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Coping With Trauma's Fallout : TOO SCARED TO CRY: Psychic Trauma in Childhood By Lenore Terr (Harper & Row: $21.95; 372 pp.)

October 21, 1990|Lois Timnick | Timnick is a Times Staff Writer who has written extensively about child abuse. and

Fourteen years ago, 26 schoolchildren in the San Joaquin Valley town of Chowchilla were kidnaped from a bus and buried alive for 16 hours. A decade later, dozens of New Hampshire schoolchildren witnessed, via television, the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle and the death of their teacher inside.

Both incidents were nightmares for those involved, but were dream opportunities for researchers like Lenore Terr, who specializes in the effects of psychic trauma in childhood.

Terr, a San Francisco child-psychiatrist, is perhaps the best known and most respected of such researchers, having published landmark scholarly studies in the burgeoning field.

Now, in this fine first book, she pulls together what she and other experts have learned in the past two decades about how children experience and remember kidnapings, sexual abuse, natural disasters, terrible accidents and other external events that render them helpless. Conversational and easy to read despite its terrible subject, Terr's book brings her subjects alive by letting them tell of traumatic experiences and their aftermath in their own words.

The book focuses on Chowchilla, to which Terr has returned repeatedly for interviews--its title, in fact, comes from a 13-year-old survivor who told her, "I looked at the kidnapers sort of like . . . I was too scared to cry."

The Chowchilla field study was the first of its kind: controlled and directed at one large group of children who had gone through the same event, children at different levels of development, education and family background. Terr's findings stimulated related research--on child witnesses and child refugees from brutal regimes, for example--and also isolated signs and symptoms that can be used to begin to differentiate children describing made-up experiences from those who are telling the truth.

Terr's work demonstrates that no child completely escapes the aftereffects of such experiences. All are changed. On the outside, some may appear normal, calmly recounting the event and doing well in school, but their inside world often is filled for years with feelings of rage, shame, helplessness, doom, numbness--feelings expressed in repeated nightmares, premonitions, dangerous or joyless play, supernatural sightings and other disturbing symptoms.

The author has found that children uniformly remember single traumatic events with clarity, while adult and child victims of repeated abuse may develop psychological defenses that blur memory.

Yet she acknowledges that children can make false accusations, consciously or unconsciously, and she worries about the use of anatomically correct dolls and suggestive interview techniques capable of planting imagery in children's minds.

Whether describing the myriad trauma victims in her Bay Area practice--from the 2-year-old amputee who accepts her artificial limbs and insists on red shoes for them, to the 53-year-old virgin still trying to decipher dreams about the childhood molestation she cannot remember--or the theories developed from her work with them, Terr writes clearly and vividly, although she is at times repetitive, ungrammatical or simply awkward.

This is an important book, at once scholarly and entertaining (even the footnotes make fascinating reading), for anyone who wants to understand how young psyches are marked by unexpected, unknowable and uncontrollable events in an increasingly violent world, and how best to minimize that damage.

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