It is unfortunate that David Futrelle’s reporting on the reporting of child abuse is so limited by his own blatant biases [March 15]. He describes the “ritual abuse” scare as “a kind of collective delusion,” brought on by “unscrupulous (or simply overzealous) therapists,” and attributes this to “a strange confluence of fundamentalist Christianity and a kind of feminism allergic to sexuality in almost all forms.” But he offers about as much substantiation for this conclusion as the FBI has found for the existence of satanic abuse. This search for objective truth, for whether or not abuse has taken place, limits our ability to understand the phenomenon we are seeing, which includes remarkable consistency of stories from numerous sources, including people in treatment with therapists with no experience or interest in ritual abuse, and accusations of abuse against mothers as well as fathers. Though I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that ritual abuse must therefore be rampant, neither would I dismiss it all as delusional.
I’d like to start by stating that in my own experience as a therapist with children and families, child abuse is indeed rampant. My adult clients who report child abuse memories do not describe these as memories they have ever lost, rather the memories have remained vivid and disturbing throughout their lives. Children are reluctant to make such accusations, and occasionally do recant in an attempt to alter the consequences of child abuse reporting, which is frequently experienced by the child as additional trauma. I have not heard from my clients accusations of ritual abuse, but I have heard pretty horrific things which I have taken to be objectively true. But could we consider the possibility that children and adults who make accusations of abuse are sometimes reporting the truth, and sometimes reporting their subjective truths, what they believe to be true, perhaps even in a symbolic way? Some read the Bible finding literal truths, others understand its stories to have other meanings. Similarly, children speaking of magic wands and robots do not need to be taken literally, but neither should their tales be dismissed, because to children fantasy play does have significant meaning.
I’d attribute our difficulty in thinking about ritual abuse in anything but all or nothing terms to our difficulty in addressing the real horrors of child abuse. The hysteria that developed around the ritual abuse question is probably misplaced but nevertheless valid hysteria. We should be hysterical about the cruelty that is inflicted upon children in this society by families, schools, courts, the media, government. Day care, which Mr. Futrelle seemed to be defending, presents a huge problem, particularly for children under three. Corporations and other workplaces, which do not encourage or allow mothers and fathers to care for their own young children, should feel guilty about the crazy schedules families are forced to subject their children to in order to survive. And while there is some social pressure for middle-class mothers to remain at home, there is increasing pressure for poor mothers to leave their children to go to work.
It doesn’t so much matter whether the Hill children ate cockroaches. What struck me in reading the various news accounts was how little anyone, family members and reporters alike, seemed to be considering the experience of the children who had already been removed from their parents’ care for some time, and whose caretakers were feuding. These kids had been hospitalized and examined, additional traumas, by “professionals” and their need for the “truth.” I found no reports of meaningful efforts made to address the problems this family does clearly have. I’m afraid that Mr. Futrelle’s quest for “the truth” is all too common, and as it continues, the real needs of children will continue to be ignored.