The Shadow of a Doubt


The Shadow of a Doubt

The False Memory Debate Strikes at the Heartof Our Belief in a Just World

By Mary Sykes Wylie

September/October 1993


On a pleasant Friday morning in early spring, a group of well-dressed, prosperous-looking men and women, most in their fifties and sixties, gather for a conference at a large convention hotel in the manicured suburbs of Philadelphia, not far from the rolling greensward of Valley Forge Historical Park. From the subdued, convivial roar of the 600-plus voices, these people sipping coffee and peering at one another’s name badges might be here for a conference of senior sales representatives or real estate agents.

That is, until unnerving snatches of their conversation are overheard. “My daughter has accused me of raping her from the time she was 7 until the time she was 14,” says one grey-haired man from Wisconsin, in the slightly amazed tone of someone who cannot get used to making this statement. In another small group, an Ohio woman, about 50, reports that her daughter—a Harvard M.A. in public policy—convinced the state police to dig up a public park in search of the bodies of many young boys that, the young woman claimed, her father and mother had sexually abused, murdered and buried there. A woman in her seventies, standing in line to register, tells a companion that her 46-year-old daughter has cut off all family contact with her parents, charging that during her childhood they had engaged in satanic ritual abuse that included rape, murder, torture and mutilation. “We wanted her to go to the Mayo Clinic for psychiatric testing,” said the woman, “but she said her therapist had told her that the May staff was made up of satanists who would get control of her mind.” Across the room, a Minnesota woman, elegantly dressed in a tweed suit and looking younger than her 61 years, starts weeping quietly as she talks about her 33-year-old son, who has accused his father of sodomizing him when he was a child. One sister believes him; the other has not taken a stand. “At least one is neutral,” she says forlornly. She looks around, suddenly embarrassed. “Am I the only here crying?” she asks.

Everyone of the parents gathered here can tell a similar story of adult children suddenly, and without warning, turning on them with accusations as horrible and fantastic as they are incomprehensible. Every parent here talks about the absolute shock and horror of hearing their children make these accusations, and every parent here vehemently denies the charges. Often, they say, they do not even know what the alleged details are, or exactly when and where the abuse was supposed to have occurred—the son or daughter levels general allegations and then refuses to disclose particulars, saying something like, “You know what you did. I don’t have to tell you.” It is not hard to identify with these parents in this post-Kafkaesque era, who cannot imagine the helpless bafflement of being charged with terrible but unremembered crimes, assumed guilty and condemned without hearing? Furthermore, in a psychotherapeutically inspired double-bind typical of our times, denial itself is evidence of...denial, the pathological indicator that makes declarations of innocence virtual proof of guilt. 

It is this strange commonality of experience that brings these families together for the first meeting of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) a support and advocacy organization formed in March 1992, and comprised of the parents of 4,000 families who say they have been falsely accused of sexually abusing their children. Some stand accused of committing even more heinous and sadistic acts—engaging in cultish orgies of animal sacrifice, rape, torture, mutilation, forced abortions on pre-adolescent girls, murder and cannibalism. As a result of these charges, many parents here have lost all contact not only with their accusing children, but with their grandchildren, if the accuser is also a parent. Furthermore, if the charges become publicly known, and in small communities they typically do, the parents find themselves ostracized by old friends and neighbors, and pilloried in the local press.

The costs are not only social and emotional, however, as many now find themselves waging expensive battles against criminal and/or civil charges for abuses they are accused of committing a decade or two or three earlier, which their adult daughters or sons have only recently remembered. That these parents can be sued or prosecuted at all refects the astonishing impact of the incest-recovery movement on the law itself. During the 1980s, in order to accommodate the theory of repressed memories, 21 states altered their laws to allow an extension of the statute of limitations, which normally sets a time limit-usually seven years-following the alleged offense, after which a lawsuit or criminal charges cannot be brought. Now, in a movement that appears to be spreading to other states, a plaintiff may bring legal actions against alleged sex-abuse perpetrators up to two or three years after he or she recovers memories of the abuse, which may be decades after the actual events.

So, parents in their late fifties, sixties and seventies, caught in a bizarre, historically unprecedented struggle with their own children, find themselves engaged in that typically American pursuit; forming a volunteer advocacy organization to lobby public opinion on behalf of their cause. And they go about it much the way every other such special interest group does—by getting for themselves and their stories as much media attention as possible. There are more than 30 members of the press here—from numerous magazines, newspapers and broadcast networks—all welcomed with open arms and a striking willingness among organizers and attendees to tell their stories to anyone wearing a press pass and holding a pad of paper or a tape recorder. “We will talk to anybody,” one father says, before tugging at a journalist to come sit down in a corner and listen to his tale. 

Every member of the FMSF has a similar story to tell, and it has been told so many times that it now has the ritualized quality of an ancient archetype, repeated generation after generation. As the story goes, the charges against the parents usually come without warning from adult daughters and sons who had apparently been living normal, reasonably happy and successful lives, until suddenly, often during their thirties and forties, usually while they were going through some temporary crisis, they began having horrifying flashbacks, body memories, nightmares or vague images. These odd occurrences triggered memories of parental abuse from decades earlier—or at least the certainty that abuse had happened, even in the absence of exact memories of specific events. However vague the details are now, the abuse then had been so terrible and traumatic, the accusers claim, that in psychic self-defense they repressed and buried the memories from conscious knowledge.  Years later, these archived images emerged unexpectedly during therapy, which the client had sought for what seemed like more ordinary problems—a divorce, eating disorder, mid-life depression, child-raising issues. Sometimes, the flashbacks and body memories occurred while the accusers were reading about the symptoms of childhood incest in popular recovery books (the book, The Courage to Heal, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, is this weekend’s particular bete noir) or while they were attending a self-help meeting or workshop for adult children of alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional families. 

The Kelly family, for example, was always a “normal Irish family,” says Mr. Kelly as he sits with his wife and two adult daughters at lunch during the first day of the FMSF conference. The family had generally “lived a pretty happy life,” Mr. Kelly thought, though he guessed he had gone through a period when he was drinking too much.  He and his wife had raised six kids, three boys and three girls, they had been very active in the local Catholic parish and Mr. Kelly had coached Little League baseball. He loved all his children, he says, but Lili, the oldest and the one making the accusations, had really been his favorite. When Lili was a little girl, the two of them had done horseback riding together every week, and one summer, when he was just getting his business started, he had scraped enough money together to send her to riding camp. “She never seemed to have one problem,” he says. “She never got in trouble, laughed her way through high school. She was happy and beautiful, like a little Shirley Temple.”

Lili married when she was 22 and divorced two years later. “I found out then that she had never had any sex with her husband. No sex!” Mr. Kelly says, slapping his forehead. “'Holy Mackerel!' I thought to myself. ‘What does that mean’” But Lili soon remarried—a man Mr. Kelly likes very much-and had “two beautiful children, outstanding kids.” After her second baby, though, she began “acting odd,” he remembers. “She became very pensive and evasive, and couldn’t handle her work very well, or her kids-she would bring them to our house and stay for days.” She also started intensely questioning her father about his family and “picking on her grandparents a little too much,” he thought, carping on their drinking. This hurt him because he was proud of them—his hard-working father and mother who had lost everything in the depression, but still managed to raise 12 children. Meanwhile, Lili was reading The Courage to Heal and watching John Bradshaw, the popular guru of the inner-child movement, on television.  “She told me there was incest in every family and the Irish were particularly prone to both drinking and incest,” says Mr. Kelly. “I said, ‘I have to admit to the drinking, but not to the incest.’”

Lili began therapy with a young therapist Mr. Kelly remembers as “a very nice girl.” One day, she asked her parents to come to a session with her where the therapist told them that Lili had been sexually abused. She didn’t yet know who had done it, but the identity of the abuser would “come out” in time. “My wife and I were horrified,” remembers Lili’s father. “We said to each other, ‘My God, that’s awful. Who could have done it?’ and we started going over the past, every vacation we had taken—‘How about that summer at the shore? Could it have been the lifeguard? What about the vacation in the mountains? Could it have been the boys in the next cabin?’”

At 2:30 a.m. one morning, Mr. Kelly was awakened by the phone. It was Lili sobbing hysterically.  “You did it, Daddy! It was you! You did do it, didn’t you! Didn’t you!” After a sleepless night, the Kellys met with the therapist in a family session that also included Lili, her brother and her husband, where Lili made her charges again with the family present. “Then, she flew across the room screaming, and started beating on my chest, tearing at my face,” Mr. Kelly remembers. “It was the saddest shock I’ve ever had.” Eventually, Lili accused not only her father, but her mother, and though that friends her parents had invited over to the house when the children were small had also been involved. Later, in a private session with the therapist, Mr. Kelly wondered aloud how his daughter could come to believe all this. “These stories are always true,” the therapist solemnly intoned. 

At the FMSF conference, the Kelly family is now caught between glum depression and wild hope. Lili still refuses to talk to her parents, but she did show up briefly this morning for one of the sessions. Persuaded by a sister acting as go-between, Lili agreed to come only on the condition that her parents not be present at the conference when she was, so they had dutifully stayed hidden in the vicinity during that time. Will she come back to her family? Nobody knows. One of the odd quirks in the plot line of some of these stories is that children do occasionally reestablish contact with their parents, rejoin family life as if nothing had interrupted it, and never mention the issue that caused the break in the first place. 

***

To the conference attendees, these adult children have been hurt alright, but not by child abuse, and certainly not by their parents. Parents and children, they believe, are the innocent pawns in a hysterical crusade against an “epidemic” of sex crimes against children, which is ravaging lives and destroying families across the country. The FMSF things it is a witch hunt, engineered by a large, amorphous, profit-oriented “sex abuse industry,” a conglomerate of New-Age healers, self-help movement promoters, political activists, radical feminists, social service providers and mental health professionals. 

One of the speakers is Margaret Singer, a psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who compares the individual and group psychotherapy that evokes false memories of abuse to a kind that evokes false memories of abuse to a kind of parent-bashing cult that uses mind-altering techniques—dream work, meditation, guided imagery and hypnosis, most notably—to suck apparently self-reliant adults into a sinkhole of dependency and self-sustaining pathology. Richard Ofshe, a sociology professor Berkeley and the first presenter on Friday morning, agrees. “These therapies damage first...the trusting, vulnerable, usually distressed and sometimes seriously ill patients. If there is a perpetrator, it is not the evil monsters the patient comes to see in their families,” he says grimly.  “The perpetrator is the kindly therapist” guilty of “fobbing off the wild, untested, unsubstantiated speculations[of] a small group of professionals…trading on the status and authority of modern medicine to unwittingly press their personal, professional and political values on persons who have made one mistake: seeking out the wrong practitioner for treatment.”

Therapy bashing or not, these words are bracing cri de coeur to parents who feel stunned, horrified, overwhelmed and helpless, as much betrayed by the healing professions as by their own misled children. During an intense two days, conference attendees listen to experts from a variety of disciplines—psychiatry, psychology, sociology and law—give substance to the claim that a “malpractice epidemic” is sweeping the therapeutic community. They hear, for example, that “robust repression” of trauma, including the belief that long-term, severe childhood abuse is often obliterated from conscious memory for decades, is a gross pseudo-scientific error, without grounding in substantial empirical evidence. People remember their traumas, speakers point out again and again; their problem is not that they’ve lost their memories, but that they can’t get rid of them—they intrude relentlessly into their daily lives, and always have. “Victims of real emotional trauma, whether of child abuse...or life in Hitler’s concentration camps, or Vietnam-related post-traumatic stress disorder, have very vivid memories,” says Harold Lief, a psychiatrist on the advisory bard of FMSF, in an interview published recently in the magazine Addiction and Recovery. “And I have seen no evidence of repressed memories in these cases.”

Not only do skeptics doubt the validity of repressed memories of abuse, they tend to suspect that current incidence rates of childhood sex abuse are highly inflated, and the impact on adult psychopathology greatly exaggerated. FMSF devotes a good deal of time, talk and typeface to denying that its members doubt the reality of child abuse, its power to damage its victims and the need to prosecute perpetrators. At the meeting, a statement to this effect is a virtually obligatory mantra recited before every session. At the same time, they note the wildly disparate current statistical estimates for child abuse (ranging from less than one percent in some studies to 62 percent in others) to suggest that none of the figures are worth much, and that with relentless pressure on teachers and social-services staff to report even the merest suspicion of abuse, the cards have now been stacked in favor of over-reporting. And furthermore, some people associated with FMSF argue, even if there is a lot of child abuse, it is far from being the automatic sentence to lifelong psychological infirmity it is generally reputed to be. “There is little or no evidence for the idea that sex abuse causes mental illness,” says Ofshe. “The data suggest that while sex abuse may be widespread, it is not particularly strongly correlated with the symptoms [associated with it].” Another FMSF ally, Richard Gardner, professor of child psychiatry at Columbia University, is a prominent critic of what he calls “the child-abuse establishment.”

Gardner argues that social attitudes toward adult-child sexual encounters (including incest), rather than the sexual contact per se, make the experience traumatic. “Studies of our culture—which do not start with the bias that they must be psychologically damaging—provide clear demonstration of this,” Gardner writes for the Fall 1992 Issues in Child Abuse Accusations, a journal edited and published by Hollida Wakefield and Ralph Underwager, founding members of FMSF. While there are women who have been “seriously damaged by these encounters,” Gardner continues, “there are many women who have had sexual encounters with their fathers who do not consider them to have affected their lives detrimentally.”

This is not a line pursued by FMSF speakers or organizers, who are clearly anxious to avoid being branded as perpetrator protectors, but there is a low, growling undercurrent to many of the presentations that alleged sex abuse is just another handy excuse allowing spoiled kids to evade adult responsibility for their own problems. More than once it is suggested that the child abuse “industry” is simply one more opportunistic infection feeding on the metastasizing culture of victimization in America. “We live in the age of the victim,” says Martin Seligman, a cognitive psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania, who speaks at the meeting.

Several times during the weekend, speakers have made a point of emphasizing just how “normal” and solid most of the FMSF families are, how bright, happy and successful most of the children were before their inexplicable fall from grace. At this meeting, the FMSF presents a self-administered survey sent to member parents, which demonstrates, not too surprisingly, that on the whole these are models of wholesome family life: middle-to upper-middle class, educated, unlikely to have been split by divorce, active in their churches, staunch advocates of family togetherness. The children too had been, on the whole, not only reassuringly normal, but even superior. Though some had suffered periods of depression or other emotional disturbances before making their accusations, most were bright, accomplished, dependable, high academic and athletic achievers who had never given their parents any trouble at all. Indeed, several speakers pointed out, adults who recover memories of abuse seem to have been exceptionally well-adjusted children who had had some of the best parenting available. 

Surveys like this cannot be intended to convince the opposition that the group is not made up of perverts and fellow travelers, but is probably meant to reassure the members themselves about one another, and to send a signal to potential joiners that the organization really is for “people like us,” not deviants and criminals. In response to a rhetorical question they raise in their newsletter, “How do we know we are not representing pedophiles,” the editors answer ingenuously, “We are a good looking bunch of people, graying hair, well-dressed, healthy, smiling...Just about every person who has attended is someone you would likely find interesting and want to count as a friend.” They also plan, the piece continues, to encourage all their members to take lie-detector tests. Then, “We will have a powerful statement that we are not in the business of representing pedophiles.”

So, if the parents were so exemplary, whey are their children now saying such terrible things about them? And why are such accomplished, successful, apparently happy offspring more likely to go off the deep end with false memories than troublesome, rebellious, surly, under-achieving kids? Even if the abuse never happened, how were their children so easily led into this vicious morass? These nagging questions undoubtedly haunt the FMSF members, in spite of all the purported evidence for family normality and soundness. One pet theory in FMSF circles is that the very stability and closeness of the families, the apparent happiness, good behavior and high performance of the children were themselves somehow perversely related to the sudden explosion of bizarre accusations. These children were so used to living up to and beyond expectations, a 1992 FMSF newsletter editorial suggests, that when they did seek out therapy for current difficulties in their lives, they carried their drive to achieve with them and became the “best” patients the therapist ever had—the ones most likely to produce exactly what was wanted. “If an expectation that sexual abuse is the cause of every ailment is embedded in that setting, then these children become the most abused,” says the editorial. “They are the best students the therapist has and so recover not only the most memories but also the most bizarre memories. They are great students.”

There is another, harsher theory espoused by Richard Gardner, who implies that the women making false allegations of sex abuse are, in effect, angry paranoids, as are their therapists, who are, in addition, incompetents fanatics. Over the past few years, Gardner writes in the Fall 1992 issue of Issues in Child Abuse Accusations, “many women have found that men can serve as useful targets for their hostility...In other cases of false accusations of sexual abuse, a woman may release her anger via the sex-abuse accusation against a separated husband. Here, the adult woman vents this rage on her own father, who, for many women was once the most important person in their lives...” Gardner believes the woman may have projected onto her father her own unacceptable sexual desires for him and later built around these projected wishes an entire fantasy of abuse. Such a woman enters a folie à deux with a therapist, who may have been sexually abused herself and wants to “wreak vengeance on all mankind (not womankind). What better way to wreak vengeance on men than to become a therapist and use one’s patients to act out one’s morbid hostility.”

But except for a few grumbles heard at the conference about “man-hating feminists,” most attendees appear no more anxious to blame their daughters than to see themselves blamed (though therapists remain a handy target). They are much more taken by George Ganaway’s theory, which provides a kinder, gentler psychoanalytic view of the daughter’s intrapsychic dynamics. According to Ganaway, psychiatry professor at Emory University in Atlanta and specialist in dissociative disorders, the accusers who make such outstanding therapy clients aren’t playing out a compliant, good-child role in extremis, but finally getting around to a long delayed adolescent rebellion against their parents. In this view, the accuser, usually a woman, may never have separated emotionally from her family. On the one hand, she deeply desires to break away, while on the other hand, she feels intense guilt about doing so, fear of standing alone and anger at her parents, whom she unconsciously blames for keeping her tied to them. The conflict, dating to early childhood, has “left her with a feeling of hostile dependency on [her parents], hostility she can’t tolerate, a love-hate relationship she can’t acknowledge.” Without much self-confidence (though a high achiever), always in need of approval, the woman, says Ganaway, “displaces her dependency onto the therapist. He or she becomes the ideal substitute mother figure, who will be all-accepting, all-believing, all-approving, who will offer the patient a mechanism by which she can finally separate from her parents.” Instead of working through the underlying unconscious conflict, the therapist offers “symptom relief” by implicitly encouraging her to develop a “new symptom...the belief that her parents committed such heinous crimes that her previously unacceptable and troublesome anger toward them is now explained and is totally justifiable. Also, she has an excuse to cut the umbilical cord … The therapist has given her face-saving reason for making the separation and individuation she could not make otherwise.”

At this last point, the audience responds with loud, gratified applause. A theory that may sound to FMSF opponents like a self-serving rationalization provides a plausible escape from a profound sense of cognitive dissonance. It offers the parents answers to otherwise unanswerable questions: How can I have been a good parent and still have a child who truly believes I am a monster: How can I believe in my own innocence without hating my child? How could this terrible thing happen? The theory takes the sting out of the child’s j’accuse by making it both comprehensible and more benign. It is even more plausible because it doesn’t entirely let the parents off the hook, but places responsibility for the accusations in some vague, murky, psychodynamic territory between them and their child. Ganaway’s theory brings the problem into the range of complex and problematic , but not too abnormal, family dynamics.  Futhermore, it allows for an ultimately more satisfying life narrative, replete with the hope for the return of the prodigal child, penitence, forgiveness and mutual reconciliation. 

It is not surprising, therefore, that one of the most emotionally satisfying sessions of the conference is the appearance of a panel of five “recanters”—women who have taken back their original accusations of abuse. These women, who appear to be in their late twenties to late thirties, tell stories about irresponsible and unethical therapists steamrolling them—using hypnotism, “truth serum” (sodium amytal) and group pressure—into telling the kinds of melodramatic stories they wanted to hear. Interestingly, four of the five recanters are, in fact, survivors of child abuse—some by family members, some by outsiders—who sought out therapy because they couldn’t conquer their depression or control their eating or keep their marriages together. One attractive, articulate woman on the panel says that both her father and brother had abused her, but that this was not nearly enough for her therapist, a psychiatrist in a private hospital.  The psychiatrist, this woman says, drugged and hypnotized her to “remember” that not only her father and brother, but aunts, uncles, cousins and kindergarten teachers had also ritually abused her. She was told that she had multiple personality disorder and would not recover until all the personalities had surfaced, and she was not allowed to leave until she had produced a large and varied cast of alters—a characteristic feature of multiple personality disorder. 

Each recanter gives a ringing denunciation of a horrific therapy experience, and one tearfully explains that while it is too late for her to tell her own father how sorry she is—he died before she came to realize that her memories were false—she can still help other parents and get the chance to be the good daughter she had not been in her own family. At each awful revelation of appalling therapy from the panel members, the audience gasps. There are tears on my faces during the presentations and extended applause when the women finish. These are the heroines of the conference, the symbolic embodiment of the entire FMSF cause, and their stories are a kind of balm to the flayed feelings of the parents; their recitations are morality tales of contrite children returning home, repenting the harm they have done, however inadvertently, to their own parents. And there is not one parent here who does not yearn for just this kind of ending to his or her own unhappy tale. 

Finally, the conference provides strategies for fighting back. “This problem is not going to be solved by education, or better [therapist] training or scientific work,” says sociologist Jeffrey Victor, and professor at a branch of the State University of New York. “It is going to be solved by political confrontation—that’s the only way massive social movements are changed. And that political confrontation is going to involve suing people who are charlatans.” Clearly, like so many other American social controversies, this one seems fated to be fought out by lawyers. “Ultimately, everything in America ends up in a courtroom,” says Judge Lisa Richette, a Philadelphia jurist with expertise in child abuse cases, before introducing one of the two main sessions devoted to legal issues.  How should parents defend themselves against lawsuits and criminal actions instigated by their children? What are grounds for bringing suit against the accusing child’s therapist or psychotherapy clinic? How do you find admissible expert witnesses for the defense? What about a countersuit against the accusing child who is withholding visitation rights to see grandchildren? How much will it cost? Can a class action suit be brought against the author of a book like The Courage to Heal?

Many of the parents apparently consider these two sessions the most absorbing of the conference; they take copious notes and ask many detailed questions on abstruse points of law. Ironically, the long social and political campaign to provide beefed-up legal remedies for adult survivors of childhood molestation has come full circle: Many parents seem more than willing to make use of the same adversarial legal weapons that have been leveled against some of them. As one man says, his voice raw with grief and anger, “I’m not going to lie down like a dog and accept this!”

***

About two months later, now early summer, it is another lovely day, the opening of another conference – this one much bugger, clearly better funded and directed to professional therapists. The Fifth Anniversary Eastern Regional Conference on Abuse and Multiple Personality has begun, an intensive, six-day training meeting for professional therapists, with workshops and daylong courses conducted by mental health experts at the very center of the dark star that FMSF families see dimming their own light. Here are the captains of the “child abuse industry” decried by the FMSF, the very people whose “radical and untested” therapies have been accused of casting such a blight over so many American families. And yet, from the inside, nothing could appear to be farther from the stereotypes of bizarre theory, loose cannon clinical techniques and mutual delusion than the material presented at this conference, the accounts of these therapists’ own clients, their conclusions about what they are seeing. Sitting in workshops at this meeting, while remembering therapeutic abuses described at the FMSF conference, evokes a weirdly dissociative feeling, as if trying to match up a photographic positive with a negative and finding that though the two bear a ghostly resemblance to each other, they are still utterly different. Indeed, the FMSF and this conference on multiple personality disorder (MPD), and probably much of the abuse treatment community generally, might occupy separate, but parallel universes, so close and yet so far apart are their respective worldviews. 

At the same time, however, there is an oddly similar complementarity within both camps about each other. Certainly, FMSF and its advocates are not alone in feeling on the defensive. If the false-memory people are deeply suspicious of the motives and modus operandi of the abuse-treatment community, the latter feels the same way. Judith Herman, for example, a psychiatry professor at Harvard and one of the country’s foremost and earliest researchers on the impact of incest and trauma, has generally not endeared herself to the opposition. She was recently quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle (a quote picked up and published in the FMSF Newsletter) suggesting that, using proven standards for measuring false allegations, probably only about 10 percent of FMSF members could possibly be innocent of what they are accused of doing. At this year’s MPD conference, audience members attending a “town meeting” to discuss the false memory controversy speculate darkly about mysterious funding sources for the FMSF (which is widely and probably erroneously supposed by the abuse recovery movement to have access to deep, but unspecified, pockets somewhere).  Possible CIA connections are mentioned, and it is implied that FMSF advisory-board members are on the take, dishonest and bigoted. One panel member, Richard Loewenstein, a psychiatry professor at the University of Maryland Medical School and a noted MPD researcher, remarks that he certainly doesn’t see the FMSF as a “spontaneous coming together of aggrieved families,” but as a “media-directed organization,” manipulating its member families and “dedicated to putting out disinformation.”

And the inevitable suggestion is made again that the FMSF has more to hide than a secret money pipeline. To a plea on behalf of the FMSF parents by George Ganaway (representing the FMSF on the panel of speakers) that he had found them both credible and anguished, fellow panelist Richard Kluft, director of the Dissociative Disorders Program at the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital and one of the country’s foremost MPD experts, responded that he believed they probably were “genuinely anguished.” But, Kluft continued, “I will point out that if you punch a sociopath in the stomach, he is as anguished as if you punch a nonsociopath in the stomach. Anguish is no more convincing from a parent than it is from an abused child. I think Dr. Ganaway should have interviewed the children.”

***

But this is exactly the nub of the issue. Skeptics of the truth of formerly dissociated, now retrieved, memories doubt, first of all, the methods of manipulative and/or gullible therapists, but they also most seriously doubt the credibility of the very same clients that therapists who treat abuse are most inclined to believe. At a panel discussion of false memories at the annual conference of the American Psychiatric Association last June, Samuel Guze, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis and an eminent diagnostic theoretician, suggested that the testimony of abuse by certain kinds of patients, particularly those diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, just couldn’t be trusted. “These people are unreliable, inconsistent reporters,” he said. “They will deny having said things in the past when there are lengthy notes [made by the therapist].... There are gross inconsistencies in what they say.... They are characterized by frequent criminal and antisocial behavior, impulsive lifestyles, unstable and conflictual personal relationships. It’s all part of a pattern.”

To members of the angry audience, this sounded like the old canard that you couldn’t trust women’s reports of sexual abuse or rape because the women making such claims were obviously irrational, hysterical, overwrought, not in their right minds. As John Briere, a leading trauma researcher and professor of psychiatry at the University of Southern California Medical School, pointed out, if therapists assume that severe child abuse hurts people and produces massive psychiatric symptoms, Guze, in effect, was using those same symptoms as evidence for disbelieving their stories about how they got that way. Richard Kluft made a related point even more succinctly in an interview in Clinical Psychiatry News: “In situations where it’s a parent’s word against an adult daughter’s it may be easier to believe the adult who appears to be a normal, upstanding citizen, compared with a distraught woman in therapy. Perpetrators almost always look better than victims because they are the ones dishing it out, not the ones who are taking it.”

As if looking into distorted mirrors, each side gazes distastefully at the other and sees a warped and perverted vision of their true selves. Each vision contains the same basic components—usually an unhappy woman or, less often, a man, a therapist and emerging memories of child abuse. There, the visions diverge radically. To FMSF, women who were unhappy but rational when they first sought treatment are polysymptomatic zombies after a few months in the clutches of an irresponsible, manipulative, abuse-obsessed therapist; if the clients weren’t crazy before, they are now.

To attendees at the MPD conference, the scenes of egregious therapeutic malfeasance portrayed by FMSF are more like a parody of a Steven King horror story than anything they recognize as good clinical practice. Many remember that early in their careers they had had little knowledge, training or experience in trauma-related and dissociative disorders. Before 1979, post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t even listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), childhood sex abuse was still a national family secret, and even now the relationship between early child abuse, amnesia and dissociation remains controversial. 

Far from seeking out or encouraging abuse disclosures, many therapists report that when they began treating survivors of overwhelming childhood trauma, they themselves often did not believe what they were hearing, did not understand the symptoms they were witnessing. Instead they preferred to categorize their clients within more “acceptable” diagnostic limits—as borderlines, schizophrenics, hysterics, manic-depressives – rather than draw the conclusion that these people were in terrible shape because terrible things had been done to them. And many remember the first case they really “saw,” however many they had missed before, the baptism by fire that shocked them into awareness. 

The initial manifestations of dissociative disorders related to abuse, including MPD, are often far more dramatic than what seasoned and skeptical therapists experience from other clients. Joan Golston, a Seattle therapist who specializes in trauma recovery and dissociative disorders, remembers and early MPD case: a woman who complained vaguely about relationship difficulties and reported stroke-like symptoms following a recent physical assault. Golston saw the client for several months without much progress, feeling “as if there were some other communication going on in the room” that she could not define or pin down. She noticed that the woman used very graceful and eloquent hand gestures, so one day, without forethought, Golston began speaking in metaphors related to hands, using expressions like “hand-in-hand,” “handling things” and “handing over.”

The woman left that day, and the next session began without apparent change. At one point in the session, however, the client got up from her chair as if to arrange something on a nearby table and turned away from Goldston for a moment. Her body shook as if having a mild seizure. “Then, a voice I had never heard before said to me, ‘I saw you see me last Thursday, and so I thought I should introduce myself’” With that, the woman turned, stuck out her hand and introduced herself as an alter personality, someone strikingly different in demeanor, voice, attitude and expression. The woman eventually revealed a number of alters, and a history of extensive childhood abuse. 

Even when survivors remember their abuse, they commonly dissociate the worst aspects of it in order to ward off the intense shame and self-hatred caused by trauma. Rolland Summit, community psychiatrist at Harbor UCLA Medical Center and associate professor of psychiatry at UCLA Medical School, remembers one client, a successful but depressed professional man, who had a memory of his uncle attempting to rape him as a child, and of himself escaping. In therapy, the man began talking about a feeling that haunted him, which he was sure nobody else experienced – the very real and uncanny sense of being inhabited by an alien part of himself, a little boy, of whom he was entirely conscious, but who nonetheless had a quite separate existence. 

During the course of therapy, while visualizing the “little boy” escaping from the attempted rape, hiding behind a tree and vowing never to let any such thing happen again, the man had the terrible realization that, in fact, he had not managed to escape from his uncle—the rape had actually occurred. At the time it was happening, however, he had created a kind of alter who in his mind did get away, ending the story the way he wanted it to end. He had been living with this fiction, in the dissociated form of a withdrawn, fearful and morbidly depressed little boy hiding behind the tree, ever since.

Skeptics tend to harrumph at case histories like this and reduce them to manifestations of hysteria, picked up by the therapist and reinforced in the client. Therapists agree that severely abused and dissociative clients often show hysterical symptoms—self-dramatization, irrational angry outburst, egocentricity, excessive demands, dependency and manipulativeness—as do clients with many other disorders. But the severity and complexity of their pathology and the palpable quality of their pain makes an extraordinary impression on even initially skeptical therapists. Clients who have not been severely abused rarely show up in therapy with many different previous diagnoses, pervasive feelings of shame and self-disgust, a pattern of being sexually and physically abused in adulthood, and dissociative symptoms. As often as not, the bodies of these clients are covered with severe cuts, bruises, welts—either the result of chronic re-victimization or self-mutilation; they may also be alcoholic, drug-addicted or bulimic. 

Nor do therapists enjoy listening to horrible tales of abuse. “Four hours of therapy with [a severely abused patient] is like watching four hours of atrocity films,” says Colin Ross, a leading researcher and prolific writer on MPD. “I don’t know anyone who welcomes hearing about each new level of abuse,” says Roland Summit. “Each new revelation is a kick in the ass; you try to resist it, hope it isn’t really true, and once you are forced to believe it, your view of the world slips a little, your confidence in your former sense of reality is broken.”

The unendurable and impossible-to-fake agony of the clients is the most powerful evidence for the truth of their experiences. During one workshop at the MPD conference, an audiotape is played in which a client relives the experience of being raped by her father when she was about 6 years old. During the session, she re-experiences the rape incident in the alter of the child she had been. She first exhibits the same dissociative phenomena that had allowed her to psychologically survive the trauma at the time. She again experiences the disembodied, depersonalized feeling of floating above the scene, while describing in a vague, dreamy, singsong voice what is happening to the little girl below. The therapist then suggests she try to reenter the little girl on the bed, and as the client does so, her voice registers increasing fear, then panic, terror and horror. She starts to scream, “Daddy! Daddy! No, no, please! Daddy, Daddy! Why are you hurting me? I’ll be good! I’ll be good! Please stop, Daddy!”

There is, of course, no corroboration for such an event, no forensic evidence laid out before the disinterested eyes of a jury demonstrating empirically that this is anything other than a clever performance or a hysterical fit. And yet, so harrowing, so searing is the emotional force of this woman’s voice—even through the secondhand presentation of a tape recorder—that an audience of experienced therapists is obviously deeply shaken.  If the spoken tale of any human being can ever be believed at all, without a battery of forensic evidence to buttress it, then this woman is indeed telling a true story, whatever the “exact” details. 

Furthermore, in contrast to a vision popular among FMSF members that clients read The Courage to Heal or watch John Bradshaw, then come into therapy and announce that they were abused in the crib at six months or two years, therapists report that survivors tend to underestimate or deny the damage that has been done to them, even while describing consciously remembered scenes of terrible trauma. Richard Loewenstein cites a typical scene from his own practice. “in a session, I asked a patient, ‘Who did the disciplining in your family?’ and he answered, ‘I wasn’t abused.’ So I asked, ‘Well, what’s your definition of abuse?’ and he said, ‘Being abused is being beaten for something you didn’t do. I got beat a lot, though. They beat me with boards and belts and coat hangers. Once, when I was 5, they beat me so hard I danced. They beat me all day.’ Then I asked him, ‘What did you do that time that made them beat you, do you remember?’ ‘Yes,’ the patient answered. ‘They said I gave my brother polio.’” Says Loewenstein, “That is much more typical of a clinical interview with someone who has been abused.”

The tendency to minimalize severe trauma to oneself, or even accept blame for it, is apparently nearly universal, related to the intense shame trauma victims feel that they must have been bad enough to deserve it. As Christine Courtois, clinical director of the Center for Abuse Recovery and Empowerment at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington, DC, writes in her book, Healing the Incest Wound, “Their fearful belief is that no one could possibly view them as anything but contemptible and responsible.” Paradoxically, taking on the blame also gives survivors a sense of meaning and control. To avoid feeling like inanimate, helpless things, it is preferable to believe they did something that logically caused the traumatic response. 

According to Courtois, “Survivors who have memories don’t want them; those who don’t have memories are desperate to get them until they do get them, and then they don’t want them anymore.” Certainly, to a woman who has for years dissociated the experience of child abuse, the suggestion that she somehow “caught” her memories, like a flu bug, from a “contaminated” book or a John Bradshaw program, is simply lunatic. In the 1980s, for example, Margot Silk Forrest, now editor of The Healing Woman, a newsletter for abuse survivors, went on a month-long meditation retreat, returning home “feeling wonderful,” she said. Three days later, however, she fell into the deepest depression she had ever known. “I didn't know what was wrong,” she remembers, “but I just felt so much more terrible than the facts of my life would seem to warrant.”

Without prompting from recovery literature or the therapist she was seeing for depression, she soon began to have terrible dreams of abuse, then gradually more vivid visual images, and finally knew with certainty that her father had assaulted her at least 100 times, beginning when she was 3. Even her mother believes her memories, says Forrest, but to this day she has difficulty emotionally accepting her past. “I would do anything to be able to say I made it up. These memories are absolutely shattering,” she says. “They mean that I have lost my whole childhood. How do I reconcile the rapes with my memories of my Dad taking me blueberry picking?”

Another survivor remembers the beginning stages of her long bout with MPD, when an alter personality came out during an acupuncture treatment she was getting to alleviate the sudden onset of severe exhaustion for this there was no apparent physical cause. In her mid-thirties at the time, she remembers suddenly becoming—not simply “feeling like”—a small, helpless, terrified 3-year-old child while in the acupuncturist’s office, totally unable to understand or explain what was happening to her. Several times during the next few months, the shift into a 3-year-old self-happened again, and she also began to have quick, intrusive, visual flashes of lying in a child’s bed, and being hit extremely hard by an adult leaning over her with a blindingly bright light. Very soon, there were episodes of feeling more and more disoriented, doing odd, self-destructive things—she had begun cutting herself— meanwhile watching herself as if in a dream, unable to control anything that she was doing. Eventually, she was diagnosed as a multiple who had suffered extreme, extended, sadistic ritual abuse as a child, and began a long, grueling, but ultimately successful process of therapy.

Only after months in therapy could she even tolerate the memories and the renewed suffering they evoked. “The depth of the pain, the horror of being beaten and raped and cut, the unbearable feelings of hopelessness and loss when you see adults all around you watching what is happening to you and not ne will help you—agony is too pale a word for it. It leaves a hold in your being that is unfillable,” she says. “No therapist, nobody, could implant that.”

In spite of the wrenchingly graphic and convincing testimony of such clients, the abuse stories sometimes seem bizarre, incredible, unreal even to therapists who are the staunchest allies and champions of the clients who tell them. Far from suggesting or leading patients into disclosing abuse or mimicking MPD symptoms, therapists frequently feel overwhelmed by what they witness in their offices, and inclined to disbelieve. An MPD conference attendee asks presenter Colin Ross if he believes everything he hears from his clients, particularly some of the more horrible stories of satanic ritual abuse. “If you believe that everything you are hearing is all literally true, you will go made,” Ross answers. The stories he hears from clients are so compelling and yet so frightful that he is “constantly unsure of what’s going on, what is real and what is not. I’m always oscillating back and forth between belief and skepticism, which,” he continues, “is where everybody should be.”

Therapists who treat survivors of severe trauma, particularly satanic ritual abuse, recognize the inevitability of ambiguity in these cases. “When I hear a client describe satanic ritual abuse, I feel in my own body the reality of what they are saying,” says Maryland family therapist Terrence O’Connor. “The sense of their pain is quite excruciating, and I don’t have to believe every detail to believe in their suffering. But when I look at the phenomena on a sociological level and wonder where the bodies are, I feel some skepticism. As a therapist and a citizen, I have to live with both those positions.”

***

Toward the end of the MPD conference, one therapist emerges visibly distraught from a session about legal and ethical controversies in sex-abuse cases. “I don't know what I’m going to do,” she says in a low, quivering voice, clutching a pad full of frantically scribbled notes. “I can’t afford any more malpractice insurance, and I can’t start videotaping all of my sessions. I try not to ‘lead’ clients into saying anything, but you have to ask them direct questions sometimes, don't you? Do I have to get informed consent every time I use a visualization or relaxation technique? And I don't know now whether I should keep process notes or not—I guess I could be sued either way—and if a client asks me if I believe she was ritually abused, or if she has ‘repressed memories,’ what am I supposed to say so I don’t lose my license or end up in court?” Another older, more experience therapist soothes her, telling her she doesn't need to panic just yet, and suggest she go take a nice, long walk in the nearby nature preserve.

This alarmed therapist is not alone in her distress. A wave of anxiety has spread throughout much of the therapeutic community, which feels besieged and threatened by an unprecedented upsurge of negative publicity. Not that therapists, like lawyers and physicians and morticians, haven’t often been the subjects of social grumbling—other people’s pain is quite literally their gain. But lately, distrust of therapists shows signs of mutating into something far more toxic. “Therapists are now becoming society’s scapegoats, blamed for bringing up these terrible things that nobody wants to see out in the open,” says Christine Courtois. “I think it parallels the same displacement of guilt we see in the incestuous family, in which the victim is blamed for disclosing the abuse.”

Why have the client’s personal memories, however unsavory, never before of any particular concern to anybody except the two parties engaged in the very private task of therapy, now become the hot topic of a very public brawl? The answer lies in the twin American proclivities litigation and legislation, the habit of seeking not only vengeance and redress for wrongdoing in courtrooms and legislatures, but social and public solutions to what were once considered private, “domestic” problems, as well.

This is not all bad. Many terrible social injustices have been cloaked in the veil of privacy. “Sexual abuse of children was once the perfect crime,” Judith Herman pointed out at the recent American Psychiatric Association convention. “As a perpetrator, you were fairly guaranteed never to be caught or held accountable for your crime. Women, for the first time, have begun to use the courts to hold perpetrators accountable, and we see them fighting back.”

Public fights in public forums, however, demand different standards of proof, different definitions of reality, than private meetings in private therapists’ offices, and the black-and-white terms of the law are something other than the ambiguous, kaleidoscopic truths that emerge in therapy. Memories of terrible, long-term and very real childhood trauma are often confused, contradictory, fragmented— specific times, dates, places and even the identities of perpetrators are mixed up, forgotten, conflated with dream and fantasy.

Furthermore, survivors have been well taught by their abusers to distrust their own feelings and perceptions. Even when the evidence of the abuse is unmistakable and externally well corroborated, even while coming to believe and accept the reality of their memories, survivors of abuse have moments of doubting what they know. And the expression of doubt in others evokes the same sick, desolating sensation they had as abused children—that nobody believes, nobody understands, nobody accepts them. So how convincing can these survivors be as court witnesses when challenged by aggressive defense attorneys to come up with precise memories of events that happened to them as small children 20 or 30 years before?

The spongy narrative and symbolic truths of therapy—what the client subjectively feels, remembers and experiences, as opposed to what can be objectively known—don’t generally add up to a good foundation for building forensic cases. On the other hand, skeptics of the literal truth of retrieved memories sometimes seem bent on turning therapy with sex-abuse survivors into an interrogation, and therapists into police investigators. According to several FMSF supporters, including a number of forensic psychiatrists, the so-called “prudent therapist” presented with memories of sex abuse is ethically obligated to make a thorough, independent investigations, which includes intense interviews (with polygraph tests) of suspected family members, inquiries of friends and associates about the client’s background, retrieval of the client’s old medical, psychiatric, school, employment and possible criminal records and probing examination f the patient’s motives for making accusations. In other words, what does the client expect to get from making the charges—an excuse for venting rage at parents, money from lawsuits, alibis for her irresponsibility or back luck, a more glamorous identity as a “survivor,” etc.?

Most therapists find this skeptical “show-me” attitude to clients antithetical to everything they hold dear, not to mention illegal according to current statutes protecting client confidentiality. “Forensic psychiatric investigations and individual psychotherapy, are entirely different,” says Lucy Berliner, director of research for the Harborview Sexual Assault Center at the University of Washington, and sole representative at the FMSF conference from the “other side” of the debate. “Certainly, if you required corroboration for all reports of sex abuse, the vast majority of victims could never be believed.” In short, says Berliner, “you can’t have therapy in a general climate in which nobody believes anything anybody says.”

Yet, many therapists feel that this climate of unbelief is descending over their field like a new Ice Age, and that in some quarters therapists are beginning to regard their clients with the gimlet eye of a prosecuting attorney. “All this emphasis on caution can really inhibit therapy,” says Wayne Reznick, a psychologist who, with his wife, directs the Center for Psychological Services in Alexandria, Virginia. “You have to be very careful not to lead or suggest anything to clients, to take very careful notes that say enough but don’t go into too much detail, and indicate only that you are recording your client’s apparent memories, which you cannot corroborate. If a client asks if I think she has been abused, the only statement I can make is that what she has told me is consistent with what we know about the pattern of abuse, though I cannot say for certain that she was actually abused.”

On the other hand, a therapist who is hesitant may also be in trouble. “We’re between a rock and a hard place,” says Christine Courtois (a phrase echoed in several interviews). “If we ‘make suggestions’ to clients, or appear to be ‘too leading’ in our interviews, we are liable to the charge of ‘implanting’ memories. On the other hand, if there are symptoms indicating an abuse history, but the patient doesn’t mention abuse, and the therapist does not ask her about it specifically (to avoid the taint of ‘leading’), and the patient actually was abused and does not get better because the issue is never raised, then the patient can sue the therapist. There have been a couple of successful lawsuits by MPD patients who didn’t improve in therapy because the therapist allegedly ‘’missed’ the diagnosis.” In short, says Courtois, asking a client for detailed information about his or her background is just something a therapist has to do.

***

Beneath the putative argument over memory, repression, prevalence of sex abuse and diagnostic categories may be an even more disquieting issue—a potentially revolutionary theory that undermines many standard assumptions about the origins of severe psychopathology. Numerous well-documented studies done since 1987 indicate that 50 to 60 percent of psychiatric inpatients, 40 to 60 percent of out-patients and 70 percent of all psychiatric emergency room patients report childhood physical or sexual abuse, or both. To trauma researchers, this body of research suggest an intriguing new view on psychiatric etiology—that prolonged, severe childhood abuse may play a vastly underestimated role in the development of many serious psychopathologies now ascribed to biological factors, intrapsychic conflicts or standard family-of-origin issues. 

This surmise received an enormous boost recently in the astonishing data that unexpectedly emerged from field trials on post-traumatic stress disorder undertaken to refine the diagnosis for the upcoming DSM-IV. In a five-year research project with 528 trauma patients from five different hospital sites around the country, a team of researchers led by Bessel van der Kolk, professor at Harvard Medical School and chief of the trauma unit of Massachusetts General Hospital, gathered sufficient data to justify the creation of a new diagnosis—a much-elaborated and enlarged traumatic stress syndrome that they call DESNOS—disorders of extreme stress, not otherwise specified. This diagnosis correlates very closely with similar concepts of other trauma specialists, including Judith Herman, a colleague of van der Kolk’s, who calls her formulation complex post-traumatic stress disorder; another, comparable diagnosis being considered by the International Classification of Diseases is named personality change from catastrophic experience. 

Essentially, all these rather bulky new monikers reflect the belief among a growing body of clinicians that severe childhood trauma, adult dissociation and a range of psychiatric symptoms, which may or may not now be listed under PTSD, really should comprise a single, new diagnostic category. Van Der Kolk, and his team found in their study—the largest, most comprehensive ever done on trauma patients that almost inevitably showed up together, and were well-correlated with prolonged, severe childhood sex abuse.  These symptoms were the inability to regulate emotions like rage and terror, along with intense suicidal feelings; somatic disorders (mysterious but debilitating physical complaints); extremely negative self-perception (shame, guilt, helplessness, self-blame, strangeness); poor relationships; chronic feelings of isolation, despair and hopelessness; and dissociation and amnesia. “They all go together,” says van der Kolk at the MPD conference, “If you have one, you have the others—it’s a package deal.”

The implications are that real-world childhood sexual trauma may be responsible for many psychopathologies usually considered to have endogenous origins, including various kinds of phobic, depressive, anxiety and eating disorders, not to mention borderline personality, antisocial personality and multiple personality and multiple personality disorders. After all, 46 percent of the psychiatric patients studied by van der Kolk had every element of DESNOS, suggesting the possibility that at least half of all emotionally disturbed patients, whatever their formal diagnoses, are in fact survivors of childhood abuse—an astonishing thought. 

As a part of the study, van der Kolk also found that 100 percent of patients testing high on the standard test for dissociative disorders also reported having been sexually abused as children, compared with 7 percent whose test scores were very low. Patients with high dissociative scores almost all met formal criteria for depression as well, and every one met the criteria for the current diagnosis of PTSD.

Unfortunately, this massive clinical detective story is, in the end, “a tragic tale,” says van der Kolk. The study so overshot its original mandate, and its findings were deemed so disruptive to current diagnostic categories by the DSM authorities, that the new diagnosis was not even allowed space in the appendix. In spite of the massive size of the study and the 43-page bibliography van der Kolk sent to buttress it, the DSM hierarchy maintained that the new diagnosis “must be an accident,” says van der Kolk, and therefore couldn’t supplant the categories as they stood.

The new diagnosis, if it eventually flies, would represent something of a revolution in the dominant therapeutic world-view. “In 1975, mainstream psychiatric textbooks were still referring to incest as a one-in-a-million occurrence,” says Colin Ross. “Since then, the widespread reality of childhood trauma has been forced from the outside on the psychiatric profession. [The growth of interest in] MPD is the thin edge of the wedge, compelling changes in the explanatory paradigm for a whole range of other diagnoses, for which the major contributor is probably severe trauma. There has been a lot of resistance to this.”

Some trauma specialists believe this new paradigm would substantially alter the geography of psychiatric disorders. “If we could stop child abuse and neglect tomorrow,” said John Briere in an interview for The Healing Woman, “two generations from now we’d only have organic disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar affective disorder, adult trauma reactions and a couple of kinds of major depression.  Or, at least, there would be so much less distress than now that the DSM would shrink down to a pamphlet.”

***

It seems unlikely that the furious controversy over the question of retrieved memories can be resolved any time soon through dispassionate research and enlightened discourse. So incendiary has the issue become that involved parties seem irresistibly compelled to ask the same, bottom-line question: “Whom do you believe?” And yet, however compelled, this question seems far too crude, too simplistic to capture the elusive essence of what exactly is at stake.

Repeatedly, the FMSF insists they are not opposed to therapists or to the women’s movement or to survivors. They reiterate that they know child abuse exists; that it is more common than once though; that it is reprehensible; that perpetrators should be prosecuted; and that survivors should get prosecuted; and that survivors should get the professional help they need for their recovery.  Their organization, they say, simply wants to protect parents and children alike the excesses of irresponsible therapists, stem what they believe is a growing tide of social hysteria and encourage the development of sounds, scientific criteria for assessing the truth or falsehood of sex abuse allegations.

Therapists, for their part, have repeatedly stated that the issue is too complex and ambiguous to be reduced to simple black-and-white terms. They maintain that they were abused when they were not; that incompetent clinicians can misuse hypnotic techniques and misdiagnose child abuse; that normal memory is often unreliable, confused and distorted by fantasy and belief; that there is not yet an incontestable body of scientific data on traumatic memory. They only want to ensure that real survivors receive the acceptance and therapeutic help they need; that the reality of child abuse not again be willfully obscured by society; and that the effects and treatment of trauma receive the scientific attention due any serious mental health problem. 

Nevertheless, these legitimate points of view, cogently expressed, don’t account for the extreme reactions on each side that seem more appropriate to a Manichaean struggle over absolute good and evil than to debate about science and mental health policy. Surely, the truth must lie somewhere in the safe, sane middle. 

But where is the middle? In this debate, every statement, every position, every example seems dogged by the shadow of its own contradiction. Every protestation of innocence by the FMSF parents, every sign of apparent “normality” in their lives, every emblem of their pleasant middle-class ordinariness seems in this eerie climate to be its opposite. Wouldn’t a clever perpetrator tell his or her story with just this believable sincerity? Create just this plausible picture of happy, all-American family life, show just this rending grief about an estranged son or daughter? (“My father would have just loved coming to meetings like the FMSF conference,” says one survivor of severe abuse.) Couldn't the FMSF recanters be, in fact, again dissociating, denying the memories of their abuse: Isn't it true that severely abused clients frequently veer back and forth between belief and acceptance? And yet these people seem so nice, so honest, so truly devastated by what has happened to them, so eager to tell their stories.

On the other hand, how, in the absence of corroboration, do therapists specializing in childhood sex abuse know that their clients are telling the truth? Aren’t some of these stories of recovered memories and some of these dissociative symptoms a little to melodramatic—a little, well, hysterical? Why do so many highly respected psychiatric authorities have doubts about the validity of the diagnosis and abuse etiology of MPD? Why do these abuse therapists believe the most outlandish stories of satanic ritual abuse when there is so little forensic evidence for it, and so many plausible, sensible arguments against it? And yet, the therapists seem so rational, so careful, so responsible, so intelligent, so knowledgeable. And the survivors seem so eloquent, so calmly certain, so truthful, so believable. 

In this Twilight Zone between truth and reality, the question, “Whom do you believe?” however simplistic it may sound, acquires a powerful emotional urgency that demands a response. As one survivor put it, “You can believe me, or you can choose not to believe me, but you can’t do both.” At stake, from either perspective, is the question of loyalty, the terrible possibility that to make the wrong choice, to believe “the wrong side” is to collude in an outrage, to betray an innocent, grievously injured human being.

The question, “Whom do you believe?” strikes at the very heart of the American myth of innocence, our confidence in the fundamental goodness, fairness and justice of our civilization, our conviction that, for all our failings, we are a compassionate and honest people. How can we accept the possibility that hundreds of thousand, perhaps millions of children have been and are being abused, tortured, even killed by the people most obligated to love and protect them? What does it mean to acknowledge that this is happening in virtually every American neighborhood by people who look and sound and dress exactly like us? They are our friends, our colleagues, our doctors, our lawyers, our politicians, our storekeepers, our plumbers. Perhaps they are our relatives, perhaps ourselves.

On the other hand, if these alleged child-abuse victims suffer only from the age-old psychological afflictions caused by varying combinations of characterological, intrapsychic and biological factors and current life stresses, then all of us are let off the hook. The child abuser remains that stock figure, the dangerous stranger, the unknown bogeyman lurking at the edges of playgrounds and school yards—nobody we know.  We can go on believing that the vast majority of parents basically love and protect their children, that the family remains a cherished haven in a hard world. Where there are no victims, there are no perpetrators. 

It is hard for most people to recognize evil, and almost impossible to fully accept it when it contradicts our dearest beliefs and most cherished values. Social psychologist Melvin Lerner writes that we all need so strongly to believe in a “just world”—one in which everybody mostly “gets what they deserve,” that if we cannot quickly and comfortably remedy a perceived injustice, we tend to deny (this isn’t as bad as it looks), blame the victim (she/he/they either made it all up, or they somehow deserved it) or simply flee the situation entirely. “The subject of child abuse is itself so passionate and so paradoxical that it provokes polarized dichotomies at every level,” writes Rolland Summit in the journal Psychiatric Clinics of North America, “leaving indifference and avoidance as the only hope for serenity.”

But if avoidance is a poetry and self-deluding defense against horror, then what Summit calls the “primitive need to take one side or the other and battle down the alien extreme” is not likely to resolved the impossible conundrum either. The excessive claims and counterclaims, the paradoxical human ability to experience, forget, inflict and deny such terrible suffering, the bizarre social capacity for knowing and not knowing at the same time: like a fog permeating every crevice of the landscape, this controversy will not be throttled into neat categories labelled “fact” and “fantasy.”

The truth doesn’t lie somewhere in the mushy middle of the controversy, but all across the spectrum, from one extreme to the other. “There are examples of everything in the world,” says Colin Ross. No possibility forecloses another contradictory possibility for somebody else. There could be innocent parents and guilty but amnesic parents and parents who engaged in some but not all of the abuse of which they are accused, and parents who are conscious perpetrators cynically using the controversy for their own ends. Similarly, there are adults who, in their own confusion and unhappiness, are remembering abuse that did not happen and adults who have truly suffered every from of sexual abuse from inappropriate looing and touching, to molestation, to the most sadistic, horrifying, long-term trauma imaginable and unimaginable. 

Whatever the ultimate shakedown on the controversy, whatever the fate of the new mental health paradigm, it seems unlikely that as a society we can retreat to the pleasant, shared dream in which incest virtually never happened, sadistic abuse within the family was unthinkable and American children were almost universally loved, protected and spared any assault on their innocence.  For most of human history, women and children were not believed when they told their stories about sexual abuse. That women now insist on being believed propels the issue of recovered memories into the maelstrom of politics as perhaps no other mental health issue ever has before. 

Now, up to our necks in hot ash, with lava flowing all around us, we cannot pretend that the long-dormant volcano of sex abuse hasn’t erupted in an explosion of revelations. The small voices once raised here and there to tell their tales of childhood savagely destroyed have swollen to a mighty chorus, and they won’t be silenced easily, no matter how determined the opposition. Says one survivor, “Victims challenge everything we believe about ourselves and our world. People do not want to face the fact that their peers do horrendous things, but they’re going to have to take reality as it is. I will be free, and I will do whatever is necessary to become free. Don’t get in my way. People are shackled by lies, by silence, and I will not live in silence anymore.”

***

This article originally appeared in the September/October 1993 issue of Psychotherapy Networker.

Mary Sykes Wylie, Ph.D., is senior editor of The Family Therapy Networker.




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