Reflections on ISSTD Annual Conference 2018 – Pt II

by Sebastian Simpson

On Friday morning, Dr. Richard Kluft gave a workshop entitled “Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, and Something Blue: Selected Topics in the Treatment of Dissociative Identity Disorder.” The presentation lasted from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and it was a self-congratulatory, meandering mess devoid of discernible structure. His slides showed no organization, and it was evident that they were simply cobbled together from various pre-existing presentations. He decried the culture of mainstream psychology which, allegedly, bullies those on the fringe by refusing to publish their work. Side note: this may explain why publications in the flagship journal of the ISSTD seem so incestuous: The Journal of Trauma and Dissociation (formerly Dissociation) is a safe-haven for this cottage industry of fringe psychology. There is very little engagement with contravening empirical results from experts in trauma and memory outside the ISSTD. Further, it is impossible not to notice the frequency with which authors cite themselves in support of their own claims, as well as the lack of diversity in the references. One gets the sense that this is a very small group of individuals all refereeing one another’s work.

Kluft’s talk illustrates the the same problem as Aveni’s group hug: incorrigibility; with Aveni, uncritical praise was lavished upon her for leading alters (i.e., multiple personalities or “parts” thereof) from dark reaches of the mind inhabited by demons to the light of angels’ embrace (i.e., Migration Therapy), but with Kluft there were in fact some pointed critical comments, though they were met with intransigence. Of course, the critical comments Kluft received did not challenge basic assumptions such as the validity of DID as a diagnosis, whether DID is iatrogenic, or the efficacy of hypnosis for uncovering traumatic memories. The critique was very much from within the paradigm in this regard. What’s remarkable was the way in which Kluft simply shut down the discourse, claiming that the session was not intended to be “discursive.” During his discussion of how women (including those patients of his who disrobe in his office or perform oral sex on the doorman outside his office building) weaponize sex, Kluft outright said he would not engage with the criticism that he was blaming victims; in response to this fundamental critical remark, Kluft simply responded “I’m not going there.” In short, avenues to productive criticism were shut down. And though the absurdity that was Kluft’s session could be the topic of a post all its own, it is this point about criticism I wish to drive home here.

In conclusion, the 2018 meeting of the ISSTD revealed an organization suffering from an intellectual disease: a breakdown in objectivity that undermines any claim the ISSTD may have to being a legitimate scientific organization. The avenues for criticism were, at best, unclear if not entirely nonexistent. As seen in one of Grey Faction’s videos, Michael Salter outright refused to comment on the strange conspiracist views that find a cozy home in the Ritual Abuse/Mind Control special interest group of the ISSTD which he heads. Experimental and quantitative psychology were cavalierly dismissed as being out of touch with clinical reality. There was no apparent check on absurdity: absurdity was either uncritically praised or the loudest mouths in the room shut down valuable critical perspectives.

The point of criticism is not to create a combative or competitive environment for its own sake. Criticism can be transformative in that it pushes the members of an intellectual community to do their best work and to do it honestly. Criticism also operates to sort the bad idea from the good; the institution of transformative criticism is a machine whose purpose is to ensure that ideas answer to the standards of evidence of the scientific community. However, the standards of evidence at work at the 2018 meeting of the ISSTD were indiscernible; they were certainly not those of mainstream psychological science. This machine is broken, and unfortunately those who stand to lose the most as a result of this culture of entrenched resistance to criticism are those most in need of mental healthcare.

The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and are informed by the work of Helen Longino, who has written at length on the idea of transformative criticism and its essential role in scientific objectivity. See Longino’s books The Fate of Knowledge and Science as Social Knowledge.