Recanting Accusations of Child Sexual Abuse Is Often a Psychological Defense Mechanism

Some people claim that adults who accuse a family member of child sexual abuse, are often doing this as a result of needing an “easy excuse” for an unsatisfactory life…not that they were abused.

On the contrary, it is much simpler for a person who was sexually abused as a child, and who repressed it, to believe that their mind is playing tricks on them, than to accept that the parent –whom they love—had violated them in such a heinous way.

The former is the apple pie explanation. The latter defies social beliefs and causes the denial system to have to be penetrated.

The result of this personal denial is that, sometimes, a true victim of child sexual abuse takes back their previous accusations.

Validation is rarely given when a previous victim first discloses the abuse to parents or siblings. In many cases, when an unhealed adult cannot obtain the needed consideration and support, they find it by retracting.

Rescinding invites the biological family to once again embrace the accuser.

Evidence for erroneous retractions of previously disclosed sexual abuse can be found in the amount of recantations among children. Twenty-five percent of abused children revoked their story in one sample. In another portion of the children, three out of thirteen recanted abuse, even though the perpetrator had confessed. Recanting claims of child abuse can be a normal phase during the period of remembering and then revealing that one was a victim of child sexual abuse.

It is extremely common for families to persuade the victim not to disclose the molestation to authorities, and to tell the child to take back the accusation after it has been exposed outside the family. Former FBI agent, Ken Lanning, has observed the frequency of family members who put pressure on the child to keep the secrets.

The same scenario often plays out for adults who find the strength to openly reveal family secrets.

The United States Department of Justice confirms that primary caregivers and parents often don’t believe children when they first disclose abuse. Furthermore, because the child -not the abuser- is usually removed from the home, the victim often revokes the allegation. According to the Department of Justice, the family frequently punishes the child with a lack of affection.

Retractions often take place when the perpetrator is arrested, when the financial income consequently stops, when the child is placed in a foster home, when there is backlash from the siblings, and when authorities seem more like discipline to the child than helpers.

These circumstances mimic the cases of adults who have been ostracized and cut off from their biological family after telling them they were sexually abused by a family member or close family friend.

When the adult survivor of child sexual abuse is considered by the family to be dead or “not one of us,” the survivor can mistakenly decide that it is much more comfortable to be a member of the family again than it is to heal from incest.

Brown, Scheflin, and Whitfield studied thirty cases where an adult, who previously accused a family member of incest, had retracted the accusations. The evidence overwhelmingly showed that it is not a therapist suggesting an untrue history of abuse that causes an abuse survivor to recant, but the patient’s contact with their biological family, legal issues, and other outside influences.

The adult survivor might also fear punishment or still retain a strong personal denial —all of which subsequently result in the victim submitting to family pressure to retract their accusations.

If certain aspects of healing are dealt with too late in therapy, or not at all, the patient may place negative emotions onto the therapist instead of the biological family. The client then returns to the family and turns on the therapist.

An in-depth look at thirty malpractice cases based on a person retracting previously disclosed abuse memories, revealed that eighty percent of the patients had been diagnosed with as many as four key psychiatric problems; some of which included anxiety disorders, PTSD, personality disorder, addictions, sexual desire disorder, eating disorders, and psychosomatic symptom disorders.

It is suggested the patients may have had an unsatisfactory recovery no matter who treated them and that negligence was presumably not the case. This opinion is due to the multiple diagnoses in each patient along with the intensity of the mental and physical disturbances. It is suggested that these therapists most likely had a tremendous hurdle to face with the multitude of problems in one single person. The premise is that no matter who treated the patient, the prognosis would have been poor.

We are left to wonder what caused these numerous problems in one person, if not the very sexual abuse that was originally remembered.

If I had not experienced such successful treatment with my therapist, I would have agreed with the opinion that patients with severe disorders and multiple symptoms would not have healed, but recovery and freedom is possible for every human being, no matter how many different psychiatric problems they have or how much they suffer physically.

Research shows that when a previous victim takes back their account of what happened, it is most often because the crime perpetrated on them was traumatic, personally devastating, and heinous in nature. Retraction is especially found in cases of ritual abuse, satanic ritual abuse, or mother/daughter incest. These shocking experiences enhance the denial system to such a degree that recanting accusations can almost be expected.

One female retractor, who entered therapy to treat problems which she felt had stemmed from a current relationship, began to realize that her pain was more deeply rooted.The woman was very depressed and had intense urges to self-mutilate and commit suicide. At the time, nothing about sexual abuse had been mentioned or implied in her therapy sessions.

People do not just “out of nowhere” suddenly feel the urge to self-mutilate or commit suicide if they have not gone through trauma or severe emotional pain during their formative years.

The therapist asked the woman to think about a time she had been angry with her mother. The woman described one experience she had as a child where her mother didn’t tell the girl’s father to stop entering the bathroom while the child was bathing. The very fact that the mother allowed the father to continue walking in on his daughter is odd. However, the woman admits that this always-remembered incident did not cause memories of abuse to come up.

Although it is vague how she feels the memories were invented, the woman does admit that her therapist did not attempt to dig any further into her past. There is no clear reason how she came up with the idea that she had acquired false memories, especially when the incident about bathing had never been forgotten. Additionally, her never-forgotten memory is indicative of a mother who refused to act on her child’s pleas for assistance, along with a father who did not respect his daughter’s boundaries with regards to her body.

Over a number of years, the woman decided along with a therapist that she may never know for certain what is false and what is true. Then, just as suddenly as the supposedly “false” memories began, she decided that because of her “personality disorder,” that she made her father a “scapegoat.” She then stated that she still has these “false” memories from time to time and still retains a desire to self-mutilate. Personality disorder and self-mutilation are both highly associated with severe child sexual abuse and every indication points to a woman who is not willing to allow herself to face the truth.

_______________________________________________________

Sources:

The Highly Misleading Truth and Responsibility in Mental Health Practices Act: The “False Memory” Movement’s Remedy for a Non-existent Problem, Simon, J.M., Moving Forward, 3(3): 1, 12-21, 1995, used with permission by Judith Simon

Recovered Memories: The Current Weight of the Evidence in Science and in the Courts, Daniel Brown Ph.D, Alan W. Scheflin, JD, M.A., LL.M, and Charles Whitfield M.D, Journal of Psychiatry and Law, spring 1999, Volume 27

Behind the Playground Walls: Sexual Abuse in Preschools, Jill Waterman Ph.D, Robert J. Kelly Ph.D, Mary Kay Oliveri MSW, Jane Mc Cord, Ph.D, 1993, The Guilford Press

Negation or Reversal of Legal Testimony, Hypnotic Investigation of Psychodynamic Processes, Milton Erickson, The Collected Papers of Milton H. Erickson on Hypnosis Volume 3, Edited by Ernest L. Rossi Irvington Publishers, Inc, 1980, page 221

FMSF Newsletter March/April 2000 Vol 9 No 2

Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis for Law-Enforcement Officers Investigating the Sexual Exploitation of Children by Acquaintance Molesters, Fourth Edition September 2001, Kenneth V. Lanning, Former Supervisory Special Agent Federal Bureau of Investigation, Copyright 2001 National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, page 50

U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs Office for Victims of Crime, Washington, D.C., June 1999

The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Affects of Cruel Parenting, Alice Miller, W.W. Norton & Company, 2005, pages 54-55, Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia

Recovered Memories: The Current Weight of the Evidence in Science and in the Courts, Daniel Brown Ph.D, Alan W. Scheflin, JD, M.A., LL.M, and Charles Whitfield M.D, Journal of Psychiatry and Law, spring 1999, Volume 27

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17 Responses to Recanting Accusations of Child Sexual Abuse Is Often a Psychological Defense Mechanism

  1. PM Stefan says:

    “…observed the frequency of family members who put pressure on the child to keep the secrets.”

    This happened to my step-son. His mother placed pressure on her son to recant his story telling him she could prove he was a liar. She even took him to the police, a scare tactic, to get him recant his accusations. He did.

    When my step-son returned home from his mother’s house, he was a messed up 8 year old child. We were told by the police department in her state to not talk about what occurred with them. Our step-son came home saying these three words again and again, “I don’t know.” He was clearly traumatized by the interrogation he received at the police department.

    We eventually won custody of him which prevented our step-son from returning to his mother’s house where his perpetrator lived, her husband.

  2. PDD says:

    Very astute replies and comments; everyone, thanks!

    Father and Sister made it clear to me (back in 2007 confrontation) what I needed to do to “repair the relationships you have damaged”: you need therapy to tell the difference between lies and reality, you need to do this “as a family” to bring the “old son/brother back”, you need institutionalization, you need to get back to “the right place”, you need, you need, you need…. blah blah blah. Obviously they wanted me to retract and recant.

    Yet, they also said I’m filled with demons, they refuse to join me at my therapist’s office because clearly she’s a quack and isn’t “helping me exorcise my demons”, they live in fear of my violence and paranoia, there’s nothing for me in my hometown, the relationships are damaged beyond repair….. blah blah blah.

    So, which is it? Did they want reconciliation or not? Most definitely no, as I’ll elaborate more on below.

    Here’s two curious observations:
    a) when I initially broke my silence with Sister, I only disclosed the physical abuse, never mentioned the sexual. But in the 2007 confrontation, Father “needed to know about your accusations of sexual molestation”. I never revealed to anyone in my FOO anything about incest! Father said “people are talking, they say you think your mother molested you”.

    I never told, yet clearly he knew, knew all along…. Assh*le…..

    b) My father and sister are not religious people, but they used the noun “demon” numerous times to describe me. (Sister once took a class or two in counseling, thus in her mind she’s a certified therapist, and her diagnosis of me is I’m filled with demons….) Hmm, have to admit I’ve never seen demons listed in the “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”.

    As I said previously, beatify the abuser, demonize the kid.

    Father and Sister wanted me to recant and retract, but they had no intentions of permitting me back into the FOO. Their objective wasn’t to have a sense of normalcy, to have PDD part of the family again. They wanted me to recant for one reason only: to remain smug in their beliefs that it was me, who as a little demon boy, abused his mother!

    The survivor has motivations for recanting. Mine were the desire to reunite, to aid healing, to maintain a sense of “family”, to help me on my path of giving forgiveness. But the FOO has motivations too. Sometimes they are in line with the above, but sometimes (as in my FOO’s case) they are to circle the wagons even more tightly, ostracize the survivor even more, and reinforce their myth that yep, PDD is a f*cked up liar, always has been, always will be; even PDD impugns himself by taking back what he said!

    In early 1991, I spent a few days in the hospital recovering from a car accident. Mother and Father eventually came to visit about a month later. But they didn’t come to check on me, ensure my recovery, celebrate that I wasn’t more seriously injured. No, they came to confront me on a car purchase deal that had soured between Mother and me (soured due to one of Mother’s lies). Even though my neck was broken, even though I was wearing a C-collar, even though I was using a walker, still my father (fists clenched, red in the face, ready to punch me out) shrieked at me: “I don’t give a f*ck for your feelings; your feelings mean sh*t to me, they will always mean sh*t to me!” In late 1991, I was in yet another car accident, this one quite horrific and damn near killed me. Father was still so pissed off, he refused to allow me to recuperate in his home.

    Alethea, you wrote: “You must know that if you ever capitulated to them, you would probably cause yourself a lot of serious physical, psychological and emotional problems for yourself. … Know that if you retracted, your “relationship” with them would always be superficial and would be based on a lie…. They would continue to emotionally abuse you, even if you catered to their self-comfort.”

    Great observations, and spot on. Their insistence for me to retract was motivated SOLELY by self-comfort: they don’t care a damn about me, they only care about themselves and the Perfect Mother. My relationship had been so superficial, a used car was more important to Father than his only son…. As Little Nel wrote: silence keeps the abuser safe.

    I wasn’t Mother’s only victim. She also molested the little boy next door (10 years younger than I), while baby sitting him. I’ve been tempted to track him down, see how he’s doing 35 yrs later. How many other victims? Father will stand by the Family Myth to the bitter end. I read articles how astonishing it is that Dottie Sandusky continues to stand by her husband; I don’t find it astonishing—my own father is doing it!

    • little nel says:

      PDD,

      You have done a great job of observing!

      Your family and mine, so alike. So “in need” of my being “to blame” for their inner pain. They being so blameless and so tired of my “lies” and horrible “sick” attitude.

      They choose to continue suffering like martyrs. I chose recovery and freedom.

      Who is the smartest one?

    • Alethea says:

      PDD,

      “when I initially broke my silence with Sister, I only disclosed the physical abuse, never mentioned the sexual. But in the 2007 confrontation, Father “needed to know about your accusations of sexual molestation”. I never revealed to anyone in my FOO anything about incest! Father said “people are talking, they say you think your mother molested you”.

      Very telling.

      “My father and sister are not religious people, but they used the noun “demon” numerous times to describe me. (Sister once took a class or two in counseling, thus in her mind she’s a certified therapist, and her diagnosis of me is I’m filled with demons….) Hmm, have to admit I’ve never seen demons listed in the “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”.

      LOL.

      “In early 1991, I spent a few days in the hospital recovering from a car accident. Mother and Father eventually came to visit about a month later. But they didn’t come to check on me, ensure my recovery, celebrate that I wasn’t more seriously injured. No, they came to confront me on a car purchase deal that had soured between Mother and me (soured due to one of Mother’s lies). Even though my neck was broken, even though I was wearing a C-collar, even though I was using a walker, still my father (fists clenched, red in the face, ready to punch me out) shrieked at me: “I don’t give a f*ck for your feelings; your feelings mean sh*t to me, they will always mean sh*t to me!” In late 1991, I was in yet another car accident, this one quite horrific and damn near killed me. Father was still so pissed off, he refused to allow me to recuperate in his home.”

      PDD, It seems as if your car “accidents” might really be your way of trying to check out, or to get love from them (by subconsciously getting into accidents so they will nurture you). I would imagine that you have a lot of pain from the fact that your parents never loved you. That is a deep wound in a child, and in a sense, you are still that little boy who just wanted love.

      Just know that they never knew how to love you, and that had NOTHING to do with you. They are the defective ones, not you.

      “I wasn’t Mother’s only victim. She also molested the little boy next door (10 years younger than I), while baby sitting him. I’ve been tempted to track him down, see how he’s doing 35 yrs later. How many other victims?”

      I would try to do this if you feel up to it. I bet that person would be grateful to know they are not crazy, or alone. That is…if they remember it. You might want to see if he remembers anything before telling him about it. If he doesn’t remember it, then he might lash out at you. But I would make an attempt to find him in case he needs support or validation.

      • PDD says:

        Alethea: just for clarity, I was a rear seat passenger in both car accidents. I had no control over the driver’s actions. FYI. -PDD

  3. Shana Dines says:

    I obviously at least to my selves, know after reading this how much more that I I still need to recover more. I am internally shaking with rage, reading the email from PDD, makes me think of how much our stories are similar. It was my father too who may as well have said, it doesn’t matter if she did it or not, she is your mother and anything that she does is okay. At the same time, knowing how sick my poor brother is, also a victim of my mother, totally f* up and I can’t believe that he is still living, with all of the rage and drugs that he has ingested. My sister too , who is 49 my brother is 61 and I am 62. No contact, when my mother died I was threatened not personally because they are all cowards, if I tried to show up, the cops would be called. That was almost 2 years ago.
    I still wish that there would be justice on this side of life. On her death bed my mother told my sister that she never “raped” any of her kids. She may as well said that she raped us all, not to mention our kids. This could go on for ever. I have to leave but I am not done! Thanks for this place to vent.

  4. little nel says:

    Hi Shana,

    I can relate with your experience. I did not recant either, so I was scorned the same way.

    It was worth it because I can now experience freedom from the despair that the abuse caused me growing up. I am free to make good choices without the influence of the guilt and shame that was forced on me by the perps.

    I was an innocent child who was forced to accept sexual abuse and keep silent about it or suffer scorn by my family.

    I won my freedom with struggles and hard work and it feels so good.

  5. PDD says:

    Good article. I’m a surivor of mother/son incest & physical abuse, and many points you make struck home as true.

    The first time I tried to tell my father what my mother was doing to me, back in elementary school, he replied: “I don’t believe you; besides it doesn’t matter anyway, nothing will ever come between me and my wife and that includes my own children”. He then told my mother my “lie”; her abuses only got worse. I’ve never forgotten his words. I’ve also never forgotten how my mother emasculated me as the little lying sonofabitch who no one would ever believe.

    I was marginalized from the FOO in elementary school, high school, especially college. As an adult, I finally broke my silence to my sister (the favorite child); to my astonishment she immediately believed me. But, equally amazing, weeks later she “recanted”, changed her mind, decided I was “lying”. Of course, she tattled on me, just as she’d done all our lives. She was the favorite, the angel; I was the little lying sonofabitch. My FOO ostracized me, cut off all contact and communication.

    Years later (2007) Mother died, I was forbidden from attending her funeral under threat of a restraining order (Father and Sister were “fearful of my violence”; that was their “easy excuse”). But Father did unknowingly reveal to me during our confrontation that he did know about Mother’s abuses, knew all along, just chose not to act on my childhood pleas for assistance. Just as in the article, Father remembered me telling him I didn’t like Mother coming into the bathroom while I was bathing. Of course, Father didn’t think anything of it back in 1977, and he still doesn’t think anything of it in 2007. Sister said I’m full of lies, Father said I’m full of violence, they both said I am the true abuser against my saintly mother, and in their eyes I will always be an emotionally retarded f*cked up twit of a kid.

    To be honest, I’ve weighed retracting and recanting to maintain some semblance of a relationship with these people. But the reality is I’ve never been a part of that family, and they are simply evil people for ignoring the violence against a little boy from a mentally ill woman. Beatify the abuser, demonize the kid.

    Saw my sister, after nearly 7 years of zero contact, only last month at our high school reunion. The Sandusky verdict had just been announced, so I was feeling pretty empowered to stand my ground had she attempted to confront me or otherwise create drama. She left the reunion abruptly, probably soon after she noticed I was there. I merely chuckled to myself.

    • little nel says:

      “Beautify the abuser, demonize the kid”

      It is easier to deny or minimize the abuse than to take action to protect the child. That’s why we have mandatory reporting laws in place and child abuse investigators, prosecutors, and judges to decide the case when abuse is reported.

      Silence keeps the abuser safe and keeps the victim angry. The only way the victim can get free from the misery of the pain and shame is to tell.

      We are only as “sick” as our secrets. Your family was like mine in that they wanted to keep the “secrets” at all costs. Don’t trust, don’t feel, and don’t talk.

      So what if it makes us emotionally and mentally ill? So what if it makes us physically ill? So what if it makes us angry, violent, and unreasonable? So what if it makes us to be out of touch with reality? So what if it makes us believe lies? So what if it ruins our personal relationships and causes estrangement?

      When I let myself acknowledge the abuse for what it really was, I started to recover what I had lost in childhood because of the abuse.

      • Alethea says:

        “We are only as “sick” as our secrets.”

        It’ so true. I was pretty damn sick, and for many many years. The secrets my subconscious mind, and my body, kept from my conscious mind were too sick for my conscious mind to handle. I guess that one could say my healing process was years of strengthening myself mentally, spiritually, and emotionally enough to be able to gradually handle the truth.

    • Alethea says:

      Dear Pdd,

      Your story is heartbreaking to me. I know you don’t want pity, and this is not pity…I just feel that you must have suffered a lot of pain and betrayal. You actually remind me of a man named Eric who was sexually abused by his mother. You write like he did, and you seem very creative, insightful, and intelligent like he is/was. (I have not corresponded with him in years so I don’t know what happened to him. We used to write back and forth on a forum for survivors of child sexual abuse.)

      You must know that if you ever capitulated to them, you would probably cause yourself a lot of serious physical, psychological and emotional problems for yourself. Lying to your inner child is detrimental. Know that if you retracted, your “relationship” with them would always be superficial and would be based on a lie. I would rather be alone than be in a room with a bunch of people who want to live a lie, be a lie, and expect me to lie to myself.

      They would continue to emotionally abuse you, even if you catered to their self-comfort.

      • little nel says:

        “They would continue to abuse you, even if you catered to their self-comfort.”

        This is true because they don’t know any other way to treat us unless they get therapy/honesty also. We are the designated family scapegoats because we have broken the rules of silence and unleashed our families’ stockpile of resentment.

        Denial can only protect us for so long, then it becomes our source of desperation and anxiety. It is something that continues to devour us until we are ready to accept the reality of our lives.

        Our choices are medication (including self-medication), surgery (including self-mutilation), “just get over it” (which includes pretending we got over it) or recovery. Our parents and siblings have the same choices because it is a family problem.

  6. Shana Dines says:

    This makes me want to puke. I never took back my accusations, but I understand why some do, My family completely alienated me, cast me out of the family, told everyone I was crazy, had false memory, had a brain tumor, had a personal ax to grind, and was evil. I never took it back. It really infuriates me that so called intelligent people can’t see why people recant. Not in the best of places right now and this just pisses me off. Very good information though.

    • Alethea says:

      Hi Shana. I was told I had “a malignant brain.” So I guess the only explanation for accusations of incest is that the child must have cancer. After-all, how could a family member sexually abuse a child? So the child must be the sick one right? (emphasis on lots of sarcasm)

      I took what my sisters said and did to me, and turned it into power and strength to help others. What they did to me drove me to work harder to try and help others. I became thankful for what they did to me because it forced me to see the power that backlash has against victims and what it can do to them psychologically and how much the backlash protects child abusers.

      • little nel says:

        “What they did to me drove me to work harder to try and help others”

        I’m so glad you chose the higher ground, Alethea! You are a courageous soul and you deserve to be praised for your truthfulness and integrity.

      • Shana Dines says:

        I will answer this more in full later. You are definitely helping a lot of people too with all that you do. I too help a lot of people, and shout out about incest. My vile mother is rotting in hell for what she did, at least spiritually. Still have a brother and sister both addicts and a living father that is also her victim, she molested him at age 15, she at 24 and married. He hasn’t had an independent thought in his head since she got to him.

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