Impact of Child Abuse Memories on the Families of Victims
Joseph de Rivera*
ABSTRACT: Within the last ten years some therapists have used
procedures that have led thousands of patients to recover memories of
"repressed" childhood sexual abuse and to confront their
families with this past abuse. Many families have asserted that
the recovered memories appear to be confabulations. This study
examines the impact the accusations of abuse have had on these
families. Interviews were conducted with both parents of nine
families who attended a meeting of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.
In all cases where the spouse learned of the accusation before the
accused parent, the spouse was placed in a situation of painful conflict
as to whom to believe. Only after an agonizing search for evidence
did the spouse fully believe the accused parent. When this
occurred, the child and the child's therapist cut off
communication. In the meantime, the accused (typically left
without emotional support from the spouse) suffered extreme pain.
Eight of the nine families have been split apart by the conflicting
realities engendered by what appear to be false charges. It seems
apparent that the procedure of encouraging patients to confront their
families with memories "recovered" in therapy is creating pain
rather than helping the patient test reality. Alternative
procedures are discussed.
As of Spring, 1994, over 12,000 persons had called the False Memory
Syndrome Foundation to report that a member of their family had been in
therapy, was now accusing someone else in the family of having sexually
abused them as a child, and appeared to the caller to be
making a false accusation. These reports occur in the context of
steadily declining rates of substantiation for allegations of sexual
abuse (Eckenrode, Power, Doris, Munsch, & Bolger, 1988).
It is apparent that some therapists are operating under the premise
that their patient's problems are caused by repressed memories of sexual
abuse, that such patients should be encouraged to remember any such
abuse, and that the families of these patients need to be confronted
with the reality of this abuse (Campbell, 1992). Do these
procedures help the patient and the family? This paper examines
the impact of the procedures on families who state they have been
In order to select a representative sample of families who had
contacted the FMS Foundation, the investigator chose a telephone area
code and contacted all families within that code who met the following
- At least one member of the family had attended a regional meeting
sponsored by the FMS Foundation,
- One or both parents had been accused, and
- Both parents were still alive.
All 9 of the families who met these criteria agreed to be
interviewed. Hence, the sample would appear to be representative
of those families who have attended one of the Foundation's
meetings. Of course, such families may be generally atypical in
that they must reject the idea that abuse occurred yet not reject the
accusing child, be intellectually alert enough to learn about the
Foundation, and emotionally intact enough to attend a meeting.
Both parents were interviewed together at home in interviews that
lasted between two and three hours. After asking to hear about the
background of the accusations and how the accusation was made, the
interviewer focused on five topics of concern:
- What was the response of the spouse of the accused, how did it
affect their marital relationship, and how did they manage the
- What was the response of the accused party and how did he obtain
emotional support and cope with the charge?
- How did the family as a whole deal with the accusations?
- How did the accuser respond to the denial of the accusation?
- What appeared to be the nature of the conflicting versions of
reality that divided the family?
Reactions of Spouse
Typically, the spouse is thrown into shock and does not know what to
believe. She (all but one are women) feels torn between believing
her child and trusting her husband (see Table 1). The only
exceptions to this pattern (cases 2, 4, and 8) occur when the spouse
first hears about the accusations from the accused or feels
A typical reaction is illustrated by the spouse in case 5:
She had called her older brother to come there, 100-miles away,
because she was going to have a breakthrough at the therapist's and
didn't want to be alone. (He later told me X left the therapist
in such a disturbed state that she curled up in a ball and sobbed for
an hour. He asked to see the therapist but was told
The next morning my son came to see me but said he couldn't break
her confidence, but he sat there and cried and cried and kept saying
that he was worried about me. I knew that she had either said
that her father was gay or he had molested her.
(Six days later) my daughter-in-law said she had to tell me about
it. (X had remembered her father abusing her, that neither the
other daughter or son remembered anything but that they might be
repressing it.) She did not really know many details but that X
said I knew about it and told her it was okay because she had been a
naughty girl. Also, my mother, who lived with us, knew.
X had adored her grandmother and also her father. None of
this made any sense to us. I did not share any of this
information with my husband at this time. I think I was hoping
it would go away and I would never have to tell him. He adored X
and I couldn't even imagine his reaction.
Meanwhile I was dealing with many, many feelings. I had to
consider if this was true. This was my daughter in deep
pain. Was it true? I had to consider it. Could I
stay with this man that I loved very much and was happy with if it
meant giving up my four children and all my grandchildren. I
didn't feel that I could. I felt I would come to hate him.
Could I leave him alone to spend his days alone? Suppose I left
him and he hadn't done anything? How would I support
myself? I would have to live on a limited income much different
that I was living. Was there any excuse I could find for him if
he had done it? There was NONE. Suppose he consented to
counseling would It help? Could the children forgive him.
It went on and on until I went to (a man) who had counseled my
husband during a stormy part of our marriage in 19. I
asked him if my husband had shown any signs of this sickness. He
said no. I asked him if he could have done it and repressed
it. He said possible but highly unlikely. I talked to him
for an hour ... I told him as I left that I could be swayed
either way at this point but I knew for sure that I had never allowed
it to happen or said what my daughter said I did. As I walked to
my car I realized what I had said. Why on earth would it be
right what she was saying about her father when I knew for sure it was
not true what she said about me? At that point I began believing
it was not true ...
There is no evidence of defensive denial in the spouse. Rather the
spouse tries to make sense of events and feelings by fitting them into a
narrative in which the accused is capable of being a child molester.
Past problems with the child or in the marriage are remembered and
explained by this new story. However, in the sample interviewed, the
wife gradually comes to believe her husband. Four factors appear to
influence this decision:
- Her child's memories are logically inconsistent with certain facts
that the mother cannot doubt.
- In spite of the fact that it would be easier for all concerned if
the husband simply admitted it and tried to minimize his guilt, the
husband keeps denying the allegations, seems to love his family, and
is obviously in emotional pain over the doubting of his love and
- The spouse has difficulty fitting herself into the new story. She
knows she would not have tolerated any such abuse and wonders how
she could have overlooked it.
- Another possible story becomes apparent that can -seem to resolve
the logical inconsistencies . . . her child has been influenced by a
therapist who doesn't know what the family is really like.
Emotional Management by the Accused
The most typical emotional reactions on the part of the accused were:
- Pain (see Table 2).
- Anger at the injustice of their situation.
- Bouts of uncontrollable crying.
Sources of Pain Reported by Three or More Respondents
- Loss of reputation and dignity.
- Loss of contact with a loved child and the opportunity to
express the love they felt.
- Feeling hated by a person who used to love them.
- Loss of the opportunity to see grandchildren.
- Loss of emotional relationship with spouse.
- Fear of demonstrating spontaneous love for children.
- Feeling constrained by a fear of possible legal actions.
These occurred in 7 of the 9 cases and appeared to be triggered by
stimulus that reminded the accused of their capacity to love others and,
thus, reinforced their questioned identity as caring persons.
A typical reaction is illustrated by the accused in case 1:
I went 3 full days with no sleep ... I felt like a zombie, like I
was floating ... I wanted to die. I focused on my work ... I
needed the distracters ... but I kept hearing myself talk and (was
always on the verge of) uncontrollable crying ... I was proud of my
reputation ... I worked hard for it. (A point came) when I had
to tell my boss. I said, "After I tell you this I'll be a
different person" ... but he believed me ... and my son was there
for me ... and I asked (my youngest daughter), "Was there ever
anything I might have done that may have seemed like it might be
sexual to you," and she said, "Dad, why are you doing this
to yourself?" and that made me feel better ... Every night I felt
like dying, but I didn't, and (one night) I thought of the
(non-accusing) kids and what they would think of me, and I thought,
"I don't want to die, why should they (the therapy system) get
away with this!" ... and I resolved to get my daughter back and
work against all this injustice.
A central emotional issue appears to involve the management of
anger. The most obvious expressions of anger were
counterproductive. The accused quickly learned that expressions of
anger failed to convince either the accusing child or the doubting
spouse. The desire for revenge which ordinarily would be directed
against a person who slandered one's reputation could not be directed
against a loved child. Fantasies of revenge against the
questionable behavior of whatever therapist was involved did not restore
the lost child. Under these circumstances the upset and rage,
together with the absence of any behavior that could remedy the
situation, was likely to result in depression unless the person
distanced the entire situation, refused to think about it, and pretended
he no longer had a child. Since the child was, in fact, still
alive and stimuli tended to keep reinvoking the situation, those parents
who chose this option had to shut down in order to handle the potential
By contrast, the parents who were interviewed had chosen to use their
anger to make a commitment to work for the wider social goals involved
in exposing the fact of false memory syndrome and ending false charges
of sexual abuse. However, this necessarily required the parents to
keep experiencing the pain involved in their particular situation and to
transcend that situation to care about all falsely accused parents and
Family Response to the Accusation
All 9 families were split by the accusations of child abuse.
Only 1 family (no.9) has been reconciled and only 3 others (nos. 2, 4,
5) have been able to maintain partial communication with the accusing
child. Most siblings who found themselves believing in one of the
versions of reality soon discovered that they could no longer
communicate with the part of the family that held the other
reality. In several cases the sibling's own reality and sense of
identity appears to have been shaken by the conflicting views and the
collapse of the security of a familial reality. In cases 1, 2 and
8 one daughter led another into therapy with the same therapist and the
second then also recovered memories.
Until the formation of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, the
shameful charge of "child sexual abuse" also isolated the
family's reality from the broader society and prevented an open
discussion of the various issues involved.
The Response of the Accuser
Many family members appear to have initially thought that the
accusing child would attempt to establish whether her memories were
accurate. They imagined a search for reality conducted by
inquiries into whether other family members remembered any abuse,
appeared to evade certain questions or trivialize abusive events, or if
abuse made sense in the light of the accused's character structure or in
the light of family routines. However, in the sample interviewed,
family members gradually realized that they were being informed
that abuse had been remembered. As spouses and siblings attempted
to grapple with whether the accusations were true or false they
discovered that the accuser was not at all interested in what had really
happened. Rather the accusers appeared to know that they were
abused and were interested only in establishing certain details of the
abuse and in having other members of the family acknowledge the abuse.
Family members report that it became apparent that accusers were not
interested in engaging in a dialogue and were quite impervious to any
logical arguments. In some cases, a logical argument did cause an
adjustment in the belief system. For example, when one mother
pointed out that the accused father was overseas during the alleged
abuse, the accuser simply declared that a different family member was
the abuser. More frequently, however, arguments were refuted by
focusing on the possibility of one of a number of factors that would
have to be true for the abuse to have occurred, or by simply ignoring
what was said. For example, when one mother pointed out that the
father was rarely home during the time period in questions and that when
he was home other people were present in cramped living quarters, the
accuser listened politely but made no response to her remarks.
It appeared that any discomfort caused by logical inconsistencies
were handled by selective inattention (Sullivan 1953), by the dissonance
reduction involved when one derogates a person whom one is hurting
(Aronson 1992, p. 214-219), and by minimizing contact with the family
members who questioned the account. However, in a number of cases
the extreme hostility that was manifested ("You should commit
suicide," etc.) suggested that the belief system was quite fragile
and threatened in the manner described by Kelly (1965).
From the viewpoint of the therapists who are involved in these cases,
he or she and the patient have worked together to discover that the
source of the patient's problems is early childhood sexual abuse.
More information needs to be gathered about the extent of this abuse and
the abuse needs to be acknowledged by the family so that healing can
proceed. Hence, exploration with other family members is initially
encouraged. As long as other family members are appropriately
concerned, communication is encouraged. However, when family
members raise questions about whether the abuse actually occurred, they
are considered to be in denial. Since the patient needs to have
the experience validated rather than doubted, and the perpetrator may
still be dangerous, further exposure to members of this (obviously
dysfunctional) family is discouraged and contact between any children of
the patient's and their grandparents or non-believing aunts and uncles
From the viewpoint of the family, the charge of sexual abuse has been
investigated and no evidence supports the charge. Circumstances
seem to make abuse unlikely. The children and other relatives have
been questioned and no one else remembers anything occurring. The
therapist has never visited the home and does not know the family.
The accused continue to deny abuse, obviously love the accusing child
and are in need of emotional support themselves. When family
members try to talk with the patient they are rebuffed, the therapist
refuses to return calls, other therapists are enlisted but report that
they too cannot get anywhere with the patient's therapist, and the
licensing board cannot see any real grounds for complaint. Hence,
the family perceives that the patient has been lost to a therapist who
is exercising mind-control. The patient is seen to be in a sort of
therapy-cult that the family is powerless to combat.
From the perspective of an outsider, one finds oneself caught between
conflicting realities and apparently forced to choose between
them. One does not want to fail to hear the voice of a victim or
to make a false accusation. Yet who is the victim and who should
be accused? From the viewpoint of the writer, the memories appear
to be false when:
- There are no such memories prior to therapy.
- Neither of the parents nor any of the other children in the family
have memories of abuse occurring, of having had conversations about
abuse occurring, or of seeing any signs of abuse prior to therapy.
- The family appears unlike those in which there is evidence for
abuse. They are open in the sense that neighborhood children
frequently came in to play and the mother is a relatively strong
person who would not have denied any signs of abuse.
- The accused has no history of any pedophiliac tendencies and there
is no evidence of any sexual interest in children.
- The accusations are either so vague they cannot be checked on or,
when specific, are inconsistent with family routines and other
- The accused and the family are willing to openly discuss the
allegations and explore them for logical coherence.
- The accuser and the therapist are not open to exploring the
possibility that the allegations may be in error.
Under what circumstances do apparent confabulations develop? In
at least some cases, the accusers appear to have found themselves in
situations where they could not meet the ideals held by themselves and
their families. They wonder why they do not feel whole and free to
be their real selves and they go into therapy with a person whom they
trust will help them. The training of some of these therapists
leads them to assume that the patient's problems are caused by early
childhood abuse rather than current situational stress. Some
therapists appear to try and rescue their clients by offering an
idealized relationship in place of the betrayal that has supposedly
occurred (McElroy & McElroy, 1991), and they lead the patient into
assuming the role of a victim who cannot be expected to meet the ideals
that are impossible to meet. The patient begins to have images and
bodily reactions that reinforce the therapist's belief and a co-authored
narrative of an abusive childhood is created. Of course there are
other possible scripts that could explain the willingness of a patient
to engage with a therapist in creating a narrative of alleged
abuse. In any case, crucial error occurs when people who do not
support the narrative are assumed to be in denial so
communications are severed and there is no longer any way for either
patient or family to test the reality of their version of the situation.
The affectively-based memory of the accuser appeared to be anchored
in a different reality than are the memories of the family. In our
post-modern society, Shorter (1992) observes that the notion of
"relationships" has taken priority over the concept of the
family as a building block society. He suggests that this
increases people's vulnerability to fixed ideas about illness and leads
to distinctive patterns of somatization.
In cases discussed here, parents reported that the accusing child
appeared to be convinced they had been abused on the basis of how
their bodies felt. The accusers appeared to have severed
relationships with their family and formed, instead, a relationship with
their therapist and (often) with a group of other survivors. In
this new community of memory (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, &
Tipton, 1985) the accusers constructed memories of their childhood that
were quite different from the memories of other family members.
One is reminded of Shotter's (1990) position that memory is a rhetorical
process that is constructed within a collective. Certainly,
nothing that families said appeared to change the beliefs of the
accusers and the accuser's prospect of talking to family members
appeared to have little to do with reality testing. Rather, the
accusations of abuse appeared to be rhetorical acts aimed at
establishing a new identity as a survivor.
However, I do not believe that memories are simply social
constructions and that there is no real reality. Rather, it seems
to me that the accusers are extremely fearful in MacMurray's (1961)
sense of the term. That is, they have been encouraged to make a
series of mistaken choices that lead them to increasingly fear for
themselves rather than face those whom they deeply love. One can
only hope that society will help them to have the courage to return to
The procedure of encouraging a patient to confront his or her family
with a charge of sexual abuse caused pain to all the members of the
families examined in this study. It would appear that other
alternatives, such as exploring the patient's current situation and
relationship to the family, might be more productive for the patient,
and would certainly incur less cost to the families of patients.
In any case, the high casualty rates from "trauma-search" or
incest-resolution therapy need to be discussed in the various therapy
training institutes and there needs to be an opening of discussion about
the dangers of false positives. It also seems clear from even this
small sample of subjects that mental health professionals may want to
establish some procedures that would restore communications between
families and children of siblings who appear to have cut off
communication because of improperly conducted therapy.
What procedure might be developed to aid the thousands of families
who have contacted the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, or any family
who feels that a member of the family is being alienated from the family
by misguided therapy? Obviously, a number of concerns must be
addressed. On the one hand a patient's privacy needs to be
protected, a patient may need to psychologically separate from his or
her family or from one of its members, and the patient's therapist
relationship may need to be protected from the concerns of an intrusive
family. On the other hand, a therapist needs to maintain
communication with colleagues who may have different perceptions of
reality, a therapist may have failed to observe appropriate boundaries
between him or herself and the patient, and there should be some way for
a caring family to express its concerns to the therapist of a family
member who is making apparently false accusations against another member
of the family.
Of course, if the therapist is licensed it may be possible for the
family to file a complaint against the therapist and, in some
circumstances, to be able to sue the therapist, but it would seem more
helpful if there was some way in which a family or their therapist could
request third party mediation. For this to be feasible, each of
the mental health professionals would have to establish a list of
therapists who could serve as mediators. Perhaps this could be
done through state licensing boards.
Aronson, E. (1992). The Social Animal, 6th Edition (), New York: W. H.
Freeman and Company.
Bellah, R. N., Madsen, R., Sullivan, W. M., Swidler, A., &
Tipton, S. M. (1985). Habits of the Heart: Individualism and
Collectivism in American Life ()().
Harper & Row.
Campbell, T. W. (1992). Diagnosing incest: The problem of false
positives and their consequences. Issues
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Eckenrode, J., Power, J., Doris, J., Munsch, J., & Bolger, N.
(1988). Substantiation of child abuse and neglect reports. Journal of Consulting and Clinical
Psychology, 56, 9-16.
Kelly, G. A. (1965). The threat of aggression. Journal of Humanistic
Psychology, 5, 195-201.
MacMurray, J. (1961). Persons in Relation (). Atlantic Highlands, NJ:
McElroy. L. P., & McElroy, R. A. (1991). Countertransference
issues on the treatment of incest families. Psychotherapy, 28, 48-54.
Shorter, E. (1992). From Paralysis to Fatigue: A History of
Psychoanalytic Illness in the Modern Era (). New York: Free Press.
Shorter, J. (1990). The social construction of remembering and
forgetting. In D. Middleton & D. Edwards, Collective Remembering
Newbury Park, CA: Sage
Publications, pp. 120-138.
Sullivan, H. S. (1953). The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry
|* Joseph de Rivera is a
professor of psychology at Clark University, 950 Main Street,
Worchester, MA 01610. [Back]