Return to Victims of Memory Web Page
Chapter 6: The Survivors
What seems to Be, Is, To those to whom
It seems to Be, & is productive of the most dreadful
Consequences ... even of
Torments, Despair, Eternal Death.
First she sees her hypnotist,
Then she rushes to her psychiatrist,
Sees her acupuncturist,
You know she's got to, got to get fixed.
--Carly Simon, "Floundering"
Interviews in this chapter:
Virginia Hudson, incest survivor (letter)
Susan Ramsey, incest survivor
Diane Schultz, incest survivor
Frieda Maybry, ritual-abuse survivor
Patricia Delaney, survivor and lawyer
Angela Bergeron, multiple-personality survivor
Elaine Pirelli, survivor who remembers being impregnated
Melinda Couture, sexual-abuse survivor and
wife of accused father
Sally Hampshire, incest survivor
who has always remembered
When listening to self-described incest survivors,
it is difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, real memories from
illusions. Generally speaking, I believe people when they tell me about
abuse they have always remembered, while I have come to doubt memories
of long-term abuse that have been "recovered" many years later. Consequently,
I suspect that Sally Hampshire's account of incest, the last one in
this chapter, is accurate. I also think that Elaine Pirelli's older
half-brother really did molest her. One of these stories illustrates
the difficulty of defining "repression." There are gray areas, such
as Melinda Couture's explanation of how she suddenly recalled her brother-in-law's
attempt to feel her breasts when she was 12. This is the sort of one-time
event that can indeed be forgotten and then remembered, a process far
different from "massive repression."
In my opinion, most of the other "memories"
recounted here are probably well-rehearsed confabulations, though that
does not diminish the pain they represent.
Even when Susan Ramsey, the first person
interviewed in this chapter, says that she always knew
that her father was an alcoholic, a "nasty, mean, cruel drunk," I'm
not sure how much credence to give her words. He probably really did
drink too much, and I suspect that he was a far-from-perfect parent.
But when pressed to describe the verbal abuse he heaped on her, she
said that he called her a "lazy no-good young-'un," well within the
realm of things that a parent might blurt out in a moment of exasperation.
She also fondly recalls sitting on his lap listening to the radio, or
him comforting her when she was sick. Consequently, readers should bear
in mind that extremely negative versions of the past may be exaggerated
by current attitudes. Of course, not all Survivors had happy or normal
childhoods. Few people would describe their early years in such terms
without qualification. But troubled childhoods do not necessarily stem
from years of hidden incest.
Assuming that the recovered memories of abuse
are illusory, how did they come about? Who is to blame? Are therapists
primarily responsible for leading people to believe in fictional incest?
I would answer with a qualified yes, though there is a mutual influence
here, embedded in a cultural context that encourages the hunt for repressed
memories. Without therapists "validating" and encouraging belief, most
of those speaking here would not have visualized incest. Susan Ramsey
expresses grave doubts about her memories, but her therapist convinces
her that they are essentially true, and that he has not led her in any
way. Similarly, Diane Schultz relies on her counselor, though she secretly
worries that she may have been brainwashed. Frieda Maybry prides herself
on seeking only peer "co-counselors," but they serve the same function
as a therapist.
The dependency that many of these women exhibit
toward their therapists is intense, and the professionals often appear
to encourage it. "If Hugh moved away right now, I'd be dead," Angela
Bergeron asserts, while Susan Ramsey admits that she is extremely dependent
on Randall Cummings and wishes for a sexual relationship with him.
On the other hand, most of the self-identified
survivors seem to take some comfort in their victimhood in a process
psychologists term "secondary gain." Being a Survivor makes them feel
special, brings them sympathy and attention, and explains all of their
problems. They don't have to worry about failed marriages or relationships,
which aren't their fault. They were irretrievably wounded as children
and cannot function properly as a result.
Some women have recovered their "memories"
without the help of a therapist at all. Even if they had never read
a book on the subject or gone to therapy, by the early 1990s, virtually
every woman in our society with a problem had at least briefly pondered,
"I wonder whether this problem stems from repressed memories of sexual
abuse?" All too many then sought out The Courage to Heal
or another similar book. Only then did they enter therapy, having already
"remembered" abuse, or demanding to retrieve memories.
Such Survivors are then convinced that they were never led into such
beliefs, and that their memories must therefore be accurate.
The memory-retrieval process also provides
drama, mystery, and excitement, as quotes from The Courage to
Heal make abundantly clear. One woman in the book realizes that
she is "addicted to my own sense of drama and adrenaline." Another says,
"Whenever my life would calm down, I would start wishing for something
major to happen so I could feel at home." Consequently, Survivors must
take a share of responsibility for their mistaken beliefs. So must the
authors of recovery self-help books, as well as support-group members
who egg one another on. "I am addicted to groups," one Survivor admitted
in The Courage to Heal . "I am a sponge. Put me somewhere
where people are nice to me, and I'll learn their whole scene." Or,
as Diane Schultz, in her interview here, observes of members of her
Survivor group: "They believed me more than I believed
Do those who eventually recall memories have
anything in common? Yes. They are all experiencing stress and uncertainty
in their lives, or they wouldn't be seeking therapy. Many women are
feeling trapped by motherhood or marriage. Some seek therapy in the
wake of postpartum depression or miscarriages. Others struggle with
the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Aside from approaching
a vulnerable point in their lives, however, they do not necessarily
have much in common, other than a therapist with a particular mindset,
or simply being a self-doubting woman at a particular time in history.
The median age of women recovering "memories"
appears to be around the age of 30, though the age range has widened
as recovered-memory therapy and books espousing it have become more
popular. Girls as young as 12 are recovering memories. Even preschoolers
have been told by therapists that they must have repressed memories
of sexual abuse. At the same time, therapists have been recruiting in
nursing homes. One 1994 article advised that "psychologically fragile"
elderly women, particularly widows, should be helped to recall the incest
of their youth. Another MPD specialist agrees, but he warns against
doing abreactive work with octogenarians. "One of my multiples had a
stroke during an abreaction."
While there is no necessary common thread
among Survivors, there are several interesting subsets. A number of
accusers are very suggestible and hypnotizable, as I mentioned in Chapter
4. Many such Survivors are also quite dramatic, creative, and imaginative.
"I can work myself into a state of sobbing over something in a fantasy,"
one Survivor acknowledged in The Courage to Heal . They
play roles well, consciously or otherwise. A surprising number are either
professional or amateur actors. Many Survivors have always read mystery,
fantasy, or horror stories. They enjoy solving puzzles or envisioning
other worlds and possibilities. Often, they sing professionally or exhibit
Many Survivors also seem to be among the
helpers of the world, easily empathizing with those who suffer. They
often enter the helping professions, becoming teachers, nurses, or counselors.
A majority who come to believe in their "recovered memories" are high-achievers
who did quite well in school and may have advanced degrees. Just as
they were good students in school, they make excellent therapy clients,
dutifully reading recovery books, filling out workbooks, and performing
other homework assignments.
Other Survivors were probably too close
to their parents. While their friends rebelled as teenagers, they continued
to consider their parents to be best friends. These overly dependent
adult children, who have difficulty individuating from their parents,
often have a love/hate relationship with them. They long to break away,
but can't seem to do it. The incest memories allow them to do so, but
they do not really stand on their own. Instead, they transfer their
dependence to their therapists. Psychiatrist George Ganaway speaks of
such a case: "An unmarried 25-year-old woman ... has unresolved early
separation and individuation conflicts with her parents, leaving her
with a feeling of hostile dependence on them." Although she is a high
achiever, she has a "constant need for approval and validation from
others." The therapist becomes a substitute parental figure, "all-accepting,
all-believing and all-approving."
Another subset consists of "lifers" who have
bounced from one diagnosis, therapist, or movement to another for most
of their lives. "I've been mentally disturbed all my life," one such
woman told Ellen Bass. Many of them have always suffered from assorted
mysterious bodily ailments. Adopting the Survivor persona is simply
the latest in a series of explanations for these maladies.
Finally, and perhaps most tragic, there are undoubtedly those who have
real disorders such as manic-depression (bipolar disorder), anxiety
disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, clinical depression, or epilepsy
that go undiagnosed. Indeed, the conditions are exacerbated by the acting
out that is demanded by the Survivor role.
I cannot overemphasize the strong motivation
that impels people to discover hidden memories, once the idea is planted.
They yearn for an explanation for their current despair, and they become
dogged in their pursuit of the mystery. "My therapist told me to read
The Courage to Heal ," one woman told me. "I opened the
book to the first page, and three hours later, I looked up, sobbing.
I was totally consumed by this book. I couldn't read enough, find out
enough, couldn't let it go. Everything was leading me down this road.
My therapists weren't necessarily saying 'Confront your parents,' but
society and books and my need to be healthy were driving me. I was absolutely
Once someone is sucked into the recovered
memory vortex, it is clearly difficult to get out. "There is an identity
in being a committed survivor of sexual abuse," Bass and Davis accurately
observe in The Courage to Heal . "It can be hard to give
up." More and more memories surface, along with diverse perpetrators.
Once a confrontation takes place, it is hard to back away. Besides,
admitting you were wrong would involve losing all your new friends and
your all-important therapist. The shame and guilt from admitting false
accusations would be overwhelming. Also, people have an innate resistance
to cutting their losses, once they've made a major investment. "The
memories might not be totally accurate," Diane Schultz allows in her
interview here, "but what purpose would it serve me to spend so much
time, energy, and money to blame my father for something he didn't do?"
Therefore, according to this circular logic, he must have committed
incest on her.
It seems painfully obvious in some cases
that these "memories" do not seem real, even to those who remember them.
One woman I interviewed (not included here) has never managed to retrieve
any memories, though she is still sure she is a Survivor.
Another strove in vain to recall real incest, but settled for memories
of emotional incest. "I've concluded that you never overtly
molested me," she told her father recently, "but you did violate some
very important boundaries. You hugged me too long, looked at me too
fondly." I suspect that this nagging uncertainty may be what prevents
some children from directly accusing their parents or telling them precisely
what they are supposed to have done.
The saddest feature of the "therapeutic"
process is the frightful amount of pain it unnecessarily inflicts upon
unwary clients. They often go through awful depressions, suicide attempts,
and hospitalizations. They lose their families, their jobs, their relationships.
Yet somehow, they convince themselves that they are getting better.
Relatively speaking, over the short term, they eventually do
get better. Few people can keep themselves in such a state of turmoil
indefinitely, and when Survivors adjust to their new status and begin
to feel relatively calm, they often perceive that they have made great
strides. Compared to how they functioned when entering
therapy, however, most are worse off.
There are undoubtedly those who genuinely
benefit from recovered-memory therapy. Their long-term depression lifts.
They feel energized. They are able to enjoy sex. They feel renewed purpose
in life and enjoy the righteous anger of the Survivor. Because they
feel better having an explanation for all their previous troubles, they
are sure that their memories must be accurate. Why else would they have
improved? The answer is that any explanation for life's
troubles can have a placebo effect. Unfortunately, their newfound purpose
comes at the expense of grieving families, devastated by false accusations.
And, however fulfilling their lives may be, they have been deprived
of the support and comfort of their families.
To order the book directly from the publisher, Upper Access Books, click