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The Revenge of the Repressed: Part II

The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (3rd edition)

by Ellen Bass, by Laura Davis
HarperPerennial, 604 pp., $22.50 (paper)

The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse

by Elizabeth Loftus, by Katherine Ketcham
St. Martin’s, 290 pp., $22.95

Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria

by Richard Ofshe, by Ethan Watters
Scribner’s, 340 pp., $23.00

Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives

by Mark Pendergrast
Upper Access, 603 pp., $24.95 (paper)

1.

Throughout the American 1980s and beyond, the interrogation of small children for their memories of recent sexual abuse played a role in many a criminal case against accused molesters who had not, in fact, done anything wrong. The social and financial costs have been enormous. To take only the most famous example, staff members of the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, who were accused of every imaginable horror associated with devil worship, had to endure the longest (almost seven years) and most expensive ($15 million) trial in American history before the case collapsed from the weight of its accumulated absurdities. In other instances, draconian sentences are being served and plea bargains are still being coerced in the face of transparently clear signs that the charges are bogus. Even today, our criminal justice system is just beginning to erect safeguards against the error that makes such outrages possible: the assumption that children are still reliable witnesses after exposure to their parents’ and inquisitors’ not-so-subtle hints that certain kinds of revelations are expected of them.

Not even that much progress, however, is being made with respect to curbing parallel travesties involving the therapeutically manufactured memories of adults who decide that they must have been molested in their own childhood. On the contrary: by extending their statutes of limitations to allow for thirty years and more of non-recollection, our states have been codifying a pseudoscientific notion of repressed-yet-vividly-retrieved memory that can cause not merely injustice but enormous grief and havoc. Obviously, the impetus for such legislative backwardness is not coming from reputable psychological research—which, as we have seen, offers no support to the concept of repression even in its mildest form. The momentum comes rather from a combination of broad popular belief and a relatively narrow but intense crusading fervor.

Since 1988, the most successful communicators of both the belief and the fervor have been Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, coauthors of the “recovery manual” The Courage to Heal. A teacher of creative writing and her student, Bass and Davis were radical feminists who lacked any background in psychology. Their knowledge base consisted of stories they had heard from women who clearly remembered that they had been sexually abused in childhood but who had been rebuffed by uncaring therapists and family members. Noting the high numbers of such cases reported within women’s collectives, and further noting that other women in such groups eventually produced incest “memories” of their own, Bass and Davis soon decided that repressed abuse must be even more pervasive than remembered abuse. The more likely explanation of the late-blooming cases—namely, that the dynamics of the group encouraged false memory formation by making victimhood into a test of authentic belonging—has yet to dawn on these collaborators.

Precisely because their minds were unclouded by research findings, Bass and Davis uncannily reflected the ideological spirit of their moment and milieu. As Mark Pendergrast relates in Victims of Memory, the mounting (and very legitimate) concern about the underreported incidence of real child molestation formed only one corner of the picture. Bass and Davis also spoke to a public mood of impatient moral absolutism; an obsession with the themes, popularized by John Bradshaw and others, of codependency, the “dysfunctional family,” and the “inner child”; a widespread susceptibility to occult beliefs; the rise of “lookism” and other manifestations of hypersensitivity to the violation of personal space; and the angry conviction in some quarters that all men are rapists at heart. While Andrea Dworkin and Susan Brownmiller were hypothesizing that American fathers regularly rape their daughters in order to teach them what it means to be inferior, Bass and Davis set about to succor the tens of millions of victims who must have repressed that ordeal.

No single book, of course, can make a social movement. Although The Courage to Heal had already sold over three quarters of a million copies before its recent third edition appeared, and although its spinoff volumes constitute a small industry in their own right, Bass and Davis have been joined by a considerable number of other writers who share their slant.1 Moreover, the recovered memory business quickly outgrew the motives of its founders. By now, as the critical new books by Pendergrast and by Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters show, it has evolved into a highly lucrative enterprise not just of therapy and publishing but also of counseling, workshop hosting, custody litigation, criminal prosecution, forced hospitalization, and insurance and “victim compensation” claims.

The recovery movement, it must be plainly understood, is not primarily addressed to people who always knew about their sexual victimization. Its main intended audience is women who aren’t at all sure that they were molested, and its purpose is to convince them of that fact and embolden them to act upon it. As for genuine victims, the comfort they are proffered may look attractive at first, but it is of debatable long-term value. The Courage to Heal and its fellow manuals are not about surmounting one’s tragic girlhood but about keeping the psychic wounds open, refusing forgiveness or reconciliation, and joining the permanently embittered corps of “survivors.”

In the eyes of the recovery movement’s leaders, as many as half of all American women are veterans of sexual abuse. If so, the logic seems to run, you can hardly fail to unearth a victim wherever you look and by however desultory a means of detection. But a revealing game with definitions is being played here. For writers like Bass and Davis, Renee Fredrickson, and E. Sue Blume, sexual molestation occurs whenever the victims thinks—or later comes to believe that she must have thought—that an inappropriate kind of contact is occurring. Blume, indeed, denies that physical touching need be involved at all. “Incest,” she explains, “can occur through words, sounds, or even exposure of the child to sights or acts that are sexual but do not involve her” (Blume, p. 5). And still another movement writer denounces what she calls “emotional incest,” which can be committed by parents who “appear loving and devoted,” “spend a great deal of time with their children and lavish them with praise and material gifts,” but do so merely “as an unconscious ploy to satisfy their own unmet needs” (Love, p. 1).

From the standpoint of public health, what’s most disturbing here is a likely growth in the number of “false positives”—women who were never molested but who are enticed into believing that they were. The mavens of recovered memory concern themselves almost entirely with means of reinforcing incest suspicions, not with means of checking them against solid evidence pro or con. Their advice to friends and counselors of a woman who has been led to suspect early molestation is generally the same: never cast doubt on those suspicions. So, too, she herself is urged to stifle all doubts. In Renee Fredrickson’s words, “You may be convinced that your disbelief is a rational questioning of the reality versus unreality of your memories, but it is partially a misguided attempt to repress the memories again” (Fredrickson, p. 161).

It is little wonder, then, that Bass and Davis, through the first two editions of The Courage to Heal, had yet to encounter a single woman who “suspected she might have been abused, explored it, and determined that she wasn’t.”2 Now, in a third edition that is beginning to sound nervous about “the backlash” in general and pending damage suits in particular, it is admitted that some therapists “have pushed clients to acknowledge abuse…that did not occur.” But even those few bad apples, in Bass and Davis’s still erroneous judgment, cannot “create new memories in their clients”; and the women who change their minds after leaving therapy “represent only a tiny fraction of the millions of actual survivors….”

The “false positives” problem has been exacerbated by the checklists of telltale symptoms that adorn the movement’s self-help manuals and advice columns. Smarting from criticism of their earlier checklists, Bass and Davis adopt a warier posture now; nevertheless, they still leave the implication that if you “feel different from other people,” incest is a likely cause. E. Sue Blume tells you that you were probably molested if you speak too softly, or wear too many clothes, or have “no awareness at all” of having been violated (Blume, pp. xviii–xxi). If you have checked the questionnaire items “I neglect my teeth” or “There are certain things I seem to have a strange affection or attraction for,” Renee Fredrickson knows why (Fredrickson, p. 49). And according to the ubiquitous John Bradshaw, a victim can be spotted either by her sexual promiscuity or, as the case may be, by her lack of interest in sex.3 These are all sterling examples of what experimentally minded psychologists dryly call a “confirmatory bias.”4

Once she is drawn into memory therapy, a client will find her suspicions of abuse verified by one or more techniques of investigation that are, in Fredrickson’s words, “as unlimited as human creativity” (Fredrickson, p. 141). With or without the therapist’s direct assurance that the patient’s symptoms are “consistent with abuse,” repression can supposedly be dislodged through “feelings work,” “body work,” “dream work,” “imagistic work,” “trance work,” and “group work”; through the production of journals and pictures that are sure to yield symbols of violation; through the cultivation of flashbacks, which are always deemed to reveal the truth of a past situation rather than compliance with current expectations; through administration of the tongue-loosening “truth serum” sodium amytal; and, of course, through hypnosis, including its deep-end forms of “age regression” and even “past life regression.” The considerable body of technical literature showing that none of these methods reliably leads to uncontaminated memories is simply ignored.

The recovery movement’s feminist affinity should not lead anyone to suppose that its incitement to militant victimhood serves the best interests of women. It is precisely women who make up most of the movement’s casualties. Once a patient is invited to believe that her inner child was suffocated at an early age, she may well put the major blame on her mother; that is just what we see in a significant minority of cases. Estrangement between sisters—one converted to hellishly revised memories of their years together, the other refusing to go along—is also a regular aftermath of therapy. But above all, the chief sufferer usually turns out to be the female patient herself.

Recovery manuals preach the doctrine of “abreaction,” whereby a patient must painfully relive each repressed memory if she is to stand a chance of freeing herself from it. The experience is guaranteed to be rough. In Lenore Terr’s version of this truth, “Clinicians find that once repression lifts, individuals become far more symptomatic. They become anxious, depressed, sometimes suicidal, and far more fearful of items suggestive of their traumas.”5 Bass and Davis agree. “Don’t hurt or try to kill yourself…,” they feel compelled to advise. “Sit tight and ride out the storm.” For many women, however, the storm doesn’t end, or else it ends all too abruptly with suicide. And even in the best of cases, a “survivor” is coached to reject the happiest actual memories of her childhood as being inconsistent with the stark truth of molestation. The result is a lasting sacrifice of resilience, security of identity, humor, capacity to show affection, and connection to the people who have cared most steadily about this woman’s happiness.

  1. 1

    Other key movement documents include Renee Fredrickson, Repressed Memories: A Journey to Recovery from Sexual Abuse (Fireside/Parkside, 1992); E. Sue Blume, Secret Survivors: Uncovering Incest and Its Aftereffects in Women (Wiley, 1990); and Patricia Love, The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What To Do When a Parent’s Love Rules Your Life (Bantam, 1990).

  2. 2

    Bass and Davis, The Courage to Heal, second edition (HarperPerennial, 1992), p. 347.

  3. 3

    John Bradshaw, “Incest: When You Wonder If It Happened to You,” Lear’s, August 1992, pp. 43–44.

  4. 4

    Controlled research indicates that there is nothing easy about identifying incest victims from their symptoms. See, e.g., Thomas M. Horner et al., “The Biases of Child Sexual Abuse Experts: Believing is Seeing,” Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry Law, Vol. 21 (1993), pp. 281–292. Horner found that forty-eight experts, all examining the same material, could reach no significant agreement as to whether a child had been molested by her father.

  5. 5

    Renee Fredrickson goes a step farther, remarking that patients may not notice any symptoms at all “until they are immersed in the process of dealing with their memories” (Repressed Memories, p. 36). Then the torment begins.

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