The War against the Child’s and Victim’s Credibility and Truth
“If people who dare to speak about sexual abuse are attacked by those whom they have relied on and trusted, is it any wonder that unawareness and silence are so common?”
“Survivors of childhood sexual abuse and betrayal trauma have learned to cope by being disconnected internally so as to manage a minimal kind of external connection. But with adult freedom and responsibility come the potential to break silence, to use voice and language to promote internal integration, deeper external connection, and social transformation. Through communication – integration within ourselves and connection between individuals – we can become whole: embodied, aware, vital, powerful."
Jennifer Freyd, “Betrayal Trauma”
In her book “Betrayal Trauma,” Jennifer Freyd, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, pursues the question of why people forget the trauma of sexual abuse. A case of recovered memory, which she discusses in depth, is that of Ross Cheit, associate professor of Political Science at Brown University. Between the ages of ten and thirteen years, he had attended the San Francisco Boys Chorus summer camp. At the age of thirty-six, he remembered that he had been sexually abused by the camp’s administrator William Farmer. Later inquiries led him to three other victims, who said that they had been molested, and to “a nurse and a former camp counselor who said that they had each discovered Farmer in bed with a [fourth] boy and reported the incidents to the chorus’ founder, Madi Bacon.” In the end, Ross Cheit won two lawsuits: one against Farmer and one against the San Francisco Boys Chorus.
He felt the deepest pain when he read, for the first time in twenty-five years, letters, which he had written to his parents from camp in the late 1960s.
But the letters were just devastating, because the letters were the first time that I thought about these actions in terms of what this man meant to me in my life, in terms of relationship rather than in terms of just actions. And I read these letters, and I realized how important he was to me. I thought he was a great guy. I really admired him. I read the letters. And the whole thing shifted from just “those acts” to complete betrayal. And I broke down that night and cried in a way I had never cried before. And I was sobbing, saying the whole time, he was such a great guy.
In an article published in U.S. News and World Report reports, we learn more about this important moment of Ross Cheit’s healing:
Compelled now to know more, Cheit began to dredge his past. From his parents, he recovered letters he had written from camp, and reading them brought the most painful revelation yet. “He broke down and cried and cried with his whole body, as if he would never stop,” said his wife. “He came into the bedroom where I was half asleep, saying over and over, ‘But he was such a great guy.’ He was so hurt that someone he loved did this to him.” It was only then, says Cheit, that he fully understood the damage that had been done. “These were not just perverse sexual acts,” he says, “but the most profound betrayal possible for a kid.
For Jennifer Freyd, betrayal lies at the heart and center of why people forget sexual abuse, especially incest, which tends to disappear behind the veils of amnesia at the highest rate. Catherine Cameron reported from surveys she had taken that “of the women who had amnesia for the [sexual] abuse, 75% named their fathers as an abuser, whereas among women who reported no amnesia for their abuse only 24% named their fathers as an abuser.”
Children’s relationships with their parents and other adults, especially in positions of authority, are based on the trust that a child has for them – not only because children need their parents for their survival and for guidance, protection, honesty and orientation, but also because children are taught to respect, obey, honor and trust their parents. Freyd calls betrayal “the violation of implicit or explicit trust, " and explains, "The closer and more necessary the relationship, the greater the degree of betrayal. Extensive betrayal is traumatic."
Experiencing the devastating feeling of betrayal brought about an important, powerful inner change for Ross Cheit – out of the darkness of burdening himself with shame and guilt that were never his but in truth always his perpetrator’s – into the reality that the perpetrator clearly carried the responsibility and blame for what happened.
I came to see my own ordeal primarily in terms of betrayal about my first recollections of Bill Farmer. The day I read the letters I had written home from camp was about as close as I came to an epiphany in this entire ordeal. It certainly was a watershed, a turning point, a defining moment, back in early December of 1992. And the central concept was betrayal. But I came to this understanding almost viscerally; the feeling washed over me that night. . . After that night, I moved beyond the overriding sense of shame and embarrassment I had experienced for months.
For Ross Cheit, neither his relationship with his parents nor with his family would have been threatened had he remembered and shared the sexual abuse he suffered as a boy. The abuse was not committed by parents with whom he lived and whom he needed for his survival. How much more difficult must it be for a child to deal with the trauma of sexual abuse by a trusted, admired and beloved parent on whom the child’s survival does depend? To become fully aware of the betrayal by a parent or caregiver “maybe, or may seem to be, a matter of life or death” for a child.
In “Betrayal Trauma,” Jennifer Freyd develops a new emphasis for the reason that sexual abuse and incest can be forgotten. It is not the unbearable pain of the experience, but the attempt and profound need of the victim to maintain and continue her/his attachment with her/his caregiver in the face of betrayal. When we feel cheated as adults and realize that we cannot trust someone anymore – we can make the decision to avoid or end a relationship. But for a child, his relationship with his parents is his life.
In her article “We Can Identify the Causes for Our Suffering,” Alice Miller writes how important and indispensable a child’s belief in her parents’ love is: “The soul of the child needs the love for her parents in order to survive; she also needs the illusion of being loved in order not to have to face up to the fact that she is growing up in an emotional desert.” When in my own therapy the memory of having been sexually abused by my father at the age of sixteen returned, this child cried for weeks in my therapy sessions and said over and over again: “My father loves me. My father would never do this to me.”
Jennifer Freyd has found seven factors that explain the isolation and abandonment of the victim, who cannot share his traumatic experience with anyone: “According to betrayal trauma theory, the seven factors predicting amnesia are more likely to occur in incestuous abuse than in any other sort of abuse. These factors are:
- abuse by caregiver;
- explicit threats demanding silence;
- alternative realities in environment (abuse context different from nonabuse context);
- isolation during abuse;
- young at age of abuse;
- alternative reality-defining statements by caregiver
- lack of discussion of abuse.”
Ross Cheit found that he endured three of these factors that increased “the probability of forgetting abuse: alternative reality-defining statements by the caregiver; a distinct abuse context; and an absence of discussion of the abuse."
In my own case, almost all apply: I was abused by a caregiver; I promised to never tell; I traveled alone with my father on a boat – without my mother and brothers and sisters – which was an alternative reality from my normal life, where my father spend hardly any time with me; these circumstances also isolated me completely; my father seduced me with bizarre statements; and in the world where I grew up, there was no one I could have ever discussed this with, nor would anyone ever have believed me.
I don’t know what Jennifer Freyd calls a young age. In her own therapy, she remembered that her father sexually fondled her when she was three or four and raped her when she was sixteen. I was sixteen years old when I made this trip with my father, who had seemed like a savior to the small child. Faced with a strict, violent, angry and persecuting mother, this child I once had been idealized her father because he did not beat her and brought some joy and safety into her otherwise frightening, dark life. I was also trained, through beatings and the atmosphere of absolute authoritarianism, to obey my parents without contradiction and to submit to their expectations, whishes and demands unconditionally – without any contradiction. A dream I once had clearly showed me the relationship between having my life threatened as a child through physical violence – and obeying and submitting to my father’s demand to have sex with him as a teenager. Jennifer Freyd also has observed that previous child abuse can strengthen the mechanisms in which the brain tries to protect itself:
… we must take into account the fact that individuals traumatized by child abuse may employ defensive mechanisms they learned as a result of early traumas to new traumas; thus a learned dissociative response could lead to amnesia for even mildly traumatic events that occur later in life.
The silence of the victim is not only forced by threats. “Some perpetrators encourage silence by communicating that the event is a shared secret or by inducing a kind of trance in the young victim.” By taking me on such a unique trip, away and separated from my family, my father put me in a trance where the child believed that the attention she so had longed for and finally exclusively got was her dream come true. It made her feel chosen and special. It made her feel close and important to her father. It completely blinded her to the danger she was in and to the true character of her father.
In my childhood, both my parents spent little time with their children. A nanny took care of us; we lived with her. When I entered school, I began to spend more time with my mother, who felt responsible for controlling my homework, which were terrible times for me. My father remained, for all his children, like an elusive god. He traveled a lot, and any time we were allowed to spend with him appeared asa very special time, and even more so any time alone with him. We fought desperately and viciously with each other for it.
Once I could play the piano well, I felt special and chosen when I accompanied my father’s violin playing on the piano. My brothers and sisters and nanny called me his favorite child. For many years of my adult life, I idealized my father: “We had a special relationship; we made music together.” My first therapist, a psychoanalyst, remarked at the very beginning of my therapy upon hearing this: “We have to work on your relationship with your father. You can see your mother realistically, but you idealize your father.” The truth is that I worked with both of them for many years and still learn to see more and more of my reality as a child with them.
The closeness and specialness, combined with the feeling of being chosen, that I felt when I could spend time with my father was intensified to a dangerous, overwhelming exuberance as I traveled alone with him. He could and did exploit this devilish mechanism, established from early childhood on, for his own advantage. I confused this feeling of being chosen and special with being loved and true closeness. It took me into and kept me in marriages where my well-being was not cared for, safe and protected; where my needs were ignored. My father took the gruesome and destructive pattern, which had been part of my life from early childhood on, through the incest to a devastating climax.
What the child and teenager saw as an exciting, special closeness – was nothing but a most dangerous manipulation and a seductive threat to my physical, mental and emotional integrity, disguised as a fancy, elaborate trip on a luxurious ship. I was completely blind to this reality and remained blind to it for most of my adult life. The cunning cruelty and hatred that lured behind the man who created this deceptive feeling in me and his complete negation and hatred of me and my true feelings and needs became a shocking realization when I felt clearly how I had been betrayed.
I used to believe that this feeling meant love and aliveness – but I had to recognize how my father fought and hated my needs, intent on following his conniving, destructive and hateful agenda. He was a wolf in sheep’s clothing that robbed me of my life and sanity – while I continued to believe that he gave me life. He had no concern and did not care for my, my feelings and needs, my life, my integrity, my well-being. The traumatic mechanism that the child and teenager perceived as closeness and love was a seductive trap which buried my authenticity and turned me into his blind, devoted, dependent, submissive servant for years to come as I followed it into two marriages. As I believed to be alive and loved, I had to give up on my truth, my interests, my protection, aliveness, my life and myself. I realized this disastrous reality when I felt the feelings of betrayal, isolation, confusion, fear and abandonment through incest.
It was tremendously hard and painful to come to terms with that my father was capable of betraying me so fundamentally by committing incest. In the beginning, I not only struggled terribly if what I had remembered was true; later, when I shared my truth with others, I was terrified when they did not believe me. Just the thought of a so-called ‘false memory syndrome’ used to make me feel as if I and my memory were a fraud and spiral me into anxiety. The FMSF claims that only memories verified by "by external corroboration" can be true. Especially the sexual abuse of children happenes in complete secrecy with no witness. If the perpetrator does not confirm what happened, which in most cases he or she will not, then childhood sexual abuse practically would not exist!
The more I learned that the false memory syndrome and the FMSF had no credibility, the more I felt relieved, and the more my trust grew – in myself, in my own credibility and in my therapy work. Today, I get angry at the attempts and forces that want to silence the victim and her truth; today, I find such attempts inhuman and appalling and wish people would, instead of questioning my integrity, ask meaningful questions about how it affected me.
The struggle of the victim to face and deal with her past is enormous. It needs sincere, caring support and understanding – but not being put into doubt and attacked.
Lilian Green writes in in Ordinary Wonders: Living Recovery from Sexual Abuse:
As children in abusive families, we tried to minimize the abuse and earn the caretaking we needed by complying with our parents’ demands, both spoken and non-verbal. To satisfy them, we assumed the characteristics we thought they wanted us to have, characteristics which became our roles. To avoid abuse and neglect, we suppressed or disguised that didn’t fit these roles. Parts of us went underground, disconnecting from our external selves and remaining undeveloped. Splitting ourselves in hidden pieces enabled us to survive, but cost us dearly.
In my own case, these split off parts used to fight such paralyzing and agonizing battles in my mind and between conflicting emotions that the concept of the parts, which the Internal Family System therapy (IFS) works with, greatly appealed to me. It provided me a way out – to find my truth and to leave the dungeon that my childhood had become for my feelings, my thoughts, my divided parts, and for my Self. My IFS therapist Richard Schwartz helped me find the truth about the incest that had clouded my vision; buried my strength; and troubled, burdened and darkened my life for many, many years.
People have wondered why I could not remember the traumatic experience of incest – but I wonder, for all the world, why I would ever want to remember something so horrible and repulsive; something that tore my world wide apart; something that filled me with nothing but horror, self-accusations, self-doubt and shame while I tumbled into the dark abyss of betrayal; something that robbed the child forever of the father whom she so fervently loved and believed in.
In order to be believed, it also seems a hindrance to be a woman. After remembering the sexual abuse, Ross Cheit began to speak up about the abuse he had suffered. In a speech he gave in April of 1994, he told about his disheartening experiences since he had taken his complaint to the San Francisco Boys Chorus.
When I started talking about bringing legal action, I had another one of these moments of exhilaration followed by depression. Several people told me, “You’ll be believed because you’re a man.” And I was terrified of not being believed, so, at first, again, I was exhilarated. “Oh, good. They’ll believe me.” It was a great comfort. And then I quickly realized what the implications of that statement were. If the predominant victims of this crime, women, are automatically not believed – my God, what a situation we’re in. If there is a presumption that women cannot be believed – this is a presumption I find preposterous, given how difficult it is to speak about these things – then our society is just condoning sexual abuse right and left. The sad irony is that when it’s all said and done, they don’t really believe me either.
People forget traumatic events at all ages of their lives. I have talked with two women, who witnessed attempts by their fathers to kill their brothers – the sons of these fathers. One of these sons was sixteen, the other seventeen years old. Both women were the oldest sisters in their families. These brothers denied as adult men their fathers’ murderous attacks and accused their sisters, who had seen and could clearly remember what had happened, of having a “wrong view” of their fathers. One of the men was attacked with a knife by his father; the other one was attacked by his father with an ax while the son was sleeping in his bed. At his sister’s screams, he woke up and could save his life.
While I worked with a friend of mine on my book “Screams from Childhood,” she learned how my father would put his finger at his temple to silence me and to demonstrate to me how crazy and worthless my thinking was. Whereupon she remembered how her own father had hit her repeatedly and cruelly on her head with the knuckles of his hand when he found any mistake in her homework. She had always remembered her mother’s brutal attacks – with a belt, with fists, or by hitting the child’s head several times against a wall. But my friend had always believed that her father had never beaten her. For many years of her adult life, she idealized her father. She was stunned and cried as this awful memory returned clearly and painfully, and as she recalled in many horrible details the tortures her mother inflicted on her. There is no question that her memories are true and that she blocked out the truth of her father's cruelty and betrayal, which would have devastated the child.
Jennifer Freyd herself was sexually abused by her father. She had to ban this traumatic experience from her consciousness until the memories emerged at the beginning of her therapy.
Her parents’ actions against their adult daughter are most revealing and show drastically how agonizing her childhood was. Her parents founded the destructive and deeply false and deceptive “False Memory Syndrome Foundation” (FMSF), which claims not only to represent scientific proof for a condition that is not recognized, but also that there is an epidemic of false memory syndrome.
The attempt to silence awareness of and speaking up about sexual abuse has been most successful through the centuries. Also Sigmund Freud closed the doors tightly again to the reality of childhood with his tool of psychoanalysis that had seemed to open mankind’s view for the truth of what the human unconscious concealed and harbored – but proceeded instead to deny and ignore how monstrously children were and are abused and must suffer in silence.
The Freyd parents, Pamela and Peter Freyd, used the media and quack science to silence and persecute the victims of sexual abuse all over again. Lana Alexander, editor of a newsletter for survivors of child sexual abuse, has said, “Many people view the false memory syndrome theory as a calculated defense strategy developed by perpetrators and the lawyers and expert witnesses to defend them.” The Freyds used their misleading, bogus foundation not only to attack their daughter’s credibility and integrity but also to support many other parents in court to fight their adult children’s memories. In a terrible way, the Freyd parents turned the clock back for the victims of sexual abuse as they made it possible that therapists were taken to court and poured a lot of money into these trials.
They also provided – most irresponsibly – dangerous and fake “experts,” like Ralph Underwager. He was one of the FMSF founding members and at one time in great demand as an expert in court. He resigned from the FMSF board – while his wife stayed on – after he damaged his credibility in an Amsterdam journal for pedophiles, when he supported pedophilia and claimed that it was “God’s will” for adults to engage in sex with children.
It is shocking how far this fraud foundation, with such miserable credibility and credentials, could get in influencing public opinion and convincing so many that there exists a false memory syndrome, even of epidemic proportions. It is sexual and physical abuse of children that exists in epidemic proportions and that society ignores, silences and does not care or attempt to address truthfully.
Children are abandoned by society as they are abused by cruel, exploitive, uncaring parents, at whose complete mercy they must suffer helplessly. When they later as adults struggle to confront and heal their past – society again abandons and turns on them by siding with the parents and believing lies like those of Jennifer Freyd’s parents. It seems as if by the mere fact that people become parents, their credibility becomes unassailable; their crimes must be forgiven; and no one holds, or may hold, them responsible for cruel, abusive, degrading and inhuman behavior.
How diligently are the perpetrators of violent crimes or rape against other adults persecuted and punished by law. Yet, if these crimes are committed against children, they rarely have consequences. In the privacy of one’s home, any assault enforced through absolute and uncontrolled parental power on a child’s physical, emotional or mental integrity can be justified with the lie of discipline. But crimes against children are so much more inhuman, gruesome, offensive, wrong and evil because they are committed against much smaller, defenseless human beings without the right and possibility to be heard, helped, believed, protected – and to take his or her abuser to court.
Jennifer Freyd writes about the FMSF:
From its inception, the False Memory Foundation has made media influence a priority, funneling public perceptions of the research through a specific value-laden filter. Yet there is no research to date documenting either a set of symptoms making up such a syndrome or an epidemic of those symptoms, in spite of the widespread promulgation of this term for political uses. We need to ask the following: Do false denials happen? If one is going to name syndromes, one also needs to ask about a false denial syndrome, which work with abusers suggests.
Jennifer Freyd’s parents have acted in despicable ways against their adult daughter. They came out publicly against her and tried to harm her professional career. The basic reality of Jennifer Freyd’s ordeal is that two parents, who did not want to deal with the truth and consequences of the abuse that they inflicted and allowed to be inflicted on their child, made up some so-called scientific nonsense syndrome in order to disguise their lies and denial; used it and their foundation as tools to harass their daughter; and gave many parents, who wanted to deny, silence and erase their adult children’s memories of sexual abuse all over again, a welcome platform where they could continue to insist on and believe in their respectability and perfect reputation.
The media’s and society’s general denial and betrayal of the victims of child abuse allowed the FMSF to become a respected, often quoted and used source of bogus “information.” No light is shed by the media or society on the victims’ agonizing struggle to deal with their abusive pasts – or on the fact that the crimes of sexual abusers are the expression of their own denial of the childhood abuses, which they themselves suffered.
Sexual abuse, so prevalent, so wide spread and so devastating in its consequences for the individual and society, remains a silenced, ignored, misrepresented and disfigured topic. Jennifer Freyd’s experiences with her own parents are a harrowing example for society’s and most parents' war against the child’s and the victim’s credibility. The perpetrator is protected, excused, understood and so easily “forgiven” – which means understood and excused by families and society, especially if he or she is a parent. The victim’s credibility is constantly questioned; the victim herself is easily excluded from families, not listened to, not believed – and above all not forgiven for remembering or speaking up about the abuse. While the victim is harassed, accused, judged, condemned, abandoned – there are no consequences for parental perpetrators because society does not hold parents accountable for their abuses and crimes. How the Catholic Church has ignored the sexual abuse, which priests have inflicted on innocent children, and how the church did not fulfill its responsibility to protect the children and to hold the perpetrators accountable is a shocking example of society's appalling indifference towards children and their plights.
In her book “Silencing the Self: Women and Depression,” Dana Jack writes “mind and self come into being through communication with others. One cannot heal the self in isolation.” The FMSF created a severe backlash – by taking the victims’ therapists to court; by attacking the victims and their credibility; and by malignantly influencing the public. For the victims, the FMSF has built the walls even higher around the process of being able to become aware of and share the trauma of sexual abuse so that they can heal from it. It thus strengthened the victims’ isolation, suffering and agony. It became a threat for therapists and robbed many of them of their courage for fear of being sued. All this has made it harder for the victims to find their truth.
The victims of child abuse deserve better than that. They must not be abandoned, judged and silenced again by perpetrators in denial. Society must not turn its blind eye to the ordeals, agony and suffering of its children and victims. They need to be believed; they need meaningful support and understanding; and they need that society ends its betrayal of them as it sides with parental denial and power. Jennifer Freyd has written in her paper “Misleading and Confusing Media Portrayals of Memory Research: “Let’s not hurt the victims more by not believing them just because they forgot for some period of time.”
© Barbara Rogers, April 2006
longer version with sources and extensive quotes
more facts about the hoax of false memory
back to Screams from Childhood