Thursday, August 22, 2019
When I realized that Craig Childress and his life coach sidekick Dorcy Pruter had had a paper accepted for presentation at the 2019 convention of the American Psychological Association, I was alarmed. As I have said in the courtroom and in published articles as well as here on this blog, I consider Childress’s views on Parental Alienation (PA), its identification and treatment, to be implausible, lacking in an evidence basis, and potentially harmful to children and families. In other words, I would categorize the High Road treatment that Childress recommends as an alternative psychotherapy, foreign in its principles and methods to mainstream psychology. Childress, of course, says it is not a therapy at all but “psychoeducation”—a claim that does not actually bring this treatment any further into the mainstream.
Yes, I was alarmed by the idea that Childress’s views were going to be presented in a way that implied APA approval. But now that I have seen the paper presented at the conference (see , I am also flabbergasted. The central part of the paper is basically a series of claims about the High Road treatment of a teenager who avoided contact with one of his parents, and in that it was no different than what Childress has previously stated; that was not the flabbergasting part. What amazed and frightened me was that the High Road narrative was embedded in one of the wilder psychological ideas of the 1970s, an idea that would have passed quickly from the scene had not its originator had sufficient personal funds to maintain for many years a journal promulgating his beliefs. The originator was Lloyd DeMause, the idea was what he called “psychohistory”, and the journal was the Journal of Psychohistory.
I first encountered DeMause at a history conference in 1974. I attended this small local conference because I was given to understand that presenters would discuss associations between child rearing and historical events. To my surprise, the first paper I heard attempted to trace personality disorders to the unborn baby’s experience of the tightness of the womb. I pointed out during the discussion period that there is variation in that “tightness” and it would be possible to examine the empirical support for the hypothesis. This proposal was far from welcome, and I caught on to the fact that the psychohistory group thought that theory was far more important than evidence.
My next DeMause (it’s pronounced Dee Moss, not like the Mickey kind) experience came about years later as I tried to trace the beginnings of some alternative psychotherapies, especially the ones that resemble Scientology in their reliance on what they believe to be the experiences that occur before or during birth and serve to shape personality at an unconscious level (i.e., it makes you do things but you don’t know it). DeMause, a political scientist who became a lay psychoanalyst, wrote in loving (perhaps even salivating) detail about the history of child abuse and claimed that human history has been shaped by children’s trauma (you can see some of this at psychohistory.com). DeMause’s fascination with trauma and the unconscious made him a favorite with the primal therapy group and later with the Association for Pre- and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH), whose members believed that unborn babies were in telepathic communication with their mothers and that all babies remember the details of their births. William Emerson, a member of APPPAH, recommended massaging babies’ heads roughly in imitation of the birth experience and allowing them to cry uncomforted for purposes of catharsis. This way of thinking dates back at least to Freud’s friend Georg Groddeck, and it temporarily rose to prominence again when Lawrence Durrell engineered a translation into English of Groddeck’s Book of the It in the late 1940s. It was further cultivated during the irrationalism and anti-rationalism of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Incidentally, I presented about DeMause at EPA several years ago, in the history of psychology section, and I don’t think anyone present had ever heard of him before (not even sure they listened at the time)—so I would suppose that Childress’s APA audience did not know any of the background. And indeed I wonder whether Childress knew who he was referring to, or whether he just chose for a sort of camouflage an obscure author who talked about trauma a lot. I am not sure which is worse, whether DeMause was just pulled DeMause from the ether as an impressive-sounding name, or whether Childress knew full well what DeMause’s beliefs were and has subscribed to them. It may be that an obscure book by Robert Grille was Childress’s introduction to DeMause.
In creating the wraparound “theoretical” piece in which his claims about High Road were embedded, Childress oddly included a story about the World War I Christmas truce in which German and allied soldiers stopped shooting at each other. He spoke of the way the soldiers’ animosity was disarmed and implied that similar mechanisms could reduce the animosity the teenager in his case felt toward his parent. Unfortunately, Childress seems to have missed the point that the soldiers did not feel personal animosity, but were forced by those in power to fight against people with whom they actually had much in common— hardly a good example of the use of change agents outside psychotherapy to produce alterations in attitudes. The reference to the truce seems to have come from a TED talk by Robert Sapolsky, so perhaps this example was no better thought through than the DeMause reference.
In any case, none of the flabbergasting material, and none of what Childress presented as support for his High Road claims, offered any convincing supporting evidence. I do wish I could know what APA Division 24 (theoretical and philosophical psychology) now thinks of the decision to accept this presentation—but perhaps they never heard of DeMause themselves. Or, it may be that they are pleased with this little visit to the counter-Enlightenment and wish APA would drop all this concern about evidence-based treatment.