sense that in a stressful situation, memory would be encoded with a sharpened focus on a smaller set of details.
At the same time, a recent meta-analysis concluded that “individuals with PTSD, a history of trauma, or depression are at risk for producing false memories when they are exposed to information that is related to their knowledge base.”
We need to stop overplaying our hand in our placing a rush-order on psychological science to the front row of our political line infantry. Because traumatic experience is highly phenomenological—and more importantly, easily fabricated by suggestion—the popularization of a false sense of certainty about how trauma works will cultivate a culture of victimhood that takes its cue from the needs of the political elite, rather than the science itself.
Trauma is Phenomenological
This raises the issue of the very nature of trauma and its relationship to events. Again, when Senator Feinstein asked if Ford could be mistaken about the identity of her assailant, Ford commented “Absolutely not.” Really? It couldn’t be? Because Elon Musk thinks that we’re all living in a computer simulation. The possibility that there’s no such thing as an external world is as old as René Descartes, and extends today to philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and Nick Bostrom.
Of course, simulation theory isn’t actually relevant to whether Kavanaugh assaulted Ford. But for Ford to say that it is absolutely impossible for her to be mistaken, in light of the conflicting research surrounding the trauma concept in relation to memory in particular, and the dubious nature of memory, introduces hyperbole—that is, rhetorical exaggeration—into the conversation. And, there is something ironic and counteractive about the use of hyperbole to stress the accuracy of a statement. Using rhetorical exaggeration—that she is absolutely certain that she couldn’t have been mistaken, which is hardly true of any 36-year-old memory—to forcefully assert the exact precision of her historical recounting, is odd. But there is a more fundamental reality beneath the relationship between trauma, memory, and accuracy that requires attention.
The utilization of science in defense of Ford—that is, by Richard Huganir (the Johns Hopkins neuroscientist) and Blasey Ford herself—have in common the presumption that the display of posttraumatic stress translates roughly into a reliable equation of certainty with accuracy, and therefore with truthfulness. There are two relationships here which are dubious, but assumed to be solid. And those are the relationship between PTSD symptoms and certainty, and then the relationship between certainty and truthfulness.
PTSD symptomatology indicates the experience of trauma, and the certainty contained in the traumatic experience does not translate straightforwardly into the sort of trustworthy certainty that ought to be taken with unquestionable veracity. More than that, certainty does not translate into truthfulness. There is no psychological mechanism—trauma least of all—that guarantees a person is accurately or truthfully recalling a memory. None.
Bessel van der Kolk, a traumatogist whose work has become popular of late, comments that victims of abuse are likely to be “vulnerable to suggestion and to the construction of explanations for their trauma-related affects that may bear little relationship to the actual realities of their lives.” Sven Christianson, a professor of psychology at Stockholm University, who specializes in forensic traumatology with special reference to memory, insists that psychologists must always operate with the sober recognition that they are dealing with memories, not histories per se: “one usually does not know for sure what the original circumstances were, only what the person claims they were.”
A group of psychologists wrote in 1948, “It would seem at the present writing that there is no such thing as a ‘truth serum.’” This is still the case. Even the lie detector technology was undermined in the 1950s due to an irrefutable awareness of the susceptibility of subjects to suggestion.
The basic point here is this: Trauma is a phenomenological concept. This means that trauma is a word we use to describe a certain gloss that appears on the subjective experience of those who survive overwhelming experiences. It is a word that we use to describe the internal world of a survivor. Any use of the concept to guarantee accuracy, or to suggest heightened epistemological access to certainty, recall, or autobiography from a historical perspective, is simply not aligned with the current science. Do abuse survivors require sympathy and acceptance from their therapists? Yes. But the traumatic experience of survivors is not uniform. It is very diverse.
There is a spectrum of survivors, and on that spectrum, there are those who have accurate and hyper-attuned certainty that truthfully corresponds to reality, and there are those whose remembrance of the traumatic event is occluded and distorted by the overwhelming and post-traumatic symptoms of the event itself. Both of these ends of the spectrum will present post-traumatic symptomatology, which means that post-traumatic symptomatology cannot be used as an indicator of the historical accuracy of the account, nor where the survivor falls on the spectrum of psychologically accurate and occluded.
Mimesis and Antimimesis
Understanding the phenomenological nature of trauma, then, points us toward the significance of traumatic symptomatology. When someone is manifesting post-traumatic symptomatology, what does that mean about the historical veracity of their recounting of a traumatic event?
Traumatic symptomatology is a function of packed, or suppressed, traumatic memory. Therefore, the greater the traumatic dysregulation, the less cognitively conscious the survivor likely is of the original trauma. Blasey Ford tells a tale of increased traumatic symptomatology over the course of her life, including various phobias. These psychopathologies could have developed independently or symbiotically with the trauma, but to the degree that they are traumatic symptoms, their quantity exists on an inverse sliding scale with the degree to which she can consciously recall her memories. In other words, the worse she really is psychopathologically in regard to her trauma, the less she ought to be able to consciously recall.
“From the beginning trauma was understood as an experience that immersed the victim in the traumatic scene so profoundly that it precluded the kind of specular distance necessary for cognitive knowledge of what happened.”The question is, then, to what degree and by what method a survivor is able to regain the “specular distance necessary” to give a credible account of the abuse.
Recent work of Bessel van der Kolk theorizes that the traumatic memory is encoded neurobiologically—or, in the body—rather than cognitively, in the mind. This accounts, van der Kolk argues, for the enduring nature of trauma throughout a lifetime, and for the dysregulative symptoms it produces. van der Kolk argues that traumatic memory is not “declarative” or “narrative” memory, but rather something more like “implicit” or “nondeclarative” memory, in which the survivors acts out the trauma and reactions to it through skills, reflexes, habits, and “classically conditioned responses that lie outside verbal-semantic-linguistic representation.”
This idea that trauma is embedded beneath conscious awareness and is play-acted by the survivor symbolically and metaphorically through other attachments is called “mimesis.” This is the notion that the survivor metaphorically mimes the trauma—acts it out in a way that is representative, but not denotatively or straightforwardly literal or conscious.
Classic psychoanalysis assumes a mimetic suppression of the trauma, and contemporary positivist (that is, mainly cognitive behaviorist psychology) carries out an antimimetic agenda—to lead the survivor out of a metaphorical world through hypnosis or coercion (that is, through entering into the “game” of therapy to find one’s way from metaphoricality to literality) to a place of cognizant and autonomous self-expression. The mimentic hypothesis begins with the notion that accounts of abuse by the victim are impeded by the trauma—that accuracy is occluded by the trauma itself, whereas the antimimetic hypothesis holds to the fundamental recoverability of traumatic events.
We need to keep this distinction between competing mimetic and antimimetic theories of trauma in mind as we consider the relationship between trauma and memory. What theory should we use to understand Christine Blasey Ford? It’s very unclear, and to present the science as dictating dogmatically a bias for or against Ford is scientifically, diagnostically, and philosophically dishonest.
We ought to make one final note here about the possibility of false memories. Ford maintains that she had always remembered the event, but suppressed it in order to hide from her parents the fact that she was drinking. We have to be on the lookout for commonsense tropes masked under the guise of “trauma experts” seeking to sell unscientific observation as researched profundity.
For this reason, we need to make a meaningful distinction—one which the current conversation ignores—between abuse and trauma. Abuse is something which occurs historically, objectively, and is an event that can be measurably observed in what Newton would call the plain of extension—the observable physical universe. Trauma is something which occurs in one’s internal world, most often as a response to external realities, but increasingly due to self-application and over-utilization of the trauma concept.
How is it possible to work retroinductively from the traumatic memory to the abusive event when there have been cases of false memory? Most techniques used for memory recovery are the same methods used for creating memory distortion in laboratory studies, such as hypnosis and, guided imagery. Lindsay and Read comment in an article in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology:
“We suspect that one of the most compelling reasons that memory recovery therapists often accept memories of childhood sexual abuse as accurate accounts is the tremendous emotional intensity and pain their clients experience when recovering such memories … How could one be skeptical of a sobbing, grief-stricken client when she comes to remember being raped by her father? As [one scholar] noted, ‘The unendurable and impossible-to-fake agony of the clients is the most powerful evidence for the truth of their experiences’. From our perspective, however, the experience of coming to believe that such events occurred would be tremendously traumatic regardless of whether the remembered events actually happened or are the product of suggestive questioning and other memory recovery techniques. The experience of remembering or believing is not ‘fake’, even in cases when it is based on factors other than retrieval of accurate memories. Our point here is not to suggest that all or even most memories recovered in therapy are illusory, but rather to emphasize that there are good reasons to believe that: (1) some recollections produced by intensive memory recovery therapy may be false; and (2) when such techniques are used it is very difficult to discriminate between clients who are remembering accurately and clients who believe they are remembering accurately but are not.”
This is a basic assumption in good psychological science—that mental health professionals operate credibly within the domain of one’s internal world. They are not licensed investigators. They are not historiographers. They are not law enforcement agents. They are not detectives. They understand, presumably, human experience and behavior. The broader philosophical, historical, and legal implications of these experiences exist outside the domain of mental health professions, and the degree to which a traumatic memory is true or false is only relevant to the mental health professional for psychological reasons, unless it becomes incumbent for them to contact local law enforcement authorities.
Do false memories of abuse exist? Yes. Can a traumatic interpretation of a memory be retrofitted onto a previous version of that memory which was not traumatizing? Yes. Does this indicate anything about the veracity of these claims? No. Is trauma a highly suggestive concept? It is. That’s why social scientists studying the trauma concept are noting that there is a “concept creep” happening within the term that is causing those who self-identify as “traumatized” to balloon because the concept is becoming more and more generic. Does this entail anything about the Ford allegations against Kavanaugh? No, it doesn’t. It means what we have been saying all along—that the traumatic nature of Ford’s memory entails nothing whatsoever. That’s as much as anybody is able to say about the relationship between trauma and memory in the Blasey Ford-Kavanaugh situation.
I will conclude will four points.
First, we must not allow our understanding of trauma to be controlled by the joystick of political expediency—that goes for our scientific and popular understanding of the trauma concept. There are very few conservative academics interested in trauma studies. For that reason, trauma has become the central cog of the intersectionality machine. Trauma measured along the lines of ethnic and class identity has become a way to measure political and cultural entitlement, rather than as a way to better diagnose and overcome overwhelming suffering in the lives of unique individuals. This co-opting of the trauma concept by leftists is one of the greatest tragedies and bastardizations of psychological science since phrenology was used as an attempt to distinguish between blacks and whites.
Second, we must reclaim a legitimation of male trauma. This very concept is mocked by intersectionality politics, because trauma is in the leftist perspective the metric of oppression. It belongs properly to group politics, and derivatively to individuals. But the opposite is the case. Trauma, as a concept, arose in the context of accounting for individual experiences, not group experiences. So-called “group trauma” is an abstraction from the actual trauma concept, which explains individual human experience per se. It is odd and hypocritical for intersectionality actors to self-identify as advocates for trauma, and mock the notion of trauma for men—to reduce the fact that men kill themselves at a rate 300% higher than women to their “male fragility” or their “white fragility” is a heinous classification that unveils the ugly and selfish motives of those intersectional actors.
Boys are abused. Men are crushed. Men are even falsely accused. And they deserve as much as any other human to name and grieve their suffering without having to measure their trauma against the pain of others. To ignore, and mock, and even publicly chastise men, and white men, for processing their pain is evil and racist and sexist. If there’s one thing the trauma literature bears out, it’s that traumas do not need to compete with one another. Lamentation isn’t a zero-sum game. To say as much is as outdated as racism and sexism itself.
Third, we must make an operational distinction between proper protocol in therapy and in politics. What an abuse survivor needs in therapy will not be honored, and should not override proper political protocol. To the degree that a survivor enters into the political arena, whether to lodge an allegation or as a political actor, he or she foregoes certain therapeutic protocol that a mental health professional would afford them in a private setting. We should not, and cannot, subjugate the last 2,000 years of progress in political theory, from Plato’s organismic theory, to Aristotle’s politeia, to Locke, Burke, and our founding fathers. Our system of justice is the closest thing to heaven we’ve ever had, and to regress our system to mob justice would be a tragedy.
We must delegate the execution of proper political protocol to elected officials just as much as we delegate the authority to execute proper therapeutic protocol to mental health professionals. We don’t put infantry in charge of our military strategy. We don’t put diabetics in charge of insulin research. And we don’t put abuse survivors in charge of mitigating allegations in court hearings and the adjudication of public officials. The notion that we ought to usurp the delegative mechanism that we have baked into the republican structure of our government will regress our political theory to a direct democracy that is actually bad for survivors of abuse when the political interests of the majority no longer align with protecting such victims.
Fourth, we must never give up due process. Due process is slow, because it is the line in the sand between human beings and beasts. The slowness of due process is not the weakness of our evidentiary standard, but its strength. It allows us to guarantee the certainty of our practices of justice. It fortifies the integrity of justice. It allows the execution of justice to be irrefutable.
The “believe all women” trope is simply absurd. That doesn’t mean we don’t listen. That doesn’t mean we don’t pursue justice rigorously through the proper channels. But the notion that women are fundamentally more truthful than men is sexist and it is a rot in the floorboards justice. For this, I will close with a comment by Christine Blasey Ford herself, who uses the process of prosecuting allegations as an example of good science in her recent psychology textbook. She comments: “It is important to realize that one cannot plan a cost-effective [psychological] study without any background or preliminary information—any more than a prosecutor would institute a trial by jury without evidence to back the charge.”
Being traumatized doesn’t disqualify Ford’s testimony. But it hardly qualifies it either. At the end of the day, the science about trauma is simply not strong enough to infer the degree of her statement’s accuracy. Anyone wielding psychological science about trauma in order to authenticate the veracity of her statement is simply not saturated in the trauma literature. This includes Ford herself who, as a specialist in psychometrics and social statistics, ought to recognize the fragile status of the trauma concept and its surrounding science.
“Read Christine Blasey Ford’s Prepared Statement,” The New York Times, Sept. 27, 2018.
Cf. Ian Hacking, “Memory Sciences, Memory Politics,” in Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory, ed. Paul Antze and Michael Lambek (New York: Routledge, 1996), 67-87.
Ruth Leys, Trauma: A Genealogy(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000).
Leys, Trauma, 307. See Marlise Simons, “Landmark Bosnia Rape Trial: A Legal Morass,” New York Times, July 29th, 2998; “Rape in Bosnia Is War Crime, UN Court Rules,” International Herald Tribune, December 11th, 1998.
Leys comments: “Skepticism also surfaces when … the attribution of trauma appears to be made by lawerly fiat.” Leys, Trauma, 8.
See G. Boulanger, “A State of Anarchy and a Call to Arms: The Research and Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy 20 (1990): 5-15; Berthold P. R. Gerson and Ingrid V. E. Carlier, “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: The History of a Recent Concept,” British Journal of Psychiatry 161 (1992): 742-48; Rachel Yehuda and Alexander C. McFarlane, “Conflict Between Current Knowledge About Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Its Original Conceptual Basis,” American Journal of Psychiatry 152 (1995): 1705-1713.
Richard McNally, Remembering Trauma(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 1.
James L. McGaugh, “Making Lasting Memories: Remembering the Significant,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110 (2013): 10402-10407.
Henry Otgaar, Peter Muris, Mark L. Howe, and Harald Merckelbach, “What Drives False Memories in Psychopathology? A Case for Associative Activation,” Clinical Psychological Science 5, no. 6 (2017): 1048-1069.
René Descartes, Meditations on the First Philosophy, in The Philosophical Works of Descartes, trans. Elizabeth S. Haldane and G.R.T. Ross, 2 vols. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1931), 1: 145-46.
Russell comments: “here is no logical impossibility in the supposition that the whole of life is a dream.” The Problems of Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997; orig., Home University, 1912), 1.
Bessel van der Kolk and Rita Fisler, “Dissociation and the Fragmentary Nature of Traumatic Memories: Overview and Exploratory Study,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 8, no. 4 (1995): 510.
Sven-Ake Christianson, “Emotional Stress and Eyewitness Memory: A Critical Review,” Psychological Bulletin 112 (1992): 288.
Martin J. Gerson and Victor M. Victoroff, “Experimental Investigation into the Validity of Confessions Obtained Under Sodium Amytal Narcosis,” Journal of Clinical Psychopathology and Psychotherapy 9 (1948): 374.
Fredrick C. Redlich, Leonard J. Ravitz, and George H. Dession, “Narcoanalysis and Truth,” American Journal of Psychology107 (1951): 586-593; William Sargant, Battle for the Mind (Los Altos, CA: Malor; orig., Heinemann, 1957), 203-248.
Leys, Trauma, 9.
Leys, Trauma, 7. Cf. Bessel van der Kolk and Rita Fisler, “Dissociation and the Fragmentary Nature of Traumatic Memories: Overview and Exploratory Study,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 8, no. 4 (1995): 505-525
S. J. Ceci, M. L. C. Huffman, E. Smith, and E. F. Loftus, “Repeatedly Thinking about a Non-Event: Source Misattributions Among Preschoolers,” Consciousness and Cognition: An International Journal 3 (1994): 388-407.
D. Stephen Lindsay and J. Don Read, “Psychotherapy and Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse: A Cognitive Perspective,” Applied Cognitive Psychology 8 (1994): 304 [281-338].
See Nick Haslam, “Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology” Psychological Inquiry 27, no. 1 (2016): 1-17.
E.g., Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, “‘The Trauma for a Man’: Male Fury and Fear Rises in GOP in Defense of Kavanaugh,” The Washington Post, October 1st, 2018.
Helena Chmura Kraemer and Christine Blasey, How Many Subjects?, 2nd ed. (New York: SAGE Publications, 2016), 24