Getting Over It

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is strikingly contemporary in some ways, Malcolm Gladwell argues, and utterly dated in others:

Tom Rath, despite an introspective streak, is supposed to be a figure of middle-class normalcy. But by our standards he and almost everyone else in the novel look like alcoholics. The book is supposed to be an argument for the importance of family over career. But Rath’s three children — the objects of his sacrifice — are so absent from the narrative and from Rath’s consciousness that these days he’d be called an absentee father.

The most discordant note, though, is struck by the account of Rath’s experience in the Second World War. He had, it becomes clear, a terrible war.
Wilson’s description of Mahoney’s death is as brutal and moving a description of the madness of combat as can be found in postwar fiction. But what happens to Rath as a result of that day in Karkow? Not much. It does not destroy him, or leave him permanently traumatized.

Somewhere along the way, we decided that getting over it should be extremely difficult, when people are in fact quite resilient:

Several years ago, three psychologists — Bruce Rind, Robert Bauserman, and Philip Tromovitch — published an article on childhood sexual abuse in Psychological Bulletin, one of academic psychology’s most prestigious journals. It was what psychologists call a meta-analysis. The three researchers collected fifty-nine studies that had been conducted over the years on the long-term psychological effects of childhood sexual abuse (C.S.A.), and combined the data, in order to get the most definitive and statistically powerful result possible.

What most studies of sexual abuse show is that if you gauge the psychological health of young adults — typically college students — using various measures of mental health (alcohol problems, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, social adjustment, sleeping problems, suicidal thoughts and behavior, and so on), those with a history of childhood sexual abuse will have more problems across the board than those who weren’t abused. That makes intuitive sense.

But Rind and his colleagues wanted to answer that question more specifically: how much worse off were the sexually abused? The fifty-nine studies were run through a series of sophisticated statistical tests. Studies from different times and places were put on the same scale. The results were surprising. The difference between the psychological health of those who had been abused and those who hadn’t, they found, was marginal. It was two-tenths of a standard deviation.
The Rind article was published in the summer of 1998, and almost immediately it was denounced by conservative groups and lambasted in the media. Laura Schlessinger — a popular radio talk-show host known as Dr. Laura — called it “junk science.” In Washington, Representative Matt Salmon called it “the Emancipation Proclamation for pedophiles,” while Representative Tom DeLay accused it of “normalizing pedophilia.”

They held a press conference at which they demanded that the American Psychological Association censure the paper. In July of 1999, a year after its publication, both the House and the Senate overwhelmingly passed resolutions condemning the analysis. Few articles in the history of academic psychology have created such a stir.
All Rind and his colleagues were saying is that sexual abuse is often something that people eventually can get over, and one of the reasons that the Rind study was so unacceptable is that we no longer think that traumatic experiences are things we can get over. We believe that the child who is molested by an uncle or a priest, on two or three furtive occasions, has to be permanently scarred by the experience — just as the soldier who accidentally kills his best friend must do more than sit down on the beach and decide that sometimes things just “happen.”

In a recent history of the Rind controversy, the psychologist Scott Lilienfeld pointed out that when we find out that something we thought was very dangerous actually isn’t that dangerous after all we usually regard what we’ve learned as good news. To him, the controversy was a paradox, and he is quite right. This attachment we have to John Wade over Tom Rath is not merely a preference for one kind of war narrative over another. It is a shift in perception so profound that the United States Congress could be presented with evidence of the unexpected strength and resilience of the human spirit and reject it without a single dissenting vote.

The vast majority of people recover from other traumatic events too, like the death of a spouse, Columbia University psychologist George Bonanno found:

By far the most common response was resilience: the majority of those who had just suffered from one of the most painful experiences of their lives never lapsed into serious depression, experienced a relatively brief period of grief symptoms, and soon returned to normal functioning. These people were not necessarily the hardiest or the healthiest. They just managed, by one means or another, to muddle through.

“Most people just plain cope well,” Bonanno says. “The vast majority of people get over traumatic events, and get over them remarkably well. Only a small subset — five to fifteen per cent — struggle in a way that says they need help.”

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