||The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of
Child Sexual Abuse
|| Ellen Bass & Laura Davis
|| 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
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 —
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
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).
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
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,
Update (1992). Vol. 5, #7. July 1992.