In the early 1990s, a new psychotherapy modality emerged that claimed that people could process and mitigate symptoms of PTSD by looking quickly in various directions. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), as it became known, found an enthusiastic reception—and an equally full-throated resistance from skeptics, many of them therapists themselves. Thirty years later, having ended her own inconclusive journey with EMDR, Meg Bernhard looks in on the controversy. A fascinating look at an esoteric, and inexplicable, treatment.

When EMDR began to trickle into the mainstream, much initial news coverage was glowing. Lynn Sherr, a correspondent for the ABC program 20/20, described EMDR in 1994 as “a process that mysteriously unlocks the trauma of times past.” Around a decade later, CBS2 News, a local station in therapy-conscious Los Angeles, did a feature on EMDR focusing on a man who survived a car plowing into the Santa Monica farmer’s market, for whom the crash had triggered earlier traumas. After EMDR, he reported feeling physical and emotional relief. “I realize there’s a lot of things that I’ve carried along with me from the past that now I was able to let go of,” he said. 

Backlash came just as swiftly as the praise. In a 1994 Los Angeles Times article, “The Amazingly Simple, Inexplicable Therapy That Just Might Work: Is EMDR Psychology’s Magic Wand or Just Some Hocus Pocus?” Nancy Wartik wrote that critics accused Shapiro of “adopting the role of guru ministering to a devoted flock.” One charged that Shapiro had a “cultish” following.