Hope for the Abused

Victims, false-memory syndrome, recovery.

By Richard Simon
Editor, Psychotherapy Networker, July/August, 2003

Hope For The Abused

Americans have long had a love-hate relationship with psychotherapy. Certainly, therapy in its own way embodies one of the central promises of American democracy. After all, what other profession is more committed to the pursuit of happiness@ At the same time, especially over the past 20 years of so, psychotherapy has been one of society’s favorite whipping boys vilified as the main promoter of the abuse excuse which has turned too many people away from the bedrock American virtue of personal responsibility and created monsters of self-indulgence and whiny self-pity.

This polarization reached its zenith (or nadir) during the vitriolic debate over recovered memories of sexual abuse during the early 90s. Survivors regarded therapists as their best friends and saviors, the only ones who believed their stories and would help them recover. But an indignant chorus of critical voices – notably the False Memory Syndrome Foundation – accused therapists of manipulating clients into manufacturing their own abuse histories and creating a culture of victimhood.

Newly sensitive to the widespread incidence and damaging impact of child sex abuse, therapists tended to focus almost exclusively on the their patients’ suffering – often encouraging endless reliving of old traumas and reinforcing in survivors the sense that they were deeply, perhaps irremediably, wounded. But today, a dozen years down the line, therapist and the recovery movement itself have grown wiser about the perils of perpetually re-experiencing old injuries. We now know that the self-defined identity of survivor, – necessary early in the recovery process – can become a straitjacket if maintained too long. Nobody knows this better than Laura Davis, coauthor of The Courage to Heal – the bible of the recovery movement. As Davis puts it, Eventually, identifying oneself as a survivor is like wearing a sweater that is too small, and you need to take it off, to stand up and say, – I am responsible for my own life, for what I do and what I am..

Nobody here is suggesting a return to the old conspiracy of ignorance and silence. But what all the authors agree upon is that even deeply wounded survivors have the capacity to transcend their wounds; even the most divided families can find some way to reconnect. As Dusty Miller writes, The ripples that flow outward from every traumatic event do not have to sink us, define us, or assign us a spoiled identity. Victim ‘ describes a specific moment in time, not a permanent self-definition.

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