Feminism, Fanaticism and False Memories

by Sigrid Macdonald

In courtrooms and scientific communities all over the world, a debate rages over the existence and reliability of recovered memories of child sexual abuse. The American Medical Association has issued a warning to doctors that recovered memories may not always be accurate and need to be verified. The British Royal College of Psychiatrists recently banned the use of memory retrieval techniques such as hypnosis, guided imagery and regression therapies to uncover past sexual abuse. Nor are recovered memories faring well in the courts: the Supreme Court of New Hampshire and the Court of Appeals in California have ruled that recovered memories are not sufficiently reliable to be admitted as evidence.

But in mainstream feminist circles, it is still considered taboo to challenge the veracity of any recovered memories. An unwritten law in the women's movement dictates that we must accept every claim of sexual abuse by another woman, or else we are not being supportive of survivors. Many campus feminists act as though the recovered-memory debate were moot and dismiss it as part of the increasing reactionary backlash against women.

A few years ago, I worked as a collective member at a local university women's center. One day, I walked into the center carrying a copy of Mark Pendergrast's book, *Victims of Memory*, in the hope of discussing it with other women. An investigative journalist, Pendergrast has written an exhaustive, well-researched treatise that favors the false memory syndrome perspective. His own two daughters, after being in therapy, accused him of unspecified acts of sexual abuse and cut off all contact with him.

Pendergrast and I disagree on the extent of true recovered memories. While he acknowledges (and documents) corroborated cases in which people forgot sexual abuse and then remembered it later, he does not believe in massive repression in which years of traumatic events are completely forgotten and later recalled. I believe that massive repression is possible and that many recovered memories may be essentially accurate reconstructions of events. Nonetheless, we both concur that false memory syndrome is a serious problem for the women who have rewritten their pasts and for parents who are on the receiving end of unwarranted accusations.

Imagine my surprise when I sat down with a group of six female students in the women's center and asked if anyone had read Pendergrast's book. The women visibly shuddered. They raised their voices. They called Pendergrast a "perp" and me a "perp defender" because I had an ongoing correspondence with him. One woman shouted, "Too many trees died to make that book." All of the women refused to read the book. Some barely spoke to me for months afterwards and referred to me behind my back as "that friend of Pendergrast's."

I was astonished that such closed-mindedness could exist in academia. At the age of 44, I have been active in the women's movement for 25 years. I have worked in women's centers in three universities, headed task forces for the National Organization for Women, and sat through the original mover-shaker consciousness raising groups of the '70s. Over the years, I have engaged in heated conversations on topics as volatile as the exploitation of sex trade workers, the safety of S&M, and the role of pornography in male violence. Yet I have never encountered a topic as contentious as that of recovered memories of sexual abuse.

How could these students have assumed that Pendergrast was guilty of incest without knowing anything about the science of the recovered memory debate? According to the students, false memory syndrome was merely a legal defense contrived by accused perpetrators. If FMS does not exist, parents like Pendergrast who are accused on the basis of recovered memories have to be guilty.

This logic ignores the retractors -- individuals, usually female, who have declared that their therapists have recklessly and erroneously encouraged them to believe that they were victims of sexual abuse. According to Pamela Freyd, Executive Director of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, more than 300 retractors have contacted the foundation. Students at the women's center viewed the retractors as "survivors in denial." They did not want to hear the stories of the retractors' anguish in therapy. They did not wish to read the works of cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus or of sociologist Richard Ofshe, who are critical of recovered memory. They did not want to hear about the FBI report by Kenneth Lanning indicating that there is not a shred of evidence for the existence of multigenerational satanic cults in which children are subjected to ritual sexual abuse.

There should be no place in academia for such a rigid refusal to hear both sides of an argument. In "Professing Feminism," dissident feminists Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge speak of the "silencing" and "ideological policing" that often occur in women's studies classes to prevent women from espousing beliefs that run contrary to the feminist party line. I felt silenced at this university women's center. I have been made to feel guilty on countless occasions because I have argued for false memory syndrome, although I believe strongly in recovered memories as well.

The feminist view that self-proclaimed survivors of sexual violence must be believed under all circumstances arose in response to a centuries-old history of callously dismissing women's and children's complaints of abuse. It is a sign of social progress that victims of sexual abuse are taken more seriously today. However, the feminist community must acknowledge that repressed and recovered memories are extremely controversial.

When I was growing up, my brother and I had political disagreements at the dinner table. Often, he would jokingly interrupt me to say, "Excuse me! I didn't mean to confuse you with the facts." This served as a reminder to me that I had not armed myself with enough information to hold up my end of the debate. Certain segments of the women's movement are currently suffering from the same righteousness that I had in my twenties. Regardless of the ultimate cost of sacrificing principles in favor of rhetoric, these feminists do not wish to confuse themselves with the facts.


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