False Memories of Child Sexual Abuse: A Personal Account

Mel Gavigan*

It all began back in November of 1989.  I was hospitalized for depression in Long Beach, California when I started getting my first false memories of child sexual abuse.

While hospitalized for the depression, I was asked by several hospital workers if I had ever been touched sexually in my childhood.  Although I could not remember anything, I felt pressured to come up with some "answers" for my condition that would be acceptable.  I also felt that if I could come up with a single reason for my troubles, I would be able to get well and get out of the hospital sooner.

My psychologist kept asking about my childhood and he seemed insistent that I had been sexually abused as a child.  I tried to be very cooperative because I wanted out of that hospital.  I didn't understand why my therapist was not interested in hearing about the recent causes of my depression — a painful divorce, sexual harassment on the job, unemployment, stress from a new marriage, and a recent drastic change in lifestyle.  I trusted him, however, and if he believed that all of my problems wee due to some traumatic incident in my childhood I apparently had forgotten, I assumed he must be right because he was the psychology expert, not I.

I continued to wrack my brain to try to remember being sexually abused, and I had a severe mental breakdown.  After the breakdown, I told him that I thought I had been raped by my father.  I was not sure of the age in which it happened. (I started with the age of four and then changed it to six and then seven.)  I was encouraged by my psychologist to talk about the abuse in groups and in therapy sessions.  My psychologist and I confronted my mother about it.  I wrote a letter to my father and with the help of the hospital social worker, reported him to a child abuse hot line and continued to accuse him.

I was on four or five different medications and I became dependent upon Halcion and Xanax in order to function at a minimal level.  Over the next few years, my doctors placed me on several more medications including lithium, tegretol, ativan, desipramine, stelazine, Triavil, and nortriptyline.

For the next three years, this problem ruled my life.  I was obsessed at how unresolved it all felt I was tormented constantly.  I became too sick to work regularly and went on disability as I could not work without having "flashbacks."  I did little besides reading Courage to Heal and crying and feeling depressed and angry.  It didn't seem as though I was "healing" at all, but instead was just getting worse.  I felt a desperate need to remember more of what happened to me so that I could get well and get on with my life.  I was always thinking and trying, trying hard to remember.  I tried all the "tricks" in Courage to Heal (Paperback)(Audio Cassette) and the Workbook (Workbook), but still I could not remember anything concrete, although I was convinced that it had happened.  Hoping to get away from my pain, I moved to another state.

At the same time, I was constantly beset by doubts about my experience.  It felt that I was "making it up," but it said in Courage to Heal that the memories often feel that way.

At the recommendation of friends, therapists, and a person I knew who had started an organization called Sexual Abuse Victims Enlightenment, I started litigation against my father for the imagined childhood rape.  I was told that I would be "validated" by doing this and that it would help my "healing" along by much.

Also, in hopes of my memories being triggered, I founded the only Survivors of Incest Anonymous (S.I.A.) group in my city.  I was the leader of the group and supplied everyone with literature on "remembering" and the 20 questions of S.I.A. (see appendix).  In the questions, it says that if you have answered yes to three or more of these questions, "Survivors of Incest Anonymous can help."  Upon close inspection of the questions, however, many of them can be applied to just about anybody.

After starting the group, my internal pressure to remember the sexual abuse increased greatly and that is when I entered regular therapy.  I went to both a hypnotherapist and a clinical psychologist at the same time.  I told them that I believed I had been raped at a young age and that it was causing all my present emotional and mental problems.

Both of the therapists encouraged and pushed me to "remember" more and more, even though I was starting to show signs of psychosis during the treatment sessions.  I was rapidly losing the ability to differentiate between my imagination and my real memory.  I also started, at that time, to have "memories" of satanic ritual abuse that were always accepted by my therapists and that I was never asked to question.  As a result, I came up with many more visualizations, and some graphic and detailed sexual abuse stories which started to involve murder.  The "memories" became increasingly more shocking and violent, and I became more ill with each therapy session.

In the fall of 1991, with the enthusiastic encouragement of my hypnotherapist, I began showing signs of MPD (multiple personality disorder).  In the hypnosis sessions, the therapist would have me "relive" the rape but all the while it never felt real, never like a real experience.  He would ask me if there were any other "people" there with me, and then he would have me identify and name the other "parts" of me.  Afterwards, when I went home I would draw them for him.  Meanwhile, I read books such as Courage to Heal and books on MPD.  My symptoms grew much worse with therapy until I finally suffered a mental breakdown and was hospitalized.

During this recent hospitalization, I finished sorting out what I had already started — that the detailed and graphic memories had not been real, but were some kind of hallucination or figment of my imagination that had been accept as historical fact and encouraged by my therapists.

The realization that the memories were not real came on gradually, over a period of a few days to a few weeks.  I had been taking a course in college psychology and was studying the brain and memory when the scientific research that I was reading was not in agreement with what the therapists seem to believe.  I learned in textbooks about memory that our brain "loses" much of what we experience and that our entire childhood was not somehow recorded and is not buried, waiting to be brought up like a video movie in the way the therapists would have me believe.

I have since stopped the litigation against my father and apologized to him and my family.  I still remain perplexed and disturbed as to how this all could have happened to me, but I know that the Courage to Heal book had a lot to do with it, along with the three different therapists who coached me over a period of three years.  During that time, I also saw two different psychiatrists, but the psychiatrists did not encourage the false memories as the other therapists did — in fact they expressed doubt that my memories were real.

I now feel very well emotionally since quitting "therapy."  However, my life has been ravaged though all of this.  I lost a good job, my husband divorced me, and worst of all, I lost my family.  The pain and destruction that have been wrought upon my life and that of my family can never be reversed.
  

Appendix

THE 20 QUESTIONS OF S.I.A.

1.   Do you have problems with self-confidence and self-esteem?
2. Do you feel you are either passive or aggressive?  Do you have problems acting assertively?
3. Do you feel you have to "control" your emotions?
4. Do you feel easily intimidated by authority figures?
5. Do you sabotage current relationships, especially sexual relationships?
6. Do you fear that people are interested in you primarily for sex?  Does the importance of sex seem exaggerated?  Do you feel that you have to be careful how you act and dress because you might sexually arouse others?
7. Are you afraid to love — always questioning "what will they want from me now?"
8. Do you act "different" or passive around your family of origin?
9. Currently, do you over-react or misdirect your anger in situations that frustrate you?  Are you afraid of anger?
10. Do you avoid taking control of your life today?  Do you have trouble making decisions?
11. Are you a perfectionist, over-achiever, or generally a compulsive person?
12. Do you get upset when you hear a rape, incest or child abuse victim tell their story?
13. Do you have trouble trusting others or trusting your own perceptions?
14. Do you have unrealistic, unreachable expectations of your self as a parent?  Do you feel you have to compensate for something?  Do you try to be a superior parent or have you deliberately avoided becoming a parent altogether?
15. Do you have blocks of your childhood you can't remember?  Do you have a sense that "something happened?"  Do you have memories of abuse with no emotions associated with those memories?
16. Have you ever been promiscuous?  When you have sex, are you really seeking love, affection, and acceptance?
17. Do you feel sex is "dirty?" Do you avoid mirrors?  Do you feel you're unattractive?
18. Do you feel you are different, a freak?  Do you fear someone will discover your secrets?
19. Do you have a problem with alcohol, drugs, food, migraines, or back pain?
20. Have you ever considered suicide?  Have you ever suffered from depression or felt there was a "black cloud" hanging over you?

If you have answered "YES" to three (3) or more of these questions, Survivors of Incest Anonymous can help.

* Mel Gavigan can be contacted through Issues in Child Abuse Accusations[Back]

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