IPT Book Reviews

Title: The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse  Negative Review Negative Review
Authors: Ellen Bass & Laura Davis
Publisher: Harper & Row, Inc. 1988

Harper & Row, Inc.
10 B. 53rd. Street
New York, NY 10022


According to the author, Laura Davis, as of July, 1992, over 750,000 copies of this book have been sold (Update, 1992).  There is also an accompanying workbook and, more recently, audiotapes presenting the message of the book are also available.  The authors also give training seminars and what are billed as educational programs around the country.  The book is part of a package and should be understood to reflect a considerable enterprise which is having a significant impact on the society.

There are 495 pages to the book.  It includes five parts: 1) Taking Stock, 2) The Healing Process, 3) Changing Patterns, 4) For Supporters of Survivors, and 5) Courageous Women.  Each part is broken into smaller sections with a variety of anecdotes, personal testimonies, individual accounts, poems, letters, and then purported lists of symptoms/guidelines/suggestions for specific behaviors.  Each section is short, often compelling in intensity of emotion, with most statements presented as absolutes.  There is a list of healing resources, a bibliography, and an index.

The premise of the book is that up to one-third to all women have been sexually abused but many of them cannot remember it.  The book, along with the workbook, is intended as an aid to retrieving these memories and thus healing.  Bass and Davis make statements such as: "If you are unable to remember any specific instances ... but still have a feeling that something abusive happened to you, it probably did" (p.21); "If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were" (p.22); "There are many women who show signs of having been abused without having any memories" (p.71), and "Yet even if your memories are incomplete, even if your family insists nothing ever happened, you must believe yourself" (p. 87).

Demands for details or corroboration are seen as unreasonable: "You are not responsible for proving that you were abused" (p. 137).  The book encourages retribution and rage and even deathbed confrontations: "If you're willing to get angry and the anger just doesn't seem to come, there are many ways to get in touch with it" (p.124); "Another woman, abused by her grandfather, went to his deathbed and, in front of all the other relatives, angrily confronted him right there in the hospital (pp. 128-129).

The veracity of the recovered memories is never questioned one section uncritically presents an account of bizarre and violent ritual abuse and murder by a satanic cult of town leaders and church officials.  If the family does not accept the allegations, the authors encourage the person to terminate all contact.  Nowhere does the book acknowledge the probable consequences if a mistake is made and the "memories" are wrong.


The authors say this book is based on the "premise that everyone wants to become whole, to fulfill their potential.  That we all, like seedlings or tadpoles, intend to become our full selves and will do so if we are not thwarted" (p. 14).  This assumption is the Rogerian perfectionist concept that we all have a genetic blueprint which we will follow to self-realization.  However, to do so we need the cooperation of others to provide unconditional positive regard.  Bass & Davis put it this way. "People don't need to be forced to grow.  All we need is favorable circumstances: respect, love, honesty, and the space to explore" (p.14).  The difficulty is that anybody who gets in the way, who thwarts the natural growth to perfection, is by definition an obstacle, a block, and can be removed by any means, fair or foul.  That is what this book is about.  Healing is getting rid of those persons who thwart your growth to perfection.  That is what takes the courage.

This is where the most telling criticism of Roger's personality theory has focused.  Is it, in fact, the case that all of us are capable of constructive self-direction and that all aspects of our being are capable of full awareness?  Are schizophrenics really capable of self-direction?  Remember, schizophrenia has a large genetic component.  Are persons with an IQ under 50 capable of self-actualization?  Is the stainless steel psychopath, also largely a genetic condition, capable of being trusted for self-actualization?  What determines whether the rapist, serial murderer, drug addict, or incest perpetrator is engaging in self-actualizing behavior and is simply growing into his or her full potential?  The normative question cannot be evaded.

Bass and Davis answer with a claim that sets the entire basis for western civilization on its ear.  Their answer is simple feelings.  They repeatedly offer only subjective, personal feelings as the basis for knowing what we know.  This epistemological assumption destroys the possibility of any cooperative development of civilization.  If followed, the outcome of knowledge determined by feelings is that we live in caves with assault rifles at every opening.

This is clear also in the positive value Bass and Davis place on rage and anger.  Healing is said to occur through rage.  The history of humankind is the history of painful, slow, often fruitless efforts to control and reduce human rage and anger so that we can live together with at least some semblance of peace and harmony.  If Bass and Davis's prescription for growth to fulfill potential is followed, the world would once again fit the description of Cyprian in the third century.  "The whole world is wet with mutual blood; and murder, which in the case of an individual is admitted to be a crime, is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale.  Immunity is claimed for the wicked deeds, not on the the plea that they are guiltless, but because the cruelty is perpetrated on a grand scale" (Coxe, 1957, p. 277).

This book is an exercise in irrationality.  The authors carefully state they are not academically trained.  They are honest in saying that everything in the book comes "from the experiences of survivors" (p.14).  Experience is not a trustworthy guide to anything (Dawes, 1989).  The entire field of decision theory research shows conclusively that the human mind is not a good instrument for handling data.  There are so many ways in which subjective bias distorts and twists information.  Because decisions are flawed and basically irrational it is only through the assiduous exercise of human reason that positive outcomes can be produced.

The bibliography of the book has 180 references.  Only two of them are anywhere near what could be termed reasoned or quantified approaches.  They are Finkelhor's 1979 book and Russell's 1986 book.  The other references appear to be anecdotal, personal experience, and subjective opinion.  Often a reference is described as "feminist."  Even if this book is not a radical, lesbian feminist tract, it is a caricature of what has frequently been described as a feminine characteristic reliance upon emotion and a limited concern with reason.

This book is dangerous.  It has a surface appeal and uses terms and language that are familiar to many because of the pop psych jargon that has spread throughout the culture.  This increases the likelihood that it may be read with some credulity and given a status it does not deserve.  Like Hitler's Mein Kampf it may have a large impact on the society and the world, but the nature of the impact may contribute to a large, unanticipated disaster.

If read, it must be read with a full component of critical, rational thought.  If read in this fashion, then the book must be subjected to every reasonable criticism that can be made.  The primary value in reading the book will be in developing an understanding of the spreading phenomenon of recovered memories of alleged childhood sexual abuse.

Reviewed by Ralph Underwager, Institute for Psychological Therapies, Northfield, Minnesota.


Coxe, A. C. (1957). The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. V. Grand Rapids, MI. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Dawes, R. M. (1989). Experience and validity of Clinical judgment: The illusory correlation. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 7(4), 457-467.

Update (1992). Vol. 5, #7. July 1992.

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