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 falsely accused.


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 criteria:

  1. At least one member of the family had attended a regional meeting sponsored by the FMS Foundation,
  2. One or both parents had been accused, and
  3. 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:

  1. What was the response of the spouse of the accused, how did it affect their marital relationship, and how did they manage the situation?
  2. What was the response of the accused party and how did he obtain emotional support and cope with the charge?
  3. How did the family as a whole deal with the accusations?
  4. How did the accuser respond to the denial of the accusation?
  5. 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 simultaneously accused.

Table 1

Reactions of Spouses

  1. I was frantic. It couldn't be true ... but what if it were ... He's not the type ... But my children don't lie ...
  2. I never had doubts ... I gave them the last good night kiss ... I would have known. (husband of accused wife)
  3. Total shock ... wiped out ... I didn't know what to do ... could it have happened ... but how ... I cried pretty much all day ... I was so shaken ... so humiliated ... terrible anger that this happened to our family and that (he) was to blame ... and then I realized I was in this too ... I had doubt, but we could talk about it ... there was never a loss of trust ...
  4. Shocked ... could this be true, but I knew him and saw his expression, and she had written lies about me ...
  5. This was my daughter.  I had to consider if it had happened.  I went through a period of questioning.  I owed that to her.  There are no circumstances that I would allow my children to be abused.  I didn't sleep many nights ... it hits you most in church when you see the babies ... we were so looking forward to this baby ... (probably the last grandchild)
  6. I never had any doubts that it was true ... I thought he'd cry and say it only happened once ... and we could fix it together and go on ... but he was very angry ... and he kept denying it happened ... he said, "No matter what our daughter thinks of me, tell her I still love her" ... I couldn't look at him ... the more you read the more confused you get ...
  7. At first I believed her ... it explained why he never expressed his feelings and why we'd had problems with our marriage ... but when he tried to convince me he was innocent I saw him crying for the first time ... I needed time to think and he doesn't give you time ... I put a restraining order on him to get him out of the house.
  8. I got a call from the therapist (whom she had seen several times).  She said, "Your husband molested the children."  I said, "Where was I all that time?" (We had a home business.)  If it was true, I would have killed him ... I can't believe I can't see the baby (her grandchild).  She loved me so ... when I see a baby I start to cry ... and there's nothing you can do ...
  9. I know my daughter was in pain and had all the symptoms ... somehow the therapist made us believe that everything would be all right (if we confronted my husband) ... even though I know he's a man of convictions and loves his children ... and I wondered could it have been someone else ... but she was fragile and I was afraid she'd go over the edge ... it's been very hard ... I love my husband ... it was awful ... he made sense and her accusations were so vague ... he was furious and I could see that the confrontation wasn't going to work ... I sort of had to insulate myself ... his anger helped ... 'cause then you can distance and almost forget the pain ... but when he broke down and you just see pain ...

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 "no.")

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:

  1. Her child's memories are logically inconsistent with certain facts that the mother cannot doubt.
  2. 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 parental responsibility.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. Pain (see Table 2).
  2. Anger at the injustice of their situation.
  3. Bouts of uncontrollable crying.
Table 2

Sources of Pain Reported by Three or More Respondents

  1. Loss of reputation and dignity.
  2. Loss of contact with a loved child and the opportunity to express the love they felt.
  3. Feeling hated by a person who used to love them.
  4. Loss of the opportunity to see grandchildren.
  5. Loss of emotional relationship with spouse.
  6. Fear of demonstrating spontaneous love for children.
  7. 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 underlying anger.

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 missing children.

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).

Conflicting Realities

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 is contraindicated.

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:

  1. There are no such memories prior to therapy.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. The accused has no history of any pedophiliac tendencies and there is no evidence of any sexual interest in children.
  5. The accusations are either so vague they cannot be checked on or, when specific, are inconsistent with family routines and other persons' memories.
  6. The accused and the family are willing to openly discuss the allegations and explore them for logical coherence.
  7. 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 their families.

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 (Paperback (8th Edition, 1999)), 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 (Hardcover)(Paperback). Harper & Row.

Campbell, T. W. (1992). Diagnosing incest: The problem of false positives and their consequences. Issues in Child Abuse Accusations, 4(4), 161-168.

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 (Hardcover). Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

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 (Paperback). New York: Free Press.

Shorter, J. (1990). The social construction of remembering and forgetting. In D. Middleton & D. Edwards, Collective Remembering (Hardcover)(Paperback). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, pp. 120-138.

Sullivan, H. S. (1953). The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry (Paperback). New York: Norton.

* Joseph de Rivera is a professor of psychology at Clark University, 950 Main Street, Worchester, MA 01610.  [Back]


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