Julia Yost’s wide-ranging and masterly critique of The Body Keeps the Score (“By Our Wounds We Are Healed,” October) is cumulatively devastating. I wonder, though, whether Bessel van der Kolk will even care. As Liberace remarked when similarly challenged, “I cried all the way to the bank.”
Since the 1990s, van der Kolk has ducked many opportunities to confront scientific and ethical objections to his thesis. His book is a perennial best-seller for a reason. It charms the gullible reader with a frothy concoction of self-serving anecdotes and dubiously relevant tidbits of neuroscience, and it appeals to the hypochondriacal self-absorption that Yost regards as a defining feature of our climate.
The root premise of van der Kolk’s system is Freudian repression—the idea that memories of trauma must be relegated to the unconscious, whence they generate telltale symptoms that a therapist and patient together can retrace to their origin. Independent researchers have found no convincing evidence for the existence of such a mechanism. Moreover, common experience shows that horrible events are better recalled than others.
Van der Kolk’s response is brazen denial. “There have in fact,” he writes, “been hundreds of scientific publications spanning well over a century documenting how the memory of trauma can be repressed, only to resurface years or decades later.” In illustration, he cites a few of his own articles (including the one that Yost deflates), along with others by fellow ideologues of recovered memory. One of them is D. Corydon Hammond, a QAnon precursor who held that baby-killing CIA/mafia cults, inspired by Nazis but coordinated by a hidden Jewish mastermind, were going undetected because the assassins were amnesiac for their deeds.
Mark Twain wrote that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. The opposite must be said of van der Kolk’s upbeat emphasis on “healing.” When the mere existence of a somatic disturbance—a tic, a stammer, a chronic cough—is regarded as proof of a forgotten sexual assault, a “perpetrator” will be falsely accused, a family will implode, and the therapeutic client will be emotionally crushed. Those results were commonplace during the frenzy that peaked some thirty years ago. Its revival is an ominous setback whose full consequences remain to be known.
Postscript: Do you doubt that innocent people are still being sent to prison on the basis of uncorroborated “recovered memories”? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll reply with a surprising and enlightening example.
university of california
For several years now, I have wondered at our culture’s trauma-infused discourse. I believe it was around 2016 when I first noticed the sudden proliferation of the term “trauma,” as many were referring to their own personal PTSD. But these weren’t combat veterans. They were university students complaining about campus atmospheres and millennials whining about microaggressions.
Incidentally, it was around the same time that the term “intersectionality” and the oppressor-oppressed binary slithered onto my radar — every relationship now infused with and interpreted through power dynamics. I now know better than to think of these two phenomena as wholly unrelated — “trauma” seems to be the going currency to establish the nature and degree of oppression.
This is, of course, not to discount every emotional turmoil and bodily harm cited in cases of “trauma.” But it is to wonder at their exponential multiplication. Julia Yost puts us on the right trail when she cites Harvard psychologist Richard McNally’s sardonic observation that “peace and prosperity have the odd effect of generating new forms of trauma.”
Yost has done us all a great service. She has identified the font of that which has captured the public imagination. It turns out pop-psych traumatization can be traced back to Bessel van der Kolk’s publication of The Body Keeps Score in 2014. Yost’s rehearsal of the history of this newfangled idea is both intellectually and anecdotally satisfying.
If trauma is our age’s greatest ailment, then trauma counselors are our age’s greatest saviors. The immense irony, of course, is that our culture finds itself once again beholden to the brainchild of yet another white European male — van der Kolk joins the long line of intellectual colonizers behind Freud and Darwin and Marx. As for me and my house, we’ll stick with the African faith of St. Augustine: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
Kudos to whoever wrote the title. Yost’s conclusion is good enough to deserve another printing: “Christians have for centuries meditated on the wounds (Greek: trauma) of Christ, for it is by his wounds that we are healed. In van der Kolk’s faith, the survivor replaces the savior, and healing flows not from Christ’s wounds, but from our own.”
Colin J. Smothers
Julia Yost replies:
I am grateful to Frederick Crews and Colin J. Smothers for their generous responses to my review. Smothers directs our attention to a nexus of fashionable terms, all related conceptually to “trauma” and dubiously applied to much of human life, from trivia to the grave. Incidentally, what ever happened to trigger warnings? They were all the rage a few years ago, when I assigned Lolita to a creative-writing seminar and my colleagues acted like I was taking my life in my hands.
Crews lights into Bessel van der Kolk with a verve and vigor that remind us that he was one of the foremost critics of the recovered-memory movement during the 1990s—the decade, we had thought, of its permanent discrediting. I reviewed The Body Keeps the Score in part because of my dismay over the recent resurgence of recovered-memory ideology. I first noticed it in the summer of 2017, with the acclaim heaped on The Keepers, a lunatic Netflix “documentary” about massive repression and murdered nuns in post-Conciliar Baltimore. Then came the autumn of #MeToo, when the critique of therapeutically confected false memories was reclassified by millennial journalists as a “rape myth.”
Recovered memory lives on not just in our browsers but, Crews rightly stresses, in our criminal courts. My review treated recovered memory primarily in sociopolitical and theological terms—the ordinary register of a Christian intellectual magazine. But as Christians we must be prepared also to reckon with particular injustices.
Since suffering legal and reputational defeats in the 1990s, recovered-memory testimony has evolved stealth capability. Prosecutors often coach accusers not to disclose the provenance of their memories. Even when courtroom proceedings are above-board, the media rarely explain to the public the dubiousness of recovered-memory testimony. Whether their failure arises from ignorance or from reverence for accusers, I hardly care.
Take van der Kolk’s “expert” intervention against Fr. Paul Shanley, Boston’s “street priest,” who was convicted in 2005 of repeated rape of a child. The evidence against Shanley was 100 percent recovered memory: uncorroborated, incoherent, and (since incoherence is a mark of truthfulness) unfalsifiable. Shanley’s monstrousness has been canonized by the Boston Globe’s vaunted Spotlight investigation. This may be the most chilling fact. JoAnn Wypijewski, a left-leaning journalist whose exposure of the Shanley fiasco was ignored by almost everyone, observed darkly that her experience of prosecution and press in that case did not give her a good feeling about the rest of the Spotlight canon.
We should extend our suspicion to cases outside the Boston area—such as one prosecuted about a decade ago, against a man who resided in a shabby suburb of my hometown. A story for another day.
I read with interest William Lane Craig’s essay “The Historical Adam” (October). Craig is an estimable Christian thinker, and I have previously appreciated elements of his work. But his recent essay took me aback. Craig’s category of “mytho-history” dehistoricizes the very foundation of cosmological existence. Genesis 1–3, and 1–11 more broadly, is either history—shaped history—or it is not. How curious to read a professor at a Christian seminary mock the idea of the snake tempting Eve, and God walking in the garden. For reasons unbeknownst to me, Craig betrays that he has made a Faustian bargain: He has embraced the prerogatives of scientistic reason over faith in the Bible, the book which is not to be received as the word of men, but the very Word of God (1 Thess. 2:13).
By contrast, Craig encourages us to put our trust in evolutionary science’s conjecture about ensouled hominins that supposedly lived hundreds of thousands of years ago. Here the bargain truly reveals itself: We should laugh at the account of creation in the Scripture, and trust in the computerized models of atheistic scientists. They are infallible, while the Word of God is laughable. If this is supposed to rank as “apologetics,” it is an apologetic that is no apologetic at all. Indeed this program has already been run; this play has already been called, over and over, by liberal theologians over the last two hundred years. Employing this strategy will indeed save the faith for cultured despisers, yielding a respectable Christianity with the scandal of creationism removed—but only by destroying it.
There is another way forward for truth-seekers open to learning from God in the fear of God (Prov. 1:7). It is to affirm a historical Adam without blushing, and to correlate the Adam of Paul’s citations (all of them) with the Adam of Genesis 1–3. In this way we seek a different apologetic: to preserve and promote the Christian faith by believing it, in fear and in much trembling.
grace bible theological seminary
Roe v. Dobbs
In “Abortion and Class” (October), Darel E. Paul rightly points to “the evolution of contemporary feminism toward ‘shout your abortion.’” This contemporary laudation of abortion is not an accidental development. Abortion’s mere legality would not render women’s careers identical to men’s. Women must be made ready and willing to choose abortion if they are not to fall a step behind their male colleagues. From the beginning, shouting was required to prepare women to kill.
Artist Rosemarie Tischer Stith (my wife) foresaw this necessary evolution back in 1973. Her thirty-six-inch ceramic sculpture, entitled “Triumph,” depicts a woman standing tall in victory—her left hand on her hip and her right fist thrust into the air. Her head and hair are back. Her eyes are closed. Her mouth is open in a shout of triumph. Her chest swells in exultation, while her peculiarly elongated legs raise her high. Under her feet lies her vanquished foe: her own unborn child.
Here we see a mother’s contemporary assertion of dominion over her unborn child, but with her triumphal shout she dehumanizes herself rather than her child. Indeed, the child is still intact, not yet aborted but only available for abortion. The point of the sculpture is to depict not abortion itself but the post-Roe idea of motherhood.
Robert P. George is correct that the “ultimate test of [this] Court’s commitment to constitutionalism” is its willingness to reverse Roe (“Roe Will Go,” October). We also agree that constitutionalism cannot survive a “halfway opinion in Dobbs” crafted “in order to placate progressive elites—or out of fear of them.” We disagree, however, on what a “halfway ruling in Dobbs” would look like.
Professor George defines a “halfway ruling” as “one that upholds Mississippi’s law but stops short of overruling Roe and Casey.” For me, a halfway ruling in Dobbs is one that overrules Roe and Casey, but does not reject “root and branch” the Court’s unconstitutional power claims.
For the left, Roe is the crowning achievement of generations of “visionaries” committed to the view that individual autonomy is the first principle of constitutional law. Individual autonomy is the basis for Roe and Casey’s holdings that there is a constitutional right to elective abortions. Individual and institutional autonomy were, and remain, the foundation of Plessy’s holding—reaffirmed in many cases since—that racial discrimination is permissible whenever the elites, whom the Court in Casey describes as “the thoughtful part of the Nation,” perceive it to be a useful tool for social engineering.
Oops. In its zeal to reaffirm the “central holding” of Roe, the Court in Casey said out loud what the rest of us were never supposed to notice: The Court’s role in the constitutional order is to affirm and advance the interests and perceptions of whatever elites the Justices currently perceive to be “the thoughtful part of the Nation.”
After Casey, whether a particular political decision is “defensible” under the Constitution no longer depends on the words of that instrument or on those of the laws adopted to enforce it. The measure of constitutionality is the Court’s perception of “facts that the country [can] understand, or ha[s] come to understand already, but which the Court of an earlier day, as its own declarations disclosed, had not been able to perceive.” Actual facts are irrelevant.
In a Court bound by Casey, the biology of fetal development is just as irrelevant as facts showing actual racial and religious discrimination, pervasive censorship, spying by law enforcement and Big Tech, and government-funded racial indoctrination programs.
A holding in Dobbs overruling Roe, Casey, and their spawn is thus only the “first half” of a ruling that reclaims the constitutional order. The “second half” is one that explicitly rejects its own unconstitutional usurpation of the power reserved to Congress, the States, and the People.
We have been ruled for generations by an elite class that views itself as the “thoughtful part of the Nation,” and views ordinary voters and legislators as unwashed rubes who waste their time on “non-essential” activities like family and social gatherings and communal religious worship. Justices are given life tenure for a reason. The six “constitutionalists” must do their jobs and reclaim the “Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
Robert George’s prediction that the Court will overrule Roe and Casey on a federalist—rather than a constitutional personhood—basis is prudent for many reasons (“Roe Will Go,” October). The focus on the Court as the center of abortion politics has been damaging to the Court, national politics, and the Supreme Court nomination and confirmation process. For the Court to now abruptly flip-flop—stop deciding whether state abortion laws are too strict and start deciding whether abortion laws are too loose—would require clear and irrefutable evidence of constitutional authority. That does not exist.
Focusing solely on the one word “person” in Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment disregards context, structure, historical circumstances, and a proper contextual reading of the legislative history. Section 1, which contains the word “person,” is limited to state action. The structure of Section 1 specifically focuses on how the branches of government in the slave states were violating rights of the freedmen. How can a limit on state action “prohibit” abortion when abortions are done by the private action of abortionists?
The legislative history of the Fourteenth Amendment is clearly focused on the rights of the freedmen. Every use of the term “person” or “human being” by sponsors or supporters was in the context of racial inclusiveness, not biological inclusiveness. The words abortion, unborn child, and so on never appear in the legislative history. Between 1868 and 1970, there is no case, no law review article, no statement by any governmental official that claims the Amendment scrutinized abortion laws.
Further, the abstract, ontological term “person” in the Amendment is wholly inadequate to provide effective legal protection from abortion throughout gestation, as the states were doing statutorily with concrete specificity.
The pro-life movement in the U.S. is the most dynamic in the world because of federalism. Other nations with centralized, parliamentary systems have relatively moribund pro-life movements. Federalism means the ability to act when Congress, the Supreme Court, or the president turns a blind eye. The fetal homicide laws in thirty-one states that extend protection from conception are only the most dramatic example. Since the 1970s, the pro-life movement—by cultivating the structural opportunities of federalism and without Fourteenth Amendment personhood—has made gains in reducing the abortion rate, while enhancing state and federal legal protection for life, electoral gains, state legislative strength, and a grass roots movement across thirty to thirty-five states.
Maintaining the Court as the national focus of abortion politics would require consistently confirming Justices who will vigorously apply constitutional protections. Federal enforcement would likely rise and fall depending on the presidential administration. The pro-life movement’s momentum through federalism might well wither.
The notion that the thirty-ninth Congress, by the use of the one word “person,” took away the abortion issue from the States and centralized control in the Supreme Court to supervise state abortion laws calls to mind Justice Scalia’s statement in Whitman v. American Trucking Associations, Inc. (2001): “Congress, we have held, does not alter the fundamental details of a regulatory scheme in vague terms or ancillary provisions—it does not, one might say, hide elephants in mouseholes.”
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