As one of the few journalists around who’s gifted enough to influence the field she writes about, Yale-based author and lay psychologist Maggie Scarf has sussed out the tacit deals and unspoken rules that often govern marriage (Intimate Partners) and family life (Intimate Worlds). In her latest book, Secrets, Lies, Betrayals (Random House), Scarf revisits some familiar ground (what would the marriage bed and family dinner table be without secrets, lies, or betrayals?), but from a radically new perspective. It is Scarf’s contention–suggested by her book’s subtitle, How the Body Holds the Secrets of a Life and How to Unlock Them–that we’re on the cusp of psychotherapies that won’t just explain how screwed up we are (who could top Freud in that department?) but will provide potent, focused, and above all, rapid solutions to many of our problems, at the levels of both the body and the mind. Welcome to the world of psychic “reprocessing” and beyond.
ELLE: So Freud had it half right? Past trauma and unhappiness really can shape our present-day life–it’s just that lying on the couch while free-associating doesn’t turn out to be such an efficient way to get at those old emotional “scripts”?
MAGGIE SCARF: Free-associating–moon, June, tune–that really doesn’t do it. What recent brain research tells us is that talking and thinking don’t get you into the deep brain, the limbic system, where a lot of unhappy experiences are stored. I have a therapist friend who says, “My patients tell me, ‘Now I know what I’m doing wrong but I haven’t got the faintest idea how to do right.”’
ELLE: Your book makes a strong case that problems rooted in a person’s past have a way of taking up residence in the psyche and the body. They seem very tough to dislodge.
MS: The fact is, past trauma, even what seems like relatively minor stuff, can be stored deep in the body and the brain. It can be stored as physical pain. Or maybe it’s that some cue in your environment is reminiscent of a past experience, and your body goes into “fight or flight” hyperarousal without your even being aware of it. Or maybe you have a compulsion to repeat old, familiar patterns of behavior: You marry an alcoholic because your father was one. Whatever the painful early memories are, they have a way of generating negative beliefs–”I’m incompetent,” “I’m unattractive”–that can cripple us in so many ways.
ELLE: Which brings us to some of these new therapies that your research has made you such a big fan of.
MS: While working on this book, I started thinking about the secrets we keep from others and from ourselves that hurt us. This led me to the idea of trauma, which in turn led me to unconventional therapies that seem to be able to neutralize the painful memories which can keep us wired to our past. So it was a process–for me personally.
ELLE: In the book, you seem to play three roles at once: journalist, lay therapist, and patient.
MS: I hate having to talk about myself, but I felt I couldn’t explain these therapies if I didn’t. One example I write about is that when I get upset, my jaw tightens up. I remember one morning when I couldn’t unclench my jaw to brush my teeth. Now, I’ve done a lot of talking with a therapist about my early family life, but nothing got at what was going on with my jaw. And then I did a few sessions of EMDR [eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing] therapy.
ELLE: The idea behind EMDR is that while talking with a therapist about a painful memory, you sweep your eyes back and forth as if following a Ping-Pong game, and this helps to free you from the memory’s emotional grip and transform its meaning. It sounds like voodoo. How’s it supposed to work?
MS: Some think it mimics rapid eye movement during REM sleep, when memories seem to get integrated into our consciousness. But nobody really knows. There’s a theory that we’ll never be smart enough to understand our own brains, and I could well believe that. But I can tell you, when I did EMDR I came up with this memory I’d completely forgotten about, when I proudly showed my mother my first magazine pieces on psychology and she told me, “I have better things to read.” That message of rejection from my mother was a secret I was keeping from myself, something too painful to hear. After EMDR, the tight jaw went away. EMDR is becoming fairly widely accepted in mainstream psychology. You might be in conventional therapy and feel you’re at a sticking point and say, I think I’ll try a few sessions of EMDR. That can work very nicely.
ELLE: I like this idea that we can “reprocess” ourselves–and I find it a little creepy, a little Clockwork Orange.
MS: If there is a dark side to it, I don’t know what it is.
ELLE: I think it’s interesting that these therapies, which allegedly reach the deepest levels of the mind by working through the body, fit well with recent neurobiological research on memory formation and the neuropeptides–chemical messengers–that link mind and body. But these therapies didn’t exactly come out of a university lab.
MS: No, they sure didn’t. Francine Shapiro, the psychologist who invented EMDR, was walking in a park and watching tree branches sway back and forth when she realized distressing thoughts that had been preoccupying her mind were receding.
ELLE: How about the other therapy you talk about in the book–PBSP, or Pesso Boyden System Psychomotor?
MS: That came into being from the husband and wife dancers Albert Pesso and Diane Boyden-Pesso, who noticed that some of their students were having trouble with certain movements, as if bad emotions were frozen through their limbs. They worked out psychological exercises to “unfreeze” the students, taking them through role-playing back to traumatic situations and then creating positive “alternative” memories to supplement the real, negative ones. The goal is to create the idea that things could have been different. For instance, I could have had parents who loved each other and cared for their children better. Just to feel that is revolutionary.
ELLE: The PBSP session you describe in the book sounds something like an exorcism. This woman’s pain about her abusive father comes pouring out almost violently in gasps and sobs.
MS: And afterward, this woman, who is a singer, had new power and control in her singing. But if she’d just walked into a therapist’s office and said, “Gee, I’m having problems with my singing because I had a lousy father,” she wouldn’t have gained access to what was really going on. The idea that we can repair what has happened to us just by thinking about it is fallacious. We have to integrate our insights into our bodies. Otherwise, we’ll just go on repeating the same old, same old. The mind and the body really are one.
ELLE: So how about the other side of the coin? Do our bodies store joy?
MS: Of course! Think of the beginning of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. The taste of the madeleine cookie takes the narrator back to his childhood, and a vista of joy spreads out before him. In college, I had a job working for a man who smoked a cigar. Now when I smell a cigar someplace, it’s not obnoxious, it’s kind of erotic. I had a thing for my married boss.
ELLE: Do you have more demons to exorcise in your next book?
MS: I’m not sure. I don’t think I’m sitting on any hard secrets–but then that’s what I thought when I began this book.