By Katy Butler
WHEN STORIES ABOUT “False Memory Syndrome” (FMS) began to appear in Time magazine and elsewhere in the national media in 1992, the most striking response from therapists was none at all a sort of frightened paralysis, a hope that if nobody paid attention, the crisis would go away. “I once thought that the storm would pass,” says psychologist Robert Schwarz, whose Institute for Advanced Clinical Training sponsors conferences on sexual abuse therapy. “I was wrong.” Three years later, trauma therapists have barely begun to organize a political, clinical or public-relations counter-response.
“The mental health community is made up of the most altruistic people in America. Unfortunately they’re a bit naive when it comes to issues hitting them upside the head,” says Eric Marine, a vice president for the American Professional Agency in Amityville, New York, a major administrator of malpractice insurance programs. “One side of this debate is talking to the public, the other side is talking to itself.”
The first public response to the FMS critique occurred in the fall of 1992, at the American Psychiatric Association meeting in San Francisco, which featured leading spokespeople for both sides in the debate. Cognitive research psychologist Elizabeth Loftus wondered whether a “net of rage had been cast too wide” by the incest recovery movement, and psychiatrist Judith Herman presented a feminist analysis of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF). “Until recently, the sexual abuse of children was the perfect crime,” said Herman, a Harvard professor and author of Father-Daughter Incest. “The perpetrator was fairly guaranteed he would never be caught or successfully prosecuted. Now, women and men have begun to use the courts to hold them accountable for the first time, and we see the perpetrators fighting back.”
Meanwhile, Pamela Freyd, the indefatigable director of the FMSF criss-crossed the country, speaking to local parents’ groups and helping provide the news media with access to research studies, experts, anguished parents and retractors. FMSF members also lobbied the national professional organizations for cautionary statements on “recovered memory therapy.”
In August 1993, the American Psychological Association convened a Working Group on Investigation of Memories of Childhood Abuse .to prepare clinical guidelines for practitioners in cases where abuse is alleged Within a few sessions, the group composed of three research psychologists specializing in memory and three clinicians who see many sexually abused clients found itself hopelessly deadlocked. Last November, the group agreed on a bare-bones interim report, acknowledging both that “it is possible to construct convincing pseudomemories” as researchers contended, and that “it is possible for memories of abuse that have been forgotten for a long time to be remembered,” as the clinicians maintained. The group has been unable to agree on much else except that more research is needed, and it is scheduled to release two opposing final reports in February. “The APA committee is not going to be the answer to this because we are too divided,” says Loftus, who is both a member of the committee and the FMSF scientific advisory board. “The three therapists on the committee are writing a report, and the three scientists are writing a report and we’re writing rebuttals to each other’s reports.”
“We’re not even speaking the same language,” says psychologist Laura Brown, a Seattle clinical psychologist in the working group. “When they look at research on memory of trauma they look at people hearing about the Challenger blowing up or seeing it on television. When we look at research on memory of trauma, we’re looking at violations to one’s body such as rape by a parent or caregiver. We’ ve come to an awareness that we have divergent epistemologies and that much further research needs to be done.”
Psychologist Nick Cummings, the founder of American Biodyne, the first managed care psychotherapy group in the country, called the outcome “a disgraceful abrogation,” and the said the group was composed of “ideologues on both sides.” The APA’s president-elect, Dorothy Cantor, is more hopeful “I think it’s amazing they were able to acknowledge the other point of view,” she says. “We’re saying both phenomena exist, and you’ve got to be damn careful about what assumptions you go in with.” She predicts that a future APA group may generate clinical guidelines.
This May in Seattle, in an attempt to lessen polarization around the issue, family therapists Mary Jo Barrett and David Calof will present a training workshop called “Beyond Mistrust and Confrontation,” to teach mediation with families divided by disputed incest allegations.
In late 1994, after attending a False Memory Syndrome Foundation conference at Johns Hopkins University, attorney Sherry Quirk, a partner in a large Washington, D.C law firm realized that, “The goal of the backlash is clearly to ‘chill’ any therapist’s ability, freedom or desire to work with adult survivors of sexual abuse,” she wrote in her fundraising letter. “After two days of hearing therapists being trashed and blamed for adults’ memories of sexual abuse … I concluded that as long as clients remember and talk about abuse, therapists will be vulnerable to vicious attack.”
In December, Quirk helped organize a meeting of leading trauma specialists, including Philadelphia psychiatrist Sandra Bloom, Harvard psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, psychologist Christine Courtois, author of Healing the Incest Wound, psychologist Mark Schwartz of the Masters and Johnson sex therapy program in St. Louis and others. “We realized we couldn’t do anything without having some money,” says Bloom. “We didn’t even have enough money to send out a mailing to raise money.” The group put together a fundraising letter in January, and hopes to raise about $100,000 to fund a new organization, the American Coalition for Abuse Awareness to lobby against the strict legislative regulations of clinical practice proposed in the “Truth and Responsibility in Mental Health Practices Act (see page 30), provide materials for the press and generally act as a parallel organization to the FMSF.
Organizing therapists was an uphill struggle. “The entire field is under such a barrage because of managed care; everyone is struggling to survive and pay their mortgages and provide for their families,” says Bloom. “And psychotherapists shy away from an adversarial position about anything. They prefer cooperation, mediation and conflict resolution. Most practicing psychotherapists, other than feminist therapists, do not see their work as the least bit political or controversial, and now they find themselves in a hot political issue and they don’t know how to deal with it.”
Sherry Quirk was more succinct. “Trying to organize therapists,” she says, “is like trying to herd cats.”
©1995 Katy Butler. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.