How Could This Happen?  Coping with A False Accusation of Incest and Rape

Jane Doe*

ABSTRACT: The following is an account of the effects of a false accusation of childhood sexual abuse and rape by a grown daughter against her father.  The accusations arose during the course of therapy in which the therapist elicited "repressed memories" of the abuse which was alleged to occur repeatedly throughout the daughter's childhood.  The therapy was based on the premise that half of the victims of childhood sexual abuse have no conscious memory of the abuse, and therefore the therapist must help the patient uncover these memories.  The parents were shocked and confused by the allegations, which they both completely deny, and they are struggling to understand the situation and find a way to resolve it without permanently destroying any future relationship with their daughter.

When she was 33, Susan had a revelation that she had been repeatedly sexually abused and raped for 13 years by her father.  I am Susan's mother, and I have been trying to cope with that revelation.(1)

We lied, our son-in-law Steve said.  We're not at the doctor's office.  We're at friends.  We want you to leave the house and fly home.  We've made reservations on the 3:30 airplane.  The taxi will arrive in an hour and a half.  Susan now remembers that she was seriously abused as a child by Alex.

Those were the words to Alex and me over the telephone at 9:30 in the morning on Friday, December 21, 1990.  We had arrived in Anycity on the previous afternoon after the six-hour flight from our home.  This was our seventh holiday visit to Susan and Steve's home, a pattern begun before they had their first child.  As in past years, the weeks before our flight had been bustling with happy conspiratorial coast-to-coast phone calls about secrets for presents and plans for our two grandsons.  We arrived without a clue as to what was about to happen.  An unusual winter storm had disrupted the ordinarily mild Anycity winter with bitter cold and dangerous icy roads, in retrospect a fitting backdrop for our own chilling experience.

It was wonderful to hug and kiss everyone.  Susan seemed thinner than when I had seen her in October and she seemed tense, but this was a very busy time for her.  Emotions run high in most families at holiday times.  I was soon alternating between the playroom where 5-year-old Bobby was watching Sesame Street and the living-room where I could be generally grandmother-foolish with 2-year-old Paul and at the same time try to converse a little with Susan as she cooked dinner.

Small things that might ordinarily be dismissed can become significant with the vision of hindsight a dinner a bit out of pattern.  Usually Susan planned favorites for our arrival, but this time the rice was cooked with liver (which I really should learn to like) and the chicken was served so that Alex did not get a breast.  Should we have been forewarned?  Dinner-talk seemed normal and brought us up-to-date with news and gossip not important enough for phone calls.

After dinner, Alex helped Bobby put together a potato clock that we had brought, and I pretended to be a dog, a cat, and a sheep until Paul turned red with laughter.  But Alex and I were tired and soon left to get ready for sleep.  As she usually did, our daughter had left presents for us from the boys on our bed, drawings that they had made.  Should we have been forewarned?  I would have said that we were a close family in many ways.

Still on our usual sleep hours, I awoke in time to see Susan stumbling out of the house carrying Paul.  He was sick in the night.  I'm taking him to the doctor, she lied.  The phone call from Steve came a few hours later.  He delivered the terrible message unemotionally no explanation, no justification, no details, no offer of joint counseling just our exit visas.

Neither our daughter nor Steve have looked at me nor spoken to me since those stinging words ordering us to leave their house and accusing Alex of serious abuse.  That has been as painful as the expulsion and accusation because Susan and I shared so much of our ordinary day-to-day lives.  We have continued to communicate using electronic mail (e-mail),(2) the communication mode of academics in the 90s, but our letters have all focused on abuse, her belief and my lack of belief in her revelation.  She has cut off any contact by me with Bobby and Paul.

Alex and I have only just begun to overcome the heartache, the anxiety, the shame and the confusion enough to be able to share our story with a few people.  "How do you cope?" we are inevitably asked.  Every day has been hard and nothing has been resolved.  Perhaps the most haunting question has been, "How could this have happened?"  I have read and reread my letters with Susan, trying to understand something, anything, about how this could have happened.(3)

What Were We Supposed to Have Done?

Nothing else in my life has ever had so many "worst parts."  So much that has happened seems so unnecessary.  I don't suppose there is really any nice way to accuse your father of incest, but the cruel dramatic gestapo-like techniques that included our trip across the continent, the surprise accusation, the ostracism, and the lack of details set in motion reactions that have made dealing with the revelation more difficult.  My therapist suggested that I ask you and dad not to come visit, our daughter wrote later, but I couldn't bring myself to do that.  What kind of professional advice had she been getting?  I thought that therapists were supposed to help patients work to determine their own minds, not put them in conflict by suggesting that they do something contrary.  Could a conflict between what she wanted and what her therapist expected have caused Susan to act in such an unnatural and cruel way?

Alex and I clung to each other to keep our hearts from breaking, too shocked to cry, and then we packed our bags and negotiated again the perils of the icy Anycity roads, of holiday crowds and airline overbooking, to get to the safety of our home.  Should we have left Anycity?  But who would want to stay where not wanted?  What should we do next?  After such humiliating treatment how could we ever speak to our daughter and Steve again?

Reason and love dictated that something was obviously deeply wrong with Susan and her husband.  We had had 33 years of love and affection from Susan, too much love to let pride shut us off after a single incident.  We had too much concern for her well-being at a time when a complete and sudden switch in her behavior seemed to reflect some kind of nervous breakdown, a fact recognized in a letter from Steve weeks later.  We didn't even know what we were supposed to have done.  Serious abuse must certainly mean sexual abuse.

Susan had been really stressed by the earthquake last year while living in San Francisco.  She was struggling between the pressures of career and motherhood, and I knew she had some fundamental problems in her marriage because she had confided in me a year earlier.  Steve was very unhappy in his job and resented Susan's impulsive decision to make the move to Anycity in order to get her early tenure.  Perhaps Steve was so quick to accept something as horrible as this because for him it could explain his dislocation from the job he loved and the town where he had family.  Surely this confusion would be corrected quickly.  I sent Susan an e-mail message and she responded.

December 22
Dear Susan,
I love you.  I hope that we can keep some communication going.

December 23
Dear Susan,
I'm glad that we can write.  I love you.  I cannot deal with your memories because I don't know what they are.  We have been accused of something, but I could hardly go to a therapist, as you ask, without knowing what the details are.  What is supposed to have happened?  You asked me to tell you about your teachers in elementary school. ...

December 24
Susan, you have made serious charges against us.  I don't have the slightest idea of what you are upset enough about to have initiated this crisis.  I don't know where to begin to do what you ask and see a therapist like yours who is a young clinical psychologist, a female and a specialist in sex abuse.  I don't know if your memories are from the time of nursery school or later.  You are going to have to tell us specifically what you remember.  We are devastated by the accusations and by being thrown out of your house.  You asked about our trip to India and the six months we spent living abroad when you were in ninth-grade. ...

We went through Christmas in a surreal holding pattern.  There seemed nowhere to turn.  The library was closed.  Doctors were away on vacation.  A wonderful friend came when we called and we survived.  We didn't even know what we were supposed to have done.  Could there be anything worse than having a child you have loved and cared for accuse you of abusing her?  Her death perhaps.  Her suicide certainly.  Our daughter wasn't dead.

There was hope.  I still felt in my heart that this had to be some kind of horrible mistake.  We made arrangements to change the locks on the doors of our house.

December 27
Dear Susan,
I do not doubt that you have painful memories, but I do not remember you ever being abused by Alex.  What do you remember?  I have no desire to deny any truth as you claim.  You asked me to write about my own childhood. ...

December 28
I thought that you should know that we finally have heard some specifics of the charges.  Your grandmother told me.  You think you were sexually abused by Alex.  Why could you tell her and not us?  Perhaps by analogy you can understand where I am.  It is as inconceivable to me that this could be true as it would be to you that Steve would do such a thing with Bobby and Paul.

We do love you deeply.  Please understand that.  We understand that you are hurting terribly.  The depth of your pain can be judged by the fact that you were willing to throw away our relationship on the basis of a vague memory that occurred after a suggestive probe by your therapist, rather than act in any way that left doors open.

Our hearts are heavy because we feel that there is nothing that we can do or say that is going to make any difference.  You asked about the summer in Detroit. ...

Doubt finds fertile soil in confusion and ignorance, and so doubts sprouted in my mind.  Maybe something did happen to Susan and she had transferred that memory to Alex.  Susan had done lots of experimenting with drugs when she was a teenager.  Could that have caused memory confusion?  Could Alex have a side to him that I didn't know about?  No that wasn't possible.  I've known him since he was nine years old.  But would anyone make up such a horrible accusation?  How could I have been unaware of sexual abuse?  What had really happened?  What was Alex supposed to have done?

December 29
Dear Susan,
We are struggling to understand.  As you asked us to do, we are reading Courage to Heal.(4)  We have been searching our souls and our pasts.  We have an appointment with a therapist next week.  But we don't know what we have done.

You may be right, perhaps my last message sounded as though I were closing doors.  I don't want to do that.  But I could not bear to see my grandchildren as I last saw them with their mother secreting them out so that there could be no goodbye.

You asked about what I remember of the years when you were in nursery school and we lived in New York. ...

December 30
Dear Susan,
All we have wanted to do is help.  We have felt so cut off and in the dark and hurt.  Alex said on the plane coming home, "If I take sodium pent will that get at the truth, will that help?"  We haven't had a clue of where to begin.  You have given us some information in your last letter.  Maybe something happened in our family that we have repressed.  I hope not but we will certainly try to find out.

I don't happen to agree with you that the past is an enormous tragedy.  I have found joy in most of my life and am proud of overcoming the problems.  I count myself unbelievably fortunate that I have had Alex and you to accept my love.  I count myself fortunate that you have been an intelligent, kind and beautiful person.  I hardly know anyone who has not been thrown some curve balls.

You don't have a history of inflicting pain.  You have been wonderfully supportive to us.  We love you.  That is why what has been happening has been such a confusing mystery to us.  From my perspective there are so many things that do not add up yet.  There are some things that seem so very inconsistent to me.  When you share with us what you know, perhaps we will be better able to help you.

Susan, you asked why Alex has not contacted you after you evicted him and accused him of abuse.  Why do you think that Alex should be the one to initiate contact with you?

! am working on fleshing out some of the details of the incidents about which you last wrote. ...

Susan did initiate contact with Alex and they wrote many letters to each other.  She reported that she felt confused by the contrast of her memories and her feelings of love for Alex.  She complained that she didn't think he was proud of her.  As she had for me, she delved into details of his childhood.  Why this fascination with our childhoods?  It was months before I understood that "the notion of an intergenerational transmission of violence has become the premier developmental hypothesis in the field of abuse and neglect," even though longitudinal research has shown that the vast majority of children who are abused do not go on to repeat the offenses (Widom, 1989, p. 160).(5)  Our daughter decided that Alex and I had been abused and that therefore her abuse must have happened.

New Year's Eve brought with it our thirty-third anniversary.  We kept our long planned dinner engagement.  We did not tell our young companions.  They would hate us, I thought.  We could not tell them.  Exercising the human spirit to endure, we put aside the madness and chatted about other things.  It was a joy to be distracted for a few hours.  Clearly, it was going to be important to maintain some part of life that didn't involve this insanity.

Who Would Believe Us?

The problem, of course, with accusations of sexual abuse is that the accused person is assumed to be guilty.  It's like the old "When did you stop beating your wife" problem.  How do you prove a negative?(6)  We live in a country in which people are supposed to be assumed innocent until proven guilty, but that is not the case with sex abuse.  Even the legal system has changed on this highly charged subject changed but at the same time neglecting to provide any mechanisms for the change.  Many people find these changes dangerous and alarming.  That's why groups like Victims of Child Abuse Laws (VOCAL) have formed.  I was lucky, I thought, that I had a previous relationship with a wise and respected psychiatrist who already knew much about me.  It wouldn't seem so shameful to talk to him.  I was lucky, I thought, that we had the financial and educational resources to find qualified support.

As I have since learned, however, revelations of sexual abuse made many years after the fact are considered by some sex abuse therapists to be found in just such successful families.  "He or she is likely to have pursued a higher education and to be successful in the professional or business world, often holding a very responsible job.  Frequently, the person will be married and have children who may also appear to be well adjusted and asymptomatic" (Sgroi, 1988, p. 151).(7)  Isn't there something inherently puzzling in this?  Doesn't sex abuse cut across class, economic and professional distinctions?  If abuse is more frequent in successful families, why do the data show increased abuse in times of economic downtrends?  Perhaps only people from successful families have "revelations."  Are revelations of past sexual abuse only for the privileged and the educated?  That seems hard to believe.

Alex and I had had our share of problems in the past.  Alex's drinking had increased over the years, but at my pressure, he stopped a decade ago.  That history didn't lessen the anxiety before we went to our early morning appointment.  We were well aware of the connections between alcoholism and abuse.  Will the therapist believe me? Alex asked.  When I met with him ten years ago, I assured him that there was no abuse of any kind, I replied.  But what did our story look like?  We couldn't give any details.  All we could say was that we had been expelled from Anycity and that Alex had been accused of some sort of sexual abuse but we didn't know what.  The fact that such an accusation was actually made, even if false, must be evidence of some terrible family trouble.

January 3
Dear Susan,
As a child you were one of the most adventurous and exploratory and energetic human beings I have ever met.  You were also one of the most trusting.  Our guiding philosophy, if you can call it that, was to try to provide environments in which those qualities could be nurtured, but environments in which you would be safe.  Raising a child who was a teenager in the culture of the 60s was not the easiest of tasks.  I worried more than you can ever understand and I had so many conflicts between my own conservative beliefs and the ambient culture or counter-culture pressures about what probably led to future happiness.  You know how I disapproved of your taking drugs and you told me how old fashioned I was when you embarked upon your sexual explorations with a variety of partners.  Yet, all in all, we felt we had an easier time than most of our peers.  Valedictorian of your class in addition to completing high school in three years your explorations seemed within the bounds of the time and did not seem to hurt you.

The therapist listened.  He probed.  He empathized.  He was obviously distressed by our situation.  He was supportive.  We should come back in a week.  He would do some checking and he encouraged us to continue writing to Susan.  He seemed surprised that we had not asked Susan to tell us who her therapist was since it was our understanding that the therapist had brought up the subject of incest, recommended that she read Courage to Heal, and was the one who had made the diagnosis.  We were still in emotional limbo as we received more painful details from Susan.

January 4
Dear Susan,
The letter that you wrote to Ralph when you were living with him as a freshman in college is terribly painful.  It is heart wrenching to feel the depths of your despair because of your hunger and extreme desire to be thin, your anorexia.  Is that the evidence of abuse?  You told me at the time that Ralph wanted you thin.  Why isn't your relation with him a partial explanation for your anorexia?  What about your headstrong decision to marry him when you were a senior only to get divorced nine months later?

You asked me to respond to a story that you wrote in the fifth grade.  Is this your evidence of sexual abuse?  I must ask, "What was the assignment?  What books you had been reading at the time?"  Your story does not seem unusual to me given the lifetime I have spent reading children's stories.

Is the evidence of sexual abuse you think I missed your anorexia in freshman year at college?  Your stories from fifth grade?  Your teenage journal entries?

January 6
Dear Susan,
Thank you for the information about calling a social service agency to find a therapist who is female, young, a clinical psychologist, and an expert with issues of sexual abuse a therapist like yours.  Thank you also for the reference in Courage to Heal about what the "mother" is supposed to do and feel.  I cannot lay all the blame on your father.  I cannot blame anyone but myself for failing to see your pain and for being unaware of the terrible circumstances, the hell, you must have been living through.  And the hell you are living through now.  I am so sorry.  I love you.

I have had the feeling that ever since this sad business began, my daughter has been trying to fit me into the paradigm of the wife of a child abuser and I have found it insulting.  Financial independence, academic and professional achievement, political activism are mine.  What does Susan really know about the challenges to achieving these for women who came of age during the 50s?  How much of the changed cultural expectations for women has she mapped on to me personally?  Has she mistaken the fact that I viewed my professional options less broadly that she did hers as evidence that I am subjugated?  So much does she try to put me in her image of the mother of an abused child that she even made the suggestion that I did not write my own letters.

The pain of her degradation of me has been profound.  The insults in her letters, the accusations of my incompetence not only as a mother but also as a woman have created wounds that will be difficult to heal.  But I have also understood that from her perspective it was necessary to dismiss me.  Then it would be just her word against Alex's word.  By thinking of Susan as temporarily deranged, I have been able to keep feelings of love alive, but I have not been able to find the same excuse for Steve.

On January 6, a full 17 days after our eviction, we finally received the letter containing Susan's alleged details of her abuse.  It was horrible.  I responded.

Dear Susan,
My poor dear Susan.  No one should have to have such secrets locked away.  How horrible.  My poor child.  You have memories of being abused starting at age 3, of being forced into sexual intercourse between ages 14 and 16, of being raped at age 16 a few days before you left for college.  I struggle for understanding.  My heart weeps for you.  I am so sorry for you.  Alex has no memories of all this.  I have no memories of all this.  In our small house, for so many years, how could all this have happened without my awareness?  Finally you have given us the details that you remember.

I write my own letters.  I'll tell you what I remember about our early years. ...

I love you.  I am struggling.

It was crazy.  None of this made any sense to me.  Where was I when all this was supposed to have taken place?  How could someone blot out 13 years of incest going on in a little house where every sound can be heard?  How could two people blot out the same 13 years?  No, this was bizarre.  This just didn't make any sense.

We had more to deal with at the next visit with our therapist.  We had the details of the accusation.  During this period our therapist had spoken to an expert on memory who felt that it was highly unlikely that a 16-year-old would repress memories such as Susan claimed.  The expert had said he had recently been getting many other such calls about accusations of sexual abuse from families with a child claiming repressed memories and dissociation.  There is some comfort in learning that you are not the only one to suffer the same situation, I guess.  It occurred to me that if this could happen to us, then our problem may represent just the tip of an iceberg.  How many people who are accused of sex abuse have either the resources or the resolve to get even as far as a therapist? I asked Alex.  The shame that comes with being accused of sexual abuse is so intense that every inclination is to keep quiet about it.  Even if you know that it didn't happen, the pain and the shame that your very own child is making such a claim is so great that most parents we have heard about in similar situations quickly disown and disinherit.  It becomes a way to survive.

At this point our therapist and the expert had no more than our word against Susan's word.  Would you be willing to lake a lie detector test? he asked.  The expert could arrange it.  Would Alex do it?  You bet.  Alex is a kind and a loving person.  Whatever his faults, lack of courage to face the truth was not one.  It was six very long weeks, however, until the test actually took place and his memories or lack of the critical memories were confirmed.  But what is the value of a lie detector test?  We were still discussing it months later because our daughter felt it was irrelevant.

June 20, 1991
Dear Susan,

I know that such tests are not admitted into court as evidence and that they can be unreliable.  I know that their reliability depends greatly on the administrator of the test and that they are more an art than a science.  That is why we went to the effort and expense of paying for someone to come from Washington to do the test.  The administrator has about as high a reputation for reliability in this field as anyone could have.  The results of his tests are taken seriously by people in the field and by psychiatrists and lawyers.

If you were to take a lie detector test on these issues, I would fully expect you to pass.  You believe what you say about abuse.  Whether accurate or delusions, you would pass a lie detector test.  A lie detector test for you would give us no information.  We agree that you believe what you say about your memories of abuse.  It is, however, effective to administer such a lie detector test to the father in these cases.  A lie detector test can give some determination as to what a person believes.  Alex was being tested against what he said he believed.  Alex said that he did not sexually abuse you.  The lie detector test showed that he believes what he said and is not lying.  Thus, for him to have abused you means that he would have had to repress all the memories.  He has no history of black outs, memory loss or physical aggression.

We are left then with the following: the situation that Alex is lying (less probable given the lie detector test) or that two people repressed exactly the same memories that extend over a period of 13 years.  What do you think is the probability that that has taken place memories that would have been highly charged for both.  What is that probability when coupled with the fact that no one else seems to have had a clue that all this was going on?

Until the lie detector test we remained in limbo.  We were relieved when Susan's 27-year-old sister, Sandra, whose bedroom had been next to Susan's, told us that she personally had no memories of Susan's sexual abuse.  She certainly had told none of her friends at the time.  But we were heartbroken to hear her say, In my experience, people don't make up stories like that.  Susan must be telling the truth.  Sandra's "experience" was from hearing the stories of other women in the 12-step self-help groups in which she participates and from reading Courage to Heal which someone in one of her groups had recommended to her.  Until the lie detector test, we had only our story, but our friends believed us.  Alex had a reputation for telling the truth.  In fact colleagues frequently complained that Alex told the truth even when others did not want to hear it.

Imagine, just a few months earlier, I would probably have assumed that if someone were accused of such a crime, he would in all likelihood be guilty.  We were not especially happy to learn that under the law of our state, Susan had two years in which she could bring legal charges after her mid-life revelation.  Legal charges!  Had Susan's therapist made a formal report of her diagnosis because of mandatory reporting laws on sexual abuse?  We still do not know the answer to that question.  Do we have any rights at all in all of this?

To the Library

I had a need to know more and I desperately wanted to keep contact with Susan.  I found security in the familiar stacks of the library.  Article by article, book by book, shelf by shelf I went trying to grasp some larger picture.

January 10
Dear Susan,
I am curious about your therapist for a number of reasons.  I love you and want you to have the very best care.  My concern was first raised by being informed that (a) the therapist had raised the subject of incest rather than taking it from you and (b) that you have been using hypnosis.  There is much debate about the reliability of memories recalled under those circumstances.  Also, I am aware that there is a Clinical Incest Group in Anycity whose members enter the therapeutic situation with the bias that 50% of their patients will not remember sexual abuse and incest and so the therapist has to draw it out.  This is outlined in a book by Maltz and Holman(8) who have many followers in Anycity.  Don't you think that there might be some dangers in such preconceived assumptions?

I am puzzled by your desire not to let us know who your therapist is.  What are you trying to hide?  I do hear you.  I love you.  I can feel your pain and hurt.

In the library I awakened to the social and political dangers of the current crusade to wipe out sexual abuse.  Belief that the "rightness" of one's cause justifies any means is an eternal danger.  It goes without saying that human beings should not abuse each other, sexually or any other way.  Zealots who lead crusades based on their belief of their own moral virtue and superiority have a history of bringing much repression to the world.

I found an overabundance of "slop," articles and books in which the authors lack respect for the bounds between therapy and politics and in which they pander to emotions.  Courage to Heal, which Susan referred to as a Bible, on page 22 tells the reader, "If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were."  This is a political statement, not a scientific one.  There does not exist empirical evidence to support such an assumption.  In fact, there is actually much dispute in the literature on just what signs actually are related to sexual abuse.  These signs were so broadly defined in most of the sex abuse articles, however, that some of them could certainly be found at various times in most people.

Due to memory loss, only about half of female incest survivors in your practice may be able to identify themselves as victims during your initial inquiry. ... If you suspect the possibility of childhood sexual abuse based on physical symptoms and other clues, even when the patient has no conscious memory of sexual violation, share this information with your patient. . . set the stage for hidden memories of incest to surface. ... (some of the signs)  Physical problems: chronic pelvic pain, spastic color, stomach pain, headache, dizziness, fainting, chronic gynecologic complaints, sleep disturbances, depression, asthma, heart palpitations (Maltz, 1990, p. 45).(9)

Belief in these signs of sexual abuse represents very muddled thinking on the part of therapists.  I learned that the signs referred to are based on symptoms described in "post-traumatic stress disorders" of people who have suffered known attacks or other disasters in life.  Writers like the authors of Courage to Heal have taken these signs and reinterpreted them to predict that sexual abuse had actually occurred if any of the signs are evident in a patient.  Just because known victims of sexual abuse may suffer from anorexia, obesity or sexual problems, it does not follow that having anorexia,(10) obesity or sexual problems implies that a person was sexually abused as they assume.  There are too many other circumstances in life in which people display these symptoms.


, I also found some literature that I could respect, literature that did not seem to pander and which attempted to document arguments and recommendations with research.  It was a great relief to find "Accusations of Child Sexual Abuse"(11) and "Witness for the Defense"(12) for example.  The problem, however, was that this body of work pertained only to accusations made by young children.  There was a void when it came to current research articles about women claiming to have had revelations of long past sexual abuse even though the manuals for treatment of this condition have proliferated.  Even so, if the evidence of recent research showed that adult eye-witness testimony is not always reliable and if the evidence of recent research showed that children's memories were not always reliable, how could therapists, trained and certified, be so sure that women who had gone for years without remembering could suddenly have memories that were always accurate?

Gaining some sense of perspective and security from the reading, Alex and I finally broke our silence and began to tell a few of our friends, our older friends.  One couple in particular provided the love and emotional support that we needed to keep up our fight to love our daughter and not take shelter by disowning or disinheriting her.  The wife, an outspoken feminist, was deeply concerned about the effects on the women's movement if many false accusations such as ours began to take place.  She gave me a recommendation of a young therapist, a social worker, who specialized in sexual abuse matters.  The social worker was described as a very fair person and sounded like the kind of person Susan had been asking me to see.  Perhaps if I spoke with this woman, Susan would know that I was trying to understand.

I was excited and hopeful on the drab February afternoon before the appointment.  I certainly did not expect this young therapist's absolute belief that Susan's story must be true.  Children don't lie about these things, she said.  But, Susan was not a child.  She was a 33-year-old woman entering mid-life.  Is a 33-year-old woman incapable of delusions?  It is so painful for a person to remember these things that she would never invent them.  It is just too painful.  I asked, What is the research evidence for all this?  She replied, It's all so new.  We're just getting to the point where women are not afraid to talk about these secrets.  She was anti-Freud but seemed not to know Freud's work, and she gave me a publication from Women Organized Against Rape from 1980 that stated the feminist position that family oriented therapy in incest put the responsibility on a faulty family rather than on the offender.(13)  The feminist position is that only the adult male offender is at fault. Then I began to wonder if one side effect of Masson's critique of Freud (1984)(14) was to give feminists the additional idea that anyone making a claim of long repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse is to be believed?  Hey!  I'm against rape and incest too, I screamed silently.  Didn't she see the irony in her argument that if some memories are too painful for people to invent and thus must be true, then it had to follow that these very same actions would surely be too horrible for someone to actually do and thus are to be disbelieved.  Unless, that is, she actually believed that men were capable of thinking and doing these things but that women were not.  Both points are unsupportable.

I was crushed.  It was hard to get out of the office fast enough to get away from this woman whose melodious voice was overflowing with patronizing sympathy for my plight.  She was pitying me because I was a victim!  I was so crushed at this woman's total disbelief in my own recollections that for the first time I thought that life was not going to be worth living if this was the kind of reaction I was going to get.  I lost all hope.  I cried.  I thought of suicide.  I felt profoundly insulted.  I can deal with rape or incest, I thought, but I cannot deal with being a non-person.  Neither my daughter nor this therapist seemed to feel that I was a conscious conspirator in all that was supposed to have happened.  Instead there was the assumption that I was "out of it," was somehow absent as a sentient human being and was pitiful and of no account.  Young women seeking therapy claiming after explicit probing and perhaps even hypnosis to have long repressed memories of sex abuse were to be believed, while older women whose lives have attained some balance and a semblance of order were not to be trusted to have reliable memories or judgment.  Is this what the feminist movement had come to?

My despair turned to anger and the anger to action.  I set as a goal to change this one young woman's view of the situation.  I returned after the lie detector test.  She spent a long time reading every word of the copy that I brought with me.  Like me, she had never seen the results of a lie detector test before.  She admitted doubt.  Surely, now our daughter and her husband would come to their senses too.  But that was not to be.

April 12
Dear Steve,
You feel that the e-mail interaction is driving Susan and me apart.  I would support alternative interaction that would help to resolve this.  I would have stayed and had joint counseling at Christmas.  I would talk on the phone.  Once Susan, as she herself wrote, finally got "bored" with keeping the name of her therapist from us, we tried to get her therapist to talk to ours.  You and Susan have set the limits on the conditions of communication, not me.

I certainly never said anything about a "conspiracy."  I know of no conspiracy.  Maltz in her book thanks and lists the members of the group who have been working with "adult survivors."  I have tried to make the point that the general climate around the issue of sexual abuse is highly charged and political.  For a number of years, for example, therapists have insisted that children don't lie about these things.  Yet there have been many false accusations of sexual abuse.  In fact, in the March 4 issue of TIME on page 76 there is a short rehash of the subject with the information that the "controversy is sure to escalate this spring, when the American Psychological Association publishes a book called The Suggestibility of Children's Recollections."  There is even more controversy about the validity of repressed memories and dissociation.

Steve, it seems that there is nothing that we can do.  You are convinced by the "gestalt of symptoms."  I just am not impressed by your list of symptoms:

Anorexia: That could have many different underlying causes.

Susan uses a fan at night to sleep: Some people take sleeping pills.

She has difficulty dealing with your family:  Until this, she got along just fine with us.  I can't follow your logic here.

Childhood stories: These were reinterpreted by people looking for evidence, not given blind evaluation.

Susan chose to leave your former town when she was not given tenure: That is the usual response to not getting tenure.  Frankly, I think you are having difficulty accepting the fact that she chose her career over your stated preferences.

Are We the Only Ones?

As I have asked and asked myself how this could have happened to us, a family that was loving for so many years, a family that shared so much of life even after the children had grown and the responsibilities to shift, I have made lots of lists of possible reasons.  Of course the truth will be somewhere in the shuffle of a whole context of interacting factors.  Nevertheless, my explanations seem to fall into four general categories: our faults as parents, some physical problem, stresses my daughter and her husband have been under, cultural context.

Have Alex and I have failed as a parents?  I can't help but ask this question.  I can think of a million things that I would do better a second time round if life let me sign on again.  But in spite of this terrible mess, I really don't think that Alex or I did fail.  We can all only do our best as we muddle through life.  We did our best with what we knew at the time, and until the "revelation" that was better than OK.  Agonizing over whether I should have interfered more or interfered less or done this or done that is not going to get anywhere now.  We simply don't know what the result of other decisions might have been.  Agonizing after the fact in a situation not to be replayed is a waste of effort.  Who could it help?

We have learned a tremendous amount in recent decades about the biological bases of many behaviors.  The chemistry of a host of behaviors such as depression is beginning to be laid bare.  Our culture approaches so many problems from this perspective "Take a pill.  Feel better."  I can't assume that Susan's problem is chemical any more than I can assume it is emotional.  I would feel better, though, if I knew that she had had a complete physical examination.

I know that Susan has been under tremendous stress on many fronts.  She has cried out in her letters her feelings of having been violated and her feelings of inadequacy.  She begged for our belief and approval.  She accused me or not hearing.  But I have heard and as her mother been privy to so many shared confidences, I happen to see other more immediate reasons for her stress.  Some of the thoughts that have gone through my head:

About her feelings of inadequacy:

We did have very high standards and expectations about her achievement, but our love and respect did not depend on grades or honors.  Intellectual families tend to be achievement oriented.  We have been tremendously proud of her achievements, but our pride is greater because we have seen Susan make the world a little bit better than she has found it.  But, yes, I think that some of her stress was because she wanted us to be proud of her work.

Academics are expected to publish.  When one college did not give her tenure, lack of major publications was cited.  Susan had a grant last year to write but no major work appeared.  Could she feel inadequate because of that?

Steve wrote to us this spring that he had "begged Susan not to bully me into moving to Anycity" when she had an offer of tenure there.  How much of the stress that she was under was because she felt responsible for the move and responsible for the fact that Steve was so very unhappy in his job.  Steve always seems so dependent on Susan for everything.

Could Susan be feeling inadequate because Steve's unhappiness had translated into lack of sexual interest?

When Paul was a year and a half, Susan confided to me that she didn't know how to stop nursing.  There was the move and all ... A year later she was still nursing Paul.  Could this be related to the issue of incest?  Could the nursing be a substitute for something missing with Steve?

Could Susan be exhausted and frustrated from the problems of trying to find adequate day care for the past seven years?  I know, because she told me, that she sometimes wished that she could just stay home and be with her children.  Could she be under stress because she felt torn between her work and her children?

Four women my age have independently suggested to me that perhaps Susan felt extra stress and inadequacy because I had recently had tremendous professional success.  They suggested that she had an image of me that did not include serious, visible success and that this might have been a trigger for the timing of her revelation.  No man has suggested this.  No younger woman has suggested this.  I don't know.

About her feelings of having been violated:

The earthquake severely damaged the house in which Susan was living last year.  One whole section had to be blocked off.  The traumatic effects of the earthquake were obvious to many people who were with Susan.  Even before her revelation, I felt that she was especially upset because the bed in which I had been sleeping while visiting her, less than 24 hours before the quake, was virtually destroyed by the hundreds of hooks and four huge bookcases that had fallen on it.  Earthquake violate.

Susan told me that in October a student who was supposed to have completed work for a joint conference presentation had not done so.  Would she feel betrayed by this person?  Is there a connection in this to the fact that the student's excuse was that she had been sexually abused by a professor?

Susan came to visit me for three days with the children in October on her way to a wedding.  It was during the week.  I had thought that I would have more time to be with her than it turned out that I had.  The obligations that came with the recent changes in my work had surprised and overwhelmed me.  Susan told me that she was hurt because I didn't have more time for her.

Is "violation" a feeling that comes when tenure doesn't?  But she got tenure at a better place.  Yet, it is well known that issues involving tenure are exacerbated for women.

However we may have initially shaped it, Susan has ultimately created her own adult life and she is responsible for it.  I can understand latching onto an explanation that gets both Susan and Steve "off the hook" as it were.  One person even suggested to me that Susan felt so close and secure in her relationship to Alex and me that she knew at some level that even with the horrid accusation we would still be there.  It is a thought that had occurred to me but seemed too self-serving to maintain.  I would feel so much better if I knew that Susan had had a second consultation with a politically neutral older therapist of either gender.  For any other serious medical problem, a second opinion is recommended.  Why not for therapy if the diagnosis is as serious and devastating to all involved as incest?

I suspect that the contemporary cultural and social climate has set the scene for what has happened to us.  Susan went to a therapist when she was vulnerable.  Could she have been especially susceptible to suggestion in those circumstances?  Research is full of examples of how people are influenced by the expectations of the people they are with and by the way that questions are posed.  To be against child sexual abuse is a "politically correct" position, especially for activist women.  To be a "victim" of something is almost a social necessity on college campuses.  So much support and so much zeal abound for such accusations that more and more unjust ones, such as in our case, are being made.(15)  The current climate surrounding child sexual abuse is so politically charged that it has even been referred to as a "witch hunt."(16)  I have come to believe that our very sad situation happened because my daughter's mental stress happened at this particular time and place in history.

June 29
Dear Susan,
We really do seem to have reached a stalemate of your memory vs Alex's and my memory.  I am sure that is why you have to keep trying to put me in the position of being a "dodo," a non-sentient pathetic being, who was unaware of all that was happening to you and thus did not save you.  If I won't support your belief that you were abused, and if you dismiss me, it is just your word against Alex's and the climate is such that most people will probably believe you at least for a while.

But think of what you know about memory.  Memory is reconstruction.  Memories can be altered.  Memories recalled in a time of present personal depression are known to be reinterpreted in a highly negative fashion.  Memories recalled in a time of happiness are likewise positively interpreted.  This is the way human memories work.  Memories are reconstructed in terms of the facts and they are reinterpreted in terms of their emotional impact.

I love you Susan.

Getting on with life

How have I coped?  In November, Susan lovingly sent us boxes of pears from the tree in her yard so we could share.  In December, Alex spent days turning the pears into candy for Susan.  A few weeks later, a phone call from her husband, Steve, took all the sweetness from our lives.  I really don't know how I have coped, but somehow I have, better than I would have predicted.  Certainly the love and respect that Alex and I share for each other is the foundation.  I have gained a new understanding of the depth of our relationship.  My sense of humor affords perspective and most of the time a positive view of life.  Our friends, therapists, and the caring people I have met both in person and through the literature in my quest for understanding have made living through the past six months possible.

Turning my anger to action has surely helped.  That has translated into writing this article.  I don't really want the world to know what a rotten mess has taken place in my life, but perhaps by sharing my story, others will become alerted to the fact that false accusations of sexual abuse are being made and that the results of such accusations result in major tragedies for all the people involved but especially for the person making the charge.  I write this because I am disturbed at the lack of critical thinking that seems to abound in the area of sexual abuse in people who are otherwise very rational.  I write this because I am concerned about how ready the population is to accuse people of sexual abuse.  The media has whipped people into a frenzy on the subject.  I write this anonymously only because with all my heart I hope that we will be reunited with Susan and I don't want to embarrass her.

I don't feel angry at Susan, although sometimes I just want to shake her to get some sense in her head.  I am, however, very angry with her young therapist whom I know only through the few defensive comments that Susan has shared.  I suppose it is to be expected that I would want to blame the therapist instead of my daughter.  Susan may have been vulnerable when she went to this person, but she deliberately chose a therapist who represented a strong feminist political perspective rather than a therapist who was family oriented on issues of sexual abuse.  I feel that something is terribly amiss, even so.  From my perspective the therapist seems to lack wisdom, compassion, understanding, and basic scientific knowledge of memory and mind that should be a prerequisite for a license to practice psychology.  Probably, in fact, she is just young (32), inexperienced and full of righteous anger at all the sexual abuse of women in the world.

To me it seems immoral, even so, that this woman has been willing to label Alex as a criminal, but unwilling to make a phone call to talk to us.  Is that how it is supposed to be in therapy?  I have noticed in the magazine and newspaper accounts that many revelations involve accusations of abuse by fathers who are dead.  Is that why the therapist and Susan will not talk to us?  Is cowardice in a new wrapper?  Do young therapists not have the courage to face the people they so hastily accuse and whose lives they are so ready to destroy?

To me, it seems cruel that the therapist advised Susan to tell our grandsons that Alex had done terrible things to her and that Alex and I had been keeping terrible secrets about it for many years.  Can it possibly be good for a 2-or 5-year-old to be told that a grandparent that he has loved is really a monster?  How can a young child digest information like that?  Wouldn't it have been better to tell the children that we were dead?  We live six hours away by plane and saw the children at most three times a year in their parents' home.  Where is the rational thinking in believing there was danger to warrant giving such information to children even believing in the alleged events of 30 years past?  What was the reason for such advice?  It seems so unnecessarily cruel to my grandsons.

To me, it seems slanderous that the therapist advised Susan to tell the children's teachers that we had been abusers.  Never even a phone call to us?  Never a check about a distraught young woman's dramatic revelations?  Such arrogance in her own diagnostic ability!

To me, it seems irresponsible to have made such a serious diagnosis on the limited information that was available.

To me it seems unethical to give a patient a book as suggestive as Courage to Heal before a client has had a clear revelation of her own abuse.

To me it seems incompetent to have made such a diagnosis given what is known about the vagaries of human memory.  It seems incompetent that a psychologist whose training is supposed to be "scientific" would recommend a book to clients whose premise is without empirical foundation: "If you think you were abused then you were."

To me this whole episode seems cruel and unnatural and unnecessary.  For the last four months material to be used in filing complaints against this therapist has taken space on the right hand corner of my desk.  My inaction is only because people I respect warned that it might jeopardize an eventual reconciliation with Susan.

I am very angry with Steve although Alex says, Don't be.  He can't help it.  I am angry that Steve did not provide the kind of buffer that I think Susan needed.  I am angry that the best reasons he can come up with for believing the memories are: (1) because of circumstantial evidence and parsimony, (2) all of a sudden I had a single explanation that neatly predicted most of the neuroses, and (3) I have been unable to come up with any alternative explanation for the memories she reports.  It's hard to argue with reasons like that.  The fact that Susan's "explicit" memories are full of contradictions, that the timing of the alleged rape makes it impossible to have happened, for example, mean nothing to Steve.  He believes.

I am angry with the establishment that has been responsible for the training and certification of my daughter's therapist training that has resulted in Susan being in the terrible position that she is now, rather than having been guided in a more gentle way through her disturbance.  It seems wrong to me that clinical training programs and certifications boards license therapists to deal with issues of the human mind without assuring that they have an understanding of the reasonable limits of what they might legitimately know.  That is giving license to incompetence.  It seems wrong to me that programs do not ensure that therapists grasp the ethics involved in imposing their opinions on patients.  That is giving license to unethical behavior.  I am going to work to change that.

I am going to get on with my life because I think that will be the best for my daughter.  I will wait for her.  I cannot change what has happened and I am not going to let it destroy the other good things in my life.  If Susan makes a sincere opening, I will accept it.  A few weeks ago she asked if I would go to Anycity for possible joint therapy.  She gave me a list of conditions for this "test" visit: I was to come alone and stay in a hotel, I could not go to her house, I could not be alone with my grandsons, I would meet her with her therapist, I would be free to leave if I wished, I might not see her again after one session.  I offered to meet her in some neutral place of her choice with no conditions.  She could not accept that.  I offered to come and stay with other friends of ours in Anycity, but Susan then said that she did not think that the time was yet right for me to come.

I am about to put this story in the mail.  In the same mail I will post a letter to Susan's therapist inviting her to talk to us and offering to pay for her air fare and time to come to our city under any conditions with which she feels comfortable to see for herself the little house in which the alleged abuse was supposed to have taken place, to meet the people who knew Susan as she was growing up, to see three hours of tapes from the lie detector test.  Wouldn't Susan be the beneficiary from the insights we might gain from each other?  Isn't it appropriate that we speak inasmuch as the diagnosis of incest has so totally devastated our lives?

July 12
Dear Susan,

I will come when you want me to.

I have such deep sadness for the lovely, kind, brilliant 33-year-old woman who now has such terrible memories and who sees her parents as people to fear.




(1) Names have been changed.  [Back]
(2) Electronic mail works like a fax machine.  [Back]
(3) During the past six months I have accumulated several hundred pages of family communications.  Since this is my story, the excerpts of letters that appear in this paper are mine.  I have edited only as seemed necessary for clarity.  [Back]

Bass, E., & Davis, L. (1988). The Courage to Heal (Paperback)(Audio Cassette). NY: Harper.  This book is a guide and manual for incest and sex abuse survivors and their families.  It is our understanding that the therapist gave our daughter this book before Susan had her own revelation of sexual abuse.  Could it have influenced her memories?  [Back]

(5) Widom, C. S. (1989). The cycle of violence. Science, 244, 160-166.  [Back]
(6) I have been told by two therapists who have experience with these sorts of issues that it is sometimes possible to show that events could not have taken place as remembered by the victim.  It seems that there are few of these cases that make it through the legal system, however, because insurance companies almost always settle out of court.  [Back]

Sgroi, S. (1988). Vulnerable Populations, Vol. 1 (Hardcover)(Paperback). Lexington, MA: Heath.  Sgroi does not mention why "late presenters" as she refers to them should be primarily from successful families.  The book is poorly documented.  [Back]

(8) Maltz, W., & Holman, B. U987). Incest and Sexuality: A Guide to Understanding and Healing (Hardcover). Lexington, MA: Lexington Books[Back]
(9) Maltz, W. (1990, December). Adult survivors of incest: How to help them overcome the trauma. Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality, 42-47.  [Back]
(10) See Yates, A. (1989). Current perspectives on the eating disorders: I. History, psychological and biological aspects. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 28(6), 813-828.  [Back]
(11) Wakefield, H., & Underwager, R. (1988). Accusations of Child Sexual Abuse (Hardcover)(Paperback). Springfield, IL: Charles Thomas[Back]
(12) Loftus, E., & Ketcham, K. (1991). Witness for the Defense (Hardcover)(Paperback). NY: St. Martin's Press[Back]
(13) Zehner, M. (1980, April). Treatment issues for incest victims. WOARPATH, pp. 2,6.  [Back]
(14) Masson, M. (1984). The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory (Paperback). NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.  [Back]
(15) e.g., Woodall, M. (1991, March 26). Human services sued by couple over child-abuse case later dropped. Philadelphia Inquirer, pp. 3B.  [Back]
(16) Gardner, R. (1991). Sex Abuse Hysteria: Salem Witch Trials Revisited (Hardcover). Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics[Back]
* Jane Doe is an educator and can be contacted through Issues in Child Abuse Accusations[Back]


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