MotherJones MA93: Backtalk

For the past twenty years, women have been speaking out about sexual violence, and men have been coming up with denials, evasions, and excuses. We have been told that women lie, exaggerate, and fantasize. Now, with “Doors of Memory” (Jan./Feb.), Mother Jones is telling us that women are brainwashed. According to Ethan Watters, gullible women are misled by fanatical therapists who implant memories of childhood sexual abuse. Forget about the epidemic of rape and incest; what really has Watters worried is the possibility that many complaints may be false. His evidence: one case in which the accusations are sensational and the facts are unclear. This, according to Watters, constitutes a trend.

The only discernible trend here is pack journalism. In the past year, numerous similar stories have appeared, from Playboy to the New York Times, inspired by a well-funded organization called the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. Despite its scientific-sounding title, this is not a research group. In fact, there is no such thing as “False Memory Syndrome.” FMSF is an advocacy group for people whose children have accused them of sexual abuse. According to an FMSF newsletter (February 29, 1992), the organization is “not in the business of representing pedophiles.” How do they know this? Here’s their evidence: “We are a good-looking bunch of people: graying hair, well- dressed, healthy, smiling….Just about every person is someone you would likely find interesting and want to count as a friend.” Some members of FMSF even say they are willing to take lie-detector tests. This has been enough to satisfy the media.

Though FMSF has been very successful in capturing public attention, most journalists have tried to preserve at least a semblance of balance in their coverage. Watters, however, seems to have swallowed the entire FMSF press packet. The effect of Watters’ piece is to take the spotlight off alleged perpetrators (he does not even acknowledge FMSF as his primary source) and to put it back on victims, for whom all his skepticism is reserved. Once again, those of us who have labored for years to overcome public denial find ourselves debating victims’ credibility. How many times do we have to go over the same ground, guys?

Let’s review the basic facts, by now exhaustively documented. Sexual abuse of children is common (best estimates: at least one girl in three, one boy in ten). It is not overreported but vastly under- reported (best estimates: under 10 percent of all cases come to the attention of child-protective agencies or police). False complaints do occur, but they are rare (best estimates: under 5 percent of all complaints). Most victims do not disclose their abuse until long after the fact, if ever. Though many suffer long-lasting psychological harm, the great majority never see a therapist.

What do survivors of childhood abuse remember? Many survivors can remember detailed images, feelings, sounds, smells, and tastes as clearly as though the abuse were happening in the moment. In other ways, survivors’ memories are often confusing and vague. Important parts of the story may be missing, and survivors may have difficulty putting the pieces together to form a complete narrative with an accurate time sequence. Furthermore, al-though traumatic childhood memories are deeply engraved, they are not stored or retrieved in the same way as ordinary memories. Many survivors have a period of amnesia for the abuse, followed by delayed recall. In a recent careful follow-up study of two hundred women with documented childhood histories of sexual abuse, one in three did not remember the abuse twenty years later.

What triggers delayed recall? Suggestion by a therapist is probably at the bottom of the list. Most commonly, abuse memories start to surface when the survivor is involved in a close relationship. The memories may break through when she starts to have sex, when she gets married, when she has a child, or when her child reaches the age at which she was first abused. Or she may recall her own experience when another victim of the same perpetrator discloses abuse. She may remember the abuse when the aging perpetrator falls ill (and now expects her to care for him), or when the perpetrator dies.

Because the mental-health professions were blind to the reality of abuse for so many years, many therapists are not well trained to treat survivors. The bad old days, when patients were told that they secretly longed for incest, are not far behind us. Most therapists, even if they now believe their patients’ reports of childhood abuse, still shy away from exploring the history. Occasionally therapists make the opposite mistake: they try to play detective, leaping to conclusions about their patients’ histories without waiting for the memories to emerge. In these cases, however, it is most unusual for patients to accept every suggestion their therapists make. Psychotherapy is a collaborative effort, not a form of totalitarian indoctrination.

No one wants to believe that children are commonly abused by men they love and trust. Survivors want to believe this least of all. They do the best they can to keep their experiences secret, even from themselves. Often they succeed for a long time. They hate getting their memories back, and they cling to doubt long past the point where any impartial witness would be convinced. But once survivors have completed the process of recovering their memories, their stories are both internally consistent and–often–externally verifiable. In my own study of fifty-three survivors in group therapy, three out of four women were actually able to corroborate their memories with evidence from independent sources.

Truth is a funny thing; it seems to have healing powers. Once survivors come to terms with their past, they feel better. They feel even better when they realize they are not alone. Support groups have formed all over the country; in these groups many survivors discover both their personal and political strength. No longer isolated, many lose their shame and their fear. They start to speak out, to expose the men who abused them, and to hold them accountable for their actions. A few perpetrators have even been convicted of crimes on the basis of survivors’ testimony. This represents a serious challenge to patriarchal power. Perpetrators are accustomed to silence and impunity. They do not like being confronted, and they have the resources to counterattack with defense attorneys and an effective propaganda machine.

Violence against women and children is deeply imbedded in our society. It is a privilege that men do not relinquish easily. So it’s not surprising that we would see serious resistance to change. Historically, every time a subordinate group begins to make serious progress, a backlash occurs. This is what happened one hundred years ago when Freud created the myth that hysterical women fantasize about sexual abuse. It makes perfect sense that we would now see another backlash in the pages of Playboy or even the New York Times. But I have to admit that I’m surprised at Mother Jones.

Judith Herman is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She is the author, most recently, of Trauma and Recovery.

Ethan Watters replies: I absolutely agree with Judith Herman that child abuse is a serious and widespread problem that has been ignored for far too long. Herman is also eloquent in her assessment of the severe trauma that can result from such assaults. These facts should not, however, blind us to finding and exposing other abuses. Ultimately, my story was not about child abuse, but rather about the abuse suffered by adult women at the hands of poorly trained therapists.

I believe Herman and I also agree that therapists can be predisposed to find hidden memories of childhood abuse in their clients. Herman writes in her book: “Therapists have been known to tell patients, merely on the basis of a suggestive history or ‘symptom profile,’ that they definitely have had a traumatic experience. Any suggestion of doubt can be dismissed as ‘denial.'”

We disagree about whether this is an insignificant problem. In my research, which did not start or end with the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and went far beyond the single case forming the narrative of my story, I found this predisposition to be on the rise–the real “pack” trend Herman should be decrying.

To understand the single-mindedness of this predisposition, one need only read a few of the dozens of books that offer advice on recovering memories. Written (and recommended) by therapists, these books show that within one segment of the therapy community, finding repressed memories of abuse is the sole goal of treatment. Many therapists go so far as to advertise that they specialize in recovering memories.

Using increasingly popular techniques, such as hypnosis, guided fantasy, and trance writing, poorly trained or overzealous therapists can do enormous damage to their patients. Why do repressed memory advocates ignore this danger? Is it because studies have shown that these techniques can create false or inaccurate memories?

By ignoring the abuses in recovered memory therapy, Herman may be sacrificing the mental and emotional health of thousands of women for the sake of political expediency. We agree: truth is healing. I’d add that truth is seldom simple and nearly always defies becoming the property of a cause–no matter how well-meaning that cause may be.

MJ FORUM: URBAN POVERTY

Mother Jones continues the debate on urban poverty begun in the last issue by Roger Wilkins and Shelby Steele. In individual interviews with academics, journalists, and psychiatrists–as well as letters from our readers–Mother Jones sought out possible solutions. We’ve edited these responses into a forum. Here are the contributors:

  • Elijah Anderson, an urban ethnographer and professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Streetwise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community.
  • Derrick Bell, professor of law at the City University of New York and author of Faces at the Bottom of the Well.
  • Tony Brown, host of PBS’s “Tony Brown’s Journal.” He is at work on a new book on race relations.
  • Linda Chavez, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and director of the Center for the New American Community.
  • Price Cobbs, a psychiatrist and consultant to companies that want to foster the positive aspects of diversity. He is the coauthor of Black Rage.
  • Christopher Jencks, professor of sociology at Northwestern University and author, most recently, of Rethinking Social Policy.
  • Jacqueline Jones, professor of history at Brandeis University and author of The Dispossessed: America’s Underclasses from the Civil War to the Present.
  • Nicholas Lemann, national correspondent for The Atlantic and author of The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America.
  • Glenn Loury, professor of economics at Boston University.
  • Manning Marable, professor of history and political science at the University of Colorado in Boulder and author, most recently, of Race, Reform, and Rebellion.

Justice or effort?

Price Cobbs: Wilkins and Steele reduced black urban poverty to either racism or social class. But it’s not an either-or issue. Race in this country is intertwined with our whole social system. You can’t simplify race in America to just two issues.

Back in 1965, the Watts riots had all the elements of an alienated group lashing out at its oppressors: “As a black person, I am angry at the white racist world.”

But in South Central L.A. last year, it was multi-ethnic and almost tribal. “I’m angry that the black middle class has sold out and left my neighborhood. I’m angry at the Korean guy who owns the cleaning shop. I’m angry that other people are getting loans instead of me. I’m angry that my schools are so poor.”

There’s no willingness on the part of Americans to tackle that complexity. It’s always racism versus individual effort.

Manning Marable: In African-American history, the classic political debate occurred nearly a century ago. Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute and leader of the National Negro Business League, suggested that the keys to black progress were to be found by working within the capitalist system, cooperating with the white power structure, and employing self-initiative to address blacks’ problems. W.E.B. DuBois, founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, countered that black empowerment demanded institutional changes within the system, the abolition of racial segregation, and challenging white racism within America’s culture and ideology.

Wilkins asserts that until whites recognize that racism re-mains “a terrible virus,” no social peace between the races is possible. But it’s obvious that mainstream, middle-class, white America would find the thesis propounded by Steele and Washington comforting to its ancient and contemporary prejudices.

Jacqueline Jones: Shelby Steele shows an appalling lack of understanding of American history. I’ve documented the struggles of poor white and black people to work hard, do right by their families, and show resourcefulness to survive. That’s just not enough. When they’re faced with institutional racism and structural unemployment, then I don’t care how much initiative they show, they’re going to have a tough time.

Linda Chavez: Roger Wilkins and fellow liberals love to point to the loss of manufacturing jobs in the 1970s and 1980s, but fail to mention that employment grew by 19 percent in the 1980s, even with the worst recession since the Great Depression, and that 21.5 million jobs were created from December 1982 to June 1990. While employment and labor force participation rates were declining for blacks during that period, other low-skilled employees were entering the job market, most notably Latin immigrants.

Recent studies of Mexican immigrants and blacks in Chicago suggest that black men are far more hostile than Mexican men about performing low-paying jobs, are less willing to be flexible in accepting assignments outside their normal responsibilities, and are less willing to work as hard for the same low wages. The history of discrimination against blacks may make them more resentful of accepting low-paid work, while the extreme poverty that many Mexican men experience before coming to the U.S. may make them more willing to do so. Nonetheless, the behavior itself has important consequences in the relative employability of members of each group.

Christopher Jencks: Isn’t it obvious that both sides are right? Whenever we talk about race, it almost always boils down to either-or: a matter of justice or a matter of effort. It’s time to start thinking in terms of both-and.

Escaping victimhood

Cobbs: An important first step is to stop this generational continuity of people viewing themselves as victims. I completely agree with Shelby Steele on this. You can’t make people feel that they’re victims and expect them to help themselves. The black urban poor feel futureless and powerless, which gives them a sense that they must be reckless. Violence and criminal behavior become a way of life.

Elijah Anderson: Some black people have begun to see the condition of poor blacks as part of a plan by white people to commit black genocide. That plan involves AIDS, gentrification, high unemployment, crack, even the Korean grocer down the street. When people sense that nothing but contempt is coming from white society, they have no problem giving contempt back.

Glenn Loury: We have to be willing to treat these people seriously as moral agents. The question is not racism if a woman smokes a crack pipe while she’s pregnant. The question is the brutality of that act vis-a-vis her fetus. I agree that if this woman has lost her job, if this woman is experiencing racism, it will be more difficult for her to adhere to any particular moral standard I might set. Nevertheless, we’ve got to be willing to say in a judgmental fashion, “You’ve been virtuous,” or “You’ve been wretched.” It is possible for impoverished people to be wretched.

Nicholas Lemann: We have a real aversion to anything that smacks of blaming the victim. We’re afraid of programs that are perceived as white folks telling black folks how to behave. This is outdated. Now we’re in a situation in these communities where most of the cops, the teachers, et al., are black. It’s not the case anymore that the people administering these programs are white.

Who should take responsibility?

Cobbs: I see a personal responsibility on all sides. We’re asking poor people to take responsibility for their lives, and the majority of us are not taking responsibility for why their lives are in the condition they’re in.

Anderson: Over the past twelve years, we’ve seen the Reagan and Bush administrations actively disinvest in our cities, and the black community has been the most significant victim. Factory jobs have moved not only to Singapore and Mexico, but some of these jobs have moved to so-called satellite cities.

In Philadelphia, a lot of these manufacturing jobs are moving to edge cities like King of Prussia. These jobs could have gone to poor black, Hispanic, and even white people. But if you don’t have a car, then you don’t have access to these jobs. It’s not enough to say, “Walk out to King of Prussia.”

Loury: There are still jobs in the cities. Pretty much anybody can get a job driving a cab. Why is it that in a city like Washington, D.C., a lot of the cab drivers are foreigners? Part of it is that these immigrants may be hungrier, more disciplined, and more willing to try. I know that’s a politically incorrect thing to say.

In terms of creating jobs, it is not fair to say the American economy has failed. It would be good if we could create high-wage manufacturing jobs for people who have no specialized skills. More power to Clinton if he can do it.

Tony Brown: We should petition Clinton to get as much relief as we can, but the only thing we can depend on is ourselves. The ultimate responsibility for the black community lies with the black community.

Blacks in this country earn $300 billion per year. That’s equivalent to the fourteenth-richest nation in the world. How can blacks spend almost 95 percent of their money with white people and blame white people for 100 percent of their problems? Find me one other group in this country that has this kind of spending pattern, and I’ll show you a group that’s at the bottom of the ladder.

If blacks would spend their money at black businesses, we would have good schools, stable families, and an economic base. If blacks were rich and powerful, whites would admire us like they admire Asians, the so-called model minority. After I’m successful, you’ll want to be my friend. But for the last thirty years, black leaders, particularly black liberals, have depended on the government for solutions.

Lemann: Every scrap of racial progress we’ve had in American history has been achieved on the national level. There’s nothing wrong with looking to the government for answers.

Can we repair the ghettos?

Derrick Bell: There’s a study that shows that a black man in Harlem is less likely to reach age sixty-five than a citizen of Bangladesh, one of the poorest nations in the world. Now, if you could say the same thing about a white man on Long Island, you’d see outrage and immediate action. The cause of the poverty may not be tied to racism in any way, but the racism is evident in the character of the response–or lack of response.

Lemann: In a world historical context, poverty has never been put on the front burner. When Lyndon Johnson got up in January 1964 and declared war on poverty, that was an extremely unusual event. It would be very hard to find any leader in any country at any time who did that. It takes an alignment of the planets to confront these issues head-on.

To make matters worse, the Republicans created a wildly exaggerated view of the “misdeeds” of the war on poverty and sold it to the American people.

I wish the president would start turning around the perception that anti-poverty programs don’t work. He should keep expectations fairly low, starting by making the streets safer.

Clinton should not focus on “redeveloping” the ghettos, even though that’s been the conventional wisdom for the last thirty years. The average person takes “redevelopment” to mean changing a poor, blasted heath into a thriving neighborhood that has its own employment base. But that has never happened in the ghettos and will never happen.

As soon as the economic standing of the residents improves, they’ll move to more affluent communities. Millions of people have left the inner-city ghettos since 1970, and it’s been a success story. That’s what we should aim to do. We should aim to improve conditions in the ghetto to enable people to leave and get into the mainstream of American life.

Brown: But it’s because of the departure of the black middle class that the inner cities have as many problems as we see today. When you deprive a community of wealth, particularly social and human capital, do you not get poverty? The only way to improve the conditions of the inner cities is for the middle class to be in proximity to the underclass.

Cobbs: I think the middle class too often gets trashed for leaving the ghetto. America is a country of upward mobility, and blacks are entitled to that. The home in the suburbs with two cars in the garage is not just a white dream, it’s an American dream.

Jones: As a white suburbanite, am I supposed to be responsible for the white poor in Kentucky? Nobody would ever say that, and I’m always shocked when people say the black middle class is responsible for the black poor. It’s a terrible double standard. The idea seems to be that we as a society aren’t responsible, and it’s up to people of the same race to save their own.

Solutions?

Brown: The only time blacks are going to be accepted is when blacks use their resources to become competitive. Clinton can pass all the infrastructure projects he wants, but until he improves the education in Watts, the people there won’t work in those new factories because they won’t have the skills. The black community has to shift from an obsession with racism to an obsession with education. We have to say, “I really don’t care whether you like me or not. I can still fly this jet plane better than you.”

Anderson: How can black students compete when they have been the “beneficiaries” of schools that don’t teach them to read or write? The government has to help people adjust to this new economy by teaching them high-level skills.

Chavez: Those groups who have succeeded in America despite the prejudice and discrimination they faced–Asians, Jews, and now Latinos–have done so because they would not let others define them. Whatever his faults, Malcolm X clearly understood this. His exhortations to hard work and clean living offered blacks the sense that they could control their own lives.

Marable: We must build protest movements which train the next generation of people of color to demand policies which actually create “equality of conditions,” not just racial integration or civil rights. It’s time to go beyond Booker T. Washington.

Bell: Change will only come when it’s perceived to be in white interest. We need to fashion programs that will help blacks but will also be in the interests of whites. More whites suffer from poor health care, education, housing, and so forth than do blacks, simply because there are more of them. Whites have a stake in solving these problems just as much as blacks. We need more carrot-oriented methods.

Lemann: I think you’ve got to reach into something more positive in people. There’s got to be an appeal to altruism and morality mixed in with the appeal to practicality and self-interest. The ghettos nag on people’s minds, and they would like to see these problems solved for more than just selfish reasons.

Jencks: It’s hard to be really optimistic in the short run. I actually think we could get a lot more money into programs for the poor if we tied the money to employment. The idea that one can work full-time and not support his family is very upsetting to most Americans. We’ve got to appeal to people’s willingness to help people who help themselves.

Cobbs: This is a survival issue for the United States. We cannot compete on a global basis if almost 15 percent of our population is not producing, is not paying taxes, and is undereducated.

In almost every community, we are building up Third World cities, surrounded by a series of First World suburbs and economies. Whether it’s a small town or New York or Chicago, I see tinderboxes waiting to explode.

It has not become a core value of the United States to heal the inner cities, and until it does, we will continue to pay the economic and social price of destabilized cities, institutions, and people.

These responses are from solicited statements and interviews with Josh Clark and Deanna Cunningham.

STEELE-WILKINS MAIL

I am a sixty-two-year-old black attorney. As a child of the Depression I remember my father, a high school graduate, working on WPA and losing a job in the post office to a white man who could barely read. I remember receiving free immunization shots in elementary school and clothes from a relief organization.

My father, a black nationalist, advised me not to accept an athletic scholarship to a black institution because a degree from a white school would serve me better. In 1949, I joined a segregated air force. My scores on air force aptitude tests allowed me to select any technical school available after desegregation.

White people who will acknowledge racism and urge fair policies to eradicate it are urgently needed, even if their impetus might be guilt.

Donald Grant, Reston, Virginia

Roger Wilkins wrote that the chief obstacle to black progress is “the power of whites to define blacks.” Don’t blame us. Blacks are not poor because of racial prejudice. They are poor because of the performance levels and behavior patterns that reinforce that prejudice.

John Engelman, Walnut Creek, California

I asked a black colleague who supported blacks-only student groups what she would say to whites who wanted to have a whites-only group. She said, “The way I feel right now, I would say, ‘Yes.'” My response: “Yes, but it’s against the law.”

We can’t look at color on the one hand and be blind on the other; divisiveness will only benefit the majority. We must focus on reciprocal responsibility, duty, and (at the risk of sounding old- fashioned) brotherly love, not guilt.

Wanda Schindley, Mt. Pleasant, Texas

My father became a rural route carrier in 1956, the year I was born. He became the first black carrier in Illinois. White carriers threatened to boycott over his getting this position.

In 1959 he bought property near his rural route, and six years later he built his dream house. From April to September we lived there without problems. The phone calls, the name-calling, the hate came only after my brother and I registered for school in the fall. People thought it amusing to drive by and scream: “Nigger go home,” to shake my hand and say, “I’m Lincoln, you’re free.” When shots were fired at our house, the police found the house hard to locate. I recall my father saying over and over, “We are not here to integrate. We are here to live.”

If you are mugged, you are a victim. Recovery is not dependent on the mugger. It depends on the support system of the victim, and it takes a lot of determination. Racism is like a mugger, but we have the choice to view ourselves as handicapped by this mugging or challenged by it.

Gerald Thompson, Savanna, Illinois

SLICK WILLIE’S CHALLENGE

With the “Shredded Justice” and “Toxic Ten” articles, your Jan./Feb. issue isn’t so much a magazine as a resource file. If Clinton’s administration does not, early on, investigate and penalize every violator, he will be opposed at every turn, not only by ‘Slick- Willie’-hating Republicans, but also by the justice-starved, law- abiding progressive elements of his own party.

John Jonik, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

ADDRESS THE ISSUE

My name is Annina Burns and I’m thirteen years old. As I was sitting down for our family Christmas at my aunt’s house, I picked up your Jan./Feb. issue. It had a lot of worthwhile articles, not like most magazines. Then I came across the “Toxic Ten,” the most environmentally hazardous industries in the country. I thought I would write to these companies and encourage other people to write and tell them that we are aware of what they are doing and persuade them to stop. Then I realized the addresses didn’t have zip codes. Why not?

Annina Burns, Falls Church, Virginia

Editor’s note: Sorry. Here are the mailing addresses of the “Toxic Ten” companies:

  • DuPont: 1007 Market St., Wilmington, DE 19898
  • Rockwell: 2201 Seal Beach Blvd., Seal Beach, CA 90740
  • General Motors: 3044 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit, MI 48202
  • General Electric: 3135 Easton Turnpike, Fairfield, CT 06431
  • Georgia-Pacific: 133 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta, GA 30303
  • Cargill: P.O. Box 9300, Minneapolis, MN 55440
  • Maxxam: 5847 San Felipe, Houston, TX 77257
  • USX: 600 Grant St., Pittsburgh, PA 15219
  • Exxon Chemical: 13501 Katy Freeway, Houston, TX 77079
  • Ciba-Geigy: 444 Saw Mill River Rd., Ardsley, NY 10502

Additional note: For readers desiring further information about the history of the use of lead as a gasoline additive, we recommend an article in the American Journal of Health, “A ‘Gift of God’?: The Public Health Controversy Over Leaded Gasoline During the 1920s,” by David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz (April 1985). Our story, “Running on MMT,” by Nicholas Regush (May/June ’92) relied heavily on this article for its history section but inadvertently failed to mention it.