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Related Topics
Betrayal TraumaReview - Betrayal Trauma
The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse
by Jennifer J. Freyd
Harvard University Press, 1996
Review by William Alejandro Martin
Jan 10th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 2)

Jennifer Freyd’s 1996 Trauma Betrayal: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse is a powerful work dealing with the often forgotten element of betrayal in the paradigm of traumatic (non)experience.  In formulating the betrayal affect nexus usually produced from the awareness that one has been betrayed by she whom one has trusted most, she works from personal, as well as, professional experience. In putting forward the statistics behind trauma amnesia (often now understood as a type of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) Freyd gets down to brass tacks, explicating its necessity in recognizing the often undetected affects forthcoming from sexual abuse. The book is effectively portioned into two contingent domains, one dealing with the supposed problem of “false memory syndrome” and the other, cogitating the object of betrayal in the horror of trauma.

Freyd’s work places itself squarely against a segment of American medical community that stresses the shortcomings of “false memory syndrome,” explicating coherently that it is not suggestions (or transference) that places these memories in the minds of individuals but the arrival of a repressed memory. She argues, for example, “People forget traumas because repeated traumas are more likely than single traumas to involve betrayals” (139). In order to understand this phenomenon, one must first understand the substratum of trauma and how it works in a tandem with memory. According to leading psychiatrists such as Van der Kolk and Wurmser one diagnoses the trace of trauma from physiological affects. For example Van der Kolk also notes that traumatized people show significant state-dependence in their recall of traumatic memories. When current conditions resemble conditions they experienced at the time of the trauma, people are likely to become aroused, have flashbacks to the trauma and show signs of panic. Wurmser proposes both trauma and shame originate in an affectively constructed masochism resulting from traumata, where one’s shame affect cycle constitutes the behavioral, material “evidence” for the non-elucidated trauma.

Freyd reminds us that “two aspects of attention are important to understanding the cognitive processes of trauma. First, we have the ability to focus on and become aware of just one part of reality. Second and separately, we are simultaneously likely to process to some degree unattended aspects of reality” (94). As such, the role of the psychiatrist resides in synthesizing the conditions necessary for engaging within the individual her retarded proto-experience such that she can administer to it. Such exposition is contentious in the psychiatric forum, with various methods from the instrumentation of associative therapy to the manipulation of physiological memories via external stimuli. These multitudinously therapies, however, agree in their final teleology, that of attempting to bring the repressed memory into language, or experience.

Converging precisely on this multifarious nature of experiential disclosure are those who champion the dubitable “false memory syndrome”. This unconscionable critique insists the therapist plants memories in the minds of her patients, as it were, breeding them in her unconscious. Freyd produces data demonstrating how such a process of implantation would be virtually impossible.  Being herself a statistician, Freyd’s arguments in this regard are succinct, coherent and impressive. Granted, as Freyd herself admits, all statistician techniques are fallible in one way or another. On the whole however, Freyd makes her critique of “false memory syndrome” both professional, as well as, poignant.

Ultimately, Freyd’s project moves towards a phenomenology of traumatic environments. Despite the obviousness of such a stance Freyd shows how institutions often refuse to believe a victim’s experience of sexual abuse and how such ignorance routinely leads to trepidation, and individuals’ reluctance to come forward in admitting to sexual abuse. Inasmuch as the author wants to speak of the trauma created by ones’ realization of one’s helplessness in stopping the abuse, her argument is given weight by tying the formal betrayal an individual feels vis-a-vis to her caretaker, to that of society.  The individual is betrayed not only by the victimizer but the society that chooses to look the other way, concretizing the feelings of helplessness that drive particular individuals towards alcohol and drug abuse and suicidal feelings.

Freyd’s work shines in showing how the ability to produce coping mechanisms (survival) does not in any way relieve the horror of the experience, she builds a poignant picture of traumatic amnesia. She notes that “in order to survive in cases of core betrayals (abuse by a trusted caregiver on a dependent victim) some amount of information blockages is likely to be required. The probability of amnesia is a function of the degree of betrayal” (75). She makes it clear that to “know is to put oneself in danger” (165), to “know about the abuse is sometimes itself a threat to survival” (192 - 3). She makes it clear that the “more the victim is dependent on the perpetrator – the more power the perpetrator has over the victim in a trusted and intimate relationship – the more the crime is one of betrayal. This betrayal by a trusted caregiver is the core factor in determining amnesia for a trauma” (63). That this betrayal is hyperbolized in a child’s consciousness is evident. “For a child, the risk of full awareness of betrayal by a parent or caregiver may be, or may seem to be, a matter of life and death” (65).

Freyd is quick to point out the atrocity of such a situation, and its shaping of the child’s consciousness for future hermeneutics. “I have shown that when we perceive an event we also automatically anticipate the future” Freyd relates, “and that anticipation is part of our perception, part of our representation of the external world” (107). And later, “individuals traumatized by child abuse may employ defensive mechanisms they learned as a result of that early trauma to new traumas; thus, a learned disassociative response could lead to amnesia for even mildly traumatic events that occur later in life” (136 - 7).

Throughout the work Freyd worries that being a survivor of betrayal trauma herself, the medical community will find her work (subjectively) suspect. Such an attitude could not be more vindictive and myopic. Freyd should be commended for standing up to a (distinct) typos of traditional psychiatry belying the truth value of “empirical” or “objective” tautologies, and discounting an individual’s experience by naming it as indicative of false memory syndrome. It is disturbing that in this day and age such ethical aporia could exist, and our society is ameliorated by work of the calibre of Freyd’s. My only complaint is that Freyd spends little to no time in analysing physiological abuse via her betrayal paradigm. This oversight is curious given that it is incontestable that individuals’ of childhood physical abuse would also demonstrate the severe betrayal anxiety affects found in sexual abuse survivors.


William Alejandro Martin is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of English, McMaster University.


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