Reading and reviewing Sybil Exposed, by Debbie Nathan, has gotten me thinking about a passage in my life when my family was grappling with the question of reality and what constitutes it. I was in my late twenties when, through one of the flukes which proves that truth really is stranger than fiction, my sisters, my brother, and I all learned that our past had been essentially a construct. The people who told us this were the people who had done the constructing, so there was no chance of misunderstanding or misinterpretation. They acknowledged what they had done quite openly.
Saying it like that sounds clean and logical, like unmaking a past and remaking another one was a simple thing. The reality was that it was devastating. Until I went through that experience, I don’t think I ever really understood the degree to which the past shapes us–and how important knowing and understanding that past can be. Nor had I ever considered how frightening it can be to have what one has been raised to believe is truth revealed to be false.
The question of recovered memory and how much credibility it has lay at the heart of our experience–as it should have. Recovered memories may indeed be fragments of the past that have been, in the words of a friend of mine, “misfiled,” and come to light in the course of responsible therapy–or even everyday life. And then there are “recovered” memories, which can be created or stimulated by improper therapy, leading questions, or pressure.
The very nature of the abusive relationship complicates the issue further. As my own counselor explained, “Child abuse can only survive in an atmosphere of secrecy.” The successful abuser is very, very good at looking very, very good. He or she often goes to extreme lengths to discredit victims–often doing so even before the victims speak. It’s a survival mechanism. Often they don’t even have to work very hard at it–abusers choose the vulnerable–my uncle repeatedly moved indigent women with small children into his home. When the women reported the abuse–and some did–they were discredited. After all, they had moved in voluntarily, hadn’t they? They had substance abuse issues, didn’t they? They left their children with him, didn’t they? The sad truth is that some did. Maybe they weren’t good mothers–and that made them perfect for my uncle. And when those reports came in he had only to present his good friend the sheriff as a character reference. Those children never had a chance. In cases like that it’s easy to see why the pendulum swung so far the other way, with child advocates insisting that no report of abuse, however fantastical or unlikely, should ever be questioned. Successful abusers are exactly those people “who would never do a thing like that.” Often they talk loudly about what they would do to anyone who “hurts a kid.” The successful abuser has learned to call what he or she does by another name–it’s “discipline.” It’s “a game.” Or, all gods help us, making a child “fit for heaven,” or it’s “love.”
It comes back to one central question, “Whom do we believe?” That question alone is incredibly complex, because abusers aren’t the only ones who learn to call the abuse by another name. So do their victims. In my own family, we children would sometimes talk about the scary, hurting, shaming stuff, but we’d always finish up with, “But they loved us,” as if somehow that made all the bad stuff all right. And when we started to hear stories about sex abuse we were very resistant to the idea. In my own case, I can say that in part my resistance was because of my own memories. If I acknowledged that my father was a child molester, then I had to at least look at my own experience in that light, and doing that meant that I would have to act. The very idea of acting was terrifying–my dad was very, very good at looking very, very good. He had amazing personal presence, and had an absolute gift for using shame and guilt to silence dissent. And he loved us. Broken as he was, I never doubted that. He absolutely loved us. Acting would mean hurting him, and losing the one structure upon which I had been told I could depend, my family, or at least a large part of it. The victims of abuse can be the loudest is defense of their abusers.
And so it comes back to the central question–credibility. And that’s terrifying for a anyone confronting the question of abuse. The simple fact is that the people closest to the situation, those people who “should know,” often don’t, precisely because they have been living in a distorted universe for so very long. Having that universe shattered was probably the most terrifying experience of my life. It left me vulnerable in unimaginable ways. My mind filled with fog. I forgot faces. I had no idea what was true, and what was false. I forgot huge parts of my history, and those I remembered I wondered if I had “made up.” Fortunately, I had been a journal writer for years, so I had them for reference.
But all of that did nothing to address the central issue of how to understand my family. And I wasn’t alone. At the time I was dealing with the worst of this I lived close to my eldest sister, and so we were able to help each other–sharing memories, offering support, and for a while, when things were the worst, living in the loft of her condo. Given what was happening in our heads, the one thing we knew beyond the shadow of a doubt was that neither of us trusted our memories. My sister had taken journalism in college, and for a while worked as a reporter. It sounds funny to say that journalistic ethics saved the day for us, but they did. When our own sense of the past and our own memories became suspect, when we were first grappling with the idea that no one could be deemed above answering a question, we fell back on the journalistic principle of two independent sources. We decided that, while we wouldn’t necessarily discount a claim that had less, we would only act upon claims for which we had two independent sources, or which the abuser acknowledged. There were a surprising number of them, largely, I suspect, because in many cases abuse had been inflicted under the name of something else. The issue was less what had happened than it was whether or not it was harmful. Those claims were the ones upon which we based our new picture of our family.
The other stories, the ones that we only got from one source, we evaluated based on our new family picture. Did the story fit into the pattern we had? How consistent was the story? Did it stay the same over time, or did it become bigger and better–or worse? Did the story seem to fit what we were coming to understand were our facts, or did it seem to advance an agenda? Did it fit with the provable facts of our lives–where and how we lived at a given point in time? How was the story presented, as a long-term memory, or a recovered memory? Most of all, did the actions of the people in the story ring true with their actions in the rest of their lives? In the end, while we might decide that a story seemed likely, even though there was only one source for it, we never based our actions on a story for which we had less than two sources.
In my own case, that means that even though I have some pretty bad memories, I stop short of saying that my dad molested me not because I doubt my memories, but because I am the only person who remembers the instances in question, and because at the time I was very young. I think it’s quite likely, given the family history and the patterns of behavior that that’s exactly what was happening, but there must always be room for doubt not of what I remember, but of why my dad was doing what he was doing. So did my dad molest me? I don’t know. I think it’s possible, maybe even likely. But I cannot be certain.
Those external guidelines helped us to find our way at a time when we were absolutely lost. Having a counselor who was less interested in spectacular claims than he was in helping us understand our new reality was key. And ultimately, realizing that we would never have answers to every question was vital. In the end, healing meant knowing what we could, understanding what we could, and making peace with the ambiguities.