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Galatzer-Levy, R.M. (1994). Children, Bad Happenings, and Meanings. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 42:997-1000.

(1994). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 42:997-1000

Children, Bad Happenings, and Meanings

Robert M. Galatzer-Levy

DISCUSSIONS OF CHILDHOOD TRAUMA often focus on whether events actually occurred. Three papers in this issue of the Journal address this problem. Steele (1994) underlines that our appreciation of the impact of actual maltreatment of children has emerged only in the last three decades. Analysts, like the rest of society, denied the extent and severity of child abuse. Steele summarizes the range of findings that emerged with systematic attention to abuse. Person and Klar (1994) point to the importance of recognizing actual events and suggest that the analyst often can identify a history of such events on the basis of the adult's symptom. Brenneis (1994) recognizes how important it is for people who have been maltreated to be believed. But he emphasizes how consistently recent investigations show the power of suggestion in shaping patients' recollections. Still a question remains. Why is the question of the actuality of events so central in discussions of trauma?

Child analysts have long recognized that the meanings of dreadful occurrences for the child may be very different from what even the empathic observer might imagine. Bergen (1958) describes the impact on a four-year-old girl of witnessing her father murder her mother. Analysis revealed that the child attributed a wide range of oedipal and preoedipal meanings to this event. Just before her murder the mother, trying to protect the child, screamed, "Get out of here!" Only in analysis did it become apparent that the child was profoundly affected by what she understood as mother's attempt to angrily exclude the child from the parents' intimacy. Anna Freud (1958) laconically remarks, "I cannot help wondering whether—without analysis—it would have been the fate of this particular detail to be singled out for permanent traumatic significance" (p. 135).

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