Book Reviews

Happy Endings

UNSPEAKABLE TRUTHS AND HAPPY ENDINGS: Human Cruelty and the New Trauma Therapy.

Author: Rebecca Coffey.

Poignant accounts of some of the horrific experiences humans suffer at the hands of others are interspersed with gleanings of understanding from compassionate therapists and dry literature research. An enormous amount of work went into this book. The final product is shocking, enlightening, despairing yet reassuring.

This is more than the cliched "giving victims a voice." Coffey examines why we (the public in general and therapists in particular) are reluctant to hear heart-wrenching stories, whether the voices are those of a Holocaust survivor, or of a mother whose two sons were murdered in separate incidents, or of a woman who was gang-raped by 27 men after being forced to watch a dog burned alive, or of a woman brutally and repeatedly raped by her father, and especially we do not want to hear the agony of Vietnam war veterans.

But they, and others, do speak in this book. And you, the reader, will be strongly challenged to face the issues uncovered by the author. Not an easy task to accept our own vulnerability, our own impulses to violence, our fascination and revulsion with human cruelty.

Survivors' names are boldfaced in the Index. This illustrates the author's understanding of the survivors' need for recognition and validation.

An enormous amount of research went into this book. Not only were victims and therapists interviewed but Coffey delved into reams of psychotherapeutic literature. She has a marvellous grasp of current issues in the field and an equally comprehensive knowledge of the historical underpinnings.

Coffey's summary of Mesmerism, for example, and her explication of the shifting views of Freud about hypnosis and about the credibility of patients' accounts of sexual abuse, are brilliant.

The author concisely, clearly yet profoundly, summarizes the contributions of Jean-Martin Charcot and Pierre Martin Janet (nineteenth century physicians) to the scientific understanding and practice of hypnotherapy. These few pages are highly recommended to the reader who wants to better understand how memory works. Especially memory in the minds of the victims of sexual abuse. That this knowledge was deliberately distorted by Freud is a sin which stains his reputation forever. Much more serious is that his erroneous theories have further damaged survivors for decades.

Coffey explains the context which lead to such revictimization. Holocaust survivors, for example, needed to talk about their experiences. Until recently, family members in particular and society at large, didn't want to listen. The same pattern applies to survivors of other horrors.

Crime victims often seem compelled to repeat their trauma, in one form or another. Without an understanding of the vulnerability of survivors, and of the background to this compulsion to repeat, it is easy to blame the victim. Like the incest survivor who enters a dangerous marriage.

The author asks questions about the prison system and about whether, or how, criminals could be rehabilitated. A broader question would be "Can there ever be an end to human cruelty in the United States while Americans worship violence?"

You have a society, founded in violence, which glorifies Mafia chiefs, cowboy outlaws, gunrunners, pirates, vigilantes and their ilk, and which steadfastly holds to the right of every citizen to carry a weapon. In such a culture, nourished by thousands of hours of homicides and beatings on television and in movies, why are Americans so disbelieving of survivors' accounts of rape, torture and bestiality?

Eighty-per cent of Americans will experience a violent crime, according to a New York Times article cited by Coffey. Yet survivors are so often disbelieved -- if they can even get a hearing.

On the debate about so-called "false memories," the author posits a balanced view that should be considered by every therapist. Neither of the fervently-held positions of the opposing camps in the false-memory debate do justice to survivors. And they are Coffey's main concern. After referring to someone being given the appropriate clues to "remember" being abused not just by a stranger, but by a parent, a group of parents, even animals and Satan, the author writes:

"The difference between the skeptics and the advocates is this: Skeptics take the evidence about bias and confabulation and disbelieve survivors out of hand. Advocates weigh the evidence about bias and confabulation against what they know about themselves. Advocates know that survivors' testimony about abuse makes them, the listeners, angry and fearful. When they become angry and fearful, they remind themselves that almost no cruelty is outside the realm of possibility. And they remind themselves that if dissociative people are the least credible, this may be because they were the most severely abused. Not only do their trauma-born dissociative habits have them wandering in and out of hypnotic trance; these same habits infect their truth-telling style, making them seem wooden, unreliable, even hallucinatory. Doubting such people is far easier than believing."

"Advocates also weigh the evidence about bias and confabulation against what they know about survivors' fear, shame and self-blame. They know that discounting stark evidence is inescapably human, and that, because survivors are only human, they sometimes discount stark evidence about their own lives. Advocates know that because the truth can be so difficult for survivors to face, their stories may change with each telling. They know that the shifting sands of survivors' tales can make the stories seem crazy; even worse, they can make the survivors feel crazy. And advocates for survivors know that feeling crazy may be easier for a survivor than accepting the full reality of what transpired."

This book is a marketing marvel. The title, of course, but here is an early example of the promotional genius of Rebecca Coffey in which she appeals for calm while casually stating that her work is incendiary!:

"I hope that this book will help everyone calm down a bit. I hope that skeptics of the rhetoric of victimhood will give this book's survivor testimony a fair and dispassionate hearing. I hope survivors and their advocates will concede that considerable intelligence resides in skeptics' advisories about cathartic trauma cures. Some of what I have put forth here is clearly incendiary; I am avidly pro-survivor while remaining enthusiastically pro-skeptic."

The first part of the title is brilliant: "Unspeakable Truths" tells us exactly what the book is about. Horrific acts committed by people against other people. Horrific acts we're reluctant to talk about and even more reluctant to hear.

As for the sub-title, again marketing has superseded accuracy: there's nothing "new" in "The New Therapy." Trauma therapists do difficult, valuable, effective and essential work. But their efforts are not new. Because I took the subtitle at face value I was disappointed not to find a "new" therapy in the concluding pages of this otherwise excellent book. At the least, I had expected a reference to the "energy" therapies, which while themselves do have decades of history, are unquestionably new to the majority of therapists.

Unfortunately, the rest of the title succumbs to marketing. "Happy Endings," despite Coffey's erudite explanation, panders to the very denial the author tells us we crave.

Are there really happy endings? It's something we fervently desire, says Coffey. But she calls the triumph of good over evil "a myth." She is intrigued by survivors who claim it is no myth, that their own experience has somehow strengthened them, that good does indeed triumph. Are the "happy endings" Coffey writes about a sop to our need for denial? They are certainly a tribute to the tenacity of human beings, to the ability of some of us to more than survive horror. These accounts ring with the dedication of those who helped and those who lived to more than cope with human cruelty.

After presenting the ardent opposing views about memory retrieval and the role of hypnosis in the therapy of abused clients, Coffey writes:

"... just as a capacity to empathise with unspeakable truths distinguishes trauma therapists, an ability to responsibly conduct and pace memory retrieval and to help survivors carefully interpret disinterred memories distinguishes competent trauma therapists from incompetent ones." The author "learned from survivors that they felt cared for by their therapists. Many said that their therapists' steady presence in their lives taught them hope. In short, I learned that the quality of the relationship between survivor and therapist can determine whether or not trauma is a lifelong dead end. 'What, at a minimum, should a survivor expect from a therapist?' ... Constancy. Experience. Respect. Information. And, perhaps most importantly, an enormous capacity for empathy."

An excellent compendium of resources rounds out this deliberately-disturbing book.