Rethinking Recovered Memories

New thoughts on bridges between believers and non-believers

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It wasn't that long ago that stories from sexual abuse victims generally got a favorable reaction: belief. High-profile revelations of childhood abuse -- such as that of former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur, whose 30-year-repressed incest account was verified by her mom and sisters -- sparked waves of public sympathy and numerous made-for-TV movies on the topic. And as abuse climbed the media's hot list, it hit a responsive public chord: In a 1985 Los Angeles Times poll, 22 percent said they'd been sexually abused before the age of 18.

But in recent years, the tide seems to have dramatically reversed. Lawsuits mushroomed against victims who alone or with therapists allegedly concocted 'false memories' of their abuse. In the media, the featured sex abuse 'victim' was more likely to be the alleged abuser.

Why the turnabout? Some blame a general conservative backlash against anything smacking of victimhood, including critiques of abuse, poverty, and racism. 'This is a sociopolitical phenomenon,' charges Ellen Bass, author of the now controversial abuse survivor guide, The Courage to Heal (HarperCollins, $22.50) in Sojourner (March 1995). (Sojourner has consistently excelled at sexual abuse coverage.) Others blame media moguls, who, according to a recent poster in sci.psychology, 'decided false memory could be the next trend in publishing.'

And some believe that the backlash is simply the latest in a historical tendency to deny uncomfortable truths. 'Most folks find it easier to deny,' charges Scott Barak Abrahamson in Backlash, a journal attacking male stereotypes.

While the public debate between believers and doubters rages on, in therapeutic circles the trend is perhaps turning toward an acknowledgment of gray areas. In Family Therapy Networker (July/Aug. and March/April 1995), Katy Butler notes that a lack of research and guidelines on sexual abuse treatment has led to blunders and perhaps false accusations. Butler warns, though, against society's urge to 'focus its outrage on therapy rather than face the larger issue -- its failure to protect children against real abuse.' Butler highlights new approaches such as Mary Jo Barrett's 'family dialog project,' for families polarized by sexual abuse charges. This mediation technique can produce a common truce -- in half the families, the accused abuser owned up anyway -- or a 'third reality' in which all members may acknowledge that some inappropriate behavior occurred and agree on respectful future relationships.