Dixon’s Book – Part 2

Unscientific Nature

In the previous post I took issue with inaccurate statistics Ada Dixon used in her book, Overcoming and Dealing With a World of Abuse, showing that she cited data which I believe wildly misrepresented the amount of sexual abuse which goes unreported. If I have misused any data in Aggravated or on this blog, I hope readers will point out any mistakes they find. I’ll post corrections here on the blog between editions of the book.

The misuse of statistics isn’t the only issue I have with Dixon’s book, though. She has (from a scientific point of view) made some ridiculous statements in it. I’ll cover her views on homosexuality conversion therapy and the religious aspect of the book in the next posts, but let’s look at what passes for science in her book first.

Dixon’s book referenced an article by Madhusree Mukerjee in the October 1995 issue of Scientific American, called “Hidden Scars.” Mukerjee, who is a fine writer, worked for both Physics Today and Scientific American before writing non-fiction on a variety of historical and anthropological subjects, but her degrees are in physics, not psychology or biology or medicine. Citing Mukerjee’s article, Dixon said that “survivors of child abuse may have a smaller hippocampus (the part of the brain that forms, stores, and processes memory) than people who have not been abused,” and added that these changes in the hippocampus may be responsible for abused children later forming unhealthy relationships, and could be “why abused children have such a difficult time with behavior and learning,” Mukerjee’s article also points out, though, that most of the MRI studies were conducted on adults who already had PTSD or dissociation disorders, which could simply prove that those who were “born with a smaller hippocampus could be more vulnerable to acquiring PTSD or dissociation if subjected to extreme stress.” Frank Putnam, of the National Institute of Mental Health, said (referring to the use of Vietnam veterans in many of the studies) that “It’s not the same clinical picture in 10-year-old girls.” Mukerjee concluded the article by saying, “Thus, the findings, although helping to ground psychology in biology, raise more questions than they answer.” Dixon, in other words, just selected the quotes from the article that seemed to side with her point. Let’s look at another study on the subject. [the emphasis below is mine]

A 2012 paper, “Neuroimaging of Child Abuse: A Critical Review,” in the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine (NIH/NLM), examined a number of studies on the subject, and pointed out that “The relatively few studies examining children with maltreatment-related PTSD or post-institutionalized adolescents have found little evidence of hippocampal volume deficits…with the exception of one relatively small sampled study (Carrion et al., 2007) who found evidence of hippocampal volume reduction.” The paper also said, though, that one of the studies “reported increased bilateral hippocampal volume in a large sample of children with maltreatment-related PTSD.” It also listed several other studies, showing that many of them had flaws in procedure, like one where the “subjects were on psychoactive medication at the time of testing.”

In other words. Dixon took one article that suggested, based on possibly flawed studies, that there “may” be a link between a shrinking hippocampus and child abuse, and used it to say that child abuse can physically affect the brain, even though other studies had flaws or showed the hippocampus might also increase. One of the symptoms Dixon touted, that sexual abuse can cause victims to have “a difficult time with behavior and learning,” didn’t apply to Hanna. She didn’t have any problems with her grades, and participated in many school activities throughout junior high and high school. Could Hanna, by saying she had post-traumatic stress (something she could have gleaned from Dixon’s book), have used that to explain why she had such difficulty remembering all of the incidents she allegedly underwent? I do find it interesting, though, that Hanna could say repeatedly that there were “80 to 90” incidents of abuse, but only gave specific testimony about a small number of those incidents in the trials.

Also, Hanna, according to Deputy George Knox, “estimated she had been abused by Steve Sirois about 50 times over the past 3 years.” Knox chose to not use the number “50” in the affidavit, but used the phrase “several times” in the affidavit instead. Just a few months later, though, after some sessions with Dixon, Hanna was claiming it was “approximately ninety (90) times.” After that, though, to Tom Swearingen and in both trials, her standard for the number of times she had been abused became “80 to 90.”

Dixon’s book, does cite other authors, such as Diane Mandt Langberg. Dr. Lanberg writes books like Suffering and the Heart of God, so her works are in the same vein as Dixon’s, Christ-centered therapy, which is something I’ll explore in an upcoming post. She also cites Albert Ellis’s “rational-emotive therapy,” a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy he developed. Dixon said she uses it with abuse victims to help them restructure their “mind-set about life events in ways that allow [them] to avoid a life of defeat.” To me, that sounds a lot like something that could morph into brainwashing in the wrong hands. Wouldn’t a “restructuring” of someone’s “mindset about life events” mess with Hanna’s actual memories?

Maybe Dixon’s counseling sessions were conducted in a more scientific manner than her book would indicate, but some passages were disturbing to me. She described a session with one of her patients (I’ll call her Betsy) who at first insisted she hadn’t suffered trauma or been abused. Dixon said she “continued probing,” defining trauma as something that made her feel “dirty, nasty,” “powerless” and more. After a few minutes of discussion about an incident in Betsy’s past, Dixon asked her how that made her feel. According to the book, Betsy echoed back Dixon’s earlier words, “Dirty. Powerless. Angry. And afraid.” Doesn’t that sound like Dixon might have been coaching to achieve a specific outcome? I don’t have a degree in psychology. These are just personal observations.

Ultimately, though, the issue for all of Steve’s lawyers was that they had no certainty about what Hanna revealed to Dixon, or how that information was revealed. None of them could have been sure of anything without examining Dixon’s records. Not just a cherry-picked summary, all of her sessions with Hanna. As you saw in an earlier post, the most anyone saw was Dixon’s curated summary of just five sessions.

Next up I’ll take a look at the way Dixon’s book viewed homosexuality.

 Michael Sirois

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