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Bearing witness to the patriarchal revicitmization of survivors
Bearing witness to the patriarchal revicitmization of survivors
by Connie M. Kristiansen
Newsletter of the Section on Women and Psychology, Vol 20, No 2, page
On Remembrance Day 1993, Dr. Harold Lief, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry
at the University of Pennsylvania, was scheduled to deliver a public
lecture at McGill University and to participate in a subsequent two day
'symposium' at the Montreal General Hospital (MGH). Dr. Lief is on the
Professional Advisory Board of the False Memory Syndrome (FMS) Foundation,
a tax-deductible charity organization founded in 1992 and comprised of some
5000 parents who adult children have accused them of perpetrating childhood
abuse. (Actually, I'm not sure about the exact number because three weeks
later, on CBC On the Line, the executive Director of the FMS Foundation
claimed they had 7500 members. I guess their membership is growing
Dr. Lief's presentation, "True and False Accusations by Adult 'Survivors'
of Childhood Sex Abuse," pertained to 'False Memory Syndrome', a
nosologically unrecognized term referring to an unestablished phenomenon
whereby an unknown number of incompetent therapists, of whom Freud is
apparently representative, supposedly 'implant' erroneous memories of
childhood abuse into the vacuous minds of an unspecified number of their
unsuspecting, fantasy-prone, suggestible, usually female, clients.
Me, four graduate students, a journalism student and a member of Ottawa's
Women's Place went to McGill and MGH to listen and learn. And we heard a
lot and we learned a lot. But not what we expected. And that's why we
spoke a lot, usually in panicked desperation, gasping for what little air
there was in a room stifled by ignorance.
At McGill, Dr. Lief didn't stand a chance. He was drowned out, reduced to
a whisper, by the jeering, whistling, coughing, shouts and rattling
noisemakers of survivors. Survivors who knew their power because they had
borne witness to an unbelievable truth before. Survivors whose hearts beat
softly, oh but ever so firmly, saying, "when we speak we are afraid our
words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still
afraid. So it is better to speak, remembering, we were never meant to
survive" (Audre Lorde, 'Litany for Survival').
The audience responded to the night's official opening comments with a
swelling epidemic of coughing, and Dr. Pinard of McGill's Department of
Psychiatry, who was chairing the event, used his best bedside manner to
blurt, "For those of you who are too sick to take it, I suggest you go up
to one of our hospitals!" And after catching his breath, he asserted, "We
have invited an academic to guide us in our reflection concerning the
incredibly painful and all too frequent occurrence of child abuse. Real
abusers should be identified and be made to suffer the consequences."
"What is 'real abusers'?" demanded one woman.
"Somebody who speaks out of turn when somebody is introducing a speaker!"
The room was hot, real hot, and Dr. Pinard apparently wasn't above
sweating. And he went on, "I hope that, by bringing this area to light, it
will clarify the picture and support the genuine victims of abuse."
Assaulted again, the woman retorted, "All victims!"
Oblivious to the fact that he was now putting quicksand into the hole he
had dug for himself, Pinard continued, "There is no doubt that memory,
repressed memory is the key concept."
A man's voice flew over my head and landed on Pinard: "You are the
Eventually Dr. Lief tried to rise to what was clearly becoming an occasion.
At that point he didn't know it, but later he would stated "I've never
been booed before I even opened my mouth before" (Wells, 1993). So, he
tried to begin his talk: "This is a great university. Dr. Pinard, I have
always had a warm spot in my heart for McGill University. As a school boy,
when I read the biography of Sir William Osler who spent many of his
formative years before going to Hopkins..."
"How do you know it wasn't a false memory?" Thankfully, laughter ensued.
It eased the mounting tension. Or at least I thought it did.
"False Memory is False Syndrome!" These words ricocheted from one person
to another, back and forth across the hallowed hall of knowledge.
"He's protecting abusers!"
Not a surprising comment. Not since Dr. Ralph Underwager, formerly on the
Advisory Board of the FMS Foundation, was forced to resign after he
proclaimed that "Paedophiles can boldly and courageously affirm what they
choose.... With boldness they can say, 'I believe this is in fact part of
God's will'....Paedophiles need to become more positive and make the claim
that paedophilla is an acceptable expression of God's will for love and
unity among human beings" (Geraci, 1993). And not since Jennifer Freyd, a
cognitive psychologist at the University of Oregon and the daughter of the
FMS Foundation Executive Director Dr. Pamela Freyd, exposed her father's
sexual abuse and the way in which her parents are using the FMS Foundation
as a weapon in their personal war against her (Freyd, 1993). "As one
clinician said at a national meeting recently about the FMSF: "there is
persuasive evidence that this organization grew out of one family's feud
that's overgrown it's boundaries and come into
the popular culture" (cited in Freyd, 1993). And as a matter of interest,
or more honestly, just pure gossip, you might like to note that Dr. Lief
was/is Pamela Freyd's therapist and that he told Jennifer Freyd that "he
did not believe I was abused because in the early 1980's, when he met with
my father once or twice in order to admit him to Silver Hill for treatment
for alcoholism, he learned that my father's erotic fantasies were 'entirely
homoerotic" (Freyd, 1993, p.26).
Anyway, Dr. Pinard, having lost any cool he might have had, yelled, "Is
that your idea of a debate? Is your idea of a debate shouting louder than
the speaker?" And after several moments face to face with a wall of
cacophony, Dean of Medicine, Dr. Richard Cruess, took the stage, appealing
to the audience to allow Dr. Lief to speak: "I'm speaking on behalf of a
faculty and a university which encourages debate, which encourages the
examination of controversial issues."
Dean Cruess continued, "For me, the issue this evening is fairly clear.
I'm an orthopedic surgeon. I'm not a psychiatrist. I'm not an expert in
these affairs. The issue this evening is one of academic freedom. This is
a university which has an obligation to examine issues of concern to
society. Professionals in this field have assured us, those of us who are
not experts, that there is an issue which requires elaboration and
discussion. We have asked a very distinguished person, with impeccable
credentials, to come and talk to us about this. We have not set this up as
a debate or as a conference. We have an absolute right to do that."
"And we have the right to go against it!" insisted a survivor.
Next, using his scalpel skills to slash away his opponent, and like a child
overwhelmed by a tantrum, Dean Cruess desperately blurted, "You do not have
a right to interfere with our academic activities, in our own university,
in our own way." Perhaps the heat had melted his brain. How else could he
forget that this was scheduled as a public lecture and that McGill is a
publicly funded institution?
But Cruess' blade didn't seem to scratch the woman. Maybe she was used to
being slashed. I don't know. But I do know she went on, stronger than ever,
"You do not have a right to interfere with our lives!"
In the midst of this, another survivor yelled, "Where is the Associate
Dean?" Apparently he was asked to step down because of sexual misconduct
Dean Cruess pressed on, professing, "We certainly have a right. I regret
to tell you that...you are suppressing an idea. There's a long history in
our world, most of it bad, of people interfering with the rights of others
But who was suppressing whom? One wonders. One wonders because McGill had
received a host of calls, FAXes and letters asking for "either a
cancellation of this biased presentation or a redefinition of its format to
allow all views and facts on this problem to be explored in a balanced,
scientific format that silences no one" (Martin Dufresne, Secretary of the
Montreal Men Against Sexism, in an open letter to David Johnston,
Principal, McGill University, November 4, 1993). The National Association
of Women and the Law, for example, wrote, "We take the position that a
publicly funded learning institution has a responsibility to offer a
balanced perspective on issues which are contentious and potentially
damaging to the credibility of victims of sexual abuse" and that the
program agenda "should be challenged for [its] hostile premise" (Johnston,
Dr. Cruess' appeal made me think about the nature of academic freedom. The
traditional definition of 'academic freedom' is based on the premise that
the common good of society is facilitated by the search for, and free
exposition of, knowledge. According to the Canadian Association of
University Teachers' (CAUT, 1991) policy statement, academic freedom
carries with it the duty to use that freedom in a manner consistent with
scholarly obligation to base research and teaching on an honest search for
knowledge. Given that McGill University refused to present a two-sided
debate on the issue of recovered memories, I figured that one could argue
that McGill failed to live up to their scholarly obligation to base
teaching on an honest search for knowledge. And Drakich, Taylor and
Bankier (1993) draw attention to a pluralistic approach to academic
freedom, one based on balancing freedom and equality - a perspective that
has not yet been formally enshrined or even welcomed in the definition of
academic freedom, at least not by the androcentric power holders in
Just as technology evolves, social consciousness and hence the definition
of academic freedom is evolving. And this is coming about as people,
particularly members of less powerful groups, speak. Dr. Jill Vickers, a
Professor at Carlton, for example, recently "urged CAUT to come to grips
with and to understand how the principles of academic freedom and
institutional authority, ideas that legitimize the university, can also be
used to perpetuate the status quo and sustain those who are more powerful
and privileged - in most cases while males" (Riseborough, 1993). Along
similar lines, UNESCO is currently reviewing an international proposal
regarding academic freedom (International Conference of University
Teachers' Organizations, 1993). The text of this proposal makes it clear
that there can be no academic freedom without social responsibility. For
example, this proposal states to "ensure the fair discussion of contrary
views," something that McGill was unwilling to do, even after being asked
to do so by numerous national organizations. The UNESCO proposal also
states that academic freedom entails "avoiding misleading the public on the
nature of their professional expertise." In this regard, Dr. Lief was
talking on the validity of recovered memories of childhood abuse, yet he is
not an expert on memory, nor in the treatment of survivors of abuse, nor is
he an expert on issues affecting women. Rather, he is retired professor of
psychiatry who specialized in marital and sex therapy. Distinguished,
impeccable credentials, Dr. Cruess?
In my mind, then, McGill University violated any definition of academic
freedom. Moreover, what they did was downright harmful to the survivors of
child abuse, people who've been oppressed, silenced, disbelieved and
invalidated for too long (Summit, 1993). In this regard, Janice Drakich
and her colleagues put it well when they wrote that "for many people, ideas
and words may well be referents for highly significant experiences which
have powerful meanings, evoke strong emotions, and are not simply ideas and
words. The meanings and emotions attached to ideas and words render people
extremely vulnerable in what, for others, might be a benign intellectual
exercise... The reality of personal and subjective experiences must be
recognized and formally acknowledged in the academy...To ignore this call
evades the ethical responsibility of persons who assume positions of
institutional authority." As they said, "most people would agree that one
person's freedom to swing a fist ends when it
collides with another person's nose."
With all these thoughts surging and swirling through my mind, I put up my
hand, "Excuse me, could I ask you a question, Sir? Would you argue on the
basis of academic freedom that it would be permissible for someone to
discuss the virtues of the Holocaust or the virtues of racial
"Absolutely not!" Cruess said steadfastly.
Until that point, Dr. Lief was pretty quiet. But I guess he thought he'd
best earn his fee, so he said, "To make an analogy with the Holocaust to
someone who was among the liberators at Dachau is an insult to me, Sir."
Oh, geez. More messiness. You see, he didn't see too well. The
distinguished retired professor of sexuality made a bit of a boo boo, and
he was boo booed in a big way for having done so. Although I may look a
bit Dykey, I am most definitely a woman. And everyone, except Dr. Lief,
seemed to know that. Well, hell broke loose some more. And using all his
wits, or at least any wits he had left, Dr. Lief went on, "There are some
fools here. Some people with small minds, who are intent on disrupting
freedom. They may succeed, but at a price to themselves and others who
came to hear me speak." That really won the audience over. Utter chaos
ensued. For five minutes. Now there was no way of pacifying the audience.
Not that they needed pacifying. I mean, at one time they were children who
were abused, but now they were clearly adults. Now they could stand and
shout, "No more!" And that's exactly what they did.
Following Cruess' appeal, and in an apparently desperate effort to save the
evening, not to mention themselves, Dr. Pinard and Dr. Assalian of MGH
tried to turn the talk into a question and answer period. Dr. Assalian
called on clinician Dr. Esther Lefevre to ask the first question. Well,
she didn't have a question, but she sure had a lot of shame to lay on the
survivors. Under the guise of trying to help them, and after apologizing
for not being a survivor herself and claiming that she understood their
rage, she accused the audience of being out of control, of having no
dignity, of behaving inappropriately, and of losing their credibility.
Needless to say, her comments didn't go down too well.
Dr. Assalian's next tactical maneuver was to introduce the three members of
the MGH human sexuality unit - all women. For some reason he seemed to
think the audience would be impressed with this. They weren't. And a
woman screamed, "Why don't you [i.e.,MGH] treat rape victims anymore?" Oh
no. This time Dr. Assalian really put it in his mouth when he claimed,
"It's not the same issue. Please don't generalize. We are talking about
two different issues. Rape is one thing and we are talking about incest."
Ann Gero of Women's Place had it right when she pondered, "incest isn't
Well, Assalian tried to set up the question and answer period again. And
so I mustered up the courage to go to the microphone and ask my question:
"Dr. Lief, in view of the following studies, how can you claim that
recovered memories of abuse are false? One, Herman and Schatzow's (1987)
finding that 74% of 53 women in group therapy, 64% of whom had moderate to
severe amnesia, were able to obtain corroborating evidence, including
pornographic photographs, for their recovered memories. Two, William's
(1992) finding that 38% of a sample of 100 adult women failed to recall
their childhood sexual abuse, abuse documented some 20 years earlier in
hospital medical records. Three, a literature review by Brewin, Andrew and
Gotlib (1993) showing that recollections of childhood are more accurate
than previously thought and that it is parent's recollections, not those of
their adult children, that are distorted. Four, Summit's (1983) finding
that children minimize the frequency and severity of their abuse, compared
to the subsequent confessions of their parents. Five, findings that in the
case of battering, it is the male abusers who underestimate the frequency
and severity of the abuse they inflicted (cited in Brewin et al.). Six,
Famina, Yeager and Lewis' (1990) finding that among a sample of 69 abused
youths, all distortions of abuse were in the direction of minimization, out
of embarrassment, shame and the desire to forget about it. And seven,
based on her study of 150 children who had experienced a variety of
traumas, Lenore Terr (1991), a professor of child psychiatry at the
University of California, noted that "even those who were infants or
toddlers at the time of their ordeal and thus were unable to lay down,
store, or retrieve full verbal memories of their traumas tend to play out,
to draw, or to re-see highly visualized elements from their old
experiences." As an example, Terr cites the case of a five year old who
had been sexually abused in a daycare home between 15 and 18 months of age.
The discovery was made when US Customs officers found pornographic photos
of the girl. In retrospect, the parents realized that since the girl first
began to draw, she had sketched hundreds of nude adults. And while playing
in Terr's office, the child told Terr that a baby she drew was 'all naked'
and a 'bad girl.' Moreover, while children may have no verbal recall of
their abuse, they do re-enact their abuse in their play, repeating aspects
of the original trauma. And such repetitive behaviors have been observed
in children who were exposed to trauma prior to age 12 months when they had
no verbal memory. For example, the five year old girl I just described
experienced 'funny feelings' in her 'tummy' every time a finger was pointed
at her. The confiscated pornographic photos showed an erect penis jabbing
the exact spot on the 15 to 18 month infant's belly. Thus, while adults
may not recall personally meaningless events before the age of three or
four, such as where they were at the time of Kennedy's assassination, they
can recall trauma experienced during infancy, although such recollections
may not appear in verbal form."
In the midst of my question, Dr. Pinard cut me off to ask my name: "Dr.
Connie Kristiansen." "Pardon me?" "Dr. Connie Kristiansen." And then he
did it again, asking if he could ask me a question. The audience yelled,
"Let her finish!" So I said, "No," quite clearly I thought, but I guess he
had trouble understanding and so he asked me anyway: "May I ask you to come
up here and sit here and present your data?" Well, no way was I gonna sit
up there with those guys. I hadn't prepared to engage in a formal debate,
and there was no way I was gonna let them use me to get out of the mess
they had created in the first place. To put it mildly, I was pissed off.
So I spoke my truth, "No! I will not join that panel." Pinard was quick to
try to turn the tables, "So you don't want a debate?" I explained, "I will
never sit on a panel with gentlemen of your nature. I would like to finish
my question. And I would like you to grant me the courtesy to do so just
as you have requested of us."
"He then said, "Can I remind you," and I said "No. Can I please finish what
I was saying? I find it rather rude that you interrupted me." And then,
as if to justify his verbal abuse, he said, "You find it rude after what
we've been through?!" So I said, "Touche!"
Between being cut off by Dr. Pinard from the front and the insults and
ribbing coming from two FMS advocates on my right, I somehow managed to get
through my question: "How in the face of such empirical evidence, when
there is more evidence for the validity of recovered memories now than
there is for the distortion of memory through recovery process, can you
talk about FMS? When the four or five thousand members of the FMS
Foundation have no more than their own claims of their innocence to
validate their perspective. And I'm wondering why it is, in view of this,
that you gentlemen are willing to talk about this 'syndrome.' That is my
Dr. Lief tried to answer: "You cite a number of studies about adults who
have allegedly recovered memories of childhood abuse." I clarified, "They
are not alleged, they have been corroborated." Then he went on, "All I'm
saying is that there are therapists who treat people on the basis of
recovered memories without external corroboration and that is malpractice,
pure and simple. You mention a number of anecdotal reports, especially in
Dr. Terr's paper," and I commented that her study was based on 150
children. Dr. Lief then said that, since we were talking about anecdotal
reports, he wanted to present his own anecdotal evidence. And he described
a daughter who had accused her father of sadistic abuse, who had just
started spending time with her father and "bonding as they hadn't for
several years," and who was found dead in her apartment last week. That
hurt. I wondered why she killed herself. And then I thanked him for his
anecdote and asked if I could respond to what he'd just said. Dr. Lief
didn't seem to like that idea, "You can be funny or smart ass, any way you
want to. This doesn't advance the discussion at all." And then Dr. Pinard
jumped in, "We have given you a chance to ask your question. I am
maintaining my invitation that you designate one of you to come up and give
a rebuttal after his speech." I asked again whether I could ask a
question, but my microphone was cut off. Then hell broke loose for one
final encore, and Pinard ended the evening, saying "We have seen tonight
the demonstration of how free speech in a scientific forum can be stolen."
And with that declaration, he asked everyone to go home.
So that was the McGill non-talk. And the seven of us walked back to our
hotel apartment, welcoming the cleansing of the evenings drizzle.
Overwhelmed. Astonished. Shocked. But then we laughed and talked a lot.
We watched the news and laughed some more. We ate chips, pretzels, cheese
and grapes, and we had a few drinks too.
Friday morning - three hours sleep. Seven women, one bathroom. Beautiful
laughing, moaning and groaning. Coffee on the brew. Tea in a frying pan.
Orange juice. Croissants. Diet Coke for one true addict.
Feeling like seven dwarfs, or maybe seven penguins in the barren Antarctic,
we hiked up the mountain to MGH. Stepping out of the elevator at the sixth
floor, we were greeted by the "Dykes Against Dr. Lie-f" and the glaring
lights of the media. And as we predicted by one student the night before,
and just as the press was denied access to Dr. Lief's symposium, Dr.
Assalian of MGH attempted to bar entry to me and two graduate student.
"Why," I asked.
"But I have a right. I've preregistered and you've cashed my cheque."
"We'll refund your money in the mail."
Dr. Assalian looked real big behind the registration counter, so I wasn't
gonna mess with him. Instead, I went around the corner to where the media
was filming the dykes and said, grinning, "They won't let me in!"
"It must be because your hair's too short," quipped one dyke. "Yeah, and
you wear comfortable shoes," joked another.
I then returned to the registration desk, this time with the press in tow.
Dr. Assalian seemed to have shrunk considerably. Perhaps he had been using
his psychiatric skills on himself. And then, surrounded by him and two
male psychiatrists in white lab coats, I was escorted to an isolated, back
corridor. For a second, I was frightened. I mean, what might they be up
to? But it turned out OK. For some reason Dr. Assalian thought I had
organized the McGill protest, and he was afraid that me and 'my group' were
going to disrupt his symposium. So I set the record straight, although he
still looked worried.
In the meantime, out in the elevator corridor, Ann Gero was seeing blue,
and it wasn't the blue sky of a clear sunny day: "As I was speaking with
one of the 'Dykes Against Dr. Lie-f', I saw two lines of police marching
toward us. The protestors dispersed immediately and, as a result, the
police were left with a void. Suddenly, one of the police officers grabbed
my arm and told me and the woman I was talking with to leave. When I asked
him for an explanation, I was shoved. I explained repeatedly that I was
registered for the 'symposium' and tried to show my registration papers.
My explanation was met with silent hostility by a wall of men in blue. All
25 officers stood behind me and the other woman and physically forced us
down the corridor and out of the building. I was confused and demoralized
by the injustice. But the simple reality was that the police had the
right, the authority and the power to ignore the truth that I was not part
of the organized protest and had paid to
participate in the 'symposium.' And as I was about to learn, this same
reality applied to Dr. Lief, Dr. Assalian and some of the other
participants in the 'symposium.' They had the right, the authority and the
power, as Freud did 100 years ago, to suppress and ignore the truth."
In the end, we all managed to get into the symposium. And what was it
like? Well, it was pretty incredible. Sometimes our faces were blank,
like white sheets. Sometimes our mouths dropped, total despairing
disbelief. Sometimes our faces flamed with rage, rechanneled into the
giggles of school girls. But sometimes, as our souls merged and we felt
the strength of our truths and determination, we raised our hands - seven
hands in a row, reaching for reality.
"Dr. Lief, what percentage of recovered memories do you believe are false?"
Calmly, oblivious to everything but himself, he replied, "My estimate is
that 25% of allegations are false, but I don't know where I got that
figure. Sometimes I make up a number just to get reporters off my back."
"Dr. Lief, do you really mean to say that people can develop false memories
simply by watching a soap opera like General Hospital?"
"Dr. Lief, you say that, after speaking with parents accused of abuse, you
are confident that they are innocent. But what about research findings
that indicate that confidence is totally unrelated to accuracy?" (See
Loftus & Ketcham, 1991).
"That's not relevant."
"Dr. Lief, what is the incidence of Multiple Personality Disorder?"
Dr. Lief didn't know, so Dr. Assalian responded, saying that, according to
Dr. Collin Ross whom he had seen on TV, it's about 1 in 500.
"Why then are you focusing on an extreme, relatively rare consequence of
childhood abuse when other, less sensational, disorders more commonly
follow childhood abuse, such as Borderline Personality Disorder (Herman,
1992) which occurs in about 10% of the population (Stone, 1986)? Do you
realize that, by focusing exclusively on the tail of a skewed distribution
and ignoring the more modal case, you are, in fact, 'lying with
statistics?" (Runyon & Haber, 1991, pp 116-117).
And so it went. For two tortuous days. Other highlights included Dr.
Lief's implication that, because there is no scientific evidence for
repression, there can be no such thing as a recovered memory. He refused
to consider our suggestion that the issue of repression is a red herring
because memory of trauma is primarily affected by the process of
'dissociation,' not repression. Research by Dr. van der Kolk at Harvard
University suggests that the repeated overwhelming negative arousal of
chronic child abuse permanently alters the limbic system, brain structures
that integrate emotion, sensation and memory. Essentially, the brain can't
integrate all the information it is receiving and hence memory, emotion and
sensation are severed. This explains why the phenomena associated with
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), such as flashbacks and body
memories, occur in the absence of conscious memories (Wylie, 1993).
Lief was also unwilling to distinguish between the effects of different
types of trauma on memory. Although FMS advocates claim that beliefs in
the validity of recovered memories of abuse are "mistakenly based on an
uncritical acceptance of the premises about the nature of memory and
trauma" (Tavris, 1993), this charge is actually more appropriately levelled
against FMS advocates. Unlike FMS advocates, psychiatric researchers
(e.g., Goodwin, 1990; Herman, 1992; Terr, 1991) examining trauma
distinguish between the simple PTSD that results from a single traumatic
blow (Type I trauma or FEARS) and the complex PTSD that follows prolonged,
repeated trauma (Type II trauma or BAD FEARS). Type I trauma is associated
with full, detailed memories of the event. According to Terr (1991), for
example, previously untraumatized children who were 26 to 36 months old at
the time they witnessed one terrible event were able to retrieve full
detailed verbal recollections of the event. Type II trauma, in contrast,
is associated with denial, psychic numbing, self-hypnosis or dissociation,
rage and memories that are retained in spots rather than clear, simple
wholes, if at all. It is the latter type of trauma and memory that is
associated with chronic child abuse.
And Lief's criteria for differentiating between true and false allegations
included Wakefield and Underwager's (1992, p.502) claim that "When there is
a history of emotional disturbance, diagnosis and treatment in the life of
the adult raising an accusation, pathological factors in the person's
personality may contribute to the development of a false accusation."
Thus, Dr. Lief tried to use the known after effects of abuse (Herman, 1992)
as evidence that abuse did not occur. Similarly, Dr. Lief urged therapists
to consider "possible ways by which the person making the accusation might
benefit from or receive reinforcement from making the accusation (e.g., a
civil law suit, an explanation for why life has [not] gone well, the
expression of anger for perceived childhood injustices, power over a
dominant parent, attention, acceptance, new friends [in survivor group],
etc." (Wakefield & Underwager, 1992, p.499). But he never suggested that
the potential costs of an accusation be considered, costs that include
losing one's family, the pain of therapy, and the unbelieving skepticism of
friends. And he failed to recognize that some recanters might retract
their allegation because of family pressure (Olafson, Corwin & Summit,
1993; Summit, 1983) or to receive positive regard from their family and the
FMS Foundation, not mention avoiding confrontation with what might be a
horrific reality. As Janet (1904) put it, traumatized persons suffer from
'a phobia for the traumatic event.' Nor did he suggest that perpetrators
might have a lot to gain by denying an allegation. Heck, at one point, he
insisted that, because a man had fathered eight children, the allegation of
sexual abuse against him could not possibly be true.
Dr. Lief next encouraged therapists to be detectives, to obtain school,
medical and criminal records and to interview parents and siblings to
validate client's claims of recovered memories before attempting to help
them. But he did not welcome our suggestion that the FMS Foundation make
inquires to establish the veracity of its member's claims of innocence. I
mean, how do we know that they're not suffering from FIBS - False Innocence
Belief Syndrome, a syndrome characterized by an extreme obsession with
proving one's innocence, for example, by creating an international
foundation to validate oneself?
And then he argued that the inherent power that therapists have over their
clients makes clients highly vulnerable to their suggestions. But he
didn't mention the feminist approach to therapy, an approach explicitly
designed to eliminate authoritarian power differentials (e.g., Burstow,
1992; Laidlaw & Malmo, 1990), as a possible solution to this shortcoming of
traditional patriarchal psychiatry. Nor did he mention that survivors are
hypervigilant and extremely distrustful (Herman, 1992), making it less
likely that they would be influenced by a therapist's unfounded
suggestions. In fact, there was a lot that Dr. Lief didn't mention,
including the seven studies I cited at the McGill talk.
But the icing on the cake came from a couple of other comments that spilled
out of Dr. Lief's mouth. First, based on an article about the 'moral
deconstruction of the middle class' by Dan Moynihan in The American
Scholar, he argued that the standards of morality for the middle class have
been raised so previously innocent behaviors are now defined as deviant,
whereas the moral standards of the lower classes have been lowered, so
previously deviant actions on their part are now deemed acceptable. I
didn't get it, unless he was trying to imply that incest is really OK.
Second, and perhaps stemming from a fear of women's inherent power, he went
on to describe black families as 'uterine units' in which the grandmother,
mother, and daughter 'psychologically castrate' the father. So, contrary
to the Montreal Gazette (Editorial, 1993), Dr. Lief did indeed come across
as a hate-mongering racist. At least to us. Perhaps it was
unintentional. Or perhaps I'm naive.
Basically, the MGH symposium was a one-sided, empirically unjustified
scientific sham. Indeed, the closest approximation to science was provided
by Concordia's Dr. Campbell Perry, also a member of the FMS Foundation
Advisory Board. Dr. Perry presented evidence indicating that he was able
to convince 48% of highly hypnotizable university students that they had
been waken by a thump in the night. Well, given that, according to Dr.
Perry, only 10 to 15% of the population is highly hypnotizable, his figures
suggest that 5 to 7.5% of the population might, under hypnosis, come to
believe such an innocuous suggestion. But when you consider that most
therapists do not use hypnosis, let alone try to plant false suggestions
into their client's heads, this percentage is reduced to a fraction of a
fraction. Moreover, there's absolutely no empirical evidence that anyone
could convince anybody that they had been sexually molested by someone whom
they loved. And, assuming that everyone adheres to ethical guidelines, nor
is there ever likely to be.
Well, I'm back home now. And there's a rumor going around Carleton that I
organized the whole McGill protest. Must have started with one of
Assalian's friends. And actually, it's pretty funny. I mean, I have
enough trouble organizing my own life let alone the lives of other people!
Heck, I forgot to go to class the day before all this began because I was
immersed in writing a paper on memory, on true memory.
And as for my students, well, like me, they're still trying to process what
was basically pretty traumatic. Trish Hurley, the journalism student,
speaks of her horror in response to the inconsiderate circus that Dr.
Assalian staged. As if to prove that he believed in sexual abuse, he had a
client, Shirley, address the symposium. With a quivering, quiet voice, and
with the eyes of the FMS advocates searing a hole in her soul, she
courageously told her intergenerational story of abuse, a story she had
never disclosed in public before. Our emotions were flying. But they
raged when Shirley's testimony was followed by the tales of two recanters,
two women who travelled with the FMS Foundation road show. We watched
Shirley sit in the audience listening to the recanter's talk. We felt for
her because we knew that her reality had been brutally attacked. How could
Dr. Assalian allow such an event? How could he treat his client with such
disrespect? How could a parent abuse their child?
Melissa Ferguson writes, "My exposure to Dr. Lief's presentation at MGH
destroyed any personal naive beliefs that the world is a just and fair
place. I tried to attend the symposium as a neutral, unbiased participant.
But quite soon a sick childlike feeling of injustice overwhelmed me. The
flaws and holes in their arguments verged on embarrassment. My
intellectual mind was reeling, for I could see clearly how power and
control works to silence others. It was so obvious that Dr. Lief's
'research' lacked any scientific validity - but very few people, except for
the Carleton U. group, questioned Dr. Lief's claims or expressed any
feelings of outrage. And our questions were deemed 'political' by the
supposed authorities. Labelling. Another mechanism of control and
supression. And it's worrying because propaganda is such a powerful
And Wendy Hovdestad described her experience thus: "Listening quietly
while the incredible prevalence of child sexual abuse was denied and the
damage of abuse minimized and dismissed was a very painful experience.
Especially horrible was the narration of case histories of child sexual
abuse in tones of contempt and disbelief. Other symposium members' polite
silence and seeming acceptance of what I knew to be false and vicious made
me fear that I was losing touch with reality. In fact, one of the only
reasons I was able to sit still was because the extremely limited leg room
made movement near impossible - I'm over six feet tall! I sat hunched
forward in my seat, leaning on one hand and gripping my arm with the other
hand. My entire body felt like a knot of tension. I realized later that I
had gripped my arm so hard that my thumb print was visible for days.
Academic freedom involves the free exchange of ideas. But what we
experienced at the MGH symposium was a one-sided assault on reality."
In regard to Dr. Lief's claim that the moral standards of the bourgeoisie
have been raised, Carolyn Allard says, "Dr. Lief claims this is one of the
causes of what he termed 'child sexual abuse histeria.' Others were the
Courage to Heal, soap operas, and support groups. These all supposedly
make vulnerable, suggestible, compliant women come to believe that they
were sexually abused as children. I still can't believe that this sort of
thing can happen. I couldn't have reacted much worse if I had been at a
conference with Hitler or the leader of the KKK. The organizer, Dr.
Assalian, seemed to choose who the questions would come from, and more
often than not, they came from his colleagues. He was especially thrilled
when they were women, as if to say, 'See? We are not bashing women!' And he
would ask anyone who challenged Dr. Lief not to make this a 'political
debate'. On top of this, many audience members, especially FMS Foundation
members, tried to stare us down with eyes of ice. These stares were too
long and too intense to be anything other than scare and intimidation
tactics. And slowly, more and more of these people sat closer to us. I
had the eerie feeling of being surrounded. Of course I couldn't mention
this to anyone except the six friends I had come with. Otherwise I would,
no doubt, have been used as an example to strengthen their belief that
women are overly imaginative, paranoid hysterics who make up stories."
And a week later, according to Kathleen Felton, "my anger and frustration
has only begun to subside. More exactly, the impulse is being sublimated
into a more socially acceptable form - it's no coincidence that a 'leaf'
metaphorically adorns the bulls-eye of the lab dart board. And at times
there is almost something consolatory in imagining that it may be autumn in
Philadelphia, home of the FMS Foundation and Dr. Lief, as it's customary
that many a 'leaf' falls in the autumn."
So, that's the story of the scientific basis of the patriarchy's
revictimization of the survivors of childhood abuse, or at least our side
of it. I know some people will disagree. But those folks had their chance
to talk at MGH, and now we're simply taking ours. And it's not because we
want to. No. The current feeding this truth saying runs a lot deeper - we
have to. If you recall, at the beginning of this story, I said, "We heard
a lot, and we learned a lot. But not what we expected." Well, we didn't
expect to learn that the social institutions that we had some faith in,
like McGill University and MGH, engaged in what seemed to us to be
oppressive silencing, sexism, racism, and the misrepresentation of science.
Relative to our respect for truth, equality and science, this bit of
learning was fundamentally disheartening. So, given this assault on our
faith in science, together with the fact that we don't have faith in any
omnipotent, benevolent God, we feel sort of skeptical. Skeptical in all
respects but one: We are aware of our truths, and we have faith in our
ability and willingness to know and express these truths.
That's the main lesson I learned from Dr. Lief. You see, on Remembrance
Day 1992, I was trying to bear the pain of a needle jolting my shoulder. I
was getting a tattoo to ensure I never forgot the horrific, systemic
violence against women and children. It's a small heart, encased within a
thundercloud, crying tears of blood as it's ripped open by a patriarchal
dagger. Now, on Remembrance Day 1993, I realize that the tattoo was
unnecessary. Now I know I will always remember. And so will the
approximately 53 million women in North America who have experienced
childhood sexual abuse (Bagley, 1991; Russell, 1984) and the 51% of
Canadian women who have experienced at least one incident of violence since
the age of 16 (Statistics, Cananda, 1993).