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. …