Media commentators were quick to attack mention of a widely read self-help book in the dossier of Christian Porter's accuser. But the science of trauma is complicated, and we lack the nuance needed to understand it or its treatments.By Rick Morton.
Why our media and politics fail trauma survivors
It was strange to wake up late last week and read a string of articles attacking the woman who accused Attorney-General Christian Porter of raping her in 1988.
Three publications, ostensibly from across the political spectrum, ran pieces questioning the woman’s mental health and her recollections.
They zeroed in on her mention of a book – The Body Keeps the Score, by American psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk – and claimed it was some sort of fringe psychology manual for recovered memory therapy.
In truth, the book is a scientific account of the neuroscience that underpins trauma, the way it co-opts the mind and body as a warning system against future attack. It speaks largely to what is now scientific consensus about the way trauma governs the mind and body.
The attack was baffling because the woman, who took her own life in June last year, had disclosed the alleged assault long before she read the book in question. She was also a meticulous diary keeper, and made careful notes in the early years after the debating competition that both she and Porter attended. Porter vigorously denies the allegations and police have said the material the woman kept is not sufficient for an investigation.
But reading these commentators' theories also felt particularly personal. Although I did not know the woman whose allegation had upturned Australian politics, I do know trauma intimately.
And I know that ignorant – or worse, wilful – misrepresentation of the science behind trauma has been used against survivors of abuse for decades. Never has this campaign been so easily disproved by science. And yet it persists, especially in journalism.
Media outlets are always fond of teasing out “what if” scenarios in service of another angle, another headline.
Couple this with the fact traumatised people are often confusing, because, if I’m being honest, we can appear angry or disordered. Or we might appear too well put together, the trauma somehow unbelievable if we don’t show every last piece of it.
And so, we have the articles that I woke to read.
Like a lightning strike, the sheer energy of a single traumatic event courses through the body. From an evolutionary standpoint, it is considered useful to encode near-death experiences and other severe injuries in such a way because we may need to be reminded of them again, if only to better avoid them. Even arch-rivals of Bessel van der Kolk, such as Harvard University professor of psychology Richard McNally, agree.
Traumatic episodes are “indeed unforgettable”, McNally says, because they are engraved in memory through older parts of the human brain. We might think of these memories often or never at all, but that does not mean they have been “forgotten” and need to be dredged up from the unconscious. To believe otherwise, he says, shows a fundamental lack of understanding about the way memory works.
Of course, in modern life, these systems can sometimes be counterproductive. The extraordinary stress of a traumatic event is imprinted in the ancient amygdala, a small region of the brain that is part of the limbic system. Highly emotional memories – exciting or terrifying – are stored here alongside a readout of the body’s physiological response at the time. It contains a record of sights, sounds, touch, smell and even taste at the moment of stimulation; this is why certain songs, or the smell of perfectly baked bread or cologne, can be so evocative.
Problems arise later in life when these sensations trigger the ever-vigilant mind and body. A person with these biological imprints has function re-routed from the more modern parts of the brain – the prefrontal cortex, which regulates higher-order thinking and other executive behaviour – and back through the amygdala.
You may well have experienced this. No doubt the journalists writing on such matters have, too. It’s called fight or flight. It is a mechanism designed to respond to danger.
Recent developments in scientific understanding have vindicated many of van der Kolk’s theories, and the arguments laid out in his 2014 book.
Eye-Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), for example, which is advocated by van der Kolk, has been referred to as “controversial” in recent media commentary.
And yet it is listed on Australia’s Medicare rebate schedule as an approved psychological treatment, especially for those with trauma.
“It is incredibly irresponsible and dishonest for journalists to present that particular book as somehow advocating for belief in dubious memories, it really just came out of the blue,” says Michael Salter, an associate professor of criminology at the University of New South Wales.
“It was such a reach.”
Throughout his professional career, Salter has been following the repressed memory wars, which first began in the 1990s.
Around this time, there was a proliferation of sexual abuse criminal and civil matters in the courts, following law reform in the United States.
The public debate this prompted was divided into two camps: Those who believed sexual assault accusers, and those who believed the narrative of defence attorneys who said these charges were the result of “contaminated memories”.
Journalists, for whatever reason, were quick to advocate for the latter.
“Unfortunately, despite a couple of decades of development in the science of trauma and memory, many journalists remain very much stuck in this formative period of the early to mid-’90s,” Salter says.
Maybe I would have been one of those journalists, had life not got in the way, as it so often does. Even when you are looking purposefully, answers in this field are not easy to come by.
I wrote an entire book about my family’s intergenerational trauma, a horrifying accident that scarred my brother for life, the aching stress of poverty, of abandonment. But I thought my own debilitating breakdowns throughout my 20s were merely the result of a hardcore anxiety and clinical depression. That was my first diagnosis way back in 2007. None of the six or so psychologists or psychiatrists I had seen since – all of them in a six-year period of intense, undulating distress late in the last decade – had thought to interrogate whether there was something else going on. In the end, it was up to me.
In April 2019, I was onstage at the Newcastle Writers’ Festival, listening to poet and academic Dr Meera Atkinson read about the specific details of an episode of trauma she had experienced. I remember that moment with intense clarity.
Her story – a childhood filled with intergenerational trauma, a body with its “antennae out for threats” – described my own.
Within weeks, I had an appointment with a specialist. After that session, I was given an answer to the gnawing question that had haunted me for more than 12 years. It was a diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, a form of PTSD caused by severe and persistent emotional abuse, neglect or just simply a lack of love over many years, especially during childhood.
At the time of my diagnosis, I was living one of the recurring episodes that had affected me for years.
In my case, these periods tend to last for months; the world upended in a way that makes everything feel like an imminent threat.
What followed was a truly bizarre time in my life. I began a trauma-specific treatment – mindfulness-integrated cognitive behavioural therapy together with progressive muscle relaxation – while I covered Scott Morrison’s election campaign with the travelling media pack.
We started in Sydney and over the course of a week or so travelled to Morrison’s church, the Royal Easter Show, and then on to Melbourne, Adelaide, Darwin, Townsville, Gladstone, Dubbo, Gilgandra and then back to Sydney. These were long, discombobulating days, some of which stretched into the 18-hour mark. Physically, and emotionally, it was possibly one of the most exhausting periods in my life.
Campaign photo ops are one thing – clinical, usually – but there is an insatiable appetite in the media for encounters with real people. I thought a lot then, and even more now, about what journalists do when we find the situations too real, too messy.
In the ashes of the Black Summer bushfires, the defining campaign moments were ones like these. In Cobargo, a town that lost at least four of its own to the fires, Morrison wanted his photo opportunity. But he seemed unsure what to do when faced with the immediate pathology of trauma.
Shattered locals shouted down the prime minister who forced handshakes with them. They were unrelenting. Determined to destroy. The media loved it, of course, because residents of the area were as furious as the flames had been. The pictures, the footage, the photos – all of it was trauma being expressed as rage.
Many journalists know trauma, too, but we do not dwell on it. We understand so little of the things we cover.
As the campaign trekked on, in the few moments of quiet and privacy afforded to us, I did my exercises for half an hour every morning and half an hour every night.
Starting with the toes and working my way up through the muscle groups to my eyes, mouth and forehead, I squeezed each set and held them for 10 seconds before releasing. It felt like my body was being ironed out.
The reason the therapist asked me to do this is that there are explicit links between the mind and body. This is not controversial science. It also formed the start of what would become my next book, My Year of Living Vulnerably, which is an exploration of my particular kind of trauma and the search for a better way of living with it. Through love, in all its forms, there might be a way back. Not a cure, or anything so Hollywood-final as that, but simple progress.
I cannot know what went through the mind of the woman who has accused Christian Porter of rape, but neither can her doubters and critics who have sought to weaponise her decision to seek professional help for mental health struggles.
My own complex PTSD stems from an abandonment. I was not sexually assaulted as a child, although in speaking with trauma specialists I have discovered the effects on a person are strikingly similar. Crucially, my memories of the key moments have always been frightfully clear.
I wish I could forget them. We all do.
When the amygdala stores these particularly vivid memories, it does so in fragments. Just the “highlights” – a sort of index filing system of hurt and thrill. But these moments for me are so clear that I could stage them for you right now exactly as they happened when I was seven years old. The faces, the colours, the words spoken. They exist, for me, in a sea of black. Having recorded the essential bones of the drama, my brain busied itself with survival.
The cruel twist in all this, as our collective scientific understanding of complex developmental trauma advances, is that having these warning systems triggered is not simply the same as remembering something bad.
We all have memories of difficult times but they are part of the normal cognitive channels in the mind. It’s how we grew as a species. Trauma, on the other hand, is not remembered. It is relived.
The limbic system stores the memory fragments that induced acute pain or uncommon joy alongside the input of the five senses and a body’s reaction so that they can be reproduced at a later date.
For those who have experienced especially painful events, the same set of body responses encoded at the time are switched on all over again.
In my case, no matter my age as an adult, I become the seven-year-old boy in the moment of extreme hurt all over again.
One of the hallmarks of such a state is the total overwhelming of the body and mind’s ordinary executive function. I make irrational decisions. The slightest, most mildly demanding call on my time or energy becomes a bridge too far. A phone call, a person talking to me face-to-face, an emailed request. All of it too much to handle. In such moments, I have been known to switch off my phone and hide from the world.
Imagine trying to make a police statement, wondering when the cops might call to finally make that happen. As someone who’s experienced extreme trauma, the fact that the woman in this case chose not to proceed with the police complaint she’d spent years working up to just two days before she died by suicide made perfect sense to me. I suspect it does to most people, even those who have not experienced great distress.
Michael Salter often sees trauma survivors as part of his work. He says they must grapple with the fact they are exposed “every day to approaches in the mass media that are profoundly invalidating, that are insulting, that are derogatory”.
He says we all have an innate understanding of how memory is fallible. That’s a fairly rudimentary part of the human experience.
Equally, it is true that the mind and body remembers what truly matters. New sensations and moments in particular, whether good or bad, receive extra processing attention within the brain. When we travel overseas, for example, everything feels fresh and exciting because it is fresh and exciting. The brain itself pays more attention because the ordinary shortcuts of day-to-day living may not apply in this foreign world.
So, it is with the best and worst of life. Behind our eyes, the mind is cataloguing meticulously like a hoarder and asking itself: what if this is useful later? What if this must be remembered?
Lifeline 13 11 14
Letters & Editorial