Dear Dr. Yapko:
Once the accusation of sexual abuse on the basis of repressed memories is leveled against someone, there is a chain reaction that is as inevitable and as lethal to the entire family as that of a nuclear explosion. If you have been accused, or you are coming to believe that you are an abuse survivor and are preparing to confront the offender, or you are a family member who is being drawn into the turbulence--or you are involved with the issue of abuse professionally in some way (perhaps as a therapist or an attorney)--there are many deep and sensitive issues for you to consider in managing your dealings with all those who are (or will be) affected.
There are few things more intensely painful and damaging to the emotional well-being of a person than the experience of being sexually abused, particularly by someone who is trusted. The majority of those who have suffered a history of sexual abuse will spend at least some of their lives working painfully hard to rebuild themselves on many levels. As a psychologist who works with such people, I can tell you it is a privilege to be a part of the reconstruction process. But for the reasons we have discussed, a (probably) small percentage of accusations are made against innocent people in response to undue influences. Unfortunately, even a "small percentage" translates into tens of thousands of innocent people being accused of one of the most despicable of all crimes. And these innocent people are part of families, inevitably linked to many others who are immediately and powerfully affected by the accusation as well. Beyond their families, these individuals are connected to friends and colleagues in an ever-larger network of people who eventually come to hear of the allegations of abuse. They may jump to the same damning conclusion that so many people do: that mere accusation is sufficient evidence of guilt.
If you are a survivor of sexual abuse, you must not think even for a moment that I am lacking empathy for you or that I am not offering my support to your difficult life struggle. I am deeply involved in helping men and women deal with the aftermath of abuse, and I am very aware of and responsive to their pain. In that respect, I encourage getting support from others, reading reasonable self-help books, and being in therapy with a qualified and aware professional. However, what I am addressing in this book in general, and in this chapter in particular, is what happens when an individual comes to believe abuse occurred when it never actually did. In this chapter, I will consider the aftermath of false allegations of abuse. I will discuss the allegations' effects on those who are most affected--husbands, wives, brothers, and sisters. In each instance, I will attempt to provide some insight about relevant issues and some practical assistance.
Before you accuse someone publicly or confront an individual privately and set into motion a complex and devastating process, it is very important that you have a well-considered plan. How will you confront and when? Publicly or privately? Who else do you want there and why? Perhaps most important--what do you want? To "dump" and run? An admission of guilt? Do you want simple acknowledgment of what really happened? Do you want an apology? How will you feel and how will you respond if and when you don't get one, since it is so unlikely? How will you respond if you get an admission of guilt but it is followed by some stupid excuse? How will you respond to others' reactions, particularly if they are skeptical or even flatly disbelieving? Can the relationships continue, or will they have to end? Is reconciliation later going to be possible? There are no "right" answers to all these questions, only well-considered responses that reflect some forethought on your part.
Is confrontation really necessary to recover? Is it necessary to say to those close to you, in essence, "You are either with me or against me"? If you are certain that this is what you need to do, then do so. But if it is more important to your therapist than it is to you that you do so, you can legitimately question why. If it is described as "necessary" in order to recover, you can rightfully consider whether there really is "only one path to recovery."
In all my years of clinical practice, I have never demanded confrontation or even suggested it was essential. If my client chooses it as an option, I will respect and support that choice, but I will also prepare him or her for all the inevitable consequences of that choice by raising and discussing all the questions that I have posed in these pages. Often, my client will choose not to confront. The point is, I don't say, "You must," because I know that this person can heal and grow in lots of other ways that don't involve confrontation. It isn't my therapy, it's my client's. I respect the client's choice regarding whether to confront or not, because either way I know this person I care so much about is going to recover. Each of us is unique and in unique circumstances. There is no map to follow other than the unique one we create for ourselves.
The arguments that "you are in denial" and that "you are enabling others' denial, especially the offender's," are offered by some therapists in order to underline their mandate to confront. The rationale sounds plausible. In truth, there is a massive denial that typically exists in families where abuse occurs. Confronting the denial and bringing out into the open what has happened can be intensely therapeutic and personally empowering. But, it can also be devastating if it causes your family to splinter. Now you have not only memories of abuse to deal with, but a family that has disintegrated. It is a tough choice to make, and it is an intensely personal one. There is no formula that requires you to follow a therapist's agenda.
If you do decide to confront, be sure you take the time to anticipate and plan for the possible consequences. Typically, accusers hope for an admission of guilt, an apology, or some such response that can help ease recovery. Remember that you are unlikely to get that, and you may lose your family in the process. If you are ready to risk that and you feel it's necessary, then do what you feel you must, but be prepared.
If you are plagued by doubts about whether abuse really happened, or you are unprepared to splinter your family--or your therapist is considerably more certain about your abuse than you are--you are not ready to confront your suspected abuser. If you require validation and support for your allegations from others in your family, you are not ready.
I think it is terribly destructive that so many abuse specialists encourage accusers to cut themselves off from any who have doubts about the allegations. Why shouldn't they have doubts? What else can they do but consider their own experiences with the accused in making their judgments? Understand that and don't personalize it. They simply have no frame of reference for relating to the accusation--it isn't how they experienced that person. That is why it is so important that you work with what you believe to be true and do what you can to empower yourself and work through the consequences of the abuse in your own way. But do not assume that you must cut yourself off from your family as a necessary part of your recovery. If you feel you need or want to cut them off from having contact with you for your own reasons (not because it is deemed necessary to recovery in general but rather because it seems essential to your own recovery in par- ticular), then, again, do what you feel you need to. Always bear in mind, though, there are lots of ways of making your life better that don't necessarily involve confrontation at all. And if your memories are of the questionable variety discussed in earlier chapters, it is generally wise not to take them as sufficient evidence that abuse occurred, before you start a process that quickly develops a destructive momentum all its own.
There is probably no moment in your life that more powerfully defines your personal integrity than the moment in which you first respond to the accusation. The mechanisms that lead people to believe they were abused when they never actually were are those that can lead anyone to misrepresent--to themselves and to others--what they have done. In other words, abusers can confabulate a history of nothing but good deeds and a loving demeanor just as readily as accusers can confabulate a history of abuse. It definitely works both ways.
In this section, I focus on the accusation scenario of a child accusing a parent. Likewise, I discuss the issues from the standpoint of a female accuser and male perpetrator. While these relational and gender typings do not represent all abuse scenarios, they are the most common.
If you are accused and you now know and have known all along that you instigated or participated in acts directly or indirectly involving abuse, the painful but moral response is to admit it. To let your child go on wondering and go on suffering in order to protect yourself would be the cruelest injustice heaped onto other cruel injustices. Admitting that abuse occurred is often an opportunity for an offender to make important life changes. For the survivor, to be offered the chance to get confirmation of what may seem like unreal memories and an opportunity to discuss openly what really happened, is to be given a turning point toward recovery. If you can find it in yourself to admit abuse happened, do not make excuses for it--there simply aren't any acceptable ones. Instead, participate in your child's therapy (if she wants you to), face up to her anger, and look to the future possibility of a healthier and more honest relationship with your child. You can demand of yourself that you endure the pain and shame of acknowledging what you did in what, by now, may seem like another lifetime. You can apologize and do so sincerely and abundantly, and you can participate in your child's recovery in whatever way your child defines as helpful. The best you can do is to be honest and participate, even when the going gets tough, which it undoubtedly will. And, you'll need your own therapy, too.
If, however, you believe you are being falsely accused, you must be careful to respond intelligently and not out of emotional defensiveness. Appreciate first and foremost that your accuser is not intentionally lying, but actually believes in the truth of the allegations. Likewise, you must appreciate that any denial you offer will likely be interpreted as further evidence of your presumed guilt, and will trigger a predictable subsequent accusation that you are "in denial" and maintaining the "conspiracy of silence." If your accuser is following the recovery "formula" outlined by many groups and self-help books, she is now likely to cut off any further communication. I strongly encourage you to make it your goal to keep the hnes of communication open. Stunned, shocked, hurt as you might be by the allegations, a cooler head must prevail. You can share your surprise ("This catches me totally off guard"). You can share your confusion ("I don't even know how to respond to this"). You can express your concern ("This must be horrible for you to have to talk to me about, and I want to respond in the best way possible"). And finally, you can express your desire to talk about it more openly in the presence of someone more neutral, like a therapist ("There is so much to say about all of this. When can we meet with someone skilled at dealing with these sensitive issues?"). Get an appointment as quickly as possible with a therapist, and make sure that both of you commit to attend. (How to choose a therapist is discussed in the next chapter.) If the only therapist your child will agree to see is the one that she has already been working with, then go. In the next chapter, I will discuss things to consider in meeting with your child's therapist, who may also seem to have predetermined your guilt.
The important thing is to keep the lines of communication open between all family members, and especially with the accuser. Reaffirm your love for your child, your desire to help, and your desire and willingness to continue the relationship, even under these terrible circumstances. Your door has to remain open to the possibility of a later reconciliation, even if for now it seems hopeless.
For the falsely accused, it is all too easy to get trapped in a no-win" scenario. Admit to the abuse just to hold on to your child and you're forever branded a monster. Deny it and you're forever branded a monster and a coward. The safest immediate solution is neither to confirm nor to deny the abuse, but to get someplace fast where these issues can be dealt with as openly and fairly as possible.
The moment of accusation is exceptionally powerful for other family members as well. Their typical immediate reaction is massive confusion: "Is it true? How can this be? Why would she lie? Is it possible? He would never do that! Or, would he? Whom do I believe? What should I do?"
The questions about what to believe and what to do are intensely emotionally charged. Some of your most powerful and important relationships are now teetering on the edge of destruction. The anxiety about what to say and do can be extreme. It is no surprise, then, that the first overt reaction for most family members is denial. Understandably, people are highly motivated to avoid as best as they possibly can such an upheaval to their personal lives as having to acknowledge and deal with something so profoundly painful as the sexual abuse of a family member. At some level, they know their lives will never be quite the same; no one wants that kind of change forced on them, and no one seeks it out voluntarily. But, it is forced upon them, and sooner or later it will have to be dealt with. My advice is to deal with it sooner rather than later, and as sensitively as possible.
For the family members who get drawn into the crisis, the gut-wrenching division of self is almost audible. They have to ask themselves questions like: "Do I believe the accuser or the accused? Do I actively and openly support one or the other? Or, do I keep quiet and let them work it out themselves somehow?" Complicating the problem is the fact that a carefully plotted position of neutrality is not often viewed as such. Rather, an attempt to be neutral is apt to be seen as an indirect vote for maintaining the status quo: Neither the accused nor the accuser will feel supported. As suggested earlier, the psychology of these explosive situations is typically "If you're not with me, you're against me. This is how families begin to tear apart at the seams. If you take a position, you lose, and if you don't take a position, you lose. It is truly the exceptional accuser or accused who can insulate family members from the need to align themselves with anyone.
Is there a distinction between being "in denial" and being skeptical? Is it disloyal to have doubts about the validity of the memories of abuse of the accuser? Each family member must form some conclusion about what is going on and why, and what the best way is to respond. Each member of the family can play a role, albeit a limited one, in facilitating family cohesiveness or destruction.
How often we hear of spouses who discover, after decades of marriage, that the person they have lived with for years has led a secret life: She finds out he is gay, or he finds out she has been engaging in prostitution, or they find out some similarly shocking revelations about someone they thought they knew well. An allegation of any sort almost forces us to consider, "Maybe something has been going on." Doubt and uncertainty are the precursors to belief, and some measure of doubt is inevitable when your spouse has been accused. After all, you weren't there, you really don't know what happened, and you really don't know that he or she didn't do it. And, as the (faulty) reasoning goes, "It's always the person you least suspect.
While the impulse to doubt your spouse is understandable, perhaps even necessary, how you work through your feelings of uncertainty will have a profound impact on what happens in the long run with the accuser and what happens in the short run with everyone else. Yours is a key role. To support your spouse blindly is wonderful but potentially misplaced loyalty. To support your child noncritically is to destroy your marriage--the most important of all family relationships. The pressure on you is enormous. It is vital to get some objective help in sorting through whatever evidence is being used against your spouse as well as whatever evidence there is in support of your spouse. Be prepared, for the evidence in either direction is likely to be flimsy or nonexistent, perhaps leaving you more uncertain than ever. In some cases, you can bide your time and stay out of it, but, most often, an apparent lack of belief in the integrity of your spouse will erode any sense of trust or closeness between you and lead to the eventual demise of the relationship.
In some of the marriages I have worked with, the accused were quick to grasp that a spouse's doubt is both natural and inevitable. In the case of a couple I'll call Jane and Mark, married nearly thirty years, both were flabbergasted at their daughter Cindy's allegations. Jane could not believe Mark would ever do the awful things he was accused of doing (nearly daily rapes, torture, threats of extreme violence), but she also couldn't believe her daughter would make up such horribly graphic things. Jane pulled away from Mark as an instinctive response to her confusion. Rather than taking it personally as a statement of Jane's lack of belief in him, Mark took quick action and arranged for both therapy and a lie detector test. Mark passed two different lie detector tests easily, and as Cindy's accusations became increasingly wild and impossible to take seriously, Jane became convinced of Mark's innocence. They are the lucky onesūtheir marriage survived the accusations. Many do not. Lie detector test results are not considered reliable enough for admission in court proceedings, yet they are often a valuable convincer when doubt is present.
In another case example, a couple I'll call Elliot and Shelly were both accused by their youngest daughter, Cary, of sexual abuse throughout her early life, starting at the age of eighteen months and continuing until she was fifteen. Cary claimed she was made pregnant at thirteen by her father, and that she had subsequently suffered a miscarriage. She also claimed that her mother would photograph her having sex with her father, and show the photos to neighbors.
Elliot and Shelly were shocked, and to the detriment of their marriage, each suspected the other of some grievous error in parenting that would account for the venomous nature of Cary's accusations.
Shelly quickly called a family meeting, asking her other two grown children to fly in from their respective homes in other cities to discuss Cary's allegations. Cary chose not to attend the family meeting, but the discussion brought both Elliot and Shelly great relief. It was apparent the other children did not believe any of Cary's story, and they gave their own views about her beliefs.
One important piece of information that Shelly had forgotten about until the meeting was that soon after Cary was born, Elliot had had a vasectomy. Elliot couldn't have gotten Cary--or anybody else--pregnant. Remembering this, remembering Cary's wildly impossible inclusion of the neighbors in the "conspiracy of silence," and getting reassurance from her other children helped convince Shelly that the problem was primarily Cary's. Elliot and Shelly got their marriage back on solid ground. They were unified in their concern for their daughter, but they were certain that they were not the source of her deluded perspectives.
The doubt that both Elliot and Shelly felt about each other at first is absolutely normal. It may be
comforting for you to know, incidentally, that Cary eventually retracted her accusations and is now
reconciled with her family. They are still working at resolving the aftereffects of the accusations, but
communication is becoming increasingly open and things are progressing.
As the spouse of the accused, you can help the accused to understand that doubt is inherent in the situation (meaning it would be there no matter who was accused) and is not a statement about his or her own integrity. Ally yourself with any attempt by the accused to gather objective corroboration as described in Chapter 7. Having him or her take a lie detector test, obtaining your child's relevant medical records and school records, arranging for interviews conducted by a neutral party (a skilled and unbiased therapist) of siblings, relatives, and friends, and assisting with any other efforts to gain some objective basis for legitimately denying the allegations is an important role for a spouse to take. The necessary mental discipline in such situations is for you to remain nonjudgmental until there is enough evidence to be reasonably convinced of guilt or innocence.
It takes discipline to avoid jumping to conclusions or getting overwhelmed by painful and unanswerable questions. One of the quickest paths to constant fear and agitation is to keep asking, "Did he do it?" Therapy can help a lot in assisting you in sorting out your fears and doubts and in developing a realistic game plan for coping with uncertainty. The important short-term goal is to maintain your marriage in the face of intense adversity. That means working together against the problem instead of working against each other because of the problem.
What your accusing child typically wants from you and others is to be believed right from the start. He or she wants to form an alliance and establish a support system that isolates the accused. Do not immediately say you believe. Nor should you just dismiss the allegations, or you open yourself up to the accusation that you are in collusion with your guilty spouse. Again, the most important thing is keeping the lines of communication open. If your child wants you to go with him or her to see the therapist, I would suggest going in an effort to keep communication open. Beware, though, that the therapist may not be a neutral party, a condition I'll discuss in the next chapter. Beware also, that if your spouse is excluded, your participation can create a perceptible split in your demonstrated loyalties. Delicately remind your spouse that the goal is to prevent the collapse of communication if possible (sometimes it isn't). Without some credible third party present to mediate the accusations and counteraccusations, the situation can easily escalate to the point of no return. You can be the one to suggest that communication needs to take place in a more neutral environment where you can have some guidance and gain some better understanding of what is going on. There is too much at stake not to treat this situation carefully and with the respect it deserves. You can communicate caring and empathy for your child without either validating or rejecting his or her beliefs. Neutrality is important, but it should be an active neutrality that says, in essence, "We are going to work to find out what is going on here." Your spouse will then know you have not presumed guilt, and your child will know that you are taking the allegations seriously. Presuming guilt or trivializing the allegations are the biggest potential mistakes the spouse of the accused and parent of the accuser can make. It is a difficult but necessary tightrope to walk.
A woman named Nancy sought me out at one of my workshops recently to tell me about some allegations of abuse made against her father and mother by her younger sister, Ellen. Ellen had gone through the breakup of a relationship not long ago, and around the same time she was laid off from her job. She became very depressed and sought therapy. In therapy, Ellen was told that her difficulty in maintaining relationships with men and her employers indicated a history of abuse she must have repressed. She did not believe it at first but thought it must be possible, since she clearly was without a man or a job. Ellen told Nancy what the therapist had said, and Nancy's reaction was "That's ridiculous.!" Ellen did not raise the issue again until a few months later. Ellen was now sure abuse occurred and told Nancy so. She intended to confront her parents when more details became available. She described having been made to perform oral sex on her father from the age of two months to two years. These memories surfaced in some therapy sessions in which guided imagery was used to find out the "cause" of Ellen's problems. Nancy was flabbergasted, and told Ellen that her accusations were crazy and impossible. When Ellen expanded the allegations to include their mother, whom she claimed had allowed the sexual contact to occur, Nancy exploded. Ellen expressed openly her disappointment and regret that Nancy was so mired in denial that she couldn't face the truth about Mom and Dad. She interpreted Nancy's denial as part of "the family conspiracy to keep dirty secrets." That Ellen's "memories" from infancy might not be accurate and might have been suggested by the therapist was never a consideration. Confronting all the presumed coconspirators was apparently the only option generated in her therapy.
Nancy wavered for a little while, but just a little while. Her dilemma as a sibling of the accuser was not unlike that of an accused person's spouse. She first spent an inevitable period of time actively considering the possibility that the allegations might be true. But, as she questioned Ellen, Ellen became wilder and wilder in her accusations. In the next round of stories, Dad was not the only one she was forced to perform oral sex on: Ellen claimed he also had his friends over to the house to use her sexually. She further claimed that sometimes their wives were there, too, just watching and getting sexually aroused. She went even further, claiming that some of the couples would then have sex near her crib and call to her to watch them. She claimed Dad was the main culprit, but Mom allowed it to go on, so she was just as guilty. Nancy soon realized that even though Ellen seemed to believe all she said, it was clearly too fantastic a yarn to give any credibility to. Ellen applied a great deal of pressure to convince Nancy of the truth of her infantile memories, but she could not. Now, they were no longer speaking to each other at Ellen's request. Ellen didn't want to condone Nancy's staying "in denial" about their mom and dad. Nancy cried when she described how the sister she used to be close to had now been ripped from her life.
It is typical for the accuser to want to rally support against the accused. As a brother or sister to the accuser, you may get caught in a bind as to whose story to believe.
Nancy was a little luckier than most. The increasingly bizarre details Ellen supplied with each new therapy session made it relatively easy to dismiss her stories as fabrications. Often, though, stories seem plausible enough to warrant serious consideration, and so they are anything but easy to dismiss. Doubt is inevitable and is inherent in the situation. But, uncertainty increases suggestibility, and so it may lead you to be more responsive to either the accuser or the accused than the evidence warrants.
As the brother or sister of the accuser, you may be able to play a more powerful role in keeping communication going than your nonaccused parent (if there is one). Yet when feelings are so intense and extreme this may not be possible. Your relationships with both the accuser and the accused are on the line, making for a very precarious situation. Your accusing sibling will typically believe that you are less biased than the parent who is the spouse of the accused. Likewise, your accused parent will typically believe that you can be counted on to believe him or her, since you have no such tainted memories (assuming you don't--for if you do, then you can corroborate the allegations and lend support to their essential truth). Both sides will likely look to you for support, and no matter what you say or do, you stand to lose a relationship with members of your family.
Again, I urge active neutrality based on a lack of knowledge. Admit that you are confounded by the allegations. Acknowledge the "no-win" scenario in which you have been placed and openly state your need to address all the relevant issues in a more controlled environment. The emotional power of the situation typically exceeds any one family member's ability to direct it, and so it is important that you take the position of encouraging a dialogue between all parties concerned. The "hit and run" tactic of dropping the accusation bombshell and then precluding any further communication about it is terribly destructive. Feelings get churned up, loyalties are divided, family relationships are breaking up, and an arbitrary "gag rule" is imposed by the accuser. If you can, use your position as a caring sibling to encourage com- munication in whatever form the accuser will permit. Because you are less likely to be viewed as biased, you may be able to encourage your accusing sibling to open the door to further discussion. Your sibling may not permit your parents access to the therapist with whom he or she is working, but he or she may permit access to you. Any foot you can get in the door can keep circumstances fluid and prevent them from getting "set in concrete," a most valuable contribution to your family in crisis.
My focus on the nuclear family is not coincidental. The family has taken most of the blame as the identified perpetrators in cases where abuse has been suggested by therapists and other external forces. All of the family can be judged as guilty by assuming that members all knew--or should have known--abuse was occurring. The fact that they did nothing to stop it is popularly known as "the conspiracy of silence." That's why when one member is accused, typically all family relationships suffer.
Should the family seek and evaluate evidence? Of course. Whatever can be learned about the nature of the accuser's therapy, the details of the allegations, the evidence the accuser is using to maintain a belief in his or her abuse, and anything else that will point the way to a more objective approach to handling the crisis is desirable.
As of this writing, over three hundred civil cases involving repressed memories have been filed. Most involve children suing their parents for alleged damages arising from newly recovered memories of childhood abuse. I don't condone the practice by any means, but I recognize its potential value for providing some survivors a sense of vindication and reparation in legitimate cases of abuse. Should the accused sue therapists for causing or contributing to the accusers' false beliefs? While I am aware that such suits are threatened by parents who feel terribly wronged, there is currently no legal basis for such suits. The therapist's obligation is to the patient, not to the patient's family. (This may change, however, based on a few test cases being filed now that will be litigated in the years to come.) Can someone who believed suggestions of abuse made by the therapist and later retracted his or her accusations claim the therapist is guilty of malpractice and sue? Yes.
Lawsuits are not good vehicles for keeping families together in cases of false allegations, however. It is much more productive in the long run to keep the lines of communication open.
Families in crisis can, and probably should, use outside help to stabilize them. Getting into family therapy and forming support groups with other families who have been similarly struck with fragmenting abuse allegations are two very good options for coping with some very painful circumstances.
Realistically, there are times when the lines of communication cannot be kept open. Sometimes the accuser is so filled with rage that he or she refuses contact under any circumstances. In such cases, there is little that can be done. You can't communicate with someone who refuses your phone calls, visits, and mail.
However, I want to reiterate the potential value of reassuring the accuser that "the door will always be open." Even though right now he or she may seem light-years away, it is important to appreciate with some realistic hopefulness that the potential exists for a later reconciliation. Allow for that possibility as best you can and for now don't try to force the issue. It usually only creates more backlash. But you can still send birthday cards and notes. You can still pass along a "hello" through siblings or other relatives.
Likewise, you may be the one to cut off contact, at least temporarily, if you find yourself so lost and confused or so angry that you cannot deal sensibly with the accuser. All the things I have said thus far about understanding the accuser's frame of reference are meant to empower you to take purposeful action. If the interactions go nowhere and deteriorate into threats and manipulations, then a "cooling off" period may be necessary. Beware, though, that cooling off periods can sometimes let positions harden, making eventual resolution even more difficult. It is a matter of individual judgment, so discover and weigh your options carefully.
Crisis holds equal potential to strengthen or destroy families. Recognizing the complex interplay of issues and feelings is a necessary step in dealing realistically with circumstances that can seem too crazy to take seriously. Be assured that how you respond will determine to a significant extent--but not entirely--what the future will bring. I wish you luck.