Book Review


Transforming Trauma: EMDR The Revolutionary New Therapy for Freeing the Mind, Clearing the Body, and Opening the Heart

by Laurel Parnell

reviewed by Bryan M. Knight, MSW, PhD.


Self-Help Product Review Rating Scale (1=low 5=high)
Clarity: (5)
Practicality: (3)
Target-Audience:Psychotherapists and consumers


A useful introduction to EMDR (eye movement desensitization and re-processing) therapy.

The essence of EMDR is that swivelling your eyes from side to side while recalling a traumatic incident permanently relieves severe symptoms. The client's eyes follow the moving fingers of the therapist.

Both consumers and professionals will relish Parnell's enthusiasm, vivid case histories, and personal revelations. Readers will be impressed with Parnell's courage in facing her own traumas and in going public with them. Such subjective experience is clinically convincing, especially when so well-written. You will also be astonished at the amazing changes EMDR brings about so speedily.

Therapists from other schools of thought might take issue with Parnell's claim of what distinguishes EMDR from other therapies: "EMDR therapy takes us 'beyond' recovery from trauma to a sense of joy, openness, and deep connection with ourselves and our lives."

Perhaps her dismay with other therapies came about because she spent four years in Jungian analysis and two years in psychodynamic psychotherapy without experiencing the epiphany that EMDR produced in minutes.

Clinical reports by EMDR practitioners suggest the therapy is most useful in the eradication of single traumas. Often in only one session. Although for adults sexually abused as children, Parnell cautions that "weeks, months or years may [first] elapse" before the client trusts the therapist enough for EMDR to work.

EMDR is touted as highly effective for the treatment of phobias and other emotional disturbances, especially post-traumatic disorders. Theories abound as to why the technique is therapeutic. Parnell lists some of them. An early speculation was that there is some physiological process akin to the benefits derived from rapid eye movement during sleep. However, this concept would seem to be discounted by Parnell's own accounts of "knee-tapping" as a substitute for eye movements for those clients who are crying too much to follow the therapist's fingers.

This sounds similar to the Callaghan Techniques (now known as Thought Field Technology) which also advocates tapping the client on various prescribed parts of the body. (You can train in TFT for a mere $10,000 a weekend. EMDR training costs around $400 for a day. New "advanced" levels, including "trainers" and "facilitators" are available for additional fees).

Parnell's emphasis on authorized training, and personal experience of EMDR, by therapists wishing to practice this powerful modality, is almost cult-like. Her guidelines echo the early psychoanalytical movement with its undertones of faith in the theory and loyalty to the founder.

The author stresses that "The therapist's beliefs and attitudes play an important role in the success of EMDR." Of course they do because, along with the importance of the therapeutic relationship (also emphasized by Parnell), belief is a key ingredient of any successful therapy.

Such unquestioning devotion (Parnell would probably say, personal and clinical experience) leads to statements like this: "When EMDR clears blockages to the body-mind's natural healing, wholeness and balance are restored, which are experienced as peace, equanimity, joy, understanding, wisdom, love and compassion. EMDR clears impediments to wholeness, yet never removes what is adaptive and functional."

Some scientific evaluations of EMDR are cited. One is of a client of John Wople. This "severely traumatized rape victim " -- unhelped by traditional psychotherapy -- experienced dramatic improvement after ten sessions of EMDR.

However, as the Skeptical Inquirer (January-February 1996) points out, the scientific validity of EMDR remains a controversial issue.

Parnell's claim that EMDR can be dangerous in the hands of untrained, or ill-trained, therapists, is belied by the initial practice of the technique. In 1987 a doctoral psychology student fortuitously discovered the process while strolling in a park and contemplating some personal troubles. She noticed that she felt relief from her worries when her eyes swivelled from side to side. The innocuousness of this discovery let her test the procedure on friends and relatives. But now the therapy founder, Francine Shapiro, and her disciple, Parnell, say the process can be dangerous.

Where have we heard such claims before? In the field of hypnotherapy. Some physicians make the untenable claim that hypnotherapy can be dangerous except in the hands of physicians and Ph.D. psychologists.

And that is no accident. The parallels between EMDR and hypnosis are casually dismissed by Parnell (and by Shapiro in her own book). They make unsubstantiated claims that EMDR is faster than hypnosis. More ludicrously, Parnell writes that EMDR offers "much more client control." This says more about Parnell's misconception about hypnosis than it does about the differences between the modalities.

After an excellent description of the effects in adults of childhood sexual abuse, Parnell describes a therapeutic protocol almost identical to a common procedure of hypnotherapists.

What Shapiro stumbled upon, and what Parnell so eloquently describes, appears to this reviewer to be an effective hypnotic induction. The EMDR process parallels what happens during hypnotherapy.

And surely not only hypnotherapists are familiar with body-mind concepts. Yet the discovery of a mind-body connection in her own life so amazed Parnell that she wrote: "I really understood that my child's experience was frozen in time with the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs as they had been thirty-three years earlier. I understood that it isn't what happened that is imprinted, but rather what one perceives to have happened."

This book is well-written propaganda for EMDR in general, and Parnell's own practice in particular.


Cost: $21. (282p)
Publisher: W.W. Norton
ISBN: 0-3930-04053-4


Dr. Bryan Knight is the author of Health and Happiness with Hypnosis and several other books including Love, Sex & Hypnosis: Secrets of Psychotherapy. He is a social worker in private practice in Montreal, Canada, where he specializes in using hypnotherapy to help clients lower anxiety, conquer phobias, overcome panic attacks and proof themselves against stress. Dr Knight is Professional Book Reviews Moderator for this ezine.

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