CASE STUDIES; Resolving the Irresolvable: Constructing a Way out for Families Torn Apart by Struggles over Recovered Memories
Barrett, Mary Jo, Family Therapy Networker
Joe, the CEO of a large textile company, called me from Boston. He told me he had two business cards in front of him on his desk, one from me and one from a malpractice lawyer. He planned to meet with the lawyer, fly to Chicago to see me and then decide whether to sue his daughter's therapist or try mediation with me.
Two years earlier, Joe's 32-year-old daughter, Laura, had written to him (and to her mother, two sisters and brother) saying that during the process of therapy, she'd remembered her father sexually abusing her as a child. She made it clear that she didn't want him to write or call, and wouldn't be home for Christmas or Thanksgiving. Within months, she'd stopped talking to her mother on the phone as well. All this had put much of the family into an uproar, and Laura was now only in touch with one sister, the sole family member who believed her.
Joe insisted that he'd never abused Laura, said he'd been in touch with the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and told me he thought his daughter had undergone "recovered memory therapy" that had made her even more depressed and convinced her to cut off from her family.
Since 1992, I have conducted mediations with more than 50 families like Joe's. I begin with something like shuttle diplomacy, meeting with both sides separately to see if negotiations are even possible, and then to clarify goals and ground rules. The dialogue usually culminates with family members flying or driving to Chicago, often from halfway across the country, for one or two joint negotiation sessions in my office in Skokie, Illinois.
From the first contact, I do my best to be neutral. I have worked with incestuous families and traumatized adults for more than 20 years, but when I work with these divided families, I take no position on either parental innocence or childhood victimization. It is my hunch that some long-forgotten memories of abuse reflect realities and others may be metaphors for less physical forms of familial violation. Be that as it may, my goal is not to change anyone's mind about the past. My primary goals are those of a mediator--to explore how people with very different working assumptions about reality can nevertheless organize meaningful, safe and respectful contact with one another. This is partly a matter of crafting agreements that cover what might seem like niggling details, like who sits next to whom at Thanksgiving dinner or what topics can be addressed in a letter. These nuts-and-bolts agreements are most easily reached when family members can agree on a "third reality"--often an emotional truth about the family that transcends disagreements on details.
In one Family Dialogue mediation, a daughter who had not spoken to her father for eight years agreed to sit at the same table at a family wedding, on condition that her father would not hug her and that their conversation would be limited to safe topics, like their careers. Other families have reached agreements permitting Hanukkah celebrations, visits with grandchildren, exchanges of letters and phone calls within carefully defined limits. No family has magically entered a paradise where all is forgiven and understood, the prodigal daughter returns or the father confesses and charges of sexual abuse are dramatically clarified, validated or retracted. All have more contact than they had before we began and most have reached agreement on at least some aspects of their shared pasts.
I told Joe that I would not expect him to admit to things he believed he did not do, nor would I urge his daughter to recant or ply her with information about the nature of memory. I would not go to court and testify against his daughter's therapist nor would I even hold the mediation if he was actively pursuing a lawsuit. I could offer him nothing more than a peaceful way to establish some contact with his daughter, however minimal. This was not therapy but negotiation. No one would be a winner, I told him, and yet both he and his daughter might win something.
Two weeks later, Joe and his wife, Diana, flew to Chicago and we tackled the first logistical issue: how could they ask their daughter to take part in mediation when she'd forbidden them to write or call? If they began by violating the limits she'd set, I said, they wouldn't get anywhere. I suggested they ask Laura's most sympathetic sister to be a go-between, and, through her sister, Laura agreed to receive a letter from her parents limited to the question of mediation. That letter, drafted with my help, said that I was a family therapist with experience in treating trauma as well as in mediating with families after allegations of abuse. It included a variety of ways Laura could contact me.
A week later, Laura's therapist called me. Sometimes the dialogue ends right there: some therapists apparently fear that I will be manipulated into drawing their clients back into abusive or invalidating family relationships. But after Laura's therapist became satisfied that I did not intend to turn Laura into a scapegoat or urge her to recant, Laura called me twice, the first time with her therapist on the speaker phone. When she understood the limits of the mediation, she agreed to meet with me.
After a preliminary meeting, Laura and I got together to set goals and explore what she wanted out of the mediation. She was the manager of a photographic gallery in Chicago, and she told me that she was tired of being gossiped about within the family as "the problem" since sending her letters. She resented that the focus was on her behavior rather than her parents' actions, that she didn't want to have much to do with her father and that she really missed contact with her mother. She wanted an acknowledgment from her parents of family difficulties that had nothing to do with sexual abuse or recovered memories.
Joe and Diana wanted more contact than that. In a separate goals-setting session, they told me they wanted to be able to call Laura on the phone and have her come back to Boston for Thanksgiving and Christmas. They reiterated that they wanted a chance to defend their position that no sexual abuse had taken place, and I reminded them to set aside that question for the mediation. I asked them to think about something else instead: if they were so sure Laura had been "brainwashed," what was it about Laura's childhood, and her role in the family, that might have made her vulnerable to "brainwashing"? Could they acknowledge that theirs hadn't been a perfect family?
On the morning of the mediation, all moves were carefully choreographed. Joe and Diana arrived in my office as planned, 15 minutes before Laura arrived, so that there would be no awkward meetings in the waiting room. By prior agreement, Joe and Diana did not rise from their seats or move to hug Laura when she arrived. Instead, they briefly shared their feelings of excitement, fear and hope. Then all three of them burst into tears, and Laura said, "It's really good to see you, Mom."
The next three hours were as full of time-outs and caucuses as any heated labor negotiation. Whenever anybody needed a break or needed to consult with me outside the presence of others, we made time. Sometimes I offered someone a glass of water, a Kleenex or words of encouragement, but I would then go over to the "other side" and do the same thing. I regularly asked Laura whether she felt safe and asked her parents whether they felt heard by me. It was my job to stay as neutral as possible, to keep the room safe by calling everyone on any disrespectful communication and to design and offer alternatives that might meet everyone's needs.
Laura began. She believed she'd been abused, she said, partly because of memories she had never repressed: memories of lying curled up under her bed at night, listening to her father shout, beat her brother and break dishes against the wall. Often, she said, she feared for her mother's life. She remembered coming home to find her mother drunk and depressed on the living room couch, while her 13-year-old sister stood in the kitchen making dinner. She had tried to play the role of the "happy little girl," and she wasn't willing to do that anymore, she said. As an adult, she felt her father had badgered her about her career, asked her too many nosy, personal questions and commented too graphically on her physical appearance. "I don't care if you deny the sexual abuse," she finally said. "Will you at least admit these other things?"
Laura's mother cried and wept. "I hate hearing this," she said. "I don't remember it all. But yes, it was terrible, and we are ashamed."
Then her father--a huge, imposing, man who'd been an Olympic swimmer--broke in. "I'm different now," he said. "I've changed." When Laura responded, "I don't want to hear how you've changed, I don't feel safe," he stopped.
"It was terrible," he said.
This was the turning point. I knew then that our negotiations would be successful. The parents, desperate for contact with their daughter, had adopted a nondefensive posture that created a safe context. Laura was no longer defined as the irrational "problem," and she and her parents had come to a shared familial reality. Even though they "agreed to disagree" about specific physical abuse, they all acknowledged that enough had happened in Laura's childhood to cause her profound distress and make her feel unsafe. Now that Laura's inner emotional reality had been validated, she was willing to continue communication and some sort of relationship with her parents. We broke for the day.
The next day we got down to nuts and bolts. Laura acknowledged her anger and her pain. She also acknowledged what she enjoyed in her relationships with each of her parents and agreed to build on those aspects. She had sorely missed her mother, and we figured out ways for her to call her mother at set times when her mother--not her father--would answer the phone. Those conversations, her mother agreed, would be kept private. She would not badger Laura into having more contact with her father or argue with her about her memories. Laura also agreed to begin writing to her father about photography, a shared love. Her father agreed to let Laura control the frequency and timing of the correspondence by only writing in response to a letter from her. Laura, everyone agreed, would be the one to initiate any hugs or physical contact. And over the next few months, all three would explore ground rules for a family Thanksgiving.
At the end of the session, we drew up a formal written agreement, based on my notes, and signed by all parties. The parents acknowledged that they had heard and agreed with much of Laura's historical narrative and understood her need for boundaries. Laura, for her part, agreed to have written and verbal contact with them. Anyone could request my renewed involvement if anyone broke the contract and they could not resolve things without a third party. They also agreed on what they would say to other family members--that the meeting was a first step and that they had agreed not to go into the details.
When I first decided, in 1992, that I had to do something to help families and therapists dig their way out of the angry, adversarial, cut-off state we'd found ourselves in, I had no idea that this sort of mediation could succeed. But it has. We haven't resolved the debates about traumatic memory and good therapy. But we have helped adult children feel empowered, and parents and siblings become reattached, usually in healthier ways. Every family that has chosen this process has reported that our mediations were just the beginning of safer family relationships. I continue to be humbled by these families' courage to face one another and move toward a shared and respectful future.
By Elizabeth F. Loftus
As many families today struggle bitterly over recent accusations of long-ago abuse, paths to reconciliation have not been easy to discover. Now Mary Jo Barrett, with her innovative Family Dialogue Project, has stepped in to fill the void and offer a desperately needed new approach.
This case example fits the mold of many cases that have fueled the repressed memory controversy. Five years earlier, Laura, after remembering her father sexually abusing her, cut off contact with practically all of her family. After years of silence and stalemate, Joe, Laura's father, wants what many fathers in this situation would want: contact with his daughter, vindication and to stop Laura's therapist from hurting other families. For her part, Laura wants an end to the focus on her as the family problem and the acknowledgment that, even apart from her memories of abuse, Dad's rages and Mom's depressive drinking while she was growing up have created many problems for her.
In my own work over the last few years, as I have collaborated with mental health professionals on finding better ways of helping families in which there are highly disputed recollections of abuse, I have suggested that therapists borrow from noted couples researcher John Gottman's excellent advice on how to make marriages succeed. Gottman believes that it is important to remind clients that negative events in their lives do not completely cancel out all the positives. Perhaps one of the most important factors in this case is that Barrett neither dwells on the misery of childhood nor digs for childhood sexual trauma as its cause. She is able to bring the daughter and her parents together for mediation, or, as she aptly puts it, shuttle diplomacy. After fits and starts, the family appears to have made some progress in reconnecting. I was struck by Barrett's encouraging Laura to acknowledge what she still valued in her relationships with each of her parents--how she missed her mother and the love of photography she shared with her father. Her approach is particularly relevant since there is no clinical evidence that focusing on repressed memories and childhood trauma actually helps clients get better. In fact, after reviewing 40 studies of people who retracted memories of childhood abuse, H. I. Lief and J. Fetkewicz conclude in their 1995 Journal of Psychiatry & Law article, "Retractors of False Memories," that focusing on recovered memories "is bad therapy . . . patients get sicker instead of better, and huge sums of money are spent for years of therapy based on the erroneous assumption that the recovery of memories of sexual abuse in childhood is a healing process."
The fundamental question regarding Barrett's approach is whether it is possible for divided families to attempt any kind of reconciliation without addressing the validity of abuse accusations at all. I'm reminded of that famous line, "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" Can we reasonably expect many accused parents to be able to concentrate on a discussion of relatively lesser maltreatments when the large gorilla of abuse is sitting in the corner, never really out of the way? While the alarming prevalence of childhood sexual abuse is beyond dispute at this point, it is vital that mental health professionals remain acutely sensitive to the damage that false accusations can inflict on families, as well as to the terrible psychological consequences of abuse itself. Again and again, I have encountered cases in which, after investigating the facts, I have been convinced that families have been victimized by destructive therapy in which the line between fantasy and the reality of abuse was blurred. For most of the parents in these cases, the question of their innocence of abuse accusations is nonnegotiable.
Although Barrett's case ends with the possibility of hope for the splintered family she describes (I would like to hear more follow-up information about them), the question remains of how generally effective Barrett's "shuttle diplomacy" is with families embattled over repressed memories. In this case, Joe seemed able to move past his anger, with Barrett's encouragement, to take a different position. So, perhaps, might others. Although very different mediation procedures will almost certainly be needed for different kinds of families, Barrett has presented us with a promising idea and some preliminary data as a starting point. As a first step toward thinking about helping divided families begin to heal, Barrett has done us all a great service.
By Mary Jo Barrett
I appreciate Elizabeth Loftus's encouragement and agree that the mediation process I am describing is tricky. Since the session between Laura and her family, their contacts with one another, to date, have been respectful. In fact, they have just phoned me to set up an appointment to discuss guidelines for a Thanksgiving visit.
It is still too early to know whether families can reconcile while allowing what Loftus describes as "the large gorilla of abuse" to remain sitting in the corner. All that I can say is that, overall, 18 families have set up subsequent rounds of Family Dialogues, to continue the progress they have made in their initial contacts. I am very encouraged by this response and believe it offers the possibility of hope for many divided families.
Mary Jo Barrett is director of training and consultation at the Center for Contextual Change in Skokie, Illinois. Among her more than 30 publications are Systemic Treatment of Incest and Treating Incest: A Multiple Systems Perspective. Address: Center for Contextual Change, 9239 Gross Point, Skokie, IL 60077.
Elizabeth F. Loftus, Ph.D., is a professor in the Psychology Department of the University of Washington. She is president-elect of the American Psychological Society and the coauthor with Katherine Ketcham of The Myth of Repressed Memory. Address: Psychology Department, Box 351525, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195-1525. E-mail address: email@example.com…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: CASE STUDIES; Resolving the Irresolvable: Constructing a Way out for Families Torn Apart by Struggles over Recovered Memories. Contributors: Barrett, Mary Jo - Author. Magazine title: Family Therapy Networker. Volume: 21. Issue: 6 Publication date: November/December 1997. Page number: Not available. © Psychotherapy Networker, Inc. Nov/Dec 1996. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.