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A Benefit and Plea for Victims of Child Abuse

February 10, 1986|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

When her book, "Mommie Dearest," was first published eight years ago, Christina Crawford says, she was naively unprepared for the response generated by what one reviewer called "probably the most chilling account of a mother-daughter relationship ever to be put on paper."

"As I look back on the experience now," says Crawford, 46, "I had not anticipated that the victim of childhood abuse would be greeted with such hostility, such vehement denial of the truth and such outrage at the fact that I had dared to pull back the veil of secrecy which had previously covered the violent and often torturously cruel behavior of a mother toward her child."

The blonde-haired Crawford, cool and poised in a bright red suit, was addressing more than 200 people gathered in the gymnasium at Orangewood Children's Home in Orange Saturday evening for a fund-raiser for VOICES of California, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping former victims of incest.

Reading from a prepared speech and speaking in a clear and direct voice that hinted at her training as an actress, Crawford recalled the difficult period she went through after the publication of her best-selling book about her life as the daughter of the legendary Joan Crawford.

A Flood of Accusations

"Over and over again," she said, "I was confronted with accusations that I had fabricated the entire story, that I was an ungrateful child considering the privileges that life had bestowed upon me, that my mother was not alive to defend herself and, finally, when all else had failed to stop me from continuing to tell my story, that I had written the book out of spite and purely for the money."

Only the "voluminous response" from thousands of men and women who had suffered similar childhood experiences kept her going during those difficult months, she said.

Still, she recalled, she reached the point where she felt like abandoning the book tour, fleeing the media battle and returning to the security of her home in Tarzana.

"Then one night," she said, "I thought of the children right now--children who needed help and the possibility that no one would believe them either.

"I knew that if I gave up and went home--that if, as an adult, I collapsed under the media pressure and the public scrutiny--then the assumption would be that the critics of 'Mommie Dearest' were right and once again the child was wrong, the child was guilty, the child was bad, the child was lost."

Since the publication of "Mommie Dearest" in 1978, Crawford has continued to be an outspoken advocate for the victims of child abuse.

While acknowledging that "much progress has been made these past few years," Crawford emphasized during her 20-minute talk that "you don't have to look very far to find current evidence of continued repression and denial of both the damage and the scope of childhood abuse."

Although the fund-raiser was billed as a "Special Evening with Christina Crawford," she was only part of the three-hour program which included the presentation of scenes from "If I Should Die Before I Wake," Michelle Morris' play about father-daughter incest, and the showing of "Breaking Silence," an award-winning documentary on victims of incest.

"People must become more educated about this (incest) because that's how it's going to stop," said Mary Cangelosi of Tustin, who co-founded the California chapter of VOICES (Victims of Incest Can Emerge Survivors) with another former incest victim, Zela Lancaster of Westminster.

Support Group Set Up

In addition to providing community education presentations to schools, groups and organizations, the two women explained in an interview, the local VOICES chapter has established a support group that meets weekly at the YWCA in Orange and two weekly therapy groups that meet in Orange and Tustin. Plans also call for offering therapy groups for children and adolescents, and for mothers of incest victims. For more information, call (714) 567-3183.

In providing information, support and encouragement for former incest victims, Cangelosi said, VOICES fills a need in Orange County that was not being met before the chapter was started two years ago. Since then, she said, more than 400 women have attended the group's meetings.

"I think they get hope, and they see that they can overcome this," she said. "They get a feeling that they're not alone, that they're not different than anyone else."

During a break in the program, Bill Steiner, director of Orangewood Children's Home, said that sexually abused children represent 22% of all their admissions.

And, he said, "of all the children we take care of--abused, neglected, abandoned children--the most damaged children are sexual molest victims. In essence, they have been robbed of their childhood, of their innocence."

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