Sunday, January 03, 1993

Remembering The Backlash - Beware the Incest-Survivor Machine

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Remembering The Backlash - Beware the Incest-Survivor Machine

Part of the history of the anti-rape movement included a backlash against those trying to empower survivors of sex crimes, from the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF).  This was an organization who's founders believed they were falsely accused of molesting their child.

This historic article is part of the Anti-Rape Movement's history.


Beware the Incest-Survivor Machine
By Carol Tavris
New York Times - January 3, 1993

How often do you suffer from the following symptoms?

* You feel that you're bad, dirty or ashamed.
* You feel powerless, like a victim.
* You feel that there's something wrong with you deep down inside; that if people really knew you, they would leave.
* You feel unable to protect yourself in dangerous situations.
* You have no sense of your own interests, talents or goals.
* You have trouble feeling motivated.
* You feel you have to be perfect.
This checklist, from Ellen Bass and Laura Davis's book "The Courage to Heal," is supposed to identify the symptoms of incest. The trouble is that the same list could be used to identify oneself as someone who loves too much, someone who suffers from self-defeating personality disorder, or a mere human being in the late 20th century. The list is general enough to include everybody at least sometimes. Nobody doesn't fit it.
"The Courage to Heal" is the bible of the incest-recovery movement. It was published in 1988 and according to its publisher, HarperCollins, has sold more than 500,000 copies. It begat "The Courage to Heal Workbook," which begat the authors' "Allies in Healing," as well as Wendy Maltz and Beverly Holman's "Incest and Sexuality," Beverly Engel's "Right to Innocence" and E. Sue Blume's "Secret Survivors." To read these handbooks is to learn that almost any problem you have may be an indicator of abuse. Ms. Blume offers a 34-item "incest survivors' after effects checklist" of symptoms, which range from fear of being alone in the dark to multiple personality disorder -- with phobias, arthritis, low self-esteem, wearing baggy clothes, the desire to change one's name and sexual difficulties in between. For Ms. Engel, the checklist includes feeling ugly and worthless, having a tendency to apologize inappropriately, feeling like a failure, jeopardizing chances of success, feeling helpless, having problems with sex or in relationships. . . . Why, it's the all-purpose female checklist.

TO want to throw a small wrench into the abuse-survivor machine is like opposing censorship of pornography: nowadays, you feel you have to apologize for any support you might be providing to molesters, rapists, pedophiles and other misogynists. This need for throat-clearing is itself a problem, one that results from the terrible polarization that has emerged on the subject of the sexual abuse of children.
One side, primarily committed to protecting children, emphasizes the appalling prevalence of the abuse of children and the tendency of adults, in every generation, to deny or diminish the reality of this abuse. The other side, primarily committed to protecting adults, is concerned that in the contemporary hysteria too many innocent adults are being unjustly accused. The polarization among professionals is now so bad that researchers are quickly branded as being on one side or the other, and their work discounted by the opposition.
And both sides marshal horror stories as evidence. Read only one case of a child being treated for gonorrhea of the throat -- the evidence that helped convict a man in Miami of child molestation -- and you will feel a wave of nausea at what adults are capable of inflicting on children. Read only one false-accusation case, and you will feel misery and anger at what bureaucrats are capable of inflicting on parents. To further confuse the issue, the reality of the victimization of children is being obscured by a chorus of adults clamoring that they were victims too -- if not as children, then as infants; if not in this life, then in a previous one. The evidence that abuse is more common than we knew is being trivialized by unvalidated claims made by pop-psychology writers that abuse is nearly universal, and that if you can't actually remember the abuse, that's all the more evidence that it happened to you.
Women abused as children are indeed more likely than others to be depressed and to have low self-esteem as adults, although there is no good evidence from longitudinal studies showing that such abuse invariably causes the entire litany of women's problems. Nor does it follow that all women who are depressed, are sexually conflicted or wear baggy clothes were abused as children. Yet many are being encouraged to rifle their memories for clues that they were.
Thus E. Sue Blume: If you doubt you were abused, minimize the abuse or think "Maybe it's my imagination," these are symptoms of "post-incest syndrome."
And Ellen Bass and Laura Davis: "If you are unable to remember any specific instances . . . but still have a feeling that something abusive happened to you, it probably did. . . . If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were."
And Wendy Maltz and Beverly Holman: "When survivors cannot remember their childhood or have very fuzzy memories, incest must always be considered a possibility."
And Beverly Engel: "If you have any suspicion at all, if you have any memory, no matter how vague, it probably really happened. It is far more likely that you are blocking the memories, denying it happened."
And if a woman suspects that she has been abducted by U.F.O.'s, that the F.B.I. is bugging her socks or that a satanic cult forced her to bear a child that was half human and half dog, must she (and we) likewise assume that "it probably really happened"?
The sexual-abuse-victim story crystallizes many of society's anxieties about the vulnerability of children, the changing roles of women and the norms of sexuality. It draws like a magnet those who wish to invoke a measure of sympathy in these unsympathetic times. It is no wonder that publishers and talk shows have a thriving business exploiting stories of abuse for commercial reasons, for these are stories that sell. The childhood abuse explanation of all one's current problems, true or exaggerated, with or without the incest variation, is now de rigueur for any aspiring celebrity autobiographer (Patti Davis, Frances Lear, Suzanne Somers, Roseanne Arnold, La Toya Jackson).
As individual works of confession and advice, abuse-survivor books are often reassuring and supportive. They encourage victims of childhood molestation to speak up, to understand that they are not alone and to find help. The problem is not with the advice they offer to victims, but with their effort to create victims -- to expand the market that can then be treated with therapy and self-help books. To do this, survival books all hew to a formula based on an uncritical acceptance of certain premises about the nature of memory and trauma. They offer simple answers at a time when research psychologists are posing hard questions.
To raise these questions does not mean that all "reawakened" memories are fraudulent or misguided. It does mean that we should be wary of believing every case of "me too!" that makes the news, and that we should be asking why these stories (and the advice books that play off them) are so popular now. We should also ask where these stories lead, with what consequences for individual well-being and social reform.
The great Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget once reported his earliest memory -- nearly being kidnapped at the age of 2. Piaget remembered sitting in his baby carriage, watching his nurse defend him from the kidnapper. He remembered the scratches she had on her face. He remembered a police officer with a short cloak and a white baton who chased the kidnapper away. But none of it happened. When Piaget was 15, his former nurse wrote to his parents to confess that she had made up the entire story. Piaget wrote, "I therefore must have heard, as a child, the account of this story . . . and projected it into the past in the form of a visual memory, which was a memory of a memory, but false."
The harvest of incest-survivor books reflects the popular vision of mind and memory, in which the mind is a camera or tape recorder: all events that happen to us are recorded in memory, although trauma often causes them to be "repressed" until a significant event "unleashes" them and reveals at last what "actually" happened. This is a view of memory inspired partly by psychoanalysis and partly by contemporary metaphors of the mind, which historically have followed major inventions. Thus, during the Industrial Revolution, the brain was likened to a machine; after the invention of the telephone, to a switchboard; after the invention of movies, to a camera; after Univac, to a computer.
Today many psychotherapists assume that everything significant that happens to us is imprinted somewhere in there, or maybe filed away in a dusty drawer (a metaphor for those of us who came of age before computers). Yet this view is increasingly at odds with that held by most academic psychologists. Researchers who study memory and the brain are discovering the brain's capacity to construct and invent reality from the information it processes. Their studies support what poets and novelists have always known: that memory is not a fixed thing, with its own special place or file drawer in the brain. It is a process that is constantly being reinvented. A "memory" consists of fragments of the event, subsequent discussions and reading, other people's recollections and suggestions, and, perhaps most of all, present beliefs about the past.
Thus, in the laboratory, the eminent memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus and her associates at the University of Washington have been able to inject false memories into people's minds by the mechanism of suggestion ("Remember when you were lost in that shopping mall at the age of 5?"). Similarly, the Canadian psychologist Nicholas P. Spanos and his team at Carleton University in Ottawa have created false memories of previous events and even of previous lives (at least in volunteers who believe in reincarnation). These scientists are finding that in the formation of a memory, current beliefs about past events are more important than what actually happened. This is why an event that seemed trivial when we were children can be reinterpreted and given new emotional significance when we are adults -- and vice versa.
The mind does not record every detail of an event, but only a few features; we fill in the rest based on what "must have been." For an event to make it into long-term storage, a person has to perceive it, encode it and rehearse it -- tell about it -- or it decays. (This seems to be the major mechanism behind childhood amnesia, the fact that children do not develop long-term memory until roughly the age of 3.) Otherwise, research finds, even emotional experiences we are sure we will never forget -- the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion -- will fade from memory, and errors will creep into the account that remains.
THIS is not easy news to take. We all get very huffy about the accuracy of our memories, and no wonder; they are the table of contents of our lives. That is why the debate over the vision of memory held by academic researchers and the one held by many therapists and laypersons is so fraught with consequences, legal and psychological. Families are being torn apart by adults who, in therapy, said they remembered their parents abusing them, and now feel the need to confront, to sever relations entirely or to sue for damages. In 1989, the state of Washington passed legislation allowing people to sue their alleged molesters for damages within three years of the time they remembered the abuse, and to date at least a dozen other states have enacted similar laws. Is such legislation warranted? How many children who are abused repress the memory -- and how many have trouble forgetting?
Two recent books, scholarly yet highly readable, beautifully illuminate these complexities. In "Hidden Memories: Voices and Visions From Within," Robert A. Baker, a retired professor of psychology who taught at the Massachusetts Insitute of Technology, Stanford University and the University of Kentucky, reviews the research on the processes by which perfectly normal individuals can come to believe passionately that they were molested in the crib, abducted by U.F.O.'s or victimized by a satanic cult. And in "Trauma and Recovery," Judith Lewis Herman, a psychiatrist who teaches at the Harvard Medical School, weaves together clinical and empirical evidence in exploring the nuances of trauma in all its varieties.
You would get none of this information or nuance, however, if you picked up any of the popular abuse-survivor books, such as "The Courage to Heal." None of the authors are trained in research, which is not a comment on their ability to write or to do therapy, but which does seem to be one reason for their scientific illiteracy. The authors claim to be "experts" because (a) they were themselves molested, (b) they are social workers who treat incest victims in therapy, or (c) they wrote a book. Writing a book confers further expertise, because the authors then become "nationally recognized" lecturers who conduct workshops and train other psychotherapists. In what can only be called an incestuous arrangement, the authors of these books all rely on one another's work as supporting evidence for their own; they all endorse and recommend one another's books to their readers. If one of them comes up with a concocted statistic -- such as "more than half of all women are survivors of childhood sexual trauma" -- the numbers are traded like baseball cards, reprinted in every book and eventually enshrined as fact. Thus the cycle of misinformation, faulty statistics and unvalidated assertions maintains itself.
Consider this, from "Secret Survivors":
"Incest is easily the greatest single underlying reason why women seek therapy or other treatment. At any given time more than three-quarters of my clients are women who were molested in childhood by someone they knew. Yet . . . many, if not most, incest survivors do not know that the abuse has even occurred! . . .
"It is my experience that fewer than half of the women who experienced this trauma later remember or identify it as abuse. Therefore it is not unlikely that more than half of all women are survivors of childhood sexual trauma."
IN spite of Ms. Blume's emphases and exclamation marks, not one of these assertions is supported by empirical evidence, and her own experience of her own clients does not constitute such evidence. Ms. Blume seems utterly unaware, for example, of the selection process that might bring incest survivors to her office.
To reach their inflated statistics, the survivor books rely on definitions that are as expandable as a hot-air balloon. In these books, the rule is: If you feel abused, you were abused. According to the authors of "The Courage to Heal," "Violation is determined by your experience as a child -- your body, your feelings, your spirit. . . . Some abuse is not even physical." It doesn't matter if no sexual contact occurred; anything your parents did that you didn't like is a violation. Beverly Engel didn't like the way her mother would plant a "wet" kiss on her, look at her in ways that made her feel "queasy" and walk in on her in the bathroom. "It was not until very recently," she writes, "that I came to terms with my mother's behavior and saw it for what it really was -- sexual abuse." This is a textbook example of the reconstructive nature of memory, showing how an adult belief can transform childhood experiences into "memories" of trauma.
What is wrong with a therapist's belief in the "epidemic" prevalence of incest? Aren't we just quibbling about numbers, when the problem itself is real? Not to researchers such as Nicholas Spanos, who are worrying about the rise in what they call "pseudomemories" that are induced by some therapists and hypnotists -- not only of incest, but also of past lives, multiple personalities and participation in satanic cults.
Mr. Spanos, who has conducted dozens of studies, has concluded that "suggestion-induced reports of perceptual and memory change" offered by hypnotized individuals should not be treated as actual descriptions of events. The "central component" in studies of hypnosis, he finds, is the willingness of hypnotized individuals "to bias their responses" as they believe the context demands.
Of course, all clients in therapy are influenced by the therapist's theoretical framework. This is why people in psychoanalysis have Freudian dreams, people in Jungian therapy have archetypal dreams, people in primal scream therapy remember being born and people in past-lives therapy remember being Julius Caesar (or whoever). Yet there is a sensitive line between any therapist's normal probing for evidence of certain psychological problems and literally creating them by the force of suggestion. Wendy Maltz and Beverly Holman, therapists in Eugene, Ore., make the process explicit in "Incest and Sexuality": "It may take considerable digging on the part of the therapist," they say, "to discover incest as the source of the symptoms being experienced by the client." When does "considerable digging" become undue persuasion? On this subtle matter, the books are silent.
One other simplistic theme promulgated by the abuse-survivor books affects the survivors themselves and the solutions we seek, as a society, to the problem of childhood abuse. Uniformly, these books persuade their readers to focus exclusively on past abuse as the reason for their present unhappiness. Forget fighting with Harold and the kids, having a bad job or no job, worrying about money. Healing is defined as your realization that you were a victim of sexual abuse and that it explains everything wrong in your life.
Beverly Engel even offers a list of stages in which the victim proceeds from darkness into light. In the first stage, she, like "many victims of childhood sexual abuse," has no conscious memory of having been abused, so she denies her symptoms. In the next stage, visiting a therapist or reading one of these books, she begins to suspect she was abused. In the third stage, she still doesn't know that she is a victim because she doesn't realize that what happened to her was abuse. In the fourth stage, she knows she was sexually abused but fails to connect her "symptoms" with the abuse. In the last stage of healing, she knows she was abused and connects the dots to her present unhappiness.
You can see this process at work in Betsy Petersen's "Dancing With Daddy: A Childhood Lost and a Life Regained" (1991). According to Ms. Petersen, the incest (which she never actually remembers) explained her nightmares, eating disorders, compulsive cleanliness, shame about sexuality, anxieties, drive for self-improvement, colon problems, back pain, insecurity about money, difficulties in wishing for something for herself, impatience with the obnoxious behavior of her sons, and even why she cooked a hot breakfast for her dogs every morning. It explained, as if no other woman had this problem, her vulnerability to fad diets. It explained, as if no other new parent had this problem, her awkwardness with her firstborn son. It explained, as if no other modern adult had this problem, her malaise of alienation and loneliness.
For Ms. Petersen, all current events are processed through the lens of incest. "Before I knew my father had molested me," she says, "the feelings cycled endlessly and attached themselves to the world outside my skin: If only my children weren't so demanding, I would think, I wouldn't feel so crazy." Exactly! One day her son, whining to be taken out for fast food, screamed and cursed her, and threw his shoe. She writes: "And suddenly I was so mad. My stomach hurt." Was she angry about this behavior? Oh, no; she was angry at her father.
Betsy Petersen seems to have completely shut out "the world outside my skin," and ultimately that is the problem and the appeal of the survivor narrative. It places responsibility for the common problems in women's lives on a single clear villain, someone safely in the woman's past. The victim doesn't have to do anything except understand the origins of her problems. Her partner doesn't have to change, as long as he is sympathetic to her early trauma. And she gets a love bath from her friends and supporters. Who could resist? In this respect, the sexual-survivor narrative, like other popular theories based on female psyche and biology, locates the origins of women's victimization, powerlessness and unhappiness inside the woman. It's in her; it's up to her to fix herself.
In 1978, Louise Armstrong wrote one of the first incest-survivor books, "Kiss Daddy Goodnight." To Ms. Armstrong and other feminist writers, incest and other forms of child abuse were not the aberrations of a few sick men, but the results of a system that endows men with the sense of entitlement to own and abuse women and children. Today the survivor movement has shifted from an emphasis on social change to one on psychological solace. Reflecting in a revised edition of her book on how public conversation about incest changed in the decade since its publication, Ms. Armstrong mused: "Where is everybody? I sometimes ask, meaning the survivors. The voices of no-nonsense, unsentimental, unromantic reason. Oh (the answer comes back), they're in therapy. Nothing wrong with that. We all need help and support." But, she continued, "exclusively personal solutions do nothing to defy the ongoing tacit permission for abuse."
Contemporary incest-survivor books encourage women to incorporate the language of victimhood and survival into the sole organizing narrative of their identity. It becomes their major story, and its moral rarely goes farther than "Join a group and talk about your feelings." Such stories soothe women temporarily while allowing everyone else to go free. That is why these stories are so popular. If the victim can fix herself, nothing has to change.
Carol Tavris, a social psychologist, is the author of "The Mismeasure of Woman."

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