2005 Feb 5
By Katy Butler
A DEBATE RAGES OVER incest-recovery therapies that can create false memories of sexual abuse
On May 8, 1991, seven years after her father’s death, a graying, impeccably groomed former Miss America named Marilyn Van Derbur walked to a podium in a small auditorium on the University of Colorado’s Denver campus. Announcing a family gift of $260,000 to a university research program on child sexual abuse, the onetime Outstanding Woman Speaker in America said that her late father, Francis–a millionaire philanthropist whose name was inscribed on the local Boy Scout building–had repeatedly violated her between the ages of 5 and 18.
Van Derbur said she had no conscious memories of what her father had done to her until she was 24. She had coped, she said, by somehow splitting herself. A high-achieving “day child” skied, played the piano and studied hard–utterly failing to incorporate any awareness of a mute, terrified “night child” whose legs, she said, were repeatedly pried apart in the darkness by her father’s insistent hands.
Van Derbur thought she was speaking only to the people in the room that night, but a reporter was there taking notes. Her secret–the kind once taken to the grave or contained in the female domain of gossip–was about to cross the border into the public realm and become news.
Within a day or two, radio talk shows were debating whether she was lying, deluded or telling the truth. Her total “forgetting” of repeated horrors for many years seemed to defy common sense.
Three days after the speech, Marilyn Van Derbur’s oldest sister, Gwen, an attorney in Hillsborough, Calif., told the Rocky Mountain News that she, too, had been molested by their father–but she had never forgotten. With that, most questions about Marilyn Van Derbur’s credibility and memory ended, and last year her father’s name was removed from the Denver Boy Scout building.
But the floodgates had been opened. If power consists in part of determining whose stories will be told and whose believed, the balance of power was shifting. After nearly a century in which many psychiatrists–most of them male–dismissed such reports as hysterical fantasies, women and men who were sexually abused in childhood lost patience with being spoken about and began to speak for themselves. It was as though Lolita had taken the pen from Humbert Humbert’s hand.
The revelations began in the 1980s at 12-step meetings for Adult Children of Alcoholics; they were whispered to a new generation of mostly female therapists whose clients were financially independent women. By 1994, more than 800,000 women had bought a self-help book called “The Courage to Heal.”
A window had opened, letting in darkness rather than light. Never before in history had so many women accused so many seemingly respectable men.
Little attention has been paid to the feelings of parents accused of abuse–either the innocent or the guilty. Now a comforting counter-explanation for the nation’s wave of incest revelation is being advanced: The problem is not abuse so much as an epidemic of false memories of it, fomented by therapists who suspect it when none has occurred.
The most formidable intellectual champions of this view are cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, the author, with journalist Katherine Ketcham, of “The Myth of Repressed Memory,” and Pulitzer Prize-winning social psychologist Richard Ofshe, the author, with journalist Ethan Watters, of “Making Monsters.” Both argue that an incest recovery culture–purveyed in self-help and pop psychology books, on TV shows and by reckless therapists–has induced thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of women to falsely accuse their parents.
Loftus, a cognitive psychologist and an eminent memory researcher at the University of Washington, is not a therapist but a hard scientist, an expert on the malleability of memory. She is skeptical of all therapeutic theories (such as the concept of “repression”) that have never been scientifically proven and skeptical of “recovered memories” of abuse because, as she writes in her book, she was secretly molested by a male baby-sitter when she was 6 and has never forgotten.
Her concern for the falsely accused has been shaped by nearly 20 years as an expert witness in criminal trials. As she described in a previous book, “Witness for the Defense” (1991), she tells juries that memory is not a pristine videotape, but subject to distortion, reconstruction, over-dubbing and erasure from stress, retelling, suggestion and the passage of time.
As she recounts in the current book, Loftus began in 1991 to apply her research to the incest debate. She got five university students and colleagues–about 20% of those who tried–to get a younger relative (in two cases young children) to report a mildly traumatic “false memory.” They did it by mixing accurate details with a false event–mentioning a familiar shopping mall, for example, and then “reminding” the subject of being lost there until rescued by a fictitious stranger. Based on such limited studies, Loftus speculates that traumatic “memories” of incest have been implanted unwittingly by therapists in thousands of women.
This view is supported by about 16,000 parents who have contacted the False Memory Syndrome Foundation of Philadelphia since 1992 to say they have been wrongly accused. Their daughters (and some sons), they say, developed “false memories” after reading “The Courage to Heal,” joining an incest recovery group or being hypnotized or encouraged to draw or write about their childhoods by their therapists.
Parents who weren’t present for therapy sessions can only speculate, of course; that is why the most haunting stories are those told by the clients themselves.
Loftus tells the story of Lynn Price Gondolf, a bulimic Texas woman, who was already emotionally fragile when she entered therapy. She had never forgotten being repeatedly raped as a child by her uncle. In the mid-1980s, her therapist told her that her symptoms were too severe to be explained by the rapes alone. He encouraged her to imagine what else might have happened, and she soon visualized her parents sexually abusing her.
Since the days of Hippocrates, a tenet of medicine has been that the cure should not be worse than the disease, and surely the same rule should apply to psychotherapy. But Gondolf’s therapist put her into a therapy group apparently dedicated to emotional strip-mining. Within two months, she had confronted her parents; later she tried repeatedly to kill herself and ended up on a psychiatric ward. Only when her insurance benefits ran out and her therapist abandoned her did she slowly rebuild her life, get a job, get off alcohol and drugs, and reconcile with her mother and father.
She may never be sure about her childhood, but what happened to her in therapy–and to about 200 other women who have recently emerged as “recanters”–seems unforgivable.
“Making Monsters” also uses case studies to build a broad attack on all therapy centered on the past. Therapy, Ofshe and Watters argue persuasively, is less a science than a system of influence, suggestion and belief. In the office, clients construct “narratives” of their lives that usually highlight what the therapist thinks is important: childhood trauma, perhaps, rather than present time. Do women benefit, he asks, from a life lived through a rearview mirror? It’s a provocative argument, though it seems overstated: What happens to us affects us, after all.
Both “Making Monsters” and “The Myth of Repressed Memory” make an eloquent case for parents and clients caught on the lunatic fringe of the incest recovery movement. They rightly decry exaggerated estimates of the incidence of child sexual abuse. (Social worker E. Sue Blume, author of “Secret Survivors,” puts it at over 50%, while a 1985 Los Angeles Times Poll put it at slightly above 20%.) They attack trigger-happy incest diagnosticians and “symptom checklists” that do not distinguish between correlations and causal connections, thus divining incest behind every eating disorder, depression or sexual difficulty.
That said, their books are not the dispassionate work of scientists. In Ofshe and Watters’ book, the incest recovery movement–composed primarily of women who have never forgotten memories of garden-variety abuse–has “morphed” into the “recovered memory movement,” a quasi-cult of hysterical women devoted to explaining away all present problems by dowsing for a traumatic past.
(By far the most thorough journalism done on this issue appears in “Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives,” by writer Mark Pendergrast, a father who has been accused of abuse by one of his two estranged daughters. The publisher is Upper Access Books in Hinesburg, Vt.).
While decrying as “pseudoscientific” the credulity of incest therapists, both Ofshe and Loftus seem remarkably uninterested in the vagaries of memory of those who have sexually abused children. Psychotherapists who work regularly with such men and women report that they frequently have alcohol problems that affect memory, or deny what they’ve done and admit or remember it months or years later.
Loftus makes only a glancing reference to Marilyn Van Derbur, and Ofshe does not mention her at all; nor do they discuss many other cases that might contradict these books’ central article of faith. Loftus, curiously, does not include any reference to a scientific study she co-published last year in the Psychology of Women Quarterly; in the study, which would appear to contradict the title of her own book, more than half of the 105 women questioned at a substance abuse center reported having been sexually abused as children, and almost a fifth of that group reported a period of total forgetting, after which their memories returned.
Ofshe, for his part, tells readers that by “conservative estimate” 15% of “recovered memory therapy” cases eventually involve allegations of ritual abuse. That statistic is as unscientific as the wildest overestimates of incest; it comes from a voluntary survey of 500 members of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, the support group for accused parents.
Almost all of Ofshe and Watters’ case studies are hidden behind pseudonyms from independent inquiry, forcing the reader to trust the writer’s conclusions rather than see how they were reached. The looseness with which he treats the material is evident in Chapter 6 of “Making Monsters.” Here he tells the story of “Jane”–a Washington state woman called Lynn Crook who has identified herself in a letter she circulated to the media disputing Ofshe’s account. In Ofshe’s account, Crook was led down the garden path by self-help books and therapists until she fabricated horrible memories of sexual abuse by her father, a respectable physician. Two of her sisters, apparently caught up in the hysteria, supposedly then interpreted vague and ambiguous memories as signs that they, too, had been abused. Crook sued her father (both Ofshe and Loftus appeared as expert witnesses at the trial) and, reportedly to “empower” herself, sought out a local newspaper reporter. As the chapter ends, she appears headed into the delusionary territory of satanic ritual abuse: She recalls seeing a crowd standing around a bonfire in masks, robes.
Although this chapter is told as though Ofshe and Watters can read Crook’s mind–her “heart races” at one point–they did not interview her or the sisters who testified on her behalf. The tale is an embellished reconstitution of the court records, and discrepancies in the details do not inspire confidence in Ofshe and Watters’ contention that Crook’s memories were caused by reckless therapy and the reading of self-help books. The authors have fiddled with the timeline, making it appear that Crook read and positively reviewed “The Courage to Heal” before, rather than after, she recovered memories of abuse. Crook, in fact, never told anyone that she had informed a local reporter of her suit against her father to “empower” herself; she responded to a phone call from a reporter who ran across the legal filing. One of Crook’s sisters supposedly testified that her father had once told her to close her legs; the book, however, omits the last half of the father’s reported sentence–“or I’ll think you want me.” And while Crook’s therapist’s notes did refer to a frightening memory of people standing around a bonfire in masks, the reference to robes was invented, making the memory sound more indicative of the delusions of satanic ritual abuse that Ofshe seems eager to find everywhere.
Ofshe omits from this account any reference to his own role in the lawsuit. In the court records, Judge Dennis D. Yule comments: “Just as (Ofshe) accuses (therapists) of resolving at the outset (to find) repressed memories of abuse and then constructing them, he has resolved at the outset to find a macabre scheme of memories progressing toward satanic cult ritual and then creates them.”
Inaccurate reporting like this takes a book like “Making Monsters” beyond polemic to backlash.
Sadly, we live in a world that produces its share of Jeffrey Dahmers, Ted Bundys, John Wayne Gacys, Susan Smiths and Francis Van Derburs; the public face people turn toward the world may have little relation to the one expressed in private. Yet if these authors have ever met guilty parents, they haven’t written about them. They seem to accept most protestations of parental innocence at face value, even those as half-hearted and ambiguous as “I don’t remember doing this” or “I don’t think so.”
They write movingly of the anguish of parents whose daughters accuse them of horrible crimes, but seem remarkably insensitive to sexually abused children. Families in which incest charges surface are described as “shattered”; but families in which incest really happened were secretly shattered long before anyone brought the truth to light.
All we know so far is that there are true memories with false details and false memories with true details; parents who are falsely accused, and parents who pretend to be; families shattered by false accusations of incest, and families shattered by true accusations; daughters with delusions, and daughters to whom terrible things have been done. The suffering of wrongly accused parents should not be ignored, and these books will provide a corrective for the suggestive therapy and botched family confrontations that have characterized the worst of the incest recovery movement. But the danger is that books like “Making Monsters” and “The Myth of Repressed Memory” will once again silence women and men from speaking–and being believed–about very real abuse, and will create a new breed of experts who will once again presume to know the truth.
©2005 Katy Butler. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.