Reflections on ISSTD Annual Conference 2018 – Pt I

by Sebastian Simpson

I attended the 2018 annual meeting of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation at the Hilton Palmer House. I write to share my impressions of this conference. Though I am no stranger to professional/academic conferences, attending the ISSTD conference was a unique experience. It left me fascinated, angry, disgusted, entertained, and both mentally and physically exhausted each day I was there. What follows is both an overview of my experience as well as an attempt to contribute to Grey Faction’s discussion of what is wrong with the ISSTD. Perhaps (I hope) there are lessons to be gleaned for the field of mental health/psychotherapy, generally, by examining the culture of the ISSTD.

No, not all presenters indulged in outrageous claims of Satanic Ritual Abuse, intergenerational Satanic cults, Illuminati, or government mind control. It would be unfair to paint the ISSTD as exclusively populated by charlatans; it really was a mixed bag. Indeed, some sessions were legitimately scholarly, for example one presenter delivered a talk concerning the ethical challenges that face healthcare professionals tasked with making recommendations regarding organ transplantation when the patient suffers from a dissociative disorder. Some talks were rather dull, for example the training session on administering the Dissociative Disorders Interview Scale (DDIS) (though, admittedly, the Q/A portion of the talk was interesting). One talk was seemingly nothing more than the disorganized ramblings of a pompous hypnotist obsessed with telling tales of the lengths to which his clients will go to seduce him. Still others included the promotion of therapeutic techniques which involved having a patient/client crawl inside a giant facsimile of a vagina, or lie on a barrel intended to represent one’s own mother.

Perhaps the most interesting session I attended was a panel discussion of the so-called “Memory Wars” in which the ISSTD seemed deeply concerned about how to address the problem of its uncertain future in light of the organization’s aging and declining membership. Suggestions included seeking the endorsement of celebrities such as Nicki Minaj or Eminem who, evidently, have alters (according to some attendees, citing the lyrical content of songs). Central figures in the ISSTD seem keenly aware the waning relevance of their organization as well as its position outside mainstream scientific psychology, which seemed to be a source of pride for some of its members. In an unexpected twist, the final person to ask a question mentioned the presence/protests of The Satanic Temple (TST) at the meetings of the ISSTD, to which Richard Loewenstein expressed eagerness to meet with members of TST. Later that afternoon Lucien Greaves followed up with him via email, agreeing to meet. Alas, Dr. Loewenstein wrote back regretting that his schedule did not permit time to meet with Greaves.

It should come as no surprise that the ISSTD is in decline. What is surprising, however, is that its prominent, veteran members do not seem to recognize several features of the ISSTD contributing to its degeneration.

What I witnessed in the Q/A portions of the sessions was a lack of any serious attempt at critical engagement with the speakers. For example, in Eileen Aveni’s Saturday presentation “The Migration Model: A New Approach to Mind Control Treatment in Ritual Abuse Clients,” casual reference was made to the claims of a woman named “Svali.” This was the first time I had heard this name and the nonchalance with which the name was dropped led me to believe that this person was simply another therapist working on mind control. During the Q/A, an audience member remarked “You mention this ‘Svali’ as though we should all know who this is.” Surely what would follow would be an interesting discussion in which the audience member would push Aveni to explain who this person is and why her claims should be taken for granted. Aveni responded that Svali was a former “Illuminati programmer” who purportedly exposed the group’s mind control protocols. The audience member’s response was a credulous “Oh, ok,” or something to that effect. Aveni clearly believes in the testimony of Svali and it informers her clinical work. Surely someone in this well-attended talk would challenge this or any of Aveni’s outlandish claims. No. Instead the session was a congratulatory love-fest. This was typical of the sessions I attended with one exception–one which highlights a second breakdown in the critical dialectic that pushes healthy sciences forward but which is almost entirely absent in the ISSTD. In the continuation of piece I will turn my attention to this session and the way in which it exemplifies the erosion of scientific objectivity in the ISSTD.

Continue to part II: