Chapter 1: How to Become a Survivor
Two postings on Prodigy, a computer bulletin board:
Jan. 1, 1993. Hi everybody, my name is Gretchen. I am from Germany and in the States for about 16 months now. I am 30 years old, married and after 4 miscarriages in 18 months we went to marriage counseling. I also have a sexual problem, no desire at all. The counselor and a therapist are both convinced that I was sexually abused as a kid, but I don’t remember anything. They said it is probably so bad, that I had to block it out or it would have killed me. Now I am running around and try to remember …. I know I was hit every day, I was the only child. But sexual abuse never occurred to me at all …. God, I have so many questions and hope somebody will answer me and share their experience with me.
Jan. 1, 1993. Dear Gretchen, You’re not alone in this! I had no memories of being sexually abused until about one and a half years ago. About 3 years ago, I started reading books on the subject and every “effects” list described me to a T! I didn’t have any memories, but I just had a really strong feeling that something happened …. When I stopped thinking of memories in visual terms, I started to realize that I was remembering things all the time. Reactions, feelings, panic attacks, fears & phobias are all memories … . Reading books on sexual abuse is a really good way to retrieve memories. Pay attention to what you react to. For example, I was reading The Obsidian Mirror and she was talking about how her abuser had stuck monopoly pieces inside of her. I had a panic attack when I read that and then had flashbacks of a similar incident happening to me. Books that I would recommend are #1 The Courage to Heal (this is the BEST book–very validating if you have no memories) ….
The widespread search for repressed memories of sexual abuse began to mushroom in the United States and Canada in 1988, and in Great Britain in 1990, with the publication in 1988 of The Courage to Heal , by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, which informs readers: “Forgetting is one of the most effective ways children deal with sexual abuse. The human mind has tremendous powers of repression. Many children are able to forget about the abuse, even as it is happening to them. ” They continue: “You may think you don’t have memories, but often as you begin to talk about what you do remember, there emerges a constellation of feelings, reactions, and recollections that add up …. To say, ‘I was abused,’ you don’t need the kind of recall that would stand up in a court of law.”
In this chapter, we will examine how The Courage to Heal and other popular books encourage illusory memories of sexual abuse–mostly in women, though an increasing number of men are now recovering “memories.” At first blush, false accusations of incest seem hard to imagine. How, outside of a brainwashing prisoner-of-war torture compound, could people be convinced of such a horrendous delusion, particularly if their relationships with their parents were once warm and loving? How could perfectly normal women come to have vivid memories of fondling and oral sex at the age of three, or frequent sexual intercourse with their fathers as teenagers, or prolonged immersion in satanic sex cults, if these events never took place?
The Horror of Real Incest
Before reviewing The Courage to Heal in detail, it is necessary to understand how and why Ellen Bass, with her collaborator Laura Davis, came to write it. In the 1970s, during the early days of the women’s movement, the horrifying extent of sexual abuse and incest first began to surface, although children had been subjected to such abuse for all of recorded history. Up until then, official statistics claimed a tiny incidence in the general population. In one “definitive” 1955 study, researchers estimated that there were only 1.1 cases of incest per million persons. Even where incest did occur, it was often minimized or even sanctioned by male psychologists. Some victims were told that they were only fantasizing, based on Freud’s presumptions about Electra and Oedipus complexes. Freud thought that all children between ages three and six go through a stage of sexual desire for the opposite-gender parent (see Chapter 10 ).
During Freud’s Victorian era, child prostitution was widespread, with virgins bringing top dollar because of the fear of syphilis. In England, a 14-year-old was worth 100 pounds, but parents could sell a beautiful preadolescent for 400 pounds. In his 1885 newspaper expose, journalist W. T. Stead reported being sickened by the sight of children, three to five years old, being chloroformed before serving as sex partners for adult men. Around that time, the anonymous author of My Secret Life complained of the difficulties of penetrating prepubescent girls, though he had no moral compunctions about it. “It is the fate of such girls to be fucked young,” he asserted, “neither laws social or legal can prevent it.”
Sex historian Vern Bullough points out that the Industrial Revolution brought a sharp increase in the sexual abuse of pre-pubescent children. Until then, such activity seems to have been relatively rare, although sexual relations between adults and adolescents have always been common and, frequently, culturally sanctioned. In modern times, however, there are more documented cases of adult males assaulting younger children. As a newspaper reporter in 1949, Bullough observed a two-and-a-half-year-old girl who was “taken to surgery with a mangled vagina and a damaged urethra.” She had been raped by her father. His editor refused to publish the story, saying he ran a “family newspaper” unfit for such items.
Four years later, the famed Kinsey report, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), revealed that 24 percent of respondents “had been approached while they were pre-adolescent [13 or younger] by adult males who appeared to be making sexual advances, or who had made sexual contacts with the child.” Despite this alarming statistic, the authors implied that the victims were responsible: “Repetition [of preadolescent contacts with adults] had most frequently occurred … with relatives who lived in the same household. In many instances, the experiences were repeated because the children had become interested in the sexual activity and had more or less actively sought repetitions.” They concluded that there was really nothing to worry about: “We have only one clear-cut case of serious injury done to the child, and a very few instances of vaginal bleeding which, however, did not appear to do any appreciable damage.” Wardell Pomeroy, one of the Kinsey report authors, went even further in 1976, telling a Penthouse interviewer: “Incest between adults and younger children can also prove to be a satisfying and enriching experience, although difficulties can certainly arise.”
With some male psychologists expressing such opinions, it is little wonder that women and many men were finally becoming vocally outraged by the 1970s. In 1975, Susan Brownmiller published Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape . Although her book was primarily a blistering attack on male attitudes toward rape, Brownmiller also made the connection with incest: “The unholy silence that shrouds the inter-family sexual abuse of children and prevents a realistic appraisal of its true incidence and meaning is rooted in the same patriarchal philosophy of sexual private property that shaped and determined historic male attitudes toward rape.”
Incest victims began to speak out in women’s groups and in books. In 1974, Ellen Bass, a young feminist creative writing instructor, received a crumpled half-sheet of paper from a shy student. “Her writing was so vague, so tentative,” Bass recalls, “that I wasn’t sure what she was trying to say, but I sensed that it was important.” Slowly, with encouragement, the student wrote about the pain of her father’s sexual assaults. Shortly afterward, probably because their teacher shared similar stories, one woman after the other wrote horror stories for Bass. “I was stunned by the number of women who had been sexually abused,” she says. “I was deeply moved by the anguish they had endured.”
In 1978, Bass and five women from her Boston writing workshops began collecting stories for an anthology. Their timing was perfect. That same year, Louise Armstrong published Kiss Daddy Goodnight , which included many incest accounts, and therapist Sandra Butler’s Conspiracy of Silence: The Trauma of Incest came out. Other books and articles quickly followed, authored by David Finkelhor, Christine Courtois, Florence Rush, Judith Herman, Elizabeth Ward, Angie Ash, and others. Swiss psychologist Alice Miller exerted a tremendous influence when her work about traumatized children was translated into English. By the time Bass published her 1983 anthology, incest was a subject of great interest among the general public.
Very little of this early material about incest mentioned repressed memories, though Freud had made the concept of repression a theoretical given. Most of the women who were finally speaking out had never had any trouble remembering that they had been abused. It was all too real for them. Their problem was being unable to forget it. Even the title of the 1983 Bass anthology, I Never Told Anyone , implied that although the victims of incest had remained silent all these years, they had never forgotten. Often, they revealed confused, mixed feelings about their experience. Jean Monroe, whose father fondled her breasts from the time she was nine until her teens, spoke of the “terrible betrayal” of her trust, but she also said, “As an adult I’ve always been very happy sexually. Somehow I got an affirmative sense of my own personal sexual power from my father.”
The notion of repressed incest memories had been quietly growing during the 1970s, however. In 1975, for instance, the director of a Philadelphia sex offender program told an audience of psychotherapists: “If the sexual attack is dealt with improperly or repressed it may cause serious psychological problems.” Louise Armstrong’s Kiss Daddy Goodnight , published in 1978, contained the story of Jenny, who told her: “Until about a year ago I had no awareness that any of it had happened. I had completely removed it from any form of consciousness.” Indeed, Armstrong herself “recovered” a memory of oral sex that purportedly occurred when she was 14. And Sandra Butler’s Conspiracy of Silence contained the story of Evelyn, who was “flooded with [incest] memories which had been repressed…. Even now, the memory has an unreal feeling to it.”