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Victims of Memory, Second Edition

Childhood is less clear to me than to many people ... for no reason that I know about, certainly without the usual reason of unhappy memories. For many years that worried me, but then I discovered that the tales of former children are seldom to be trusted. Some people supply too many past victories or pleasures with which to comfort themselves, and other people cling to pains, real and imagined, to excuse what they have become.
--Lillian Hellman,
Pentimento (1973)

       There is no question that sexual abuse in America is far more prevalent than anyone was willing to admit just a decade ago. Despite the immense amount of publicity given to the subject in recent years, it is still likely that real incidents of abuse are woefully under-reported, because victims are often too fearful or ashamed to reveal it.

       At the same time, however, there is growing evidence that illusory memories of sexual abuse are being unintentionally promulgated and "validated" by misguided therapists, resulting in devastating grief and irrevocably damaged family relations.

       When you are accused of sexual abuse in our society, at least during the late 20th century, you are automatically presumed guilty unless proven innocent beyond a shadow of a doubt--a virtual impossibility.

       Watching Sixty Minutes in 1986, I remember closely observing Ray Buckey, his sister, his mother, and his grandmother, all accused of sexually abusing their young charges at the McMartin Preschool, and thinking, "So this is what perverted child molesters look like." They denied everything, yet dozens of innocent children accused them of horrendous acts. To me, Ray Buckey's attempts to remain calm indicated sociopathic callousness. His wheelchair-bound grandmother, who expressed outrage at the charges, protested too much, I thought. They were obviously guilty. Why would so many pre-schoolers make up grotesque stories of rape, slaughtered animals, and satanic rituals? I dismissed the notion out of hand.

       Yet it has become quite clear now that Ray Buckey and his family were innocent, and that the children were led to make their accusations by extensive, coercive questioning by adults, as I document in Chapter 9. Buckey, after five years of unjust incarceration, has been released and is trying to rebuild his life. Now in his late 30s, he plans to go to law school.

       I imagine that some readers opening this book will begin with that same supposition of guilt regarding me that I once harbored for the Buckeys. Both of my adult daughters--first one, then the other--have cut off all contact with me, based on vague, unspecified allegations of childhood sexual abuse. (Though I would like to find out what they think I did and discuss it with them, they will not allow any communication.) Why would they take such drastic measures if there were no basis for the allegations? Even if they did stumble into some misguided therapy, the reader might infer, there surely must be a kernel of truth to my daughters' allegations. I must have done something .

       At first, I tortured myself with these same thoughts, as did most other accused parents I interviewed. My only real defense is the truth. I didn't sexually abuse my children. In hindsight, I know that I wasn't a perfect parent. But then again, neither are most parents. Raising children is the most important and most difficult job on earth, and it is even more challenging in the aftermath of a divorce. There are many things I would indeed apologize for, if only I could, but they were normal human foibles.

       I did not want to write this book. It's much too painful. The truth is, I had to write it. I finally realized that what has been termed "false memory syndrome" (FMS) was destroying not only my children's very identities and my relationship with them, but millions of other families as well.

[FOOTNOTE: The term "false memory syndrome" has been widely criticized because it has not yet been officially recognized as a psychiatric term and because the word "false" is pejorative. I use it for lack of any better term, but I have avoided using the term "false memories" where possible.]

       As a result, this book wouldn't go away, and wouldn't let me write anything else, despite my first editor pleading for another business book to follow my history of Coca-Cola, and despite repeated rejections from the major New York publishing houses. As an investigative journalist, it seemed clear to me that this was an issue that needed investigation, and I needed to pursue it to the best of my ability before re-focusing on other issues. A small publisher in Vermont--Upper Access Books--took on the project and published the first edition of Victims of Memory in February, 1995.

       I knew from the outset, however, that the book would be fraught with problems. Given my personal situation, would I be able to represent all sides of the story without appearing grossly prejudiced? Could I approach the subject with an open mind? Could I really understand what those in recovered memory therapy were going through?

       Now that I have spoken with so many of those whose lives have been irrevocably altered by recovered "memories," I believe that I do understand what these women (and many men) have suffered through. I have come to feel the utmost compassion for all who are involved in this phenomenon.

       In interviewing therapists with whom I disagreed, I strove to listen wholeheartedly, to understand what they saw and felt, and I have let them speak for themselves in these pages. Most of them mean well. In all interviews, I represented myself as a journalist interested in exploring the issue of sex abuse, particularly as it related to memories recovered as adults. I did not reveal that I myself had been accused, because that would have tainted the interviews or made them impossible to conduct. My listening and interpretive skills must have been fairly good. "Gee," one therapist told me two hours into our interview, "you'd make a pretty good therapist yourself. You understand this material better than most of my colleagues."

       Similarly, I tried to be extremely sensitive to feelings and stories of "incest survivors" as I listened to them, even when they described what seemed to me to be well-rehearsed fantasies rather than real memories. Their pain and confusion, their anger and loneliness, their need for love and understanding were all touchingly real. They speak for themselves in these pages.

       Here, too, are the disturbing voices of retractors--those who have come to believe that their former accusations were false--with their inevitable rage at former therapists and their guilt and shame over the treatment of their parents.

       And, of course, I have listened to agonized parents who have lost their children because of accusations of incest. I have been inspired by their struggles (often at an advanced age) to come to grips with this seemingly inexplicable situation, by their fortitude and courage, and by their continued care and love for their children despite everything.

       It is unfortunate that any mention of the phrase "sex abuse" often polarizes those on both sides of this argument. I hope that this book will serve as a kind of dialogue within its pages. Readers will hear in detail from those on all sides of this volatile issue and, although I express my informed opinion, they are free to make their own judgments. In my concluding chapter, I have made tentative suggestions for how reconciliation of all parties might take place.

       One of the ironic tragedies of the recovered-memory movement is its supposed affiliation with "feminism." Because most of those recovering memories of abuse are women, those who question the memories are labeled sexists. Yet what is really happening here? These therapists specialize in making women feel helpless, dependent, wounded, incomplete, and fundamentally flawed. Does that sound familiar? Women's lives are being harmed by a movement that feminists should abhor.

       One retractor has written poignantly about her own recovered-memory experience, in which she became convinced that she had multiple-personality disorder. "It robs women of all power and control over themselves. If I really hated women and wanted to keep them in a completely powerless and childlike state, the best way to do that would be to remove their faith and trust in their own minds and make them dependent." That is precisely what happens in this form of "therapy," which frequently manages, quite literally, to turn women into helpless infants. "At most MPD gatherings, accommodations are made for those who feel themselves losing control," this retractor writes. "These arrangements are exactly like the nurseries set up in churches in case the infants begin to fuss, with coloring books and crayons. And these are for grown women!"

       That brings us to the subject of pronouns, a volatile issue nowadays. Since women constitute the vast majority of those who have recovered "repressed memories," I refer to any such generic "survivor" as female throughout the text ( e.g., "When a woman first enters therapy, she ..."). Ellen Bass and Laura Davis directed The Courage to Heal , their controversial book about repressed memories, specifically to women, though they acknowledged that men are also sexually abused. Since Victims of Memory is, among other things, a corrective to that book, I consider it important and intellectually honest to address women directly as well, though many men have certainly suffered through the same experiences.

       One more point on this touchy subject. Along with social psychologist Carol Tavris (and most scientifically controlled studies), I believe that men and women have much more in common, as members of the same species, than they display genetic differences. The current repressed-memory hunt has breathed new life into one of the most damaging and sexist traditions in our culture--the subtle training of women that they can gain power and attention only through the "victim" role. That does not mean that they are inherently passive, dependent, or hysterical, but it does mean that the recovered-memory hunt follows in that unfortunate cultural tradition.

       Just as I do not want to be branded a sexist, I also do not intend this book to be taken as a broadside assault on all therapists. Many counselors provide needed help and understanding for people in emotional turmoil. I praise those therapists who help clients deal with current life issues, who look to the past (without rewriting it) only in order to understand the present, and who gently nudge their clients toward responsible, mature independence.