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February 27, 1994
Author: Ralph Vance
By this time, no member of my family, not even Troy, will talk with me. Fridays, Joanne leaves the front porch door unlocked so I can pick up my mail. I sneak up to the front door hoping that no neighbor will spot me and ask where I’ve been. Sometimes Forepaws the cat is on the porch and greets me. Nobody else does.
“Now I know that you were betraying me during those years, betraying me with our own daughter. Our family life was a lie for all those years. I trusted you absolutely with Kristin and with all women and girls. I will never trust you again. I would never have believed this of you if I didn’t see the evidence in Kristin.”
There are no specifics, but the meaning is quite clear: I am being accused of the sexual abuse of my own daughter. I read those sentences over and over, but their meaning doesn’t change. It is a horrible moment. A wave of panic and nausea breaks over me, a sense that I don’t know-and have never known-who I am. Is it possible that some monster residing in me-part of a multiple personality, an evil alter ego-crept out of my bed and defiled my own daughter?
Joanne goes on to say that Kristin has had “body memories” of my hand coming under the covers and turning her over, and then . . . apparently the memory goes blank. She is now in “recovered-memory therapy” to bring back the evil things that victimized her.
When I come back to my senses, I know that I am not a multiple personality. I am conscious of my behavior. I know the difference between right and wrong, and I know I have not touched any woman-let alone any young girl-in an unwanted way. I know I have never touched Kristin in an inappropriate or sexual way, only in a loving, fatherly way. Could she have translated reading stories to her in bed as a tot or some fatherly tickling and horseplay into something sexual? I agonize over the thought of it, the sudden revision of those wonderful early years.
I don’t know where to turn. The issue of incest, I know, by its nature taints the accused whether there is a shred of evidence for it or not. You cannot tell just anyone that your daughter has accused you of sexual abuse. For many people, such an accusation is as good as an indictment. And the current psychological mood and jargon hold that any person who proclaims his innocence is simply “in denial.”
For two weeks I tell no one. Finally I go to my own family. My oldest sister is a liberal minister and a feminist, and she knows Kristin. Her response calms me down. “At 21,” she says, “Kristin is going through the most confusing and chaotic time in a young woman’s life.” Sis and I talk at length about some of her own Electra impulses and guilt feelings about our dad when she was Kristin’s age.
A bit reassured, I also talk with Peter, the marriage counselor Joanne and I saw before we split up.
“Child sexual abuse is absolutely the trendiest accusation that the so-called recovering culture comes up with these days,” he says.
He also encourages me to stop trying to make sense of this whole thing. “But,” he says, “you should confront your family before it self-destructs.”
I call Joanne’s therapist to see whether I can sit down and talk with her. I want to tell her what I’ve discovered and ask her to set up a meeting with all of us.
“I can’t do that,” she said. “As long as your wife is my client, I can’t confer with you. And she’ll have to agree to any joint session.”
All I’m left with is frustration, which Joanne and the therapist don’t want to hear.
I write Joanne a long letter. “If this family is to make it past the summer, we have to deal with this right now,” I conclude. After two weeks, having heard nothing, I phone her.
“My therapist and I don’t think it’s a good idea for you and me to have a session right now,” she says.
“What do you mean it’s not a good idea?” I say. “This is not just about you and me. It’s about our children and whether they’ll have a future relationship with me.”
“I believe Kristin, and you won’t have a relationship with her,” Joanne replies. “Anyway, it would just turn into a `No, I didn’t-Yes, you did’ session.”
“So you actually believe that I’m the kind of monster who could molest his own daughter?”
“I don’t believe you’re a monster,” she says. “I believe you’re simply a man who has done terrible things that your consciousness can’t even face-so you’re denying them and burying them deep in your subconscious.”
And that’s that: a guilty verdict. I’m in denial, she declares, and adds a decisive no to any meeting to try to dispel this family demon. I slam the phone down into the receiver in frustration and beat on the phone booth’s walls with my fists. In the car, I pound the steering wheel. I curse Joanne, I curse God and I especially curse the guild of psychotherapists. I feel like ramming my car into something; but instead I drive to a pub for an early start on an age-old kind of therapy.
After a few hours, I realize soddenly that I’ve been drinking with a vengeance. Back behind the wheel, I take out my rage on my car’s accelerator, tires and suspension system, screeching around entrance ramps and plowing down the expressway and darkened streets with hate in my blurry eyes. It’s a wonder I get home without killing myself or someone else.
A week later, I call Troy to see if he would like to spend a weekend with me, ride bikes, go to a ballgame, whatever.
“No,” he says, and adds enigmatically: “You know, children forgive their parents far too easily. I’m not going to fall into the forgiveness trap.” And he rings off. (I do not realize it then, but I find out later that his lines come directly from “The Courage To Heal,” the Bible of the incest-recovery movement.)
My son, my buddy, has now also turned against me. I feel like he’s kicking me when I’m down. The hurt and anger are so sharp and so mixed together that I sob to myself in my empty apartment.
I get several phone calls in which, as soon as I answer, somebody hangs up. Then, while I’m out of town on business, I get a message on my phone tape from Kristin.
“Dad,” she says nervously, “I want to tell you that you sexually abused me when I was a little girl. I want you to know that I will never forgive you, and you’ll never see your grandchildren. I hope that you get help, because you’re a very sick man.”
The voice is so breathless, thin and nervous-sounding, so unlike Kristin’s voice that it seems like a kidnap message, like someone is making her say it.
I cannot call her back because she has an unlisted number. I keep the message on my tape for more than a week. Every phrase becomes almost a litany. I finally erase it. It’s breaking my heart.
I move out of Chicago. I’ve been considering this move for years, for professional rather than personal reasons. Even so, I call Peter and ask him if he thinks I’m running away from it all.
“No,” he says, “you’ve made every effort to face your family and to get to the bottom of this. I think they are avoiding you.”
So I leave town-with a bulging backpack of mixed emotions.
For the next year I am completely shut out by my family. But I begin to hear about other people who are in the same boat. A friend gives me an article from Playboy entitled “Cry Incest,” in which the author, Debbie Nathan, who attended a retreat for “survivors of abuse,” exposes ideological “therapists” who manufacture memories of abuse for young women. In the article I also learn about the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, a group started in Philadelphia by parents who have been accused of abuse by their adult children, almost always daughters.
I send for and receive the foundation’s packet of information. The similarity of my own story to the many stories I read there is uncanny. One thing is true of all the accusers: only after they are exposed to psychotherapy do they recall the incestuous abuse. And only after leaving their therapists are some able to reunite with their parents and realize that their abuse was fabricated.
I hear other accounts. A friend’s sister goes into severe depression after the breakup of her marriage and encounters a psychiatrist who, after prescribing Prozac, also urges her to dredge up memories of abuse from her childhood. In session after session the psychiatrist presses the abuse angle-even thought it never happened. Finally, in exasperation, the woman seeks another therapist.
I watch network TV magazine programs exposing therapists who are coaching their clients into memories of ritual abuse. A public radio program explores the “repressed memory” controversy and interviews Elizabeth Loftus, a memory research expert. Loftus tells of sending an undercover detective to see a therapist she is investigating on behalf of some accused parents. The detective describes the most generic emotional complaints- depression, sleeplessness, fear of the unknown-and within two sessions the therapist tells him he’s a victim of incest.
The information and anecdotes bolster me. The repressed- memory phenomenon, now nationwide in scope, is maddening, and I shake my fist at the gods. Yet the most astounding revelation in this whole sordid drama is yet to come, and it will come from where it all started: my own family.
In almost a year I have had only two phone conversations with my wife, both about money. That’s it. We are still married, though pursuing divorce, and we’ve been quite civil despite everything. I am going to be in Chicago, and I risk asking her if we can get together for dinner. Surprisingly, Joanne agrees to it.
We agree to meet at our old favorite Italian restaurant, a tiny, quiet place with a good selection of pastas and wines. I’m there a little early, and I’m nervous; but I’m also eager to see Joanne because I want to hear about the kids. When she shows up, we formally shake hands. But that seems very wooden, and her vulnerable appearance inspires me to give her a hug
Joanne looks awful. Her face is pinched and anxious.
“I am just now getting out of a depression that has lasted at least six months,” she says after a little while.
The story spills out.
“Just after you moved,” she says, “Kristin told me she wanted nothing more to do with me. She would not say why. She refused to let me contact her. A few months later, in February I think, Troy moved out. He also wouldn’t say why, and he won’t talk to me either. After I couldn’t take it anymore, I finally persuaded Kristin to agree to a session. We’d each have our therapists present, and we’d sit down and talk.
“It was a nightmare. One long tirade by Kristin. She accused me of abusing her along with you. She said you had raped her while I looked on and encouraged you. She said I had raped her with snakes. She said I threatened to slice into her baby brother, Troy, with a huge knife and that I had dismembered her cat with a knife, among other acts smacking of satanic rituals. She went on and on, one thing after another, for an hour.
“I couldn’t say anything to her. She was totally convinced that it had all happened. When it was over I stumbled out of there, shaking and sobbing. The first thing my therapist said to me was, ‘I guess now you know what your husband felt like.”‘
I am speechless. My gut is turning over with the shock of the outrageous accusations. There is a brief sense of moral vindication, but it’s in my mind only. Joanne is weeping now and squeezing my hand. I feel the urge to embrace and comfort her, and yet I’m astonished that I’m hearing this for the first time now, six months after it happened.
“Why didn’t you tell me any of this?” I ask.
“I couldn’t communicate with anyone,” she says. “For six months I was so depressed that I didn’t talk to anyone. Prozac was the only thing that made it possible for me to go to work.”
Then she turns abruptly to me, staring into my eyes. “Tell me for sure that you didn’t abuse her,” she says. “You didn’t, did you?”
I wearily shake my head as I look back at her. Her eyes are brimming with tears.
“I’m sorry I ever believed her,” she says finally. “I’m just still so confused. How could this happen?”
The next day I run into Bob, an old friend of the family. He looks at me oddly, and I think I know why.
“Can I buy you a drink?” he asks.
Over a beer at a favorite bar, he leans forward and says, “I saw Troy last summer . . . at a jazz club, and this is bizarre, but. . .
He goes on to say that Troy blurted out to him that Joanne and I had abused him and Kristin and that they would never speak to us again. That hits me. Troy has progressed from a sympathizer to a believer. I nod and tell Bob the whole story. He is incredulous, and we talk long and hard about what has happened. He and his wife have known Joanne and me for 25 years. They have known Kristin and Troy since they were infants.
“It’s not true, Bob,” I say, and I realize I have been saying it for over a year now. “None of it’s true.”
In the end he can only wonder, taking my word for things because I’m his friend, hanging his head in heartfelt sadness over this toxin that has ripped a family apart.
It is now 2 1/2 years since I learned that my daughter was accusing me of sexual abuse. Nationally, the cover has been torn off the repressed-memory racket in American psychotherapy. I have read and collected dozens of articles on the controversy.
An article in the New York Times by Carol Tavris is entitled “Beware the Incest-Survivor Machine,” and it rips into the Bibles and rhetoric of the incest recovery movement. Another by Wendy Kaminer in The Atlantic Monthly is called “Feminism’s Identity Crisis” and contains the statement “It is heresy, in general, to question the testimony of self-proclaimed victims of date rape or harassment, as it is heresy in a 12-step group to question claims of abuse. All claims of suffering are sacred and presumed to be absolutely true.”
“The U.S. appears to be witnessing its third great wave of hysteria,” writes Dr. Richard Gardner, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, in The Wall Street Journal, citing the Salem witch trials and the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s. “Our current hysteria, which began in the early 1980s, is by far the worst with regard to the number of lives that have been destroyed and the families that have disintegrated.”
In a Time story (Nov. 29, 1993), Richard Ofshe of the University of California at Berkeley says, “Recovered-memory therapy will come to be recognized as the quackery of the 20th Century.” Other articles and comments fill my files as the months pass. But the comfort and vindication I derive from these experts is hollow and short-lived. My children probably will not read a word of these pieces.
I continue to rage, sometimes quietly, sometimes to friends about the damage that has been done.
I have contacted Kristin’s college and, after some questions, have found out the name of the person who would have been her counselor there when she first experienced depression. And I have gotten the name of Kristin’s therapist in Chicago out of Joanne. But which one is responsible, and to what degree, for the false memories? Some of my friends have urged me to bring a lawsuit against these charlatans, and I am considering it. But will a lawsuit, I ask myself, bring my children back?
Meanwhile, Joanne and I have gotten a divorce-but are on the friendliest terms we’ve been on for more than three years. We have a deep hurt and a sense of injustice in common, and we’ve had several long talks about our children and our lives in the past year. Joanne tells me that she has spent weekends looking at slides of the children when they were small. “Looking for the truth, I suppose,” she says.
I have sent letters to both Kristin and Troy-to the only addresses Joanne has for them-begging for some kind of reconciliation. And I’ve sent gifts on their birthdays. There have been no replies to the letters, and the gifts have come back to me with no acknowledgment and no return addresses.
About nine months ago, Joanne wrote the children telling them to remove their belongings from the house, that she didn’t want to see or hear from them until they were ready to talk about healing. While she was gone on vacation, they came and took all the personal stuff they wanted and removed all of the family photo albums and childhood memorabilia. Both have moved without leaving forwarding addresses, and both have unlisted phone numbers. They have cut off all contact. They are unreachable.
Joanne can’t decide whether she’s more devastated or furious. But her anger definitely is directed toward the children. She has too much at stake in the psychotherapeutic community to rage against it. I have sent her copies of the false-memory articles and personal narratives that I have on file, but she tells me she doesn’t want to read them or hear about them. I tell her that I have contacted the False Memory Syndrome Foundation for assistance and am considering a lawsuit against the psychologist(s) who have brainwashed Kristin. Still, Joanne says she wants no part of it.
Regarding my children, I now have only a sense of loss. I realize that Kristin and Troy have the pain of losing their parents just as profoundly as Joanne and I have the pain of losing our children.
My rage is all toward the practice of “repressed-memory therapy.” I recognize that my children have been victimized by their so-called “mental health care providers,” a group with not only an agenda but, like pastors and priests,the power to inflict pain on impressionable people. Some of them have clearly seized upon and exploited Kristin’s depression and vulnerability for their own agenda and financial gain. I believe that Kristin and Troy have been hurt just as surely by these “health care professionals” as they would have been by recruitment into some radical and irrational cult. They have been led into some Waco or Jonestown of the mind.
In my dreams these days, or sometimes just riding in the car, with no warning, I get glimpses of Kristin as a little girl again. She’s learning to read and she gets up close to my face with her sweet round cheeks and strawberry-blond curls and painstakingly mispronounces a new word. Or I see her triumphant and terrified face on her first solo bike trip around the block, me running behind, my hand at the ready, giggling. How she’d put her hand in mine and lean her head on my shoulder, all trusting; and how she’d proudly tell her little friends, “That’s my big daddy.”
Remembering it, I laugh and cry all at once. My heart aches for that little girl . . . and for the woman she has become.
God, I want my children back. I miss them terribly.