What do irrational fears show about unconscious desires.

Quite possibly nothing. Stress can alter your brain if you’ve experienced long periods of it. The effect is that the gap between a thought and high anxiety is quickly crossed, and reason is much less able to bring good sense to the situation. This idea has been around for some time, but it’s been receiving more confirmation recently. See also this.

Though I can’t speak to the utility of such brain changes in battles, many of us who experienced ‘very difficult’ childhoods know it can be extremely important to detect early signs of adult induced doom, so you get advance notice that can send you in a ‘battle preparedness’ state. Recently on NPR the author Pat Conroy described the utility of such early warning. When his military father was going into a rage, Pat’s job was to get the children into hiding.

So suppose you survive but can get hyper anxious. Many young women do not want to get pregnant, but if you are extra worried, a therapist may well tell you that it shows you really want to get pregnant. Very worried you could fail as a parent? That shows you want to harm your child.

Little by little someone who can’t dampen down basic fears is taught that really her anxiety is due to her being out of touch with her real fears.

There are reasons to be worried that much in our culture permits the psychiatric assumption that others are more opaque to themselves than they are to us. I think we should stop thinking that way!

Some clarifications

In online discussions of the Northwestern lawsuit, I’ve seen various confusions about some of the details, so I thought it might be worth clarifying a few points:

  • According to the student’s lawyer, Northwestern University’s Sexual Harassment Prevention Office substantiated the bulk of the student’s initial claims against Prof. Ludlow. An email summarizing these findings, from Director of Sexual Harassment Prevention (and Title IX Coordinator) Joan Slavin to the student, has been produced by the student’s lawyer (as reported here).


  • The student’s lawsuit itself states the following:

Based on the totality of the evidence, Ms. Slavin concluded that Ludlow engaged in unwelcome and inappropriate sexual advances toward Plaintiff on the evening of February 10-11, 2012. In particular, Ms. Slavin found that Ludlow initiated kissing, French kissing, rubbing Plaintiff’s back, and sleeping with his arms on and around Plaintiff on the night of February 10-11, 2012. She also found that “you [—] were incapacitated due to heavy consumption of alcohol purchased for you by Respondent [Ludlow], and were therefore unable to offer meaningful consent to this physical touching that night”. I also find that Respondent told you he thought you were attractive, discussed his desire to have a romantic and sexual relationship with you, and shared other personal information of a sexual nature, all of which was unwelcome to you.”

  • The statement from Prof. Ludlow’s lawyer does not deny that the Sexual Harassment Prevention Office substantiated the bulk of the student’s claims. The statement does deny any knowledge of a recommendation for Prof. Ludlow’s termination, but does not at any point deny that claims of misconduct were substantiated by the university.


  • The statement from Prof. Ludlow’s lawyer does deny the allegations of sexual harassment and assault (“Mr. Ludlow denies [the plaintiff’s] allegations that he sexually harassed or assaulted her”), as well as denying that ‘any inappropriate conduct’ (“Mr. Ludlow did not assault P nor did he engage in any inappropriate conduct”). But the statement does not specify which of the detailed points of the student’s story are thereby being denied.