There has been a lot in the media about “false memory syndrome.”
There’s even an organization devoted to helping people
who have been falsely accused of sexual abuse.
As a therapist, I have some very strong views about this, of course.
This article is a statement of those views.
ARE SOME PEOPLE FALSELY ACCUSED?
I’m sure they are.
Some therapists are incompetent.
Some “clients” are cruel manipulators.
So some false memories probably do occur.
But the key word here is “some”
and, if you were sitting in my chair,
you’d have to believe that
this must happen very, very seldom!
Why would someone falsely accuse someone of sexual abuse?
What would they have to gain?
If I can see any way that the accuser believes
she can benefit from making such accusations,
I do wonder if they might be making it all up.
But in my own experience, and in the experience of most other therapists,
we seldom see people who can even imagine any gain at all
from believing they were treated this way.
Initially, at least, clients can’t imagine anything good coming from facing their abuse.
Victims feel intense fear and deep dread
as soon as they even wonder if they were abused.
Fear and dread are not feelings that come
from someone intent on being cruel or vengeful.
Later articles in this series will tell you a lot
about the intense emotion, self-doubt, humiliation,
and hard work the average sexual abuse “accuser”
goes through to get her life back.
I’m sure you will see that nobody could fake their way through all of that!
HOW DO WE STOP FALSE ACCUSATIONS FROM HAPPENING?
False accusations of sexual abuse, then, are rare
but for the falsely accused person they are devastating.
What can be done to almost guarantee that false accusations cannot occur?
The therapist and the person they are working with can both act responsibly.
Here is my personal list of some of the most important responsibilities therapists have regarding sexual abuse. They are stated in the form of advice for therapists…
1) Know that sexual abuse does happen to many children and that it wounds very deeply.
The lowest estimate I’ve ever heard is that about 10% of all children are sexually abused by someone in childhood. Even if this low estimate is true, what would be your best guess as to the percent of sexually abused people on an average therapist’s caseload? – Twenty percent? – Fifty percent??
2) Don’t tell anyone they were sexually abused, but don’t be afraid to ask.
3) If she says she was sexually abused, believe her.
If you have strong reasons to believe she is lying and has much to gain from it, be open with her and tell her so. You owe her that much.
4) For your sake and for your clients, don’t use hypnosis or any other such techniques.
Some very good therapists use hypnosis to uncover memories. But I believe they are making a mistake. They are leaving themselves vulnerable and they are greatly increasing the likelihood that their client will doubt her own memories some day. (If the memories are that hard to uncover, they need time to surface on their own.)
5) Be aware of the potential for “leading” the client.
Be aware that therapists can and do lead clients toward their own preconceived opinions and guesses. It is only human that some of this will occur, but be diligent in limiting the degree to which it occurs in your office. When you have a hunch about something so important, keep it to yourself unless it keeps coming back for a long while (3 meetings?). Then, if you do decide to mention it, convey your own doubts about it. Say strongly that it is only a hunch and that you have no proof of it’s validity. (If the client disregards your hunch and it still won’t go away, talk to your own therapist about it.)
6) Be very aware of all boundaries.
A violation of any boundary can undermine all treatment with people whose boundaries were so terribly violated as children. And just because the person acts like something you propose is OK, don’t assume that it is OK unless they have specifically said so. (People who were abused tend to give in to intrusions very easily, often without even recognizing that’s what they are doing.)
7) If you are not confident about how to handle flashbacks and repressed memories, don’t try.
Make an appropriate referral instead. And go get the training you need. This is no place for amateurs.
ALL of the client’s responsibilities come down to this:
LEARN HOW TO IDENTIFY YOUR FEELINGS
AND THEN TRUST WHAT YOU FEEL!
1) If it feels like you might have been sexually abused but your aren’t sure, believe your feeling until you CAN be sure!
2) If it feels like someone is trying to talk you into something, say so (and consider getting out of there).
3) Notice your need for protection. Learn how to become your own best “protective parent.” If your therapist doesn’t feel “safe enough” (compared to everyone else you’ve known as an adult), you need to find a better one.
4) Honor all your feelings, even the “irrational” ones!
You may know you are more afraid, sad, and angry than there is reason to be in your adult world but these feelings are still trustable. Honor them.
That’s the little girl talking to you.
She needs the grownup, powerful you to take care of her while she recovers from these horrors.