Discovered Memory

Mark Pendergrast begins Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives by quoting from letters of rejection. “The material borders on sensationalism,” wrote one editor. “I’m afraid I’m not the Joan of Arc for the project,” wrote another. A third admitted, “It makes me too uncomfortable to hear about this explosive subject from someone accused.”

Pendergrast, a journalist, finally settled on tiny Upper Access Books of Hinesburg, Vermont, which just brought out Victims of Memory as an original paperback but can’t afford to send him on tour. It did send copies of the book to every daily newspaper in the country with a circulation of 100,000 or above. When we spoke with Pendergrast this week he was still waiting for the first of those papers to publish a review.

“It’s very disturbing,” he said, “because what I’ve done is write the most comprehensive and thoughtful book available on a social phenomenon that will be studied for the next few hundred years. Look how many books have been published on the Salem witch trials, in which 20 people died. Far more than 20 people have committed suicide.”

Who? we said.

“I know anecdotally over 20,” he said. “I know parents who have committed suicide. I know accusing children who have committed suicide.” Add to that the number–which he doesn’t know, though his book mentions several cases–of adults in prison for crimes against little children they almost certainly did not commit. Now add the vast number of families shattered by “recovered memory” therapy, which he calculates is in the millions. Pendergrast argues that incest, a scourge he does not dispute, is indelibly remembered. The accusations attributed to lost memories miraculously retrieved are the ones he wrote to assail.

Pendergrast told us he’s hired a press agent out of his own pocket. “I’ve never written anything more important,” he said, with some anger in his voice. “Reading this book can save people’s sanity. It can save them years of therapy. They should be aware that the whole idea that your unhappiness in life, your ambivalence toward your parents, can be explained only by the idea you’ve been sexually abused by your parents and then forgot about it is being thoroughly discredited.”

But discreditation is slow in coming. Pendergrast and other critics are up against forces at the marrow of American culture. Believers in recovered memory argue that the more hideous the trauma the more absolute the repression of it–a victim’s original denials becoming evidence of whatever’s denied–but that a persistent therapist and an embracing peer group can restore these memories in pristine form. A vast bookshelf preaches these tenets; its centerpiece is Ellen Bass and Laura Davis’s The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, now in its third edition. Pendergrast quotes from it: “If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were.” The symptoms? “Do you feel powerless? . . . Do you feel different? . . . Are you afraid to succeed? . . . Do you have trouble expressing your feelings? . . . Are you prone to depression? . . . Do you feel alienated or lonely?”

The list goes on, a description of anomie, a profile of the psychological torments that can afflict a purposeless population with time for them. Pendergrast argues that therapists ranging from the self-taught–Bass and Davis have no training in psychology, he says–to the highly credentialed heads of prominent institutes are irresponsibly and calamitously preying on melancholics, some for ideological reasons, some to fill hospital beds and rake off insurance payments, others because they’re true believers in what they fancy is therapy’s cutting edge.

“It’s an antifeminist form of therapy,” Pendergrast said. “It continues what’s been done to women for hundreds of years in Western culture. First, the religious establishment convincing them they’re witches and demons. And then the medical establishment convincing them they’re hysterics. [His previous book, the acclaimed For God, Country and Coca-Cola, noted that Coke was first sold as a treatment for “neurasthenia,” a fashionable diagnosis for late-19th-century women.] And now they’re incest survivors. And guess what? Every one of these diagnoses convinces women they’ve been harmed and must depend on authorities for years to come or they won’t get better.”

We first read about Pendergrast’s book last December in a long, two-part article in the New York Review of Books on the literature of recovered memory. Frederick Crews, professor emeritus of English at the University of California at Berkeley, called Victims of Memory “the most ambitious and comprehensive, as well as the most emotionally committed, of all the studies before us.” Crews, who unfortunately for Pendergrast was celebrating his book two months before it would be available, said, “He himself has lost his grown daughters to the recovery movement. Within therapy that featured the overcoming of repression, both of them came to believe that he did something–they won’t say what–to one of them, and both have met his pleas for communication with the icy formalism inculcated by The Courage to Heal. . . . [Victims of Memory] rests partly on the desperate premise that a 603-page dose of history, logic, and exhortation may be able to turn well-coached zealots back into the amiable young women Pendergrast once knew.”

Acknowledging his personal agony at the outset, Pendergrast makes an argument we were predisposed to accept. We’ve seen the four-hour Frontline special Innocence Lost: The Verdict, in which day-care workers in Edenton, North Carolina, are sent to prison for life on the strength of absurd testimony from toddlers who first passed through the hands of a therapist who’d lectured on satanism and ritualistic abuse. We’ve read “Remembering Satan,” Lawrence Wright’s New Yorker articles about Paul Ingram, an Olympia, Washington, deputy sheriff who, after being accused by his daughters of violating them, confessed to a variety of unspeakable but preposterous acts (including one that a psychologist invented simply to test him).

Sensible therapists with a grip on their profession’s limitations helped rescue many of the patients whose case histories Pendergrast documents. But the worst therapists can be found across the board–from “Christian counselors” who might have taken a workshop once and see Satan’s hand behind every neurosis to totalitarian psychiatrists who, according to Pendergrast, also show an astonishing openness to the notion of satanic abuse. “You’re probably better off going to a psychologist,” he told us, “with the glaring exception of the multiple-personality-disorder specialists.” Pendergrast doesn’t believe in multiple-personality disorders, fashionable though Eve and Sybil made them. He describes therapists who do persuading their patients that within them various identities jostle for space, all spawned by some forgotten incest.

His disbelief in ritual satanic abuse apparently puts him at odds with millions of God-fearing Americans who fob off their miseries on the Prince of Darkness. We’ve all become a nation of victims, Pendergrast argues, victims of fashionable “dysfunctions” that can be set right by fashionable “therapies.” We all believe in our right to happiness, and when we’re not happy we believe someone else is to blame and yet another someone will make things better.

Victims of Memory may call too much into question for its own good. As law-abiding citizens we all believe in the scrupulosity of prosecutors, who wouldn’t bring criminal charges based on the fantasies of three-year-olds unless something were there. We all believe in sworn testimony and even more strongly in the confession; American jurisprudence would fall apart if we the people understood, as Pendergrast does, that in a courtroom permeated by delusion a person wrongly accused might wrongly confess.

“The jurisprudence system does the best it can,” said Pendergrast, “but what they’ve done is waive some of their most precious dictums. Let’s say for murder, you don’t have a statute of limitations. But if you’re trying somebody for a murder that occurred 20 years ago normally you’d say, My God, the eyewitness testimony will be suspect. You’ll need corroborative evidence. But for [“remembered”] sexual abuse they suddenly think you don’t need corroborative evidence. Why that is is beyond me. Especially when it’s based on hypnosis and dreams.”

Pendergrast believes every criminal or civil case that’s ended with an adult imprisoned or heavily fined because of a child’s testimony of abuse or an adult’s “recovered memory” should be judicially reviewed. This review presumably would not be led by the U.S. attorney general. Pendergrast writes that Janet Reno burnished her reputation in Miami by aggressively pursuing abuse cases that were based on vague or improbable testimony from children. One defendant who ran a baby-sitting service was sentenced to six life terms when his teenage wife, after two months of relentless “guided imagery and visualization sessions” in her cell, confessed that he’d “sodomized her with a cross . . . while he had forced her to give oral sex to a child.” The wife spent three years in prison and was sent back to Honduras. She told the judge, “I am innocent. . . . I am pleading guilty to get all of this over.”

During none of the interviews that Pendergrast conducted did he identify himself as anything more than an investigative journalist. Since publication he’s heard from one “survivor” who’s furious that he didn’t come clean about his own daughters. “She’s the one who thinks she was impregnated three times by her father and completely forgot it. I told her I hope she reads the entire book, and then we can have a conversation about it. I have high hopes–I expect–that some of the people I interviewed, the “survivors,’ will call me one day and say, “Mark, I’m reconciling with my parents.”‘

Above all he would like such a call from his own daughters, whom he addresses directly in a plaintive open letter that ends the book. “I don’t even know what my children’s last names are now,” he told us, “and I’m not sure where they live. And when I did know, it didn’t do me any good because they wouldn’t accept correspondence from me. My door is always open to them.”

And in mitigation, your honor, may I submit this insightful Mike Royko column on other athletes with “character flaws,” among them one loathsome brute who jerked off after games: “So we shouldn’t be surprised that O.J. has turned out to be something less than a church deacon. And regardless of what he has done, it should be remembered that his teammates didn’t mind sharing a shower with him.”