Chapter 6: The Survivors
It seems to Be, & is productive of the most dreadful
Consequences … even of
Torments, Despair, Eternal Death.
Then she rushes to her psychiatrist,
Sees her acupuncturist,
You know she’s got to, got to get fixed.
–Carly Simon, “Floundering”
Interviews in this chapter:
Virginia Hudson, incest survivor (letter)
Susan Ramsey, incest survivor
Diane Schultz, incest survivor
Frieda Maybry, ritual-abuse survivor
Patricia Delaney, survivor and lawyer
Angela Bergeron, multiple-personality survivor
Elaine Pirelli, survivor who remembers being impregnated
Melinda Couture, sexual-abuse survivor and
wife of accused father
Sally Hampshire, incest survivor
who has always remembered
When listening to self-described incest survivors, it is difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, real memories from illusions. Generally speaking, I believe people when they tell me about abuse they have always remembered, while I have come to doubt memories of long-term abuse that have been “recovered” many years later. Consequently, I suspect that Sally Hampshire’s account of incest, the last one in this chapter, is accurate. I also think that Elaine Pirelli’s older half-brother really did molest her. One of these stories illustrates the difficulty of defining “repression.” There are gray areas, such as Melinda Couture’s explanation of how she suddenly recalled her brother-in-law’s attempt to feel her breasts when she was 12. This is the sort of one-time event that can indeed be forgotten and then remembered, a process far different from “massive repression.”
In my opinion, most of the other “memories” recounted here are probably well-rehearsed confabulations, though that does not diminish the pain they represent.
Even when Susan Ramsey, the first person interviewed in this chapter, says that she always knew that her father was an alcoholic, a “nasty, mean, cruel drunk,” I’m not sure how much credence to give her words. He probably really did drink too much, and I suspect that he was a far-from-perfect parent. But when pressed to describe the verbal abuse he heaped on her, she said that he called her a “lazy no-good young-‘un,” well within the realm of things that a parent might blurt out in a moment of exasperation. She also fondly recalls sitting on his lap listening to the radio, or him comforting her when she was sick. Consequently, readers should bear in mind that extremely negative versions of the past may be exaggerated by current attitudes. Of course, not all Survivors had happy or normal childhoods. Few people would describe their early years in such terms without qualification. But troubled childhoods do not necessarily stem from years of hidden incest.
Assuming that the recovered memories of abuse are illusory, how did they come about? Who is to blame? Are therapists primarily responsible for leading people to believe in fictional incest? I would answer with a qualified yes, though there is a mutual influence here, embedded in a cultural context that encourages the hunt for repressed memories. Without therapists “validating” and encouraging belief, most of those speaking here would not have visualized incest. Susan Ramsey expresses grave doubts about her memories, but her therapist convinces her that they are essentially true, and that he has not led her in any way. Similarly, Diane Schultz relies on her counselor, though she secretly worries that she may have been brainwashed. Frieda Maybry prides herself on seeking only peer “co-counselors,” but they serve the same function as a therapist.
The dependency that many of these women exhibit toward their therapists is intense, and the professionals often appear to encourage it. “If Hugh moved away right now, I’d be dead,” Angela Bergeron asserts, while Susan Ramsey admits that she is extremely dependent on Randall Cummings and wishes for a sexual relationship with him.
On the other hand, most of the self-identified survivors seem to take some comfort in their victimhood in a process psychologists term “secondary gain.” Being a Survivor makes them feel special, brings them sympathy and attention, and explains all of their problems. They don’t have to worry about failed marriages or relationships, which aren’t their fault. They were irretrievably wounded as children and cannot function properly as a result.
Some women have recovered their “memories” without the help of a therapist at all. Even if they had never read a book on the subject or gone to therapy, by the early 1990s, virtually every woman in our society with a problem had at least briefly pondered, “I wonder whether this problem stems from repressed memories of sexual abuse?” All too many then sought out The Courage to Heal or another similar book. Only then did they enter therapy, having already “remembered” abuse, or demanding to retrieve memories. Such Survivors are then convinced that they were never led into such beliefs, and that their memories must therefore be accurate.
The memory-retrieval process also provides drama, mystery, and excitement, as quotes from The Courage to Heal make abundantly clear. One woman in the book realizes that she is “addicted to my own sense of drama and adrenaline.” Another says, “Whenever my life would calm down, I would start wishing for something major to happen so I could feel at home.” Consequently, Survivors must take a share of responsibility for their mistaken beliefs. So must the authors of recovery self-help books, as well as support-group members who egg one another on. “I am addicted to groups,” one Survivor admitted in The Courage to Heal . “I am a sponge. Put me somewhere where people are nice to me, and I’ll learn their whole scene.” Or, as Diane Schultz, in her interview here, observes of members of her Survivor group: “They believed me more than I believed me.”
Do those who eventually recall memories have anything in common? Yes. They are all experiencing stress and uncertainty in their lives, or they wouldn’t be seeking therapy. Many women are feeling trapped by motherhood or marriage. Some seek therapy in the wake of postpartum depression or miscarriages. Others struggle with the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Aside from approaching a vulnerable point in their lives, however, they do not necessarily have much in common, other than a therapist with a particular mindset, or simply being a self-doubting woman at a particular time in history.
The median age of women recovering “memories” appears to be around the age of 30, though the age range has widened as recovered-memory therapy and books espousing it have become more popular. Girls as young as 12 are recovering memories. Even preschoolers have been told by therapists that they must have repressed memories of sexual abuse. At the same time, therapists have been recruiting in nursing homes. One 1994 article advised that “psychologically fragile” elderly women, particularly widows, should be helped to recall the incest of their youth. Another MPD specialist agrees, but he warns against doing abreactive work with octogenarians. “One of my multiples had a stroke during an abreaction.”
While there is no necessary common thread among Survivors, there are several interesting subsets. A number of accusers are very suggestible and hypnotizable, as I mentioned in Chapter 4. Many such Survivors are also quite dramatic, creative, and imaginative. “I can work myself into a state of sobbing over something in a fantasy,” one Survivor acknowledged in The Courage to Heal . They play roles well, consciously or otherwise. A surprising number are either professional or amateur actors. Many Survivors have always read mystery, fantasy, or horror stories. They enjoy solving puzzles or envisioning other worlds and possibilities. Often, they sing professionally or exhibit artistic talent.
Many Survivors also seem to be among the helpers of the world, easily empathizing with those who suffer. They often enter the helping professions, becoming teachers, nurses, or counselors.
A majority who come to believe in their “recovered memories” are high-achievers who did quite well in school and may have advanced degrees. Just as they were good students in school, they make excellent therapy clients, dutifully reading recovery books, filling out workbooks, and performing other homework assignments.
Other Survivors were probably too close to their parents. While their friends rebelled as teenagers, they continued to consider their parents to be best friends. These overly dependent adult children, who have difficulty individuating from their parents, often have a love/hate relationship with them. They long to break away, but can’t seem to do it. The incest memories allow them to do so, but they do not really stand on their own. Instead, they transfer their dependence to their therapists. Psychiatrist George Ganaway speaks of such a case: “An unmarried 25-year-old woman … has unresolved early separation and individuation conflicts with her parents, leaving her with a feeling of hostile dependence on them.” Although she is a high achiever, she has a “constant need for approval and validation from others.” The therapist becomes a substitute parental figure, “all-accepting, all-believing and all-approving.”
Another subset consists of “lifers” who have bounced from one diagnosis, therapist, or movement to another for most of their lives. “I’ve been mentally disturbed all my life,” one such woman told Ellen Bass. Many of them have always suffered from assorted mysterious bodily ailments. Adopting the Survivor persona is simply the latest in a series of explanations for these maladies.
Finally, and perhaps most tragic, there are undoubtedly those who have real disorders such as manic-depression (bipolar disorder), anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, clinical depression, or epilepsy that go undiagnosed. Indeed, the conditions are exacerbated by the acting out that is demanded by the Survivor role.
I cannot overemphasize the strong motivation that impels people to discover hidden memories, once the idea is planted. They yearn for an explanation for their current despair, and they become dogged in their pursuit of the mystery. “My therapist told me to read The Courage to Heal ,” one woman told me. “I opened the book to the first page, and three hours later, I looked up, sobbing. I was totally consumed by this book. I couldn’t read enough, find out enough, couldn’t let it go. Everything was leading me down this road. My therapists weren’t necessarily saying ‘Confront your parents,’ but society and books and my need to be healthy were driving me. I was absolutely driven.”
Once someone is sucked into the recovered memory vortex, it is clearly difficult to get out. “There is an identity in being a committed survivor of sexual abuse,” Bass and Davis accurately observe in The Courage to Heal . “It can be hard to give up.” More and more memories surface, along with diverse perpetrators. Once a confrontation takes place, it is hard to back away. Besides, admitting you were wrong would involve losing all your new friends and your all-important therapist. The shame and guilt from admitting false accusations would be overwhelming. Also, people have an innate resistance to cutting their losses, once they’ve made a major investment. “The memories might not be totally accurate,” Diane Schultz allows in her interview here, “but what purpose would it serve me to spend so much time, energy, and money to blame my father for something he didn’t do?” Therefore, according to this circular logic, he must have committed incest on her.
It seems painfully obvious in some cases that these “memories” do not seem real, even to those who remember them. One woman I interviewed (not included here) has never managed to retrieve any memories, though she is still sure she is a Survivor. Another strove in vain to recall real incest, but settled for memories of emotional incest. “I’ve concluded that you never overtly molested me,” she told her father recently, “but you did violate some very important boundaries. You hugged me too long, looked at me too fondly.” I suspect that this nagging uncertainty may be what prevents some children from directly accusing their parents or telling them precisely what they are supposed to have done.
The saddest feature of the “therapeutic” process is the frightful amount of pain it unnecessarily inflicts upon unwary clients. They often go through awful depressions, suicide attempts, and hospitalizations. They lose their families, their jobs, their relationships. Yet somehow, they convince themselves that they are getting better. Relatively speaking, over the short term, they eventually do get better. Few people can keep themselves in such a state of turmoil indefinitely, and when Survivors adjust to their new status and begin to feel relatively calm, they often perceive that they have made great strides. Compared to how they functioned when entering therapy, however, most are worse off.
There are undoubtedly those who genuinely benefit from recovered-memory therapy. Their long-term depression lifts. They feel energized. They are able to enjoy sex. They feel renewed purpose in life and enjoy the righteous anger of the Survivor. Because they feel better having an explanation for all their previous troubles, they are sure that their memories must be accurate. Why else would they have improved? The answer is that any explanation for life’s troubles can have a placebo effect. Unfortunately, their newfound purpose comes at the expense of grieving families, devastated by false accusations. And, however fulfilling their lives may be, they have been deprived of the support and comfort of their families.