IPT Book Reviews

Title: A Mother's Nightmare — Incest: A Practical Legal Guide for Parents and Professionals  Negative Review Negative Review
Author: John E. B. Myers
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc., 1997

Sage Publications, Inc.
2455 Teller Road
Thousand Oaks, CA 91320
(805) 499-0721
$52.50 (c); $24.50 (p)

Law professor John E. B. Myers aims at a real problem and sets out to fill a vitally important need. The problem is what can be known and what to do if a parent begins to suspect there is sexual abuse of a child. The need is to improve the accuracy of the decisions made by the justice system to give maximum protection to children when there is an allegation of abuse. This 246-page book is at least a partial response to both issues.

The book, however, begins with a highly inflammatory story claimed to be true, and to be the experience of many parents, primarily mothers, across the United States. But no documentation or support for the truth claim is supplied. A father is said to be sexually abusing his three young children for years. The mother tries to protect her children, but the father, a wealthy brain surgeon, hires a clever and unscrupulous defense attorney who viciously attacks the mother, claiming that she has coached the children to make up the stories about the father. After protracted litigation, the justice system gives custody to the father, dooming the children to a life of cruel and continuous sexual abuse. This is the mother's nightmare hence the title.

This account is what the justice system would most likely term highly prejudicial and inadmissible as evidence in an adjudication. It would be good to have at least some documentation of this tale, for it is so extreme that it approaches improbability. Myers gives no basis for his claim that this is a true account and is not an isolated incidence. He does not say what evidence, if any, he reviewed or knows about. Yet, he maintains that the judge, who heard all the evidence presented, was wrong and was duped by a clever lawyer and a skilled psychopath.

Apart from those women and a few men who have made highly questionable claims, kidnapped their children, and fled into the underground railroad, we have never heard of anything approaching this account in either the hundreds of cases we have reviewed or the extensive professional literature we have read. Placing this story right at the beginning of the book and asserting it is a true account may set the switches for at least some parents to distrust our courts, flee, commit violent acts, or despair of any rational way to respond to anxieties, suspicions, and concerns. The more sober and balanced views scattered throughout the remainder of the book may therefore be overlooked.

The next chapter defines sexual abuse of children. The definition given is, "any touching, anywhere on a child's body, is abusive when the adult's motive is sexual" (p. 14). This includes any touching through clothing. Making a criminal act dependent on the internal motivation of an individual opens the door to mischief and error. Up to this point it has been generally understood that the law deals with overt behavior, not with inferred internal psychological states. The problem is that motivation is a very ambiguous and slippery construct. It is an error to think that any human action is caused by a single, unidimensional motivation. All human behaviors are related to a number of possible motivational constructs. In the human mind everything is related to everything else. Everything correlates with everything else. This scientific fact is what Meehl calls the "crud factor" (Meehl, 1990).

Throughout the remainder of the book, there are many statements about psychological research findings and opinions of mental health professionals. However, the opinions and research cited tend to be from a rather narrow band of those who support the views and perceptions advanced by Myers. Many of the conclusions purported to be based on scientific research are questioned by contrary findings or disconfirming evidence. An example of this is the discussion of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as an effect of sexual abuse (p. 30-32). The statement is made that half of sexually abused children show PTSD. It is also claimed that no other symptom is seen in a majority of abused children. The empirical support for this claim is not cited.

Finkelhor, (1988, 1990; Boney-McCoy, & Finkelhor, 1995), one of the authorities cited by Myers, has three articles in which he questions the applicability of the PTSD diagnosis to sexually abused children. A number of articles and research studies raise doubt that half of the children sexually abused develop PTSD (Davidson & Foa, 1991; Hanson, 1990; Halleck, Hoge, Miller, Sadoff, & Halleck, 1992; Spaccarelli, 1994; Joseph, Williams, & Yule, 1995; Fisher & Whiting, 1996). An American Psychiatric Association Task Force concluded that in the absence of scientific evidence that a causal relationship exists, it is a misuse of psychitrric diagnosis, specifically PTSD, to claim the cause is known (Halleck, et. al. 1992).

A number of other assertions are made which are challenged or falsified by research not cited or discussed. Examples include the discussion of sexual behavior of nonabused children which does not reflect the broader band of research data that is available. The assertion that child molesters are normal and do not show any discernible pathology is questioned by fairly extensive research data (e.g., Kalichman, Shealy, & Craig, 1990; Levin, & Stava, 1987; Overholser, & Beck,1986; Taylor, et al., 1991; Weinrott & Saylor, 1991). For most of the claims made about what can be known, there are data that either should lead to some further qualifications or fuller disclosure of contrary indications.

Myers understands that there are false accusations and that great damage to children and families is done when a false allegation is made. He also understands that the manner of questioning children is a crucial and important factor that must be considered. He voices appropriate cautions about these two facts.

Nevertheless, while the book has some useful information about the legal system for those completely unacquainted with it and how it works, on balance the effect on parents who read the book is not likely to be as helpful as Myers intended. It generates a fear and distrust of the legal system and is more likely to increase the level of errors in parents concerned about or suspecting sexual abuse. It raises the probability level of low-frequency events and weakly related observations to a level where false positives, that is, thinking abuse is real when it is not, are more readily generated. I do not recommend it.

Reviewed by Ralph Underwager, Institute for Psychological Therapies.

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Boney-McCoy, & Finkelhor, D. (1995). Is youth victimization related to trauma symptoms and depression after controlling for prior symptoms and family relationships: A longitudinal, prospective study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64, 1406-1416.

Davidson, J. R. T., & Foa, E. B. (1991). Diagnostic issues in posttraumatic stress disorder: Considerations for the DSM-IV. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 100, 346-355.

Finkelhor, D. (1988). The trauma of child sexual abuse: Two models. In G. E. Wyatt & G. J. Powell (Eds.), Lasting Effects of Child Abuse (Out of Print)(Out of Print) (pp. 61-82). Newberry Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Finkelhor, D. (1990). Early and long-term effects of child sexual abuse: An update. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 21, 325-330.

Fisher, C. B., & Whiting, K. A. (1996). The [mis]use of posttraumatic stress disorder to validate child sexual abuse. Register Report, 22(1), 8-10.

Halleck, S. L., Hoge, S. K., Miller, R. D., Sadoff, R. L., & Halleck, N. H. (1992). The use of psychiatric diagnoses in the legal process: Task force report of the American Psychiatric Association. Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law, 20, 481-499.

Hanson, R. K. (1990). The psychological impact of sexual assault on women and children: A review. Annals of Sex Research, 3, 187-232.

Joseph, S., Williams, R., & Yule, W. (1995). Psychosocial perspectives on post-traumatic stress. Clinical Psychology Review, 15, 515-544.

Kalichman, S. C., Shealy, L., & Craig, M. E. (1990). The use of the MMPI in predicting treatment participation among incarcerated adult rapists. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 3(2), 105-119.

Levin, S. M., & Stava, L. (1987). Personality characteristics of sex offenders: A review. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 16, 57-79.

Meehl, P. E. (1990). Appraising and amending theories: The strategy of Lakatosian defense and two principles that warrant it. Psychological Inquiry, 1(2), 108-141.

Overholser, J. C., & Beck, S. (1986). Multimethod assessment of rapists, child molesters, and three control groups on behavioral and psychological measures. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 54, 682-687.

Spaccarelli, S. (1994). Stress, appraisal, and coping in child sexual abuse: A theoretical and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 340-362. Taylor, C. G., Norman, D. K., Murphy, J. M., Jellinek, M., Quinn, D., Poitrast, F. G., & Goshko, M. (1991). Diagnosed intellectual and emotional impairment among parents who seriously mistreat their children: Prevalence type, and outcome in a court sample. Child Abuse & Neglect, 15, 389-401.

Weinrott, M. R., & Saylor, M. (1991). Self-report of crimes committed by sex offenders. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 6, 286-300.

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