Ask Dr. Frank

DEAR DR. FRANK: I NEED HELP IN LETTING GO OF MY ANGER AT MY SISTER'STHERAPIST, WHO HAS NEVER COMMUNICATED WITH ME OR OTHER MEMBERS OF MY FAMILY AND YET FALSELY ALLEGES THAT I AM IN DENIAL THAT I WAS SEXUALLY ABUSED BY MY FATHER. WHEN MY SISTER ENTERED THERAPY SEVEN YEARS AGO, SHE TOLD ME THAT THE THERAPIST HAD SAID: "YOUR FAMILY HAS ALL THE DYNAMICS OF AN INCESTUOUS FAMILY." SOON AFTER THAT MY SISTER TOLD ME "SOMETHING MIGHT HAVE HAPPENED," MEANING SHE MIGHT HAVE BEEN SEXUALLY ABUSED BY MY FATHER. WHEN I DID NOT VALIDATE THIS BELIEF, SHE WROTE ME A VERY HATEFUL LETTER. MY SISTER LATER WROTE HATEFUL LETTERS TO OUR PARENTS ABOUT REPEATED SEXUAL ABUSE SHE REMEMBERED. WHAT CAN I DO? MY PARENTS AND OTHER SIBLINGS ARE HEARTBROKEN OVER THE LOSS OF OUR SISTER, BUT THEY DO NOT WANT ME TO "GO PUBLIC."

Dear Heartbroken Sister: You are not alone. This strange therapeutic witch hunt, the search for the forgotten abuser, has split apart many families in the last few years. I share your outrage at the irresponsibility of therapists who take advantage of clients and render them dependent by isolating them and convincing them that they cannot trust their own family or even their own memories. The process is somewhat akin to being brainwashed by a cult. As you see, any effort to make contact with the victim of this brainwashing is likely to be distrusted and rebuffed.

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Obviously, if you do remember any incest--and you would most likely remember it--tell your sister. Despite all the recent false accusations of incest, it can be quite real and quite destructive-- the people who experience it may be unable to forget it. In fact there are probably still a lot more cases of real, never forgotten incest than there are of these recovered memories" of forgotten incest.

Of course you realize that even if you don't remember it, it still could have happened to your sister. However, if she didn't remember it except under the influence of therapy, I too would distrust it.

It may help to try to understand this tragedy from the therapist's perspective. She may think she is doing good and have no idea of the havoc she is wreaking. She must be told.

Nobody becomes a therapist to create pain or wreck lives; that happens when well-intentioned therapists become so overwhelmed by the pain they see in their offices every day that they begin to think all the world is villainous except themselves and their clients. Many therapists who "find" forgotten incest are merely immature, inexperienced, and working through their distrust and paranoid fantasies about men, parents, or family life that should be the subject of their own therapy, not their clients'.

While it will probably be misinterpreted, I would write the therapist what you know about your family (send a copy to your sister so this won 't look devious.)

Second, while making clear that you do not remember any abuse, there is no point in arguing with your sister about it. Try to remain in contact with her, even if the contact is unilateral. Even if most of her life is taken up with distrusting her own and everyone else's remembered experiences, surely there is something else you and she can talk about.

Third, contact the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. Some of the recovered memory cultists insist that there are many pedophiles in the FMSF, and I have no doubt that is true, and there are pedophiles in the Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church too, but where else can you go? The FMSF may get you in touch with support groups for the families of victims of recovered memories. People who have gotten caught up in these beliefs can recover once they escape the clutches of the witch-hunting therapists.

You realize that families can and do survive real incest. But it is very difficult to recover from imagined incest.

Note to all readers: Several issues ago, in an answer to a young man who had been sexually abused by his father and was now alarmed by the dire predictions that incest in childhood causes all manner of adult mental illness, I referred to "all the uproar in the media about the so-called recovered memories of forgotten childhood sexual abuse (a highly questionable business). I have since received a bunch of impassioned letters from therapists who are displeased with me for my distrust of the phenomenon either as a method for uncovering literal truth or as an effective treatment for the pain of life.

The letters are too long to print here, but the most frantic one cries out, "Let's wrest psychology away from the pedophiles, for once and for all." The author implies that I must be either a pedophile or a "Freudian" or both if I am not as overwrought as he. The assumption is that, since I don't believe in the literal truth of "recovered" memory, then I must distrust any story of incest, as Freud did when be began hearing some stories that could not have been literally true. Actually, back in the late Sixties, I wrote the first paper on incest in the family therapy literature, in which we insisted that Freud was wrong and incest was real. I've written a fair amount about it since, most recently in my 1987 textbook, Turning Points: Treating Families in Transition and Crisis.

Incest does happen. Those who have been sexually abused by adult members of the immediate family tend to remember the incidents, are likely to feel shame, sometimes rage, and may end up obsessing over the episodes. Every form of psychic discomfort has been attributed to childhood sexual abuse, but the only symptoms clearly related to it are confusion of sexual boundaries and distrust of parental figures.

While no one in their right mind would suggest incest is harmless, it does not automatically turn its survivors into candidates for the back wards. No research indicates that people who have been sexually abused are more likely to have schizophrenia, eating disorders, multiple personality disordera now trendy, formerly rare diagnosis--or any other specific major pathology.

Childhood sexual abuse produces such revulsion that we often fail to remember that incest may be merely one awful incident in the life of an otherwise happy family. Some of these fathers, uncles, grandfathers, and (yes) mothers who molested the children entrusted to them have been otherwise loving caretakers, and it does the survivor no good to remember them only in terms of the offense. Reconciliation is often possible and desirable once children are old enough to protect themselves from recurrence.

And bear in mind that child molesters still have an important function to perform: incest recovery is best effected when the perpetrator offers apologies and explanations for the abuse, and demonstrates he is now responsive to the wishes and rights of the child whose boundaries, sensibilities, and protestations he ignored.

Repressed and recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse are another matter entirely. Memory researchers so far have not been able to validate this process. People past the age of three or thereabouts don't seem to forget many things that are emotionally traumatic, especially when the trauma is recurrent. And people don't seem to recover memories with any accuracy. They are likely to slip in whatever details permit them to make sense of scattered memories.

We also know how common false memories are. Memory researchers and defense attorneys know how invalid eyewitness accounts are and how easily memories can be distorted by suggestion. This is particularly true of children, who seem to make little distinction between reality and what grown-ups want to hear.

I don't believe many people can insist categorically that repressed and recovered memories could never occur (though I understand certain researchers, after a lifetime of trying to verify the phenomenon, have gone that far), but I think anyone who studies the research could insist that they not be literally believed and that they are far more likely to be implanted than real. However, we have to consider the possibility that many people remember the incest they suffered but use the repressed and recovered memory metaphor to explain their long silence.

Even so, we really do need to stop declaring any damn fool thing someone imagines to be absolute revealed truth, etched in stone on the memory of God. More important, it does not look as if recovering these so-called repressed memories is of therapeutic value. If anything, it seems likely to wreck people's lives. Perhaps the worst tendency of the recovered memory specialists is their practice of cutting off the family relationships of their clients.

I advise therapists I teach and supervise to avoid implying they can know the truth of the past from recovered memories and above all not to facilitate or amplify such memories with hypnosis or suggestion. I go so far as to actively encourage distrust of recovered memories.

Most important, I would never encourage cutoffs with family members, whatever has happened in the past, in reality or in fantasy. To me, the best treatment is to empower the victim to confront the family members who have shown such intrusive disrespect and then to replace the terrible memories with quite real memories of loving family relationships.

PHOTO: Dr. Frank Pittman

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