Rethinking Recovered Memories

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.

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