By Randi Henderson
In a small office on York Road the phone seems never to stop ringing: four rings, a click and a machine answers; then the hang-up click and it's ringing again.
"We can't even count the calls anymore," said the woman on whose desk the phone sits. "On the tape we're asking people to write us and we're getting 200 letters a week."
The woman's name is Linda; to say any more would be violating the principles of the non-profit organization she represents. But there are other names that can be mentioned -- names like Roseanne Arnold, LaToya Jackson, Oprah Winfrey and former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur -- that explain why the phones in the office of Survivors of Incest Anonymous are ringing off the hook these days.
Once a dirty little secret, then a social issue vying for position with a multitude of other social issues, incest has suddenly become a hot topic saturating the media as one celebrity after another comes forth with a personal incest memory.
Talking about incest is becoming more prevalent "because people are beginning to deal with it now," said Lois Meszaros, a Baltimore psychologist who treats incest victims. "It's helpful that some people who haven't come forward before now will because someone famous has."
And if the recent outpouring of celebrity confessions elicits skepticism in some about the validity of long-buried childhood incest memories, don't count Linda, SIA executive director, among the skeptics.
"I'm more suspicious of people who don't say they're victims of incest," said Linda, who 10 years ago started this program for incest victims, following the 12 steps of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.
According to statistics from the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, one in three women and one in seven men has been victimized by incest or some form of childhood sexual abuse, says Linda, who remains anonymous both for the group and because publicity about this subject upsets her daughter.
SIA interprets the word incest broadly to cover any emotionally damaging sexual encounter by a family member or person known to the family over a period of time.
"I'm stunned by the pervasiveness of child sexual abuse and incest," said Charles Citrenbaum, another Baltimore psychologist who treats incest victims. "People are incredulous, but I have no doubt. More and more people are feeling freer to come forward . . . it is a very healthy thing that it is coming out."
Linda, 37, had been attending Al-Anon meetings when she started being hit by memories of sexual abuse by her mother. "Defrosting" is the word she uses to describe the phenomenon. For some (like Roseanne Arnold) the memories come in a revelatory flood; for Linda the experience had never been totally blocked from her consciousness, but as she gained maturity with her Al-Anon counseling she found herself forced to confront these memories.
Her abuse consisted of "sexual baths" that her mother inflicted upon her repeatedly from the time she was 8 until she was 12. "My mother had the idea that she had to scrub the stinky parts," she recalls, describing the incidents as horrifying and intimidating.
Getting together with other incest victims who were also alumnae of 12-step programs, Linda started a support group 10 years ago that attracted a number of incest survivors (often from referrals from therapists) and branched out to a few chapters. Today there are 800 SIA groups reg
istered around the world, and at least 26 Maryland groups.
"About four years ago, it started taking off," Linda said, tracing the increased interest to the TV movie "Something About Amelia" and the publicity that accompanied sexual abuse charges in the McMartin day care case (although the defendants were acquitted) in California.
Through the late '80s, Linda said, the women's movement has helped female incest survivors face their past. "They're being given permission to say, 'Yes, I'm an incest survivor,' " she explains.
In SIA meetings, participants talk about confronting their feelings, about how random events can trigger flashbacks and how they can be handled, and about personal life histories. Linda recommends that besides attending SIA meetings, people with incest in their past also receive professional counseling. And she offers words of hope:
"Healing is possible," she says. "You can go on to have a healthy emotional life. . . But it is going to take some active work on your part."