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Did Daddy Really Do It? : A debate rages over incest-recovery therapies that can create false memories of sexual abuse : THE MYTH OF REPRESSED MEMORY: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse, By Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham (St. Martin's Press: $22.95; 290 pp.) : MAKING MONSTERS: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria, By Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters (Scribner's: $23; 340 pp.)

February 05, 1995|Katy Butler | Katy Butler covered the Ramona recovered-memory trial in Napa County last spring for the Los Angeles Times Magazine. She is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and works as a consulting editor for Family Therapy Networker

Loftus makes only a glancing reference to Marilyn Van Derbur, and Ofshe does not mention her at all; nor do they discuss many other cases that might contradict these books' central article of faith. Loftus, curiously, does not include any reference to a scientific study she co-published last year in the Psychology of Women Quarterly; in the study, which would appear to contradict the title of her own book, more than half of the 105 women questioned at a substance abuse center reported having been sexually abused as children, and almost a fifth of that group reported a period of total forgetting, after which their memories returned.

Ofshe, for his part, tells readers that by "conservative estimate" 15% of "recovered memory therapy" cases eventually involve allegations of ritual abuse. That statistic is as unscientific as the wildest overestimates of incest; it comes from a voluntary survey of 500 members of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, the support group for accused parents.

Almost all of Ofshe and Watters' case studies are hidden behind pseudonyms from independent inquiry, forcing the reader to trust the writer's conclusions rather than see how they were reached. The looseness with which he treats the material is evident in Chapter 6 of "Making Monsters." Here he tells the story of "Jane"--a Washington state woman called Lynn Crook who has identified herself in a letter she circulated to the media disputing Ofshe's account. In Ofshe's account, Crook was led down the garden path by self-help books and therapists until she fabricated horrible memories of sexual abuse by her father, a respectable physician. Two of her sisters, apparently caught up in the hysteria, supposedly then interpreted vague and ambiguous memories as signs that they, too, had been abused. Crook sued her father (both Ofshe and Loftus appeared as expert witnesses at the trial) and, reportedly to "empower" herself, sought out a local newspaper reporter. As the chapter ends, she appears headed into the delusionary territory of satanic ritual abuse: She recalls seeing a crowd standing around a bonfire in masks, robes.

Although this chapter is told as though Ofshe and Watters can read Crook's mind--her "heart races" at one point--they did not interview her or the sisters who testified on her behalf. The tale is an embellished reconstitution of the court records, and discrepancies in the details do not inspire confidence in Ofshe and Watters' contention that Crook's memories were caused by reckless therapy and the reading of self-help books. The authors have fiddled with the timeline, making it appear that Crook read and positively reviewed "The Courage to Heal" before, rather than after, she recovered memories of abuse. Crook, in fact, never told anyone that she had informed a local reporter of her suit against her father to "empower" herself; she responded to a phone call from a reporter who ran across the legal filing. One of Crook's sisters supposedly testified that her father had once told her to close her legs; the book, however, omits the last half of the father's reported sentence--"or I'll think you want me." And while Crook's therapist's notes did refer to a frightening memory of people standing around a bonfire in masks, the reference to robes was invented, making the memory sound more indicative of the delusions of satanic ritual abuse that Ofshe seems eager to find everywhere.

Ofshe omits from this account any reference to his own role in the lawsuit. In the court records, Judge Dennis D. Yule comments: "Just as (Ofshe) accuses (therapists) of resolving at the outset (to find) repressed memories of abuse and then constructing them, he has resolved at the outset to find a macabre scheme of memories progressing toward satanic cult ritual and then creates them."

Inaccurate reporting like this takes a book like "Making Monsters" beyond polemic to backlash.

Sadly, we live in a world that produces its share of Jeffrey Dahmers, Ted Bundys, John Wayne Gacys, Susan Smiths and Francis Van Derburs; the public face people turn toward the world may have little relation to the one expressed in private. Yet if these authors have ever met guilty parents, they haven't written about them. They seem to accept most protestations of parental innocence at face value, even those as half-hearted and ambiguous as "I don't remember doing this" or "I don't think so."

They write movingly of the anguish of parents whose daughters accuse them of horrible crimes, but seem remarkably insensitive to sexually abused children. Families in which incest charges surface are described as "shattered"; but families in which incest really happened were secretly shattered long before anyone brought the truth to light.

All we know so far is that there are true memories with false details and false memories with true details; parents who are falsely accused, and parents who pretend to be; families shattered by false accusations of incest, and families shattered by true accusations; daughters with delusions, and daughters to whom terrible things have been done.

The suffering of wrongly accused parents should not be ignored, and these books will provide a corrective for the suggestive therapy and botched family confrontations that have characterized the worst of the incest recovery movement. But the danger is that books like "Making Monsters" and "The Myth of Repressed Memory" will once again silence women and men from speaking--and being believed--about very real abuse, and will create a new breed of experts who will once again presume to know the truth.

BOOK MARK: For an excerpt from "The Myth of Repressed Memory," see the Opinion section.

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