Mark Pendergrast

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Chapter 7: The Accused

I know thou wilt not hold me innocent.
I shall be condemned;
why then do I labor in vain?
If I wash myself with snow,
and cleanse my hands with lye,
Yet thou wilt plunge me into a pit,
and my own clothes will abhor me.
–The Book of Job (9:28 31)

Interviews in This Chapter:

Hank and Arlene Schmidt, accused parents, and Frank Schmidt, their son
Bob Sculley, accused father
Julia Hapgood, wife of accused
Dr. Aaron Goldberg, accused father
Joe Simmons, accused father
Gloria Harmon, accused mother
Bart Stafford, accused sibling
Rhonda and Paul Hallisey, accused by facilitated communication

It’s difficult to convey the horror of being falsely accused. As Franz Kafka’s character Joseph K. discovered in The Trial , condemned but innocent people begin to believe they must have done something wrong, especially if the particulars are never specified. Almost all of the accused parents represented in this chapter have, at one point or another, questioned their own innocence. After all, it is their own beloved children who are arrayed against them. Like Paul Ingram, the policeman whose tragic story is recounted in Lawrence Wright’s book, Remembering Satan (1994), they think, “My girls know me. They wouldn’t lie about something like this.” Some, like Ingram, fall under the sway of zealous therapists/ interrogators and confess to crimes that they never committed. In this chapter, for instance, Joe Simmons explains how he came to believe that he had been the high priest in a satanic cult that abused his son Johnny. Fortunately, most parents eventually conclude that they did not overtly sexually abuse their children.

Yet when you’ve been attacked so ferociously, when you’ve been called a perpetrator and told that you stole your children’s innocence, robbed them of their childhood, you begin to believe it on some level. You must have done something pretty bad. As Joe Simmons observes, “One minute, I was a responsible member of the community, trying to be a good father, and the next I’m like Charles Manson.”

When “crunch time” arrives, accused older brother Bart Stafford observes, people often find that their friends and even family members turn on them. I have also had this experience, to a limited degree, but I think I understand it. People don’t want to believe that a completely innocent person could be accused of such an awful crime by his or her children. If that were true, it could happen to anyone–it could happen to them . Thus, we observe a variation of the familiar blame-the-victim scenario. Job’s friends, his supposed “comforters,” enacted this drama long ago. Eliphaz asks Job, “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?” Job understands what he really means. “You see my calamity,” he tells Eliphaz, “and are afraid.”

Yet anyone could be accused of incest without any foundation in fact, given the proper circumstances. The one characteristic shared by the majority of accused parents is that they are–disproportionate to the overall population–mostly middle to upper-class educated Caucasians with the initial ability and willingness to pay for their children’s therapy. Aside from that, they do not appear to have a great deal in common. At the FMS Foundation meetings, octogenarians who never spoke about sex with their children sit next to accused parents in their 40s or 50s whose parenting philosophies were completely different. Some were exceptionally close to their children; others were emotionally or physically distant. Some were strict with their children, others permissive. Many remain in intact, secure marriages; others are either long-divorced or tolerate poor relationships. The only common denominator appears to be a troubled child who seeks therapy.

A third of the parents who have contacted the FMS Foundation never learn exactly what their children think they did. Others find out the precise allegations by word-of-mouth or, like the Hapgoods, by snooping. I can testify that not knowing what you’re supposed to have done is maddening, for any number of reasons. You’re left guessing, wondering whether it’s something really awful or only a hug or a look misinterpreted as “emotional incest.” It can actually be a relief to know the worst, to be accused of satanic ritual abuse. At least then you know you didn’t do it–unless, of course, you believe that you, too, repressed the memory.

In many cases, there’s a sibling domino effect. One daughter retrieves incest memories and tells her sisters. Some of them not only believe her, but seek therapy to find their own memories. After all, if the father did this to one daughter, isn’t it likely he would have done it to the rest? Indeed, if he’s such a pedophile, perhaps he also assaulted his son. That’s how Frank Schmidt, whose story follows, briefly came to believe that his father had sodomized him. The cases in which multiple siblings cut off all contact are particularly difficult. Not only have the parents lost more, but observers usually conclude that the allegations must be true. Otherwise, why would several children be saying the same thing?

Most of the parents I interviewed oscillate between anger and compassion for their children. With time, they usually understand that their children are not primarily at fault. They have been “duped,” as Arlene Schmidt puts it, by their therapists and self-help books. Some, like Julia Hapgood, do not totally forgive their children. “Everyone is responsible for what they do,” she says, admitting that there are days when she hates her daughter. Another bitter woman wrote to me that her daughter had thrown her mother away, and now she doesn’t have a mother to come back to, as far as she is concerned.

Certainly, such bitterness is understandable. Therapists and books encourage accusing children to act as spitefully as possible. Accusatory letters often arrive on special occasions such as Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, or Christmas. One mother told me that her daughter had dumped on her on Mother’s Day of 1991; the mother later discovered that one of her best friends had received a similar bomb on exactly the same day.

On the other hand, some accused parents appear almost inhumanly compassionate. I didn’t have room for Doug Ellison’s full story here, for instance, but it is remarkable. The 75-year-old retired clinical psychologist was accused by Flo, one of his four daughters, but he lost all of his children, who believed their sister. Then Flo contracted cancer. She finally agreed to see her father, but Flo died at 38 while he was driving across the country to be by her side. At the memorial service, another daughter passed out photocopied letters from Flo accusing her father of incest, so he wouldn’t “get away with it,” as she put it. Despite all of this, Ellison does not blame his children, or even their therapists, whom he sees as victims of dogma themselves. “I don’t think anger serves anybody here,” he told me.

It is difficult not to blame therapists, however, especially when so many hurt, bewildered parents have sought counseling themselves, only to be given advice similar to Gloria Harmon, whose son Robert accused her of incest: “Acknowledge that Robert is entitled to his feelings, they are valid and he is hurting. Seek to understand what you did and are doing that hurts him.” Either that, or, as with the Schmidts, the therapist gives them John Bradshaw books and encourages them to discover how they were abused as children.

Many parents have been sued by their children in either civil or criminal courts. Because of the enormous legal costs, quite a few cases are settled out of court, even though the parents privately admit no wrong-doing. I interviewed Elbert and Josephine Wells, for instance, who are 89 and 83 respectively. Their 53-year-old daughter confronted them at her aunt’s 50th wedding anniversary celebration, then sued. They have settled out of court, primarily because of their advanced age. “We don’t want years of court appearances and stress,” Josephine explained. Other accused fathers, such as Jack Collier of California, refuse to give in to false allegations. At great expense, Collier won his case, but he has still lost his daughter. Still others lose their cases and find themselves in jail, massive debt, or both.

Some parents are so devastated that they can barely drag themselves out of bed every morning. In his 1994 book, What You Can Change and What You Can’t , psychologist Martin Seligman offers the bleakest prospects for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. His prime example is a couple whose 14-year-old son was killed in an automobile accident; the parents cannot shake their grief. The mother is suicidal, and the father can’t talk about it. The situation of accused parents is analogous and, in a way, worse. At least with death comes closure, finality. Accused parents live with the constant knowledge of loss that is needless, angry, and on-going. It is hardly surprisingly that we meet a couple such as the Schmidts in this chapter. Their lives are, as Hank Schmidt puts it, “in the toilet.”

Quite often, it is the wife of an accused father who takes the most active role in fighting the therapist, seeking reunion with the child, and declaring her husband’s innocence. There are several possible explanations. Perhaps the men are so shattered by the experience that they cannot deal with it. Or maybe it’s just that males in our society don’t generally deal with such emotional issues very well. Finally, it is possible that some wives need to keep asserting their husband’s innocence because they inwardly wonder whether he really did molest the children–a possibility most of them entertained at the beginning, at least briefly.

Some wives believe the charges, and marriages blow apart. Thus Bob Sculley, who tells his story in this chapter, lost not only his daughter but his wife. Another father described to me how he first found out about his daughter’s allegations one night when his wife confronted him and said, in a shaking voice, “I know all about you and Lisa.” When he told her he didn’t know what she was talking about, she said, “They always deny it.” Although she left him for a while, she eventually returned to the marriage, which continues under strained circumstances. Although their daughter will not speak with her father, she and her mother talk frequently on the phone. Husband and wife do not discuss the accusations.

A surprising number of mothers have been accused of incest by their sons or daughters. Gloria Harmon’s sad story is, unfortunately, not uncommon, though usually the mothers are brought into the accusations only as the memories expand beyond the father. In reality, evidence from always-remembered abuse indicates that women rarely sexually abuse children.

Because of the enormous variety of these stories and the number of people who are affected, I interviewed far more people than those represented here. I wanted to include Fred Orr’s full interview, because it demonstrates what this process can do to a marriage, but will summarize it here instead. Orr’s case is not unusual; I have heard from many other men whose marriages were destroyed after their wives entered recovered-memory therapy.

For three years, Orr believed that his wife Shauna really harbored multiple personalities because of sexual assaults by her father, brother, and grandfather. He read the section for supportive spouses in The Courage to Heal , Laura Davis’ companion volume, Allies in Healing , and tried his best. Orr listened to Shauna’s dramatic recounting of therapy sessions, helped her save pickle jars to smash on the garage floor to get out her anger, and even made her a tee-shirt featuring her eight alters (Goodie, Spock, Commando, Ivory, and It, among others). He hated his in-laws, ripping up their Christmas check in self-righteous fury, even though he had heard that Shauna’s father was so distraught by the allegations that he often curled up in a fetal position in the corner of a room and wouldn’t move. “I figured he was just feeling guilty.”

Nevertheless, Shauna began to turn against her husband as well. “She did these boundary exercises,” he told me. “It started with no sex. Then, it was don’t touch, with an invisible line down the middle of the bed. Then it was off to separate bedrooms. Finally, her therapist, a Ph.D. psychologist who ruled her life, told her to get divorced.” In a way, Orr was relieved. “She’d been chopping up wieners with a butcher knife, fantasizing they were her father’s penis. You should see the look on her face when she does that. I was glad to get out of that house.”

I also regret not having room for my interview with John and Thelma Sloan, whose story bears a resemblance to my own. They, too, have lost two daughters, one of whom is a lesbian therapist. “The fact that Laura has a female partner is not of any concern to us,” John Sloan said. “In fact, we like her very much.” Neither daughter has come forward with details of the abuse. Both are very bright, college-educated women in their 30s, loved Anne McAffrey fantasy books, and now talk frequently about boundaries. John and Thelma consider themselves feminists, never physically punished their children, and adopted an open parenting style. Ironically, Thelma was a rape crisis counselor in the early ’80s and worked with incest survivors who had always remembered what happened to them. “In some ways the progression to an emphasis on repressed memories is understandable,” she told me. “It was hard at that time to get people to believe that incest was really a widespread problem.”

One of the terrible realities for accused family members is that they cannot seem to do anything right. Even the most innocuous attempts at communication are routinely twisted and re-interpreted for their clients by recovered-memory therapists. “Dear Sis,” wrote one sibling, “Mom and I have been thinking about you. Can’t wait to see you again….In the meantime, take care of yourself. Love, Sis.” While this may appear to be a benign postcard on the surface, therapist David Calof found sinister hidden meaning in every word. “Take care of yourself,” for instance, he interpreted as a hidden injunction for the client to kill herself. It is this inability to break through on any level that is so heartbreaking and frustrating to accused family members.

[Continued… To order the book directly from the publisher, Upper Access Books, click here.]