For the past twenty years, women have been speaking out about sexual violence, and men have been coming up with denials, evasions, and excuses. We have been told that women lie, exaggerate, and fantasize. Now, with "Doors of Memory" (Jan./Feb.), Mother Jones is telling us that women are brainwashed. According to Ethan Watters, gullible women are misled by fanatical therapists who implant memories of childhood sexual abuse. Forget about the epidemic of rape and incest; what really has Watters worried is the possibility that many complaints may be false. His evidence: one case in which the accusations are sensational and the facts are unclear. This, according to Watters, constitutes a trend.
The only discernible trend here is pack journalism. In the past year, numerous similar stories have appeared, from Playboy to the New York Times, inspired by a well-funded organization called the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. Despite its scientific-sounding title, this is not a research group. In fact, there is no such thing as "False Memory Syndrome." FMSF is an advocacy group for people whose children have accused them of sexual abuse. According to an FMSF newsletter (February 29, 1992), the organization is "not in the business of representing pedophiles." How do they know this? Here's their evidence: "We are a good-looking bunch of people: graying hair, well- dressed, healthy, smiling....Just about every person is someone you would likely find interesting and want to count as a friend." Some members of FMSF even say they are willing to take lie-detector tests. This has been enough to satisfy the media.
Though FMSF has been very successful in capturing public attention, most journalists have tried to preserve at least a semblance of balance in their coverage. Watters, however, seems to have swallowed the entire FMSF press packet. The effect of Watters' piece is to take the spotlight off alleged perpetrators (he does not even acknowledge FMSF as his primary source) and to put it back on victims, for whom all his skepticism is reserved. Once again, those of us who have labored for years to overcome public denial find ourselves debating victims' credibility. How many times do we have to go over the same ground, guys?
Let's review the basic facts, by now exhaustively documented. Sexual abuse of children is common (best estimates: at least one girl in three, one boy in ten). It is not overreported but vastly under- reported (best estimates: under 10 percent of all cases come to the attention of child-protective agencies or police). False complaints do occur, but they are rare (best estimates: under 5 percent of all complaints). Most victims do not disclose their abuse until long after the fact, if ever. Though many suffer long-lasting psychological harm, the great majority never see a therapist.
What do survivors of childhood abuse remember? Many survivors can remember detailed images, feelings, sounds, smells, and tastes as clearly as though the abuse were happening in the moment. In other ways, survivors' memories are often confusing and vague. Important parts of the story may be missing, and survivors may have difficulty putting the pieces together to form a complete narrative with an accurate time sequence. Furthermore, al-though traumatic childhood memories are deeply engraved, they are not stored or retrieved in the same way as ordinary memories. Many survivors have a period of amnesia for the abuse, followed by delayed recall. In a recent careful follow-up study of two hundred women with documented childhood histories of sexual abuse, one in three did not remember the abuse twenty years later.
What triggers delayed recall? Suggestion by a therapist is probably at the bottom of the list. Most commonly, abuse memories start to surface when the survivor is involved in a close relationship. The memories may break through when she starts to have sex, when she gets married, when she has a child, or when her child reaches the age at which she was first abused. Or she may recall her own experience when another victim of the same perpetrator discloses abuse. She may remember the abuse when the aging perpetrator falls ill (and now expects her to care for him), or when the perpetrator dies.
Because the mental-health professions were blind to the reality of abuse for so many years, many therapists are not well trained to treat survivors. The bad old days, when patients were told that they secretly longed for incest, are not far behind us. Most therapists, even if they now believe their patients' reports of childhood abuse, still shy away from exploring the history. Occasionally therapists make the opposite mistake: they try to play detective, leaping to conclusions about their patients' histories without waiting for the memories to emerge. In these cases, however, it is most unusual for patients to accept every suggestion their therapists make. Psychotherapy is a collaborative effort, not a form of totalitarian indoctrination.
No one wants to believe that children are commonly abused by men they love and trust. Survivors want to believe this least of all. They do the best they can to keep their experiences secret, even from themselves. Often they succeed for a long time. They hate getting their memories back, and they cling to doubt long past the point where any impartial witness would be convinced. But once survivors have completed the process of recovering their memories, their stories are both internally consistent and--often--externally verifiable. In my own study of fifty-three survivors in group therapy, three out of four women were actually able to corroborate their memories with evidence from independent sources.
Truth is a funny thing; it seems to have healing powers. Once survivors come to terms with their past, they feel better. They feel even better when they realize they are not alone. Support groups have formed all over the country; in these groups many survivors discover both their personal and political strength. No longer isolated, many lose their shame and their fear. They start to speak out, to expose the men who abused them, and to hold them accountable for their actions. A few perpetrators have even been convicted of crimes on the basis of survivors' testimony. This represents a serious challenge to patriarchal power. Perpetrators are accustomed to silence and impunity. They do not like being confronted, and they have the resources to counterattack with defense attorneys and an effective propaganda machine.
Violence against women and children is deeply imbedded in our society. It is a privilege that men do not relinquish easily. So it's not surprising that we would see serious resistance to change. Historically, every time a subordinate group begins to make serious progress, a backlash occurs. This is what happened one hundred years ago when Freud created the myth that hysterical women fantasize about sexual abuse. It makes perfect sense that we would now see another backlash in the pages of Playboy or even the New York Times. But I have to admit that I'm surprised at Mother Jones.
Judith Herman is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She is the author, most recently, of Trauma and Recovery.