Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

A CURIOUS BLIND SPOT 

October 15, 2002

 

The scandal of sexual abuse was once a taboo subject. That has dramatically changed: however, it appears that a new taboo has taken its place 

We now know that sexual abuse, even of the most helpless and very young, occurred more often than we had realized and were prepared to admit. Obviously, we need to be vigilant in preventing this horrific evil from happening.  Prevention is especially urgent for churches, a place where the weak and helpless should find safety and protection. 

But in our efforts to prevent sexual abuse, we have allowed another evil through the backdoor and it is no less devastating than actual instances of abuse. This evil occurs when people are falsely accused. Its impact is especially devastating when the alleged victims are children. Overnight the good name of the accused is destroyed, regardless of the truth of the accusation.  And who will defend or befriend a person accused of molesting children? 

You may think that anyone who accuses someone of this great evil would only do so if the charge were true. And there is good reason to think that most accusations of sexual abuse are true. But even If only a small percentage of the accused are innocent, the effect on them and their families is utterly ruinous. 

Some accusations of sexual abuse are clearly fraudulent, and the accuser knows very well that they are not true. But in other cases, things are more complicated. And that has everything to do with the growing popularity during the last two decades of the so-called recovered memory therapy (RMT). 

This type of therapy is based on the assumption that when women experience emotional difficulties in their teens or even much later in life, the most likely reason is that they were sexually abused as young children. If they forgot or repressed any memory of their abuse (as a means to cope with something that was too horrible to accept as real) it is the task of therapists to help them recall what really happened. Without such recall and facing their perpetrator(s), the abused are unable to be freed from the emotional trauma that is the cause of their problems. Healing from the wounds of childhood abuse is painful and often requires lengthy and costly therapy. 

Thus was born a branch of psychology and therapy that has become hugely controversial, with the line between pro and con advocates clearly drawn. Why the heated controversy and the drawn battle lines? I want to mention two reasons.

A Nuclear Bomb

In the first place, recovered memory therapy has had an impact on the lives of untold persons and families in North America that has been nothing short of disastrous.  This kind of therapy has turned out to be the nuclear bomb dropped on unsuspecting targets. Thousands of families in North America have been torn apart, marriages dissolved, careers ruined, and the resulting anger and grief has poisoned lives all around. 

Many women who underwent therapy to cope with emotional difficulties gradually were led to believe that even though they had good memories of their childhood, those memories were in fact hiding an awful truth. Namely, that they had been molested even at a very young age by their father or some other member of their family. This  discovery” caused them to   totally change their minds about their childhood as they till now had remembered it. They now realized the truth about the terrible things that had been done to them. As they progressed through therapy, some began to recall a pattern of increasingly bizarre abuse that continued into their teens, resulted in pregnancy, forced abortions, and even participation in the weirdest kinds of satanic cult rituals. 

In a number of widely reported cases, the employees of nursery schools were charged and convicted of abusing little children. On appeal, some of those verdicts were eventually reversed, but in the meantime people were jailed, careers ruined and lives disrupted, both in the U.S. and in this country. (See, e.g., Nancy Hass, “Margaret Kelly Michaels Wants her Innocence Back,” NYTM, Sept 10, 1995, pp. 37 ff.; for a Canadian case, see Shafer Parker, “Caution: Children Being Interrogated,” Western Report, May 22, 1995, pp. 25, ff.; Margaret Wente, “Satanic Panic Attack,” Globe and Mail, August 1, 2002, p. A21.) 

The harshest shock came to parents and grandparents who were suddenly confronted with an accusation of the worst possible crime by their very own daughters and granddaughters. The devastation was immediate. Relations between parents and daughters were shattered, often permanently. The strain on marriages was too much for many and parents and grandparents ended up heart broken, isolated and embittered about a system that had destroyed what was most precious to them. 

One such person is Reinder Van Til, whose book Lost Daughters: Recovered Memory Therapy & the People it Hurts, Eerdmans, 19997, describes in heartbreaking details how many families (including his own) were destroyed or nearly so by accusations that were not based on reality but resulted from a ideology-driven therapy that tears apart instead of heals. 

A Questionable Theory 

The second reason why this kind of therapy has stirred up bitter controversy and anger is its underlying assumption about human sexuality and the function of memory. Not surprisingly, Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychoanalysis plays an important role in all of this. However, while at first he believed that incest was the source of women’s “neuroses” and that the memory of it could be retrieved by hypnosis, he later changed his mind and concluded that these “neurotic symptoms” were not related to actual events but more to “psychical” than “material reality.”   

The one book that has done more than any other publication to popularize the theory of repressed memory of childhood sexual abuse is The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, first published in 1988. This 600-page book is a record of many women’s horrific, though often “forgotten” experience of sexual abuse suffered in their childhood, No doubt many of these stories are true and this book helped them to come to grips with their past sufferings and get on with their lives. However, Bass and Davis focus on those troubled women who are unsure whether or not they suffered sexual abuse. And this is where the theory and the practice get very shaky. 

Bass and Davis believe that women who experience a list of troublesome feelings can most likely trace these back to the sexual abuse they suffered as very young children although they no longer remember these experiences. Here is an incomplete list of the symptoms that are said to be indications of previous abuse: a feeling of powerlessness, of being different from others, lacking motivation, believing that there is something wrong with you, feeling self-destructive, lonely and alienated, experiencing difficulty with relationships, hating yourself, unable to enjoy life, afraid to succeed, trying to be perfect, suffering from eating disorders, having trouble sleeping. This list goes on and on.  

Are they not the kind of feelings that most of us experience at one time or other in our lives, yet learn to overcome them more or less successfully and manage to get on with life? But Bass and Davis want to suggest to women who encounter these symptoms that they need to search their memories to see whether they have been the victims of sexual abuse perhaps many years ago. They write that starting to remember again that you were abused begins with “a tiny feeling, an intuition,” and they advise their readers to trust that inner voice. “Assume your feelings are valid.” 

In the original edition of The Courage to Heal, the authors stated that no one they talked to who thought she might have been abused, later on discovered that her suspicions were wrong. They wrote that the process always goes from suspicion to confirmation. “If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were.”  However, by the time the third edition was published Bass and Davis could not deny that some who said they had been abused, subsequently recanted. So their statements were toned down, but only somewhat. The sentence just quoted became: “If you genuinely think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, there’s a strong likelihood that you were.” (26,Italics added)   

This book with its horror stories of abuse and its destructive consequences for many women became a bestseller. Women devoured it and testified that it had changed their lives. They were deeply grateful to the authors for giving them an outlet for their feelings and a place to tell their stories. Some refer to this book as their bible that helped them cope with and overcome the hurt that they had suffered. 

I do not want to diminish the seriousness and pain of sexual abuse, nor of the magnitude of this evil often suffered in silence and inflicting an overwhelming sense of defeat and brokenness. Nonetheless, this book’s main premise about recovered memory therapy has encountered a lot of deserved criticism The most weighty objection surely must be that the authors’ view of religion is more in tune with an Oprah-type spirituality than with the historic Christian faith. ( pp. 166-171) 

Some Counter Voices 

All I can do in this article is to refer you to some of the literature on this topic that I have found extremely helpful. 

 In addition to the book by Reinder Van Til, I can recommend the books and articles by Elizabeth Loftus who is the author (together with Katherine Ketcham) of The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse, St Martin’s Press, 1994.  Loftus is professor of psychology and law at the University of Washington and has written extensively on this topic. Her main objections are that humans are very susceptible to suggestions and that the evidence for the major premise of this kind of therapy is non-existent. 

Her book covers all the aspects of this subject, often on the basis of extensive interviews, experiments to see how memory functions and can mislead, reports of interrogations and court cases, as well as a fascinating discussion with one of the authors of The Courage to Heal to Heal. She dissects with a fine scalpel the techniques used in this kind of therapy, such as the use of hypnotism, guided imagery, dreams, flashback, leading questions, group therapy, and journal writing. 

One more book I consider indispensable for all who want to be better acquainted with this kind of therapy is Mark Pendergrast’s Victims of Memory: Sex Abuse Accusations and Shattered Lives (Upper Access, 1996). This, too, is a very thorough and readable treatment of the false accusation syndrome that covers every angle of this troublesome subject. He knows from experience how dreadful the effect of this kind of therapy can be. Both his daughters “discovered” in therapy that their father had sexually abused them.  They cut all ties with him, and his wife demanded a divorce. If you only read one book, this is the one to select. 

The battle lines between those who believe in the reliability of the recovered memory therapy and its critics are clearly drawn. The authors of The Courage to Heal are filled with righteous indignation and prompted by a religious zeal that brooks no dissenters. The critics, however, are convinced that this book is dangerous and lends credence to a theory that has contributed to the suffering of innocent people. Anyone daring to enter this debate better have a bullet proof vest and be prepared for some painful scars. Just watch the letters to the editor. 

This topic is not one I would choose flippantly. It is emotionally loaded for very obvious reasons. It concerns the most intimate relations that we are born into: the family. This is a place where children should always feel safe and protected The brutal truth is that all too many children experience it as place where their innocence is destroyed and the most sacred trust between parent and child is violated. 

So before you fire off that letter to the editor, remember that this article is not in the first place about the horror of childhood sexual abuse. It is about something different, yet something that is just as evil and destructive; people accused of something horrendous they did not do.  

Given the aura that now surrounds this issue and the ideology that is driving much of current psychiatry and therapy, there is great reluctance to face the reality of false accusations today. That is the new taboo, which now needs to be faced squarely, just as much as we had to face up to the horror of sexual abuse in the first place. The literature about this is just too convincing, We can no longer claim ignorance and continue to turn a blind eye, while innocent fathers, mothers and whole families suffer grievously.

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