Is The Recollection of Family Members Who Deny Child Abuse Any More Reliable Than The Accuser’s Memory?

Proponents of the now discredited “False Memory Syndrome” believe that when a person reveals to family members that they remember being sexually abused by a parent, or other relative, it is the siblings who deny any sexual abuse took place who somehow have a perfect memory for exactly what happened in the home at all times.

Siblings often don’t want to see what is happening to the other children in an abusive home and when the abuse is revealed later in life, the denying sibling might have reasons of self-comfort for turning their back on the painful truth. One of those reasons is because they too were sexually abused and want nothing to do with any memories of abuse, their own, or their sibling’s abuse.

Brothers and sisters, who deny allegations of incest or child abuse, might also harbor guilt for not protecting the younger child and it is very possible that some siblings sexually abused the child themselves (in addition to the abuse by the parent) and don’t want to admit to it, or to ever face it.

Claudette Wassil-Grimm specifically addresses disbelieving siblings who have a brother or sister who has made an accusation of sexual abuse against their parent. Wassil-Grimm writes, “Trust your own memory. You were there. You do know what happened. People don’t repress years of abuse.” 1

The problem with Wassil-Grimm’s statement is that the repression of trauma has been well documented, so this same sentence can be said to the person who has remembered being sexually abused within the family; just change the last sentence to, “Trust your own memory. You were there. You do know what happened. people can repress years of abuse.”

In a statement to parents that have a daughter who has remembered abuse, Wassil-Grimm writes, “Don’t exhibit anger with your accusing child. Her mind is not her own.”

No person has the right to tell another individual that their mind is not their own. Each human being has their own experiences and their personal perceptions of those experiences. A person has every right to express their personal truth without being demeaned.

One father, who was accused by his daughter, admits to drinking heavily during the period in which his daughter says she was sexually abused by him, yet FMS proponents would have us believe that the father’s alcohol influenced memory is to be trusted over the daughter’s recollection. 2.

When a parent has a serious problem with alcohol, their mind is not their own.

There is a strong probability that most people who have come out to family members about previously repressed sexual abuse, but who retract those allegations, have indeed been abused as children, but biological family influence or substandard methods of therapy brings on the desire to withdraw the allegations.

Although inferior therapy practices can contribute to memory distortion and false accusations, it is more likely that defective psychotherapy creates a certain weakness, or even a false strength, in a person who had once dissociated (repressed) their childhood trauma. If a therapist promotes an environment that causes their client to prematurely speak out about their memories, or with too much anger, or a need for revenge, then the survivor can experience guilt over speaking up. They might also fear punishment or still retain a strong personal denial —all of which subsequently result in the survivor submitting to family pressure to recant the memories.

Typically, the supporters of the fictitious ‘False Memory Syndrome’ do not challenge or question any retractions, and the revocation is virtually embraced as a victory for their movement. Any investigation into the truth of the matter is forgotten.

Judith Simon points out that FMS advocates practically ignore the numerous, and often disturbing clinical histories, of those who withdraw abuse memories (or the psychological problems are attributed to innocent reasons). The proponents of FMS also present the picture-perfect version of what the family was like prior to the accusations of abuse, and then speak of the family as being “shattered” after memories are revealed by the accuser.

FMS proponents feel that psychotherapy is the real danger to society. Therapists have been sued for allegedly instilling so-called false memories, but many of the patients already had memories, even displaying symptoms of abuse, long before the therapist ever took the patient’s case. 3.

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

An in-depth look at thirty malpractice cases invoking people who retracted previous accusations of child abuse, found 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. All of which can be  directly linked to child sexual abuse.

These patients may have had an unsatisfactory recovery no matter who treated them and 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.

In all thirty cases, there was no determination to go looking for repressed abuse memories. The recall came from the client and never from a therapist’s suggestion. It was only after the client had been influenced by FMS material that they decided their memories were false. Retracting and subsequently suing a therapist might stem from the attention-seeking behavior that goes along with the severe issues of an abuse victim, rather than from therapist induced memories. 4

In all honesty, it is highly probable that an unknown number of clients have been treated by a therapist who helped instill untruths into their belief system through poor therapeutic practices, but evidence does not show this to be any significant amount of people.

It is probable that some people, who were abused, have accused the wrong person and that some therapists have handled the cases of abuse victims so poorly that the client may never understand the depths of their abuse, or at the very least, if any abuse actually happened.

There are also people who deliberately lie about sexual molestation for self-gain. It is impossible to know how many of these cases exist because incidents of repressed memory infrequently become public.

Some people who retract allegations of abuse may have a need to gain attention and validation from the court system by suing the therapist, or through acceptance from those in the false memory movement. However, it is more likely a need to please their biological family. Validation is rarely given within the family when a person discloses abuse to parents or siblings. When the unhealed accuser cannot obtain the needed consideration and support, they find it by retracting. Rescinding invites the biological family to once again embrace the accuser.

Skeptics claim that falsely accusing a person of abuse is an “easy excuse” for an unsatisfactory life. On the contrary, it is much simpler for a survivor of abuse to believe that an unethical or uneducated therapist implanted ideas of molestation, than to accept that the parent –whom they love—had sexually abused them as a child.

Evidence for erroneous retractions can be found in the amount of recantations among children. Twenty-five percent of abused children had revoked their story in one sample. Thirty-one percent retracted after a year of therapy. In another portion of the children, three out of thirteen recanted abuse, even though the perpetrator had confessed. Recanting abuse memories can be a normal phase during the period of remembering and then revealing abuse. 5

Retracting accusations of abuse is often a psychological defense mechanism.

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. 6

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 woman 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. 7

The therapist asked the woman to think about a time she had been angry with her mother. She 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 her to have memories of sexual abuse by her father.

Although the  it is vague how she feels her memories were invented, the woman does admit that her therapist did not attempt to dig any further into her past. We are left to wonder 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 retains a desire to self-mutilate. Personality Disorder and self-mutilation are both highly associated with child sexual abuse and every indication points to a woman who is not willing to allow herself to face the truth.

Former FBI agent Kenneth Lanning notes the common problem of families who persuade the victim not to disclose the molestation to authorities, and those who tell the child to take back the accusation after it has been exposed outside the family. He has observed the frequency of family members who put pressure on the child to keep the secrets. The same can be said for adults.

The United States Department of Justice reports that primary caregivers and parents often don’t believe the child 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 child is frequently punished by the family with a lack of affection.

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

These circumstances mimic the cases of adults who speak out about having been sexually abused as a child, and are suddenly ostracized and cut off from the family. When the accuser is considered dead or “not one of us,” by family members, the person can mistakenly decide that it is much more comfortable to be a member of the family again than to heal from incest.

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  1. Dissociation, Repression, and Reality Testing in the Countertransference, Jody Messler Davies, Memories of Sexual Betrayal: Truth, Fantasy, Repression, and Dissociation, Jason Aronson Inc., Edited by Richard Gartner, Ph.D, pages 60-61
  2. Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Child Abuse, Jennifer J. Freyd, Harvard University Press, 1996, page 45
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs Office for Victims of Crime, Washington, D.C., June 1999
  6. 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 or (lost my notes on this reference, it’s one of these two) , Your Memories are Not False: A Reply to the False Memory Syndrome Foundatio 1994 by John Backus, Sc.D., and Barbara Una Stannard, Ph.D.
  7. FMSF Newsletter March/April 2000 Vol 9 No 2

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