Recovered Memories Of Childhood Abuse: Healing The Victim, Healing The CultureS

In a debate reminiscent of the one over false rape claims, sociologist Jo Woodiwiss has taken aim at women's false memories of childhood sexual abuse. But are women or their recollections really the problem?

Specifically, Woodiwiss and psychologist Chris French take issue with the Church of England's support of The Courage to Heal, a self-help book for abuse survivors. Authors Ellen Bass and Laura Davis write that, "Children often cope with abuse by forgetting it ever happened." They add,

You may think you don't have memories, but often as you begin to talk about what you do remember, there emerges a constellation of feelings, reactions, and recollections that add up to substantial information. To say "I was abused," you don't need the kind of proof that would stand up in a court of law.

The book was recommended by the Church's child protection policy, but critics like French say the idea that repressed memories of childhood abuse can be reliably "recovered" in therapy isn't supported by science, and that such therapy can even harm patients. The debate over recovered memory began back in the early nineties, but Woodiwiss gives it a new twist by asking why a book like The Courage to Heal might appeal to struggling women.

Woodiwiss says the book identifies a number of common-sounding problems — such as perfectionism, relationship dissatisfaction, and lack of motivation — as symptoms of sexual abuse. She writes that instead of identifying "the social, economic and material conditions that impinge on women's lives and restrict their opportunities," Bass and Davis encourage women to see themselves as "damaged" by abuse. She continues,

These victim identities are formed in the context of a pervasive therapeutic/self-help culture that places greater and greater emphasis on looking inward (and increasingly to the past) for the possible cause, and solution, for any troubles.

The implication is that those who are unhappy or dissatisfied with at least some aspect of their lives can find solace and the promise of a better, brighter future, if only they can be cured of the effects of their unremembered abuse.

Certainly a number of systemic factors contribute to women's unhappiness, and a culture of self-help that encourages them to "look inward" may allow those factors to persist. But in linking The Courage to Heal and recovered memory therapy with a larger self-help movement, Woodiwiss misses some of the unique and troubling aspects of abuse. Though some allegations of childhood sexual abuse have been called into question, it's also true that some abuse victims suffer doubly when they try to report their abuse, by being dismissed, silenced, or disbelieved. The Church of England itself was recently accused of ignoring or even actively hiding sexual abuse claims. It's perhaps no wonder that people believe children repress their memories of abusive experiences, since those in a position to help children deal with those experiences sometimes fail to do so.

Of course, the solution isn't to create false memories — and French argues convincingly that recovered memories are fallible. But just as rape and false rape claims stem from some of the same damaging social expectations and gender roles, perhaps the solution to repressed memories of childhood abuse, real or not, is to better prevent such abuse and prosecute it when it occurs. Rather than asking why women turn to memories of abuse as explanations for their unhappiness, we should be asking why the Church of England failed to remove a vicar who molested children for 30 years, even though he was the subject of multiple complaints. We should be asking why a change of address is enough for an abuser to evade punishment, and why family members sometimes protect even the most heinous criminals. If we can address these very real problems, then fewer children will grow up with abuse as a festering secret memory, and fewer adults will be forced to consider the possibility that they were once abused, and that no one stood up to protect them.

Why Do Women Identify Themselves As Victims Of Childhood Sexual Abuse? [Guardian]
Church Must Accept Reality Of False Memories Of Childhood Sexual Abuse [Guardian]
Call For Church To Renounce Book Aimed At Victims Of Child Sexual Abuse [Guardian]

Related: Child Sex Abuse Allegations Uncovered In Church Of England Files [Telegraph]

Earlier: Lessons From Hofstra: Why Rape And False Accusations Are Part Of The Same Problem