Truth and reconciliation

Incest accusations of the recovered-memory craze tore families apart. Now one of its leaders wants to let bygones be bygones.

Published May 22, 2002 10:15PM (EDT)

"For ten years of my life, the fact that I had been sexually abused was the principle around which I organized my existence," writes Laura Davis, coauthor of the phenomenally popular and influential "bible" for abuse survivors, "The Courage to Heal," in her surprising new book, "I Thought We'd Never Speak Again: The Road From Estrangement to Reconciliation."

In her 20s, after a tumultuous adolescence, Davis began to remember her grandfather molesting her when she was a child. But when she told her mother about the abuse, her mother refused to believe it, and their previous "rocky" relationship became "a shambles." For a decade Davis was completely alienated from her mother's side of the family. "My rule was simple: if you believed me, you were in; if you didn't, you were out."

In an e-mail interview, Davis told me that she had to separate herself from her mother because people can't recover from their experiences of sexual abuse in childhood "when the reality of their experience is constantly being minimized or challenged ... I couldn't afford any kind of reconciliation with my mother until I knew my own truth and had done enough healing to keep my own equilibrium when I was with her. Once I accomplished that, and only then, could I consider the possibility of reconciliation."

Davis' experience in finding her way back to her family -- even though her mother still will not believe the accusations against Davis' grandfather -- formed the genesis of "I Thought We'd Never Speak Again." The book encompasses a wide range of injuries and estrangements, and it details many reconciliation strategies, including one that brought together Israeli and Palestinian teenagers. Yet Davis' prominent role in the notorious fin-de-siècle growth of "recovered memories" of childhood sexual abuse will inevitably draw attention to the parts of "I Thought We'd Never Speak Again" that deal with family reconciliations after accusations of abuse.

Recovered-memory therapy and books that uncritically supported it were all the rage in the late '80s and early '90s. In the space of a few years, thousands upon thousands of people -- the vast majority of them women -- somehow came to believe that their parents hadn't just failed them in the usual ways, but were in reality incestuous monsters who had covered up a lifetime of unspeakable sexual abuses.

"The Courage to Heal," first published in 1988, was a catalytic phenomenon in the midst of the madness. It was widely recommended on television, in magazines, by friends, by feminist groups, and by psychotherapists when their patients first entered therapy. It sold like hot cakes, and its influence was incalculable.

No one I talked to about Davis' books denies that incest and the sexual abuse of children are real and serious problems, and most think that they are far more common than many of us would like to believe. Everyone welcomes the support and understanding that books like "The Courage to Heal" (subtitled "A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse") can give to people who have genuinely been sexually abused in childhood.

But "The Courage to Heal" also uncritically accepted -- some say actively promoted -- the idea that "repressed memories" of childhood sexual abuse could be the cause of many ordinary psychological and emotional dysfunctions in adult life. In the process, say critics, Davis was a major contributor to thousands of family breakups, lawsuits and estrangements that never should have happened. Now many of them find Davis' new book on reconciliation to be a bitterly ironic follow-up to the damage they feel "The Courage to Heal" has done.

Davis concedes that a very small number of people might have a more or less legitimate beef, but she feels that she and Ellen Bass, her coauthor on "The Courage to Heal," did far more good than harm. "Whenever you make a strong stand in the world, particularly when you deal with issues that have been hidden, you invite a strong reaction," she told me. "Ellen Bass and I have been compared to God and to the anti-Christ. Hundreds of thousands of people have told us that we have saved their lives, and a few have said that we ruined their lives."

The theory that adult psychological dysfunction could be caused by the repressed memories of childhood trauma was first promulgated by Sigmund Freud more than a century ago. It assumes that people can somehow store or imprint complete memories of traumatic events somewhere in their brains but entirely separated from normal consciousness. Memories of early abuse can be buried so deep, the theory goes, that people can live their whole lives thinking they had relatively normal childhoods -- or even happy ones.

Yet all along they will manifest the "hidden trauma" in physical symptoms or dysfunctional behavior. Later -- even decades later -- with the help of psychoanalytic techniques like hypnosis, sodium Amytal ("truth serum") and "guided imagery" -- which also dramatically increase suggestibility and encourage fragmentary states of consciousness -- people can recall the repressed events with perfect clarity. The overarching idea is that once people have recovered these hidden traumas and exposed them to their conscious minds, their psychological difficulties will be cured.

In the first edition of "The Courage to Heal," Bass and Davis actively encouraged women to believe they had been abused, even if the women themselves initially had doubts about it. "So far, no one we've talked to thought she might have been abused and then later discovered that she hadn't been," they wrote. "The progression always goes the other way, from suspicion to confirmation. If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were."

By the third edition (1994), however, Bass and Davis began to back away from their reassuring certainties. They still tell their readers that "you don't need the kind of proof that would stand up in a court of law," but the blanket validation of all recovered memories is gone. In the revision the authors write (changes in italics): "It is rare that someone thinks she was sexually abused and then later discovers she wasn't. The progression usually goes the other way, from suspicion to confirmation. If you genuinely think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, there is a strong likelihood that you were."

Why the changes? "There were ways information in the first edition was misconstrued," Davis says, "that we couldn't have possibly anticipated when we wrote the book." Misconstrued or not, by the mid-'90s it was impossible even for the most militant believer in repressed memories to ignore the spectacular embarrassments in the field. At their worst, those included now discredited reports of a vast, meticulously organized, multigenerational satanic conspiracy, operating worldwide, that committed thousands of undetected atrocities every year -- from child rape to human sacrifice and cannibalism.

The fundamental problem was that there is absolutely no way, theoretically or practically, to separate iatrogenic (treatment induced) fantasies from memories that might have genuinely been uncovered in therapy. So the intractable logical problem for supporters of recovered-memory therapy was -- and remains -- how to recognize and disavow manifestly untrue or impossible "memories" without calling the entire concept of recovered memory into question.

There's been a lot of tap-dancing and ground shifting in survivor support communities over the last few years as they've grappled with this conundrum. The third edition of "The Courage to Heal" included a 60-page section addressing the "backlash" that arose against recovered-memory therapy during the '90s. The way Bass and Davis addressed the controversy in that section is representative of the survivor community's response: First, claim that science has proved the existence of repressed memories and that it therefore completely validates the theoretical basis for recovered-memory therapy. Second, drastically minimize the problem of false memories and throw the blame for them onto a marginal portion of the therapeutic community. Third, accuse those who question recovered-memory therapy of wanting to minimize the seriousness of child sexual abuse or, worse, of actively protecting perpetrators.

Science actually says very little in support of the concept of massive repression/pristine recovery. Some forms of repression do seem to exist, depending on how the word is defined, but they don't fulfill the criteria needed to support recovered-memory therapy. The theoretical mechanisms of repression -- like the systematic forgetting of, or a complete dissociation from, a traumatic experience -- also ensure that a memory will be distorted or never encoded at all.

When I asked Davis in e-mail whether her modifications to "The Courage to Heal" acknowledged the concept of false memories, she wrote, "Although I support survivors with all my heart, and believe that most people claiming to have been 'falsely accused' are perpetrators in hiding, there have been instances in which people have been mistakenly accused (though this is a far smaller number than the proponents of 'false memory' claim)." So although to Davis it's not a large or important problem, "nevertheless, if even one person is falsely accused of anything, it is a terrible tragedy, and I have great sympathy for anyone in that situation. I pray every day for those families to find healing and peace."

Some defenders of recovered-memory therapy have defended themselves by arguing that questioning the reality of the memories is also psychologically and socially damaging to "cognizant victims," people who have always remembered the abuse they suffered as children. They believe, for example, that acknowledging that Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was falsely accused by a young man who recovered -- and later recanted -- "memories" of his supposed molestation will have a negative impact on the claims of legitimate victims of priestly pedophiles today. In a sense that's true, because the controversy has intensified the doubt regarding delayed disclosures of childhood sexual abuse. But many of those who didn't have to "recover" memories of their childhood abuse, like those who are speaking up about Catholic priests today, blame the current climate of doubt on the excesses of the recovered-memory movement itself, and not those who question it.

Charlotte Vale Allen, a cognizant survivor of childhood sexual abuse whose 1977 book "Daddy's Girl" brought the subject of incest out into the open, wrote to an "accusation survivor" group 20 years later about how "infuriating" she found the recovered-memory movement: "The very notion of assisted 'recovered memories' drives me wild ... After my father's death, I took it upon myself to reveal our well-kept secret in the hope that it would help others. For a long time it has done just that. However, I despair of the idea that 'Daddy's Girl' might now become the equivalent of that underground 'cookbook' on how to make home-made bombs; that it might be used as a manual on how to appear to be a victim ... I fear that this profitable trend of 'recovering memories' will serve only to silence genuine victims."

After their discussion, in the third edition of "The Courage to Heal," of the many reasons why the "backlash" should not be countenanced, Bass and Davis nevertheless knuckle under to it and admit that "mistakes were made." They proceed to offer advice to women who might be doubting whether their treatment has really uncovered genuine memories, acknowledging that a "few" bad therapists might have caused a "few" patients to develop mistaken memories.

But irresponsible therapy techniques were only part of the reason for the vast eruption of "recovered memories" in that era. The explosion of accusations and family destruction was nurtured during a decade of an immense, almost hysterical popularization of the idea that many common social and emotional problems were caused by repressed histories of childhood sexual abuse. Books like "The Courage to Heal" fed directly into that zeitgeist and actively encouraged people to assume that if they were in psychological distress, repressed childhood sexual abuse was very likely the cause. Therapists convinced that the problem was widespread used hypnosis and considerable powers of suggestion to persuade doubtful patients that abuse was the source of their troubles.

Once patients believe in their repressed memories and have invested socially and emotionally in their absolute truth, they are often encouraged to "drain the abscess" of the experience by a process called abreaction, pioneered by Freud a hundred years ago. It's a process by which therapists induce patients to "relive" the painstakingly assembled "memories" as if they were actually happening.

Hypnosis can make the experience of "reliving" dredged-up scenes of childhood abuse particularly vivid and horrifying. As Elaine Westerlund wrote in a 1993 article in the journal Women and Therapy, "Movement in therapy will be much greater if the woman is able to sob like a child, to shake with terror and to scream with rage ... Physical responses such as vomiting, incontinence or fainting will sometimes occur." Some patients can even break out in welts, rashes and stigmata.

There's only one problem: There's no scientific evidence -- or even consistent descriptive evidence -- that memory recovery or abreaction actually works. Not only did it become increasingly clear to Freud that many of his patients' "memories" couldn't possibly have happened, but his patients also failed to get better following the big cathartic crises he engineered for them.

In fact, some of them got worse, as countless patients did while undergoing similar therapy a century later. It was common for late 20th century recovered-memory therapists to search "deeper" for more and more hidden memories when the "purging" of the first ones didn't cure their patients. As a result, the recovered memories often expanded into more and more horrible outrages -- with predictable effects on patients whose psychological lives were already fragile.

The practice often initiated or accelerated "flashbacks," so that patients experienced spontaneous, hallucinatory moments of the recovered abuse scenarios in their waking lives. Christian psychologist Paul Simpson, a one-time promoter of recovered-memory therapy and the author of "Second Thoughts: Understanding the False Memory Crisis and How It Could Affect You," notes that these supposedly "cathartic" experiences can have devastating effects. "As patients experience more traumatic flashbacks, they begin to decompensate -- their personality and ability to function deteriorate dramatically. As decompensation increases, they are told that their psychotic breakdown is proof that what they fantasized is real."

The emotionally excruciating effects of recovered-memory therapy are addressed reassuringly in "The Courage to Heal." Bass and Davis describe the "emergency phase" of the process that begins when the memories of abuse have been uncovered and accepted as real: "You may find yourself having flashbacks uncontrollably, crying all day long, or unable to go to work. You may dream about your abuser and be afraid to sleep."

"I just lost it completely," one woman told Bass and Davis. "I wasn't eating, I wasn't sleeping ... I was afraid to stay in the house alone. I would go out in the middle of the night and hide somewhere, behind a Dipsy dumpster or something ... Physically, I was a mess. I had crabs. I hadn't bathed in a month. I was afraid of the shower." Bass and Davis note that for some survivors, the "emergency phase" can last for years, "with only short breaks in intensity." But, they say, the good news is that "it won't last forever."

Yet sometimes it does "last forever," if the abuse survivor finds that she can't take the pain of her awful realizations anymore. "Maria Meyers," a woman who finally came to believe that the "memories" of abuse that she had developed in therapy were false, wrote a response to the death of a fellow patient in a 1994 edition of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation newsletter. Far from having helped her or her friend, recovered-memory therapy turned them both into basket cases.

"Some therapists justify the worsening condition of their patients by telling them, 'You have to get worse before you can get better,'" Meyers wrote. For her, the "getting worse" part of her therapy "didn't mean getting a little more confused or a little more depressed. It meant nearly going insane. It meant retrieving memories so horrid and terrifying I couldn't eat or drink and ended up on IVs ... People are losing families, friends, jobs, and their homes. They are filing for bankruptcy after spending months in hospitals ... [S]ome people give up ... Some people commit suicide."

As patients continued in recovered-memory therapy without gaining a cure for the problems that had brought them into therapy, the number of perpetrators in their memories also tended to expand. "The more I worked on the abuse," said one woman quoted in "The Courage to Heal," "the more I remembered. First I remembered my brother, and then my grandfather. About six months after that I remembered my father. And then about a year later, I remembered my mother. I remembered the 'easiest' first and the 'hardest' last. Even though it was traumatic for me to realize that everyone in my family abused me, there was something reassuring about it."

It's hard for someone outside this kind of therapeutic environment to know what was reassuring about the belief that one's entire family was a vile pack of incestuous sexual abusers. But patients often find themselves relieved to know that their emotional problems and social difficulties are not really their own fault, says Richard Ofshe, a social psychologist and the coauthor with Ethan Watters of the landmark 1994 book "Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria." In therapy, Ofshe says, "The hard questions are not about what choices the patient made and what she might do to change her current circumstances, but rather what was done to her."

The role of victim is seductive, and not just because it explains otherwise inexplicable missteps and failures. In the heady, angry heyday of the recovered-memory movement, it offered the opportunity to "start over" in life with a whole new identity and system of relationships.

The "chosen" family of the abuse-survivor community, unlike your original family, would never question or doubt you, and would always be accepting and supportive. You wouldn't be told to "straighten up and fly right," and you wouldn't be expected to put up with any people or behavior you found too distressing or challenging. No one would know of your failures in life unless you chose to tell them -- in your own way and from your own point of view. Your pain would be celebrated, your social and emotional dysfunctions forgiven as symptomatology beyond your control. There would be a sense of living through a period of high and necessary drama, and of bravely facing and dealing with something truly important. Best of all, you would not need to feel guilty for breaking away from a family that remembered your whole dismal history and had never given you what you felt you needed. A routinely bad childhood may not be enough to justify a clean and complete break, but an incestuously abusive one is.

Abuse survivors, perhaps understandably, tend to idealize the importance of family and overestimate the amount of unconditional love and affirmation people have a right to expect from each other. Many survivors' "pre-discovery" stories betray a disquieting undercurrent of disappointment with their families' emotional support and responsiveness, and the abuse diagnosis seems to validate and justify that discontent.

In "The Courage to Heal" Laura Davis inadvertently illustrates this concept with a dramatic rendering of the separation from her mother. "I've built this wall between us with careful, conscious precision," she writes in an elegiac tone. "I know I'm not the daughter you wanted, Momma. I've always known that. But with my wall close around me, I can see that you're not the mother I wanted, either, all-knowing, all-giving, all-protective."

In a later section, Davis composes a letter she wishes she could receive from her mother after six months of their estrangement. It is not just a letter of total acceptance and apology, but of virtual self-abasement, and it ends by congratulating Davis for her courage.

"I must step past my own denial and support you," Davis has her mother say. "As your mother, I want to give you whatever love and nurturing I can to help you get through this thing ... Laurie, I think you are incredibly brave to do this work. I am proud of you. Your willingness to face the truth of your life is an inspiration to me. I only hope I can face my own life with as much grit and determination." Davis reports with regret that her mother's reaction to the proposed letter was not a happy one, and that was when Davis realized that reconciliation was impossible: "I was not going to get what I wanted from my mother."

In the same section another woman writes of her mother, "Her love is not the kind of love I can believe in. She doesn't have the instincts of a lioness for her cubs, and that's the kind of primal love I need." Bass and Davis note in reply, without a trace of irony: "This fierce, clear love isn't available to many survivors from their families."

Perfect, "fierce, clear" love is not available from most families, period. And no parent can be "all-knowing, all-giving, all-protective." But recovering a memory of horrible abuse means not having to acknowledge the ordinary limitations of family love. As a victim of abuse, the survivor no longer has to make any concessions to the needs or feelings of others in her family.

She has suffered, and she is therefore the center of the family's emotional and moral universe. She must have all the power and control in her relationships with her family, and her family must, according to another checklist in "The Courage to Heal," accept the truth of the accusations without reservation, apologize, conform to the survivor's wishes, say only the right things, and let the survivor direct the relationship.

In "I Thought We'd Never Speak Again" Davis acknowledges the seductive power of the victim's role. It can be paradoxically wonderful at first to feel injured or "owed" or morally superior. But, Davis says, "while it is often empowering to identify as 'a battered wife,' 'an abandoned husband' or 'the mother of a drug addict,' in order to claim our legacy and heal from it, aligning ourselves with our injuries only benefits us for so long. Ultimately, a label that initially brought strength, solidarity and understanding can become a prison from which we must free ourselves."

Davis claims that the estranged abuse survivors she's met have welcomed this new emphasis on reconciliation: "There have been many survivors coming to my events," she says (she maintains a list of workshops and personal appearances on her Web site), "many of whom say their progress and evolution on these issues is tracking my own and that they feel like it's 'time' for this perspective to come out."

But there have also been wary and angry reactions to Davis' new philosophical focus on reconciliation, among both her abuse-survivor constituency and from people who feel "The Courage to Heal" was instrumental in inducing some women to believe they had been abused when they hadn't been, destroying families and relationships as a result. "Well, isn't that nice?" one woman snapped sarcastically when I told her about Davis' new book. "She cashes in on the train wreck and now she'll make another wad cleaning it up."

According to the penultimate chapter of Davis' new book, forgiveness is the major way to free ourselves from the prison of victimhood, but, she cautions, that forgiveness has to be genuine. "We live in a 'feel good' culture that encourages us to search for easy answers, speedy solutions and the immediate cessation of pain," she writes. "As a result, what passes for forgiveness in our culture today is often a kind of pseudo-forgiveness in which people gloss over their grief, anger and pain in order to generate a false sense of magnanimity."

Genuine forgiveness often requires an accounting, she notes, approvingly quoting Richard Hoffman, author of "Half the House," a book outlining how he came to terms with his childhood: "There's this weird Hollywood idea that all relationships should have a happy ending -- that everyone should forgive everyone in the final scene. But if a man burns down my house, I don't owe him forgiveness, he owes me a house ... Real forgiveness restores the moral fabric of a community and a family. It says, 'We are all accountable to each other.'"

Justice requires truth and the acknowledgment of responsibility. The perpetrators of sexual abuse have to acknowledge that what they did was wrong, stop making excuses, and apologize for the damage they have done to their victims. Out-of-control recovered-memory therapists, accusers who broke up their families on the strength of "developed" memories that are more likely than not untrue, and, above all, those who supported and encouraged the recovered-memory movement also need to face up to the mistakes they made. Otherwise, our forgiveness can be rightly withheld.

Given all the agony caused by mistaken "recovered memories" and their consequent family estrangements, it's understandable that Davis would want to play down her own role in them. She'll admit that, back in the '90s, a therapist here and there made mistakes, of course, and perhaps a few people need to apologize. But Davis herself doesn't. As in the reconciliation she has achieved with her mother, any question of truth or guilt or accountability can be set aside. No one needs to apologize for anything; no one needs to admit being wrong. Never mind justice or truth. We can just go on from here.

By Julia Gracen

Julia Gracen is a writer and "book doctor" from Charleston, S.C.

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