In response to:

The Revenge of the Repressed from the November 17, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

In his two-part article, “The Revenge of the Repressed” [NYR, November 17 and December 1, 1994], Frederick Crews offered a cogent critique of many aspects of the “recovered memory movement.” Crews quite rightly denounces the naive use of diffuse “symptom checklists” and very broad definitions in the diagnosis of a childhood history of incest; reliance upon “therapeutic” modalities with no support in the empirical literature; insistence on unquestioning belief in patients’ tentative emerging memories, no matter how bizarre; and the poor training and marshy theoretical basis of some practitioners in this field. Crews argues reasonably against the presumed therapeutic benefits of unearthing and “abreacting” all traumatic experiences, and trenchantly analyzes the shortcomings of the Freudian concept of repression, which authorizes the irresponsible assertion that the lack of memory for trauma is itself evidence of trauma.

Because we share Crews’s belief in the necessity of a measured and well-informed response to adults’ allegations of sexual abuse in childhood, we regret that Crews himself strayed so far from the empirical evidence on which he rightly insists we all rely, and reserved his skepticism for those who make or believe allegations of childhood incest. We wish to correct the misimpressions Crews’s intemperate article may have left regarding (1) the criminal justice system response to allegations of sexual abuse in childhood, (2) the standard of therapeutic practice in this field, and (3) the concept of repression. First, however, we would like to point out how egregiously Crews commits the very sin he finds most damning in others: that of credulity.

Crews praises the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF)—most of whose members are parents who have been accused of incest by adult daughters—for making “steady progress in public enlightenment” on the issue of adult recollections of childhood incest. The cruel fact for all parties to such accusations is that both the wrongly accused and the rightly accused vociferously and convincingly deny the accusations against them. Crews acknowledges, “Pedophiles will undoubtedly try to portray any accuser as deluded by a trick of memory” (52, II). When Crews refers to the members of FMSF as “slandered relatives of survivors” (50, II), he claims an access to wisdom that Solomon himself would envy (not to mention the thousands of American judges who, according to Crews’s caricature of the judicial system’s response to child sexual abuse allegations, are doing so lamentable a job of adjudicating these cases).

Crews displays a similar credulity in bestowing lavish praise upon a forthcoming book by a Mark Pendergrast, both of whose grown daughters have accused him of incest. Crews lauds Pendergrast’s 603-page compilation of interviews and lore (to be issued by the obscure “Upper Access” publishers) as “the most ambitious and comprehensive, as well as the most emotionally committed, of all the studies before us” (51, II). While Pendergrast may be innocent of the charges against him, Crews applies very different criteria in assessing his work than in assessing that of “survivor” therapists. Whereas Crews finds “confirmatory bias” in the beliefs of alleged survivors and their therapists, in Pendergrast’s book he finds a thoroughly laudable emotional commitment.

Crews’s credulity for one set of claims is reflected in significant bias throughout the article. Among the empirical knowledge Crews flouts is that regarding the operation of the criminal justice system in cases of child sexual abuse and adult recollections of incest. Certainly, we would all have a great deal to worry about were in fact accusations launched by “a vengeful or mentally unhinged adult…immediately believed by police and social workers” (59, I), or “draconian sentences…being served and plea bargains…being coerced in the face of transparently clear signs that the charges are bogus” (49, II). However, empirical data regarding the operation of the child protective services and criminal justice systems do not support these crude caricatures.

In fact, a large percentage of reports of child sexual abuse—up to 60 percent in some states—are not substantiated by child protective services workers. Only 42 percent of sexual abuse allegations that have been substantiated by child protection authorities or reported to the police are actually forwarded for prosecution, according to a study by the American Bar Association. Moreover, because sexual abuse is so frequently a crime without other witnesses or physical corroboration, and prosecutors are concerned about children’s credibility, people arrested for sexual offenses against children are somewhat less likely to be prosecuted than are other violent offenders. One detailed study of allegations of sexual abuse in day care found that 82 percent of such allegations were dismissed by investigators. When prosecutions do occur, the majority—about 75 percent according to one study—result in convictions. However, most of these convictions (over 90 percent) result from guilty pleas and plea bargains. Sexual abusers are convicted somewhat more frequently than other violent offenders, probably because prosecutors are so selective in the cases they take to trial. Even when convicted, however, child sexual abusers receive light sentences. Three studies suggest that 32 percent to 46 percent of convicted child sexual abusers serve no jail time at all. Only 19 percent receive sentences longer than one year, which is about the same as those convicted of other violent crimes.


Crews’s depiction of the standard of practice among therapists working with women who recall a childhood history of incest is similarly skewed. Crews cites with indignation the results of an unnamed “survey” indicating that “well over 50,000” of America’s 255,000 licensed psychotherapists are now “willing to help their clients realize that they must have endured early molestation.” Victims of childhood physical and sexual abuse are, not surprisingly, heavily overrepresented in clinical therapeutic populations. Since several empirical studies indicate that 40 percent to 85 percent of psychotherapy patients suffered abuse in childhood, we are somewhat distressed to learn that only 20 percent of psychotherapists may be willing to help their patients explore this possibility.

More important, Crews leaves the impression that modal practice in this field is carried on by wild-eyed zealots. Of course bad practice occurs in the field of child maltreatment, as in any other. We fully agree with Crews that bad practice in this field can have tragic results, and should energetically be opposed. But no empirical evidence suggests that the practice displayed on Geraldo is typical. Child interview guidelines distributed by such major organizations as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (1985) and the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (1990) specifically recommend against the coercive and suggestive questioning practices that Crews suggests are the rule. The writers and lecturers on “adult survivor” therapy who are most admired and sought after by professionals in this field caution against the use of hypnosis and sodium pentothal, and against the tenet that remembering and “working through” all traumatic material is necessary or positive. Given this and other evidence that modal professional practice is thoughtful and responsible, Crews’s vitriol against professionals is hard to understand, and his depiction of zealous incompetence as the rule is indefensible.

Finally, Crews very effectively demolishes the naive concept of repression in which memories are hermetically sealed and stored intact for future revelation. However, he fails to shed any light on the processes that are at work in the very well-documented phenomenon of imperfect recall of traumatic events. His categorical statement, “Reputable scientific research…offers no support to the concept of repression even in its mildest form” (49, II), is misleading. A vast scientific literature on memory offers no consistent definition of repression, but a great deal of information about variously defined memory lapses. Full or partial amnesia for traumatic events has been well-documented in combat veterans, people who have survived natural disasters and other traumas, and people who have experienced physical and sexual abuse in childhood. Saying that such amnesia does not conform to the naive depiction popularized on talk shows and in some books or to the very narrow, specific definition of repression used by Crews does nothing to explain how such amnesia does occur, how once-forgotten or faded memories re-emerge, or how to assess the veracity of such memories.

The most conservative data available on the prevalence of father-daughter incest suggest that 1.3 percent of American women will experience it. These data are from upper-middle-class white college students in the Northeast responding to a paper-and-pencil questionnaire. Everything we know about differential prevalence rates and the efficacy of different methods of information-gathering suggests that this prevalence estimate is low. However, even at this low estimate, 1.6 million American girls and women are now or have been victims of father-daughter (or stepfather-daughter) incest. A number of factors have converged in the last several years to encourage these women to speak out about their victimization, including a greater attention to child sexual abuse generally and a feminist reinterpretation of father-daughter incest as, like rape, a victimization rather than a shameful secret.

These allegations challenge us intellectually and emotionally. Like many allegations of child sexual abuse, allegations by adult women of childhood incest often pit one person’s word against another’s. In response to such extraordinarily difficult epistemological situations, a natural impulse is to make a summary judgment in favor of the least painful alternative. For the vast majority of Americans, that alternative is to believe that adults do not victimize children in the ways now being alleged. It takes the greatest discipline for individuals and for the society to fairly weigh the veracity of these reports. Crews very effectively chronicles the failure of some people to maintain this discipline. We regret that he was not able to serve the readers of NYRB better by maintaining such discipline himself.

Theresa Reid

Executive Director

American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC)


Chicago, Illinois

To the Editors:

As psychoanalytically trained clinicians who work with adults who were sexually molested and abused as children, we welcome Frederick Crews’ healthy skepticism about the claims made by the currently faddish recovery movement. There is no doubt that some overly zealous, ideologically driven practitioners have, from time to time, shown poor judgment and most likely done a therapeutic disservice to some of their clients. Insufficiently trained therapists may fail to take into account the complexity of the intermingling of fantasy and memory and the way the human mind actively constructs rather than passively registers perceptions. They may also disregard the potential suggestibility of people, or the way in which a vulnerable person’s identity can become unfortunately organized around a sense of self as victim. Therapists who insist, through a variety of pressuring and suggestive techniques, on convincing their clients of abuse, are enacting a subtle form of abuse themselves.

Unfortunately, however, Crews’ obvious hostility toward Freud has led him to erroneously equate psychoanalysis with the worst elements within the recovery movement and has blinded him to the ways in which analytic thinking has evolved since Freud first postulated his notion of repression.

In Crews’ zealous attempt to debunk Freud, he overlooks the clinical fact that the majority of adults abused as children do retain memories of the abuse. At the same time, there is some evidence that a significant minority actually do cease to consciously remember traumatic events. A 1992 study conducted by Linda Meyer Williams at the University of New Hampshire followed a group of girls who received hospital treatment for sexual abuse. Seventeen years later, 38 percent of these sexually abused women had no memory of the documented abuse. This is consistent with the views expressed by many cognitive psychologists, Loftus and Ketcham notwithstanding. A recent article by Lindsay and Read in the Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology concludes:

Although cognitive researchers have differing views about the mechanism underlying loss of memory…all would agree that it is possible that some adult survivors would not remember the abuse events, and that memories might be recovered given appropriate cues. 1

Most contemporary psychoanalysts do not see Freud’s original conception of repression as the only possible model to explain the way in which traumatized individuals process past experiences which were too overwhelming for them. There is a growing and rich psychoanalytic literature to which Crews makes no reference (see for example: Shengold, 1969; Levine, 1990; Ehrenberg, 1992, Davies & Frawley, 1992).2 If he were to review this literature, he would discover that contemporary analysts do not advocate traditional hypnosis or suggestion when treating abused individuals. Unfortunately Crews seems stuck in a version of psychoanalysis Freud himself came to question as he gained clinical experience. Crews’ approach is akin to judging modern medicine based on the fact that doctors once believed in leech cures.

No responsible clinician today would subscribe to the notion that abreactive recovery of traumatic memory in and of itself is sufficient to loosen the horrific grip with which past abuse may continue to strangle an individual’s emotional life. A genuinely traumatized individual’s capacity to organize, synthesize, and symbolize experience is disrupted both by the emotional flooding and paralysis precipitated by abuse and by the physiological arousal that results from childhood terror. Unsymbolized traumatic experiences may then be encoded as a dissociated primitive core of unspeakable terror, meaningless panic, and somatic sensation. To borrow a phrase from Christopher Bollas, one might say these individuals suffer not so much from an unknown thought as from an unthought known. They maintain a semblance of internal integrity and make up for deficits in their protective shield by a variety of dissociative means. They are reacting not only to the betrayal by the abuser but to the abandonment of the parent who failed to protect. They struggle to reconcile the contradictory feelings of love and rage they often feel toward the same individual. It is not only the memories of specific abusive experiences which need to be integrated but also the individual’s multiple experiences of self and others.

By an intellectual sleight of hand in which he portrays the “countless untrained operators who use the yellow pages and flea market ads to solicit ‘incest work’ ” as the natural heirs of Freud, Crews displays both malice toward and ignorance about contemporary psychoanalysis. Perhaps most troubling to us is that in his singular emphasis on the so-called “false memory syndrome” and in his self-proclaimed mission to convince the public that it has been hoodwinked by Freud, Crews demonstrates little compassion for the suffering of the many women and men whose lives have been shattered by the need to adapt to traumatizing relationships with their destructive loved caretakers.

Richard B. Gartner, Ph.D.

Director, Sexual Abuse Program,

Co-Director, Center for the Study of Psychological Trauma,

William Alanson White Institute

Dodi Goldman, Ph.D.

Sexual Abuse Program

William Alanson White Institute

New York City

The following co-signers are also affiliated with the William Alanson White Institute:

Carol Albert, Ph.D.
Lori Caplowitz Bohm, Ph.D.
Judd Bortner, Ph.D.
Richard S. Briggs, Ph.D.
Olga Cheselka, Ph.D.
Berryl Fox, Ph.D.
Elizabeth Halsted, Ph.D.
Evelyn Hartman, Ph.D.
Helene Kafka, Ph.D.
Marylou Lionells, Ph.D.
Julie Jarett Marcuse, Ph.D.
Arlene McKay, Ph.D.
Bertram Schaffner, M.D.
Elena Skolnick, Ph.D.
Sarah Stemp, Ph.D.
Clark Sugg, M.D.
Meryl Weinman, Ph.D.
Charles Weinstock, M.D.
M. Margit Winckler, Ph.D.

The following co-signers have different affiliations:

Judith Alpert, Ph.D.,
New York University
Jody Messler Davies, Ph.D.,
and Mary Gail Frawley, Ph.D.,
authors, Treating the Adult Survivor of
Childhood Sexual Abuse:
A Psychoanalytic Perspective
Daniel Gensler, Ph.D.,
Postgraduate Center for Mental Health
Elizabeth Hegeman, Ph.D.,
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY
Adrienne Harris, Ph.D.,
New York University
Michelle Price, C.S.W.,
Director, Treatment Center for Incest and Abuse, Karen Horney Clinic,
Inc.Sue A. Shapiro, Ph.D.,
Director, Incest and Sexual Abuse Treatment Center,
Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis

To the Editors:

The current significant discourse on the issue of repressed memory is not well served by the the snide, contemptuous tone of Dr. Crews’ hit piece. Those of us who actually practice the professions of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy are also deeply concerned about the issues of truth and justice in this field, but polarizing the topic by vindictive, bitter and emotional attacks against those who disagree with you serves to shed no light on these vital questions, but only to polarize and alienate and thereby divert our search for wisdom. I am currently editing a book on the subject which will be published in 1995, Construction and Reconstruction of Memory in which my goal is to integrate the knowledge of a number of important writers and thinkers on this topic and hopefully further our understanding. I don’t believe Dr. Crews’ writing is a contribution to this much needed integration.

Specifically in reference to his personalized attack on me, please allow your readers to see the full statement from which Dr. Crews selected one phrase to quote: “we are looking for sexual abuse.” This gives a very distorted view of my thinking, which actually supports some of Dr. Crews’ concerns.

In 1973 and before, analysts were looking for penis envy. In 1990, we are looking for sexual abuse. It is true that, now as then, we are more likely to find what we are looking for—the subjective component of our scientific investigation. It is common for therapists today to see a great number of women patients reporting sexual abuse, because that is what they are reading about and hearing about on radio and television. Women in the 1950’s read and heard about happy housewives; they came to therapists distressed because they were unhappy and had concluded there must be something wrong with them. The analysts’ answer was that they envied their husbands. Patient and analyst are living in the same culture, and are being formed by similar trends. They may collude in what they believe is an accurate diagnosis of the patient’s problems. But because they are both culture-bound, the truth may elude them both. (1992, p. 207)

I hope this full quote will assure you and your readers that I am not the simpleton Dr. Crews would like you to believe I am.

But I am most disturbed by his vicious attacks on our patients, both my patient “Penelope” and Eileen Franklin Lipsker. His alleged concern for the welfare of all women and his specific concern for women patients is belied by his assaults on Lipsker and “Penelope.” As authors and speakers we take upon ourselves the risk that by sticking our necks out, someone might find some cruel satisfaction in cutting them off. But why attack our patients? This, in my mind, is unconscionable. To dismiss Mrs. Lipsker’s testimony by saying “as many observers perceived, she had a distinct taste for fame” is beneath contempt. And who are these “many observers”? Dr. Crews gives us no names or citations. And we then learn that Elizabeth Loftus who he so admires, as do I, appeared on a Faith Daniels talk show. Are we to conclude that Elizabeth Loftus is motivated solely by a “distinct taste for fame?” And what about writers who publish essays in the New York Review of Books, especially such highly controversial articles? Does that entitle me to question Dr. Crews’ motives and dismiss his intelligence because he has a “distinct taste for fame”?

As to my patient Penelope, he is most unfair and mean-spirited in his characterization of her as “frantic” and as a simple pawn who “surrendered” to pressure from me. “Penelope” is a highly intelligent and thoughtful woman and I really resent Crews’ insult to her. His disrespectful dismissal of me I can brush off as the product of a very bitter, unhappy and angry man, but please leave my patients out of it. Of course she is incensed by it. But how can one have a dialogue with someone who totally dismisses the concept of repression? It is futile. He even manages to convince himself that Ross Cheit, the Brown University professor, simply “refocused” his attention and just happened to be reading a book on pedophilia. I mean after all, don’t we all just happen to pick up books on pedophilia to read in our spare time? Might there have been just a touch of “suggestion” in the telephone conversation in which the no doubt surprised Dr. Cheit is questioned by Dr. Crews as to the source of his memory? I do wish to point out, however, that it is a lose-lose situation with these cynics. If I had made the diagnosis in the first weeks of therapy, I of course would be dismissed as a crank. But the fact that it took us fourteen years of work to be certain of the diagnosis means that my motive for this long treatment was “ideological or financial gain.” Give me a break.

Crews was most dishonest in referring to Penelope’s symptoms as overeating, drinking, and smoking. It stretches the imagination beyond limits to believe he simply forgot to mention that Penelope’s most serious symptom, and the one that led to my suspicion that she may have been sexually abused, was severe promiscuity. This symptom was completely relieved by our analysis. He states she left analysis with the same symptoms with which she entered. Living in the San Francisco Bay area, Crews must know that being able to completely stop a life long pattern of picking up men in bars could easily have saved her life in this AIDS infested city.

There is only one reference in this entire piece to the concept of dissociation, which is perhaps even more important than repression in these cases, and that is in the reference to a book Repression and Dissociation edited by Jerome L. Singer. I am curious, since Dr. Crews apparently read the book, why he never once mentions dissociation. That, in my view, is one of the key questions for our field. We are at fault for not being clear enough about the differentiation between these two mechanisms and that is one contribution I hope my forthcoming book will make. Crews has omitted the most important issue for us to address now, because it is in fact dissociation and not repression which is at the heart of the memory dilemma.

Charlotte Krause Prozan, L.C.S.W.

San Francisco, California

To the Editors:

I am “Penelope,” the patient whose case history Frederick Crews refers to in his mean-spirited comments regarding the work of my therapist, Charlotte Prozan, and her book The Technique of Feminist Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy.

Mr. Crews paints a picture for your readers of a Penelope who did not exist. First, and most seriously distorted, is his image of me as a helpless creature subject to the whims of a therapist with a wild agenda of her own. I put a tremendous amount of myself into the therapy process over years and years, knowing even at the most difficult times that my responsibility to myself was to confront the realities that my dreams, my behavior and, finally, my memories were so clearly indicating. (Crews states erroneously that I don’t recall any molestation. My memories leave me no doubt whatsoever of the fact that I was!) What is wrong with this man Crews that he must use belittling, sarcasm, and a snide, one-sentence summary of 15 years of my hard work on my dreams in an attempt to convince your readers that my therapist (who of course was spending an equally arduous 15 years) was only interested in being correctly aligned with the so-called prevailing winds. There could not be a better therapist than Ms. Prozan. If your readers wish to see for themselves true scholarship and conscientious professionalism on the subject of repressed memories of sexual abuse, they will surely find them in Ms. Prozan’s books.

Not only was I not helpless and misguided, I was not “frantic,” as I terminated this successful 15-year therapy which truly saved my life. I was instead healing. Weight loss, exercise regimens I still adhere to, a major promotion and success as a supervisor at work, and a dramatic decrease in depression are all the proof I need to confirm the effectiveness of my final years in therapy, learning how to be angry at the right person (yes, the man who molested me is a son of a bitch, and yes, it is his fault).

The real tragedy, completely missed by Crews, is that the serious damage inflicted by the molestation and subsequent repression could not have been attended to earlier. There were few tools, few therapists, and no recognition of the long-lasting effects of this crime when I was growing up. I am glad there now are, but I am nevertheless a woman bereft of children, and one who still has to work at learning to trust men.


To the Editors:

On a subject—repression and its relationship to memory and trauma—which deserves our most serious and even-handed consideration, Frederick Crews has indulged in the exact kind of overgeneralization and irresponsible assertion which so incenses him. Certainly, Mr. Crews is correct to feel that there is an extreme, fanciful, and destructive dimension to the recovery movement. I agree that people have been falsely accused of perpetrating crimes which they did not commit, and that is a terrible thing. Had he focused on describing this problem, Mr. Crews would have done us a most useful service. Instead, he has chosen to swallow whole one side of a complicated debate and to ignore much competing evidence. Sexual abuse is common, and the number of false memories is tiny compared to the prevalence of the real thing. Unfortunately,—like child abuse, or wife battering,—sexual abuse is difficult to face, and sometimes not accurately or completely remembered by its victims. I believe that it is very hard for everyone—victims, relatives, the society, perhaps even Mr. Crews to bear the cognitive dissonance with which the fact of abuse confronts our wish to live in a benign universe, and to love the people on whom we depend. For whatever reason, Mr. Crews has unjustly attacked courageous important work, and not adequately credited the real and ongoing harm done to victims of sexual abuse—some of whom may not remember what has happened to them.

Mr. Crews appears to be oblivious to the terrible suffering of trauma patients. In his scenario, a happy person is lured into the office of an irresponsible therapist, and emerges with new found pain that causes her to end her loving relationship with her innocent parents. But that is rarely the case for the real people who seek therapy. I wonder what questions Mr. Crews would feel one could legitimately ask a woman who presented for treatment frightened, filled with nightmares, hypervigilant, depressed, sexually numb, and who reported to him that ever since she was a child, she has gone to bed at night wearing many layers of clothes, and holding a large, sharp knife under her pillow—but she had no idea why. Should the psychotherapist seeing this patient not ever wonder about what might have happened to her in childhood to leave her so frightened? She might not have been sexually abused, but she might have been. A responsible therapist—faced with such a constellation of presenting symptoms—entertains both possibilities.

We live in a world where it is common for two people to be present at an event which no one else witnesses. One person has one version of what occurred, the other has a second. What can we find out about what happened? I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Crews, that individual memory is easily influenced and works mysteriously. But unlike him, I don’t think we yet understand this completely. Yes, it is possible for someone to listen to a story about something which did not happen, and to come to believe it happened. It is also possible for someone to witness something happening, and then to be talked out of the observation, so that he comes to doubt it, or even to deny it.

Furthermore, it appears that certain types of experiences get stored differently in the brain, and are retrieved differently—if at all. The arrogance with which Mr. Crews asserts that no one has ever had a repressed memory is at best hair-splitting and disingenuous. If he is unhappy with the word “repression,” what word would he use to describe the frequently observed phenomenon where people cannot recall events and situations at which they have been present? The fact is, by whatever name, things happen to people that they do not remember. Perhaps Mr. Crews does not remember an article in The New York Times after the brutal rape of the young woman jogger in Central Park which discussed why she had no memory of the incident. In certain situations, the brain does not record experience, or does so in a way which is inaccessible or only erratically accessible to conscious recall.

As a social worker who has practiced psychotherapy for many years, I have witnessed these phenomena and others. For instance, I have heard alcoholics recount their blackouts, and how they came to later, having participated in activities which they could not recall. I have seen how, if a witness starts to tell them what they did, they start to remember, and can then add details the witness has not stated. Perhaps their memories were not repressed, but they were not accessible without assistance. Because we may disagree about what to call this, should we deny that it happens? How should we understand it?

The memory and trauma battle is hot now because it is connected to so many important social issues. I think it is partly about the fear men have of women becoming slightly more powerful. I think it is partly about the limits of individual perception and how frightening that is in a culture that so privileges individuality. I think it is about health care and money—and how fashionable it is to trash the practice of long-term psychotherapy. All these issues deserve careful exploration, and I’m sorry they did not receive more of it from Mr. Crews.

Janna Malamud Smith, C.S.W.

Milton, Massachusetts

Frederick Crews replies:

Each of these letters addresses part of my reasoning in “The Revenge of the Repressed” but necessarily loses sight of the whole. A précis, then, is in order.

Our country, along with several others, has recently been caught up in a plague of false charges based on “memories” that fit the expectations of therapists who believe that any number of grave or trivial adult symptoms are strongly indicative of long-repressed sexual abuse. That belief lacks credible empirical support. There are sound reasons to distrust the techniques by which therapists and patients have been forming and bolstering their convictions about previously unremembered events. Some of those techniques originated in early beliefs of Freud’s that still flourish within psychoanalysis—beliefs, for example, in repression, the unconscious, the capacity of dreams and symptoms to disclose long-past traumatic events, and the need to lay primary therapeutic emphasis on a patient’s reconstructed early years. My essay ends by predicting that until the unfoundedness of the Freudian system becomes generally known, we can expect to keep encountering new forms of therapeutic mischief in the name of recovering “the repressed.”

Most of the letters above depict me as a callous person who lacks all compassion for victims of abuse. That is at best a misperception, at worst a smear. My essay does not focus on actual victims, except to acknowledge that some of them can indeed forget their abuse for long periods. I feel as much sympathy for them as my detractors do. But precisely because molestation is such a grave matter, we must condemn and rectify the casualness with which false accusations are now being generated within an ideologically inflamed therapeutic fad.

Theresa Reid is executive director of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children. Her letter is an adroit brief for her guild’s rank and file, making a token acknowledgment of improprieties by “some practitioners” (nonmembers, no doubt) but generally projecting a Panglossian contentment with the status quo. Our criminal justice system, she maintains, is doing a fine job of discriminating between innocent and guilty parties; the educational efforts of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation needn’t be credited, since some of its members may conceivably be pedophiles; and existing practices in the interrogation of small children leave little to be desired. The only significant flaw in the system, according to Reid, is that too few therapists have dedicated themselves to smoking out perpetrators.

Where to begin? Since APSAC is committed to the welfare of children, let me turn first to the matter of child interrogations. Reid apparently thinks that if humane guidelines have been issued by her organization, and if most practitioners follow those guidelines, there is nothing to worry about. But it is still a common enough occurrence for both “child protection” workers and police to overreact as soon as an excitable adult has voiced a suspicion that a day-care worker or relative may have been molesting children. Attention is concentrated upon those children who reject the adult’s hypothesis. Their punishment is to be subjected to frightening and humiliating physical poking and to repeated, relentless, prurient questioning. Both of those practices torment and corrupt initially truthful children, breaking down their sense of trust, arousing morbid fears about bodily invasion, and coaching them to confabulate.

Abusive practices of interrogation must be stopped altogether, not only because children are being psychologically damaged but because each case of coerced testimony bears the potentiality of condemning innocent adults to prison. One such case, that of the New Jersey day-care teacher Margaret Kelly Michaels, is in the news even as I write. Michaels had been convicted on 115 counts of sexual abuse after a three-year-old was heard to make a suggestive remark about her behavior, and the witch hunt got under way. She served five years of her 47-year sentence before being released when an appellate panel of judges ruled that “her trial was full of egregious prosecutorial abuses, including questioning of the children that planted suggestions, tainting their testimony” (The New York Times, 12/3/94).

That is progress, of course; and New Jersey’s Supreme Court, unlike most others, has recently taken cognizance of the need for noncoercive questioning and for videotaped records of initial interviews with children in criminal cases. But Theresa Reid’s near-perfect system clearly failed Margaret Kelly Michaels. So, too, it failed the Massachusetts school-bus driver Robert C. Halsey, who is serving two consecutive life terms for far-fetched misdeeds unwitnessed by any adults; and Frank Fuster, whom Janet Reno helped to put away for 165 years in another bizarre and fantasy-ridden case in Florida; and Robert Fulton Kelly, Jr., who is serving twelve consecutive life terms in the North Carolina case whose fraudulence was exposed in the PBS documentary Innocence Lost. Kelly will be eligible for parole in 240 years.

It can be seen, I trust, that when Theresa Reid refers to the “light sentences” received by child abusers, she is mostly referring to the fate of actual sex criminals, who are caught abusing a single child, and who are therefore eager to plea bargain. It is no coincidence that life terms tend to be reserved for the innocent, since, in a climate of rumor and panic, one false accusation against an individual easily breeds many others.

As for standards of therapeutic prudence, Reid expresses satisfaction that the “most admired” authorities caution against reliance on drugs and hypnosis to extract memories. The fact that other admired authorities say the opposite and that those tools continue to be widely employed does not appear to interest her.3 Moreover, she misses the more crucial point that drugs and hypnosis are not needed for generating false memories; one needs only a vulnerable client, a therapist who is strongly predisposed to regard symptoms as “consistent with abuse,” and a copy of The Courage to Heal—which is, pace Reid, overwhelmingly the most widely consulted and recommended book in the field.4

Reid sneers at Mark Pendergrast, an investigative journalist whose well-researched book she hasn’t even seen, for his inability to find a mainstream publisher. When she does peruse Victims of Memory, she will find that it discusses the runaround Pendergrast was given by major houses, which wanted no part of an “accused perpetrator”—even though an earlier work of his was chosen by The New York Times as one of the “Notable Books” of 1993. Reid tries to incite Pendergrast’s prospective readers to sustain that ostracism, just as she warns them away from the unsavory FMSF. But it is her own tactics that are truly unsavory. To slander cogent and important presentations of evidence by implying that the presenters may be sex criminals is the McCarthyism of the Nineties.5

Reid counts me among those naive people who refuse to believe that widespread child abuse occurs. My essay, however, makes repeated mention of that abuse, while continually seeking to emphasize the need to differentiate between real and ersatz cases. That Reid herself lacks any real concern to do so is manifested in her statement that as many as 85 percent of all psychotherapy patients were abused as children. Games with statistics are rife in this field, but it is safe to infer that a figure as wild as that one came from investigators who not only define abuse very broadly but also add questionable “repressed” cases into their totals. It is Reid who is credulous here; she is counting claims of abuse that are confided to importuning therapists as if they had been authenticated.6

On the issue of whether repression exists, Reid displays her taste for “measured” and “responsible” stands by implying that only a fanatic would want to reach any conclusions from the “vast scientific literature” out there. When generally accepted criteria of scientific judgment are applied to that literature, however, the full-blown psychoanalytic concept of repression can be seen to lack appreciable independent support—independent, that is, of Freudian question begging. And that fact is crucial for determining whether “expert witnesses” should be allowed to indoctrinate juries in the folklore of repression, to say nothing of the zanier “robust repression” that figures in most recovered memory cases.7

Reid beclouds the issue by invoking “variously defined memory lapses” that no one would dispute, including organically determined traumatic amnesia and imperfect recall of remembered events. The key question that she tries to obscure is whether therapeutically generated memories of otherwise unknown and biographically anomalous early events tend to get corroborated by hard evidence. The answer is: Never! That is why the seeming rationality of Reid’s “moderate” position—some memories are true and some are false—is deceptive. In view of the facts, it amounts to middle-of-the-road extremism.

Reid’s letter, approved by a 47-member board of directors, is a disservice not only to truth and fair play but also to children, who suffer when family members are needlessly pitted against one another, and who can still be torn away from their parents, during rumor panics, by overzealous “child protection” functionaries and police. 8 I hope that those members of APSAC who actually care about the welfare of the helpless will hold their leadership accountable for Reid’s whistle-while-you-work response to a national tragedy.

Richard B. Gartner, Dodi Goldman, and their 27 cosigners write in the hope of putting maximum distance between the excesses of the recovered memory movement and their own psychoanalytically oriented practice. But they offer few clues to how that practice deals with issues of memory. Do they, for example, take pains to distinguish between real and false reports of abuse, and if so, on what basis? Have they renounced the traditional Freudian belief that childhood fantasies of incest are as pathogenic as actual rape? Do they concentrate on their patients’ supposed infancy and early childhood, or do they address contemporary problems as such?9

And how long, and at what expense, do Gartner et al. typically treat an identified incest survivor? Without this last information, we have no way of knowing whether the therapy offered by Gartner et al. is a cost-effective and humane response to victims’ unique needs or a hewing to the Freudian norm—namely, the subjecting of all patients, regardless of their complaints, to the same roundabout regimen on the couch.

Gartner et al. are surely disingenuous in chiding me for believing that “contemporary analysts…advocate traditional hypnosis or suggestion when treating abused individuals.” My essay makes no such ridiculous claim. It does, however, emphasize suggestion in a quite different and more important sense: the subtly induced compliance of a subordinate party with a dominant party’s wishes and beliefs. That is the epistemic flaw not only in recovered memory treatment but also within all “clinical evidence” gathered by psychoanalysts. Gartner et al. show no sign of even beginning to come to grips with it, and neither do the papers I have read that bear the imprimatur of the William Alanson White Institute.

I fail to see why Gartner et al. think they are refuting me by pointing to studies showing the noncontroversial fact that some people forget early incidents of molestation. Perhaps, however, the authors mean to put in a subliminal plug for repression, a concept that they otherwise manifestly shun. Since they raise the point, I will mention that the main account they cite, that of Linda Meyer Williams, fails to take adequate account of the difference between second-hand knowledge about abuse and purported memory of abuse, or between the significance of non-recall dating back to age twelve years and of that dating back to age ten months. And since nearly all of Williams’s women who failed to remember one target incident did recall others, even the most sanguine construction of her results leaves the idea of chronic repression unsupported.10

The same point applies to another concept, dissociation, that Gartner et al., in concert with many other memory therapists, are suddenly finding more congenial than repression. That mechanism rests on no firmer scientific basis, but it comes with a record of medical overreaching that is considerably more lurid. In making mention of “the individual’s multiple experiences of self and others,” the signers would appear to be endorsing the latest folly countenanced by the American Psychiatric Association, “dissociative identity disorder.” As I mentioned in my essay, that is just a cosmetic name for multiple personality disorder (MPD). However designated, MPD is a preponderantly or entirely iatrogenic (and now, in both senses of the term, telegenic) phenomenon whose main promoters constitute the Satan-fearing lunatic fringe of present-day psychiatry. If Gartner et al. are looking to shore up their scientific respectability, they have turned in exactly the wrong direction.

A propos, one of Gartner’s recommended texts, Davies and Frawley’s Treating the Adult Survivor of Child Sexual Abuse, places MPD at the far end of a dissociative continuum and, citing “the best psychiatric literature on the subject,” passes along the ludicrous judgment that “between 88% and 97% of all multiple personalities have experienced significant sexual and/or physical abuse in childhood (Putnam, 1989; Ross, 1989)” (p. 76). Aficionados of MPD will recognize these “best” authorities as Frank Putnam, who uses hypnosis and age regression to locate “alters” in patients who weren’t previously suspected of being MPD candidates, and Colin Ross, who is on record as believing that since the 1940s, the CIA has been using drugs, electroshock, sensory deprivation, and “enforced memorization” to create Manchurian candidates whom he must deprogram. These are evidently the giants of “modern medicine” to whom Gartner et al. now wish to entrust the desperate fortunes of psychoanalysis.

To judge from her letter, Charlotte Krause Prozan, too, has recently become a fan of dissociation, an idea that is only glancingly mentioned in her 562-page book of 1993, The Technique of Feminist Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy. But that book does embody Prozan’s enduring diagnostic and therapeutic principles, which now deserve a closer look. My essay argued that psychoanalysis stands closer to recovered memory theory and practice than its adherents will admit, but Prozan has actually managed to fuse the worst of both traditions, achieving, in the showcase example of “Penelope,” an outcome whose significance neither Prozan nor Penelope herself now appears able to grasp.

Prozan’s starting point is a desire to retain as much of psychoanalysis as can be reconciled with “feminism,” which she construes not as a multifarious sociopolitical movement but as a unitary body of proven theory about the mind. On one side, she looks to Freud for her faith in repression, the unconscious, and the symbolic decoding of dreams. “Were it not for my knowledge of dream interpretation,” she acknowledges, “I might never have known that Penelope had been sexually abused as a child by a trusted friend of the family….”11 But the psychoanalytic Freud, of course, could not have spurred Prozan to pursue her hunch; for that purpose, “feminism” came to the rescue. In 1977, Prozan relates, she read one feminist article dealing with the prevalence of consciously remembered abuse, and presto, “the case of Penelope developed into an example of repressed sexual seduction and rape” (p. 248). Penelope thus became the guinea pig for a novice memory therapist who, in her own words “had never been able to bring back an actual case of molestation…, and so…had had to piece it together as best I could from symptoms, memory traces, screen memories, and dream analysis” (p. 262).

“The clinician,” Prozan writes, “must be able to recognize symptoms of incest and have the emotional capacity to accept the patient and elicit the details” (p. 250). Needless to say, this is rather different from discriminating between reliable and specious signs of abuse. Prozan tells us that she takes direction, not from the prudent authorities alluded to by Theresa Reid, but from the “incest survivors’ aftereffects checklists” provided in E. Sue Blume’s Secret Survivors and, predictably, in the early editions of The Courage to Heal (pp. 310-311). Indeed, she regularly commends Bass and Davis’s work to her patients, and she told Penelope about Secret Survivors just as soon as it appeared in 1990, while Penelope was in her fourteenth and final year of trying to remember the molestation scene that Prozan continually urged upon her (p. 280).

These facts bear upon Prozan’s charge that I quoted her out of context when I had her saying that analysts today “are looking for sexual abuse.” To be sure, that phrase was plucked from a paragraph in which Prozan displayed a momentary realization that diagnoses are subject to fashion. But in the larger context of her two books and her self-described “leading the witness” (p. 267) in Penelope’s case, the quotation accurately reflects her policy. Indeed, to say that Prozan merely “looks for” abuse would be a considerable understatement.

Penelope herself now informs readers of The New York Review that she did remember being anally raped at age nine, but Prozan cannot bring herself to endorse that claim. How could she, when her book is explicit about Penelope’s acquisition of “insight into her emotional state as a child without specific memory” (p. 308; italics added)? If by now Penelope has turned her “insight” into visions, that proves only that she has persisted in the work of self-deception so strenuously facilitated by Prozan.

Prozan chides me for failing to grant that Penelope’s “most serious symptom,” sexual promiscuity, was “relieved by our analysis.” That behavior did indeed abate, whether or not through Prozan’s ministrations. But readers who study the case history will discover that Penelope’s sexual habits receive minor emphasis, and for a good reason. She picked up men in bars only “in the beginning of her therapy,” thereafter progressing to a still troubling “married-man syndrome” that she was unable to overcome (pp. 23-24). If Prozan had turned this modest gain into the centerpiece of her case, as she now belatedly attempts to do, she would have had to explain why the hunt for the missing memory of rape had to continue for another dozen years or so.12

Now Penelope declares that she was “healing” for all of her fifteen years under Prozan’s care. Again, however, the book tells a different story. Not only were Penelope’s highlighted behavioral problems still in evidence at termination, but Prozan’s narrative is a saga of thwarted efforts on Penelope’s part to overcome an emotional bondage (alias “transference”) that was preventing meaningful advances. Penelope “acknowledged that at times her smoking, drinking, and overeating were done with a sense of secret rebellion in relation to me and made her feel free and independent” (p. 27); and

I made many interpretations that Penelope was afraid I would be angry if she lost weight, was successful with men, and left me. At other times she expressed the wish for termination at points in the therapy when she still had considerable work to do on her molestation, saying she believed that if she left therapy she could lose weight. This idea was both an avoidance of the frightening subject of her sexual molestation and also a recognition that the dependency tie to me required, in her mind, that she remain overweight. (pp. 187–188)

Prozan and Penelope both criticize me for saying that Penelope turned frantic as termination approached. But Prozan’s case notes for the period show Penelope weeping frequently both in therapy sessions and at home, worrying about her ability to be self-possessed on her own, repeatedly feeling “very distressed” (pp. 303, 305), and telling Prozan that “I’m afraid to stop therapy, I might lose control” (p. 303). In the same period, however, she ceased doubting Prozan’s diagnosis and began interpreting her own dreams in Prozan’s single-minded style. That is what Prozan in her case notes proudly calls “working independently” (p. 293). Instead, as I maintained, it seems to have constituted an intellectual surrender in the face of prospective abandonment.

None of this is meant to dispute the fact that Penelope is now feeling better and conducting herself more self-assertively than she did under Prozan’s tutelage. Indeed, according to Prozan’s book, a dramatic improvement commenced just as soon as the therapy was over—resulting, for example, in a thirty-pound weight loss within Penelope’s first six months of freedom (p. 309). Neither Prozan nor Penelope can detect the irony in that fact—although, as we have seen, there were prior signs of Penelope’s well-founded belief that “if she left therapy she could lose weight.”13

As I suggested in my essay, experienced psychoanalysts will deplore this case history, but it is less parodic of their own work than they might wish. Like Penelope, many an orthodox Freudian patient finds in the “transference” a tar baby rather than a clear path to independence and relief. And what is there to choose between mining dreams for knowledge of abuse and for standard oedipal content? In either case the “unconscious meaning” is produced through circular operations that lack even a semblance of empirical authorization.

Two other points raised in Prozan’s letter remain to be clarified. First, I have never phoned Ross Cheit; he surprised me with a call after I had sent him a letter posing a number of questions. And second, Eileen Lipsker’s “taste for fame” (and money) expressed itself variously and was often remarked around the time of the George Franklin trial; see pages 173-175, 181-182, 184, 216, 328-329, and 478 of Harry N. MacLean’s Once Upon a Time: A True Story of Memory, Murder, and the Law (Harper-Collins, 1993). If Prozan recognizes no moral difference between writing an article that denounces a horrendous epidemic of malpractice and getting a Hollywood agent to negotiate the book and movie rights to one’s adventures shortly before obtaining a questionable murder verdict against one’s father, I am at a loss to help her.

Janna Malamud Smith falls into a number of traps that may look familiar by now. She confounds the immediately detected molestation of children with recovered memory cases; she fails to distinguish between inaccurate or incomplete memory and the full obliteration of a painful incident; she fails to note how the organically accountable amnesia of an alcoholic or of a severely battered victim of mugging differs from the alleged repression of entire years’ worth of habitual fondling or rape; and she puts a glib political gloss on an issue that is ultimately ethical and practical—namely, whether psychotherapists shouldn’t finally begin making due allowance for human suggestibility and for their own role in exploiting it, however inadvertently and with whatever benign intentions.

Smith does raise one issue that must be on many readers’ minds: What should a therapist do with a patient who shows every sign of having been abused? First, there are no empirically established behavioral patterns that point unambiguously to abuse; the recovered memory literature on this topic consists of reckless speculation. Even the extremely disturbed patient conjured by Smith would not automatically qualify as a survivor. Thus, to assume the contrary and begin probing for memories of molestation would be to risk heading down the path of mutual error and misplaced vengefulness.

And second, no one, either in the psychoanalytic tradition or in the newer school of Bass and Davis, has shown that the exhuming of distant memories is psychologically beneficial at all, much less that it is a treatment of choice—and there is much evidence that it can prove destructive, even to the point of inducing suicide. I would hope that Smith could address her patient’s current symptoms, feelings, attitudes, and ideas in the hope not of “reconstructing” a dubiously accurate early history but of fortifying the patient to deal with the challenges lying directly before her.

I should add that psychotherapists rarely meet an initial cluster of symptoms as drastic as the one Smith portrays—unless, of course, the patient has already been damaged by other recovered memory therapists and is being handed down toward the movement’s hell, the MPD ward. The stories of brutal antipsychiatry that are beginning to reach us from that quarter will, I predict, launch the wave of public nausea and outrage that will finally put a stop to “therapy” surrounding so-called repressed memories.

This Issue

January 12, 1995