Righting Psychotherapy's Reputation in the Media

Bessel van der Kolk and the New York Times

Kathleen Smith

By Kathleen Smith

It’s no secret that psychotherapy has had an image problem in the media. Real and fictional clinicians on TV and in the movies are regularly portrayed as jargon-spouting caricatures, or are often shown to break ethical codes without blinking, displaying more personal problems than their clients. But a bigger part of the problem may be that, on the whole, therapists haven’t done a particularly good job explaining what we do or how it works. So when The New York Times Magazine asked trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk if it could have a journalist follow him around for a month to observe his work, it seemed like a golden opportunity to present the latest advances in trauma treatment in one of mainstream journalism’s most highly respected forums.

Medical director of The Trauma Center in Boston, professor of psychiatry at Boston University, and director of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress Complex Trauma Networker, Van der Kolk is recognized in the field for being a pioneer of once unconventional mind--body interventions, such as eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), neurofeedback, and yoga. Over the last 30 years, he has established a reputation as an iconoclastic critic of traditional approaches to trauma---especially Prolonged Exposure therapy, which he’s characterized as “among the worst possible treatments” for trauma, merely desensitizing people to their suffering, instead of healing them.

When he finally read the magazine cover story the Times published last May, he was in for a jolt. Instead of the sympathetic, informed portrayal he’d been expecting, it offered, at best, an ambivalent picture of his contributions and a skeptical perspective on the approaches he’s championed through his career. Although it quotes neuropsychologist Stephen Porges describing him as a “hero” for his “courageous” efforts to confront the conventional wisdom about trauma treatment, the article characterizes Van der Kolk as practicing a “hokey-sounding approach to therapy” and “a lead defender of repressed-memory therapy.” It also strongly implies that he’d been an expert witness in court cases on behalf of therapists accused of implanting false memories of early abuse, cases in which “entire lives were destroyed.”

Van der Kolk demanded the Times retract several of the key assertions in the piece, including its critique of his research on yoga and EMDR for the treatment of PTSD as lacking sufficient sample sizes and blind raters. He also vociferously refuted the idea that he’d ever been a “defender” of repressed-memory therapy, protesting that he’d merely testified on behalf of sexual-abuse victims of Catholic clergy when the lawyers had tried to discredit the plaintiffs by claiming they suffered from false memories implanted by their therapists. He even threatened to sue. In response, the Times issued a minor correction, stating that the articles they’d been able to review, in fact, met the standards of state-of-the-art scientific research, but implying that other studies may not. Otherwise, it stood by its reporting and refused to take further action. Neither the Times nor the author of the magazine article responded to requests to comment from the Networker.

Several months after the appearance of the Times piece, Van der Kolk himself sounds philosophical about his treatment in the feature. “Trauma evokes a lot of passion,” he says. “Passion to deny, and passion to assert. I see what happened with this article as a reflection of the incredible difficulties society has with staring trauma in the face and providing people with the facts of what happens, how bad it is, and how well treatments work.”

“When you’re talking about trauma treatment, you’re often talking about asking someone to revisit and think about the event that they’re spending all their time avoiding,” says Elana Newman, Research Director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University. “It all sounds a little crazy, right? All treatments for trauma can be hard to understand and need to be broken down.”

The Times didn’t have to go far to find colleagues willing to be critical of Van der Kolk’s work, which indicates something not only about him, but the conflicts and politics of the profession itself. “People who are in this field---the scientists, the clinicians---have had to fight so hard for trauma to be taken seriously that sometimes we fight within ourselves about theoretical differences and minor disagreements,” says Newman. “The passion with which we fight about smaller differences can get amplified in the news.”

The hundreds of responses to the Times about the story demonstrated overwhelming support for Van der Kolk and unhappiness with the tone of the article and inaccuracies in its reporting. While it remains to be seen what, if any, long-term effect the piece will have, Van der Kolk believes it led several speakers to cancel their appearances at his annual conference this year, and cost him a consultation opportunity.

Van der Kolk was not the only person who felt misrepresented by the Times article. The dramatic centerpiece of the piece’s organizing narrative was an Iraqi war veteran named Eugene, who’s haunted by memories of killing an innocent man on security detail, and who Van der Kolk worked with at an Esalen workshop. “The takeaway when I read the article was that I was confused by the experience and that it didn’t help, which just isn’t true,” he says. “When I spoke with the reporter, I said very positive things about the concrete ways that it helped me in terms of physical symptoms that disappeared, and also the fact Dr. Van der Kolk recommended people for me to work with afterward. He really spent some time finding a good recommendation for EMDR, and it really helps.”

Eugene expressed concern that the piece wound up depicting him as more hypnotized by Van der Kolk’s personality than an active participant in the work. “I don’t know where that came from,” he says, adding his concern that the article not only misrepresented him, but did a disservice to vets who need treatment. “Military people are very hesitant to talk about traumatic events,” he says. “It’s not easy to talk about what happened, so there’s a duty that goes along with reporting about them. It goes beyond what makes for good copy in a magazine article.”

This blog is excerpted from "Psychotherapy in the Media Spotlight" by Kathleen Smith. The full version is available in the September/October 2014 issue, There and Not There: Growing Up in an Age of Distraction.

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Illustration © Ralph Butler

Topic: Ethics | Professional Development

Tags: Bessel van der Kolk | childhood traumas | emdr | emdr therapy | eye movement desensitization and reprocessing | mindfulness yoga | neurofeedback | prolonged exposure therapy | retraumatization | Trauma

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2 Comments

Sunday, November 11, 2018 3:30:42 AM | posted by Michael McCarthy
There's a reason van der Kolk was fired from JRI and that those trained in proper research design have seen through much of his junk science for years. van der Kolk is the Donald Trump of psychotherapy always playing the victim when he's exposed as a fraud. As to his criticism of of CBT, after meeting both van der Kolk and Aaron Beck, I can assure you that Dr. Beck will never be fired for mistreating his staff or anyone else. Maybe van der Kolk should consult a Beck Institute therapist for the therapy he so sorely needs.

Saturday, March 19, 2016 7:51:34 PM | posted by Walter P. Knake, Jr. Ph.D.
I strongly support Dr. van der Kolk and have done so for a number of years. I can also relate to how the media and various professionals in the mental health field have not understood him and judged him since I have also been treated in similar ways during my 51 years of working with trauma survivors including veterans from WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Beruit, Persian Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan and many male and female survivors of incest, rape, physical and verbal abuse. I have found that many professionals who judge may, in fact, be hiding from their own troubled past as have many people who judged the veterans as well as abuse victim/survivors when they are seeking help, a thank you for serving, and a listening and compassionate atmosphere when trying to share, with some degree of trust, with some person in order to re-connect to the world. Maybe that is why the famous painter, Michelangelo, had to reach out to God in trying to connect (finger to finger) with someone so that he wouldn't feel all alone. Is it any wonder why there are so many veterans and non-veterans who suicide when they feel judged for serving or surviving? Thanks to Dr. van der Kalk for his courage and genuine expertise in the field of trauma. Sincerely, Dr. Knake