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RETURNING TO THE FAMILY: ISSUES AND PROBLEMS
By Harold Lief and Janet Fetkewicz


From FMSF Newsletter, 1995, Vol. 4, No. 4

Notes from talks by Harold Lief, MD and Janet Fetkewicz, FMSF Staff

How many people are affected when someone makes a ‘recovered memory’ accusation and insists that people either believe her or him or be cut off? A case study of six families who have contacted the FMS Foundation showed that it is not unusual for between 50 to 90 people to have been affected in some way in a family. What happens to all of these people and their relationships after the accusations? What happens in families after an accuser tries to rejoin the family or retracts?

Harold Lief, and Janet Fetkewicz spoke at the Pennsylvania Regional Family Members Meeting on March 25, 1995. The information presented in their talks was based on clinical experience with affected families and from the results of the FMSF retractor survey. Following are notes taken during their presentations. Their complete papers are in press.

It would be unrealistic for families to think that they will ever be the same as they were before this experience. Some families, however, may come out of this difficult time even stronger than they were before. That is certainly something to work for.

Although it marks the end of a nightmare for both accusers and family members, a retraction also marks the beginning of a process. Trust and healthy relationships are not restored overnight.

When families first experience the trauma of the accusation, they tend to have emergency emotions. These emotions are: Confusion; Anger and especially a feeling of betrayal; Shame because they are worried about what others might think of them; Guilt because even though they did not do what they were accused of doing, they still ask themselves, "What did I do to create this Frankenstein? I must have done something"; Fear of a number of things such as loss of their child, the reactions of others, divorce, financial disaster,and legal charges. Emergency emotions are those that ward off and deal with threats. They tend to lead to "flight and fight" reactions. They lead "away" and "against." Families at this stage often do nothing. People often refer to this period as being paralyzed. Many people try to hide what has happened in their family.

For reconciliation to happen, however, there needs to be movement "toward." For reconciliation to happen, the "emergency" emotions need to be replaced by welfare emotions of: Love, Hope, Pride and Joy. Families may have to work actively to try to turn their emotions in this direction.

Some therapists call the families that are caught in this tragedy "dysfunctional families," but every family has dysfunction. Every family has cracks. In the face of this kind of trauma, we can hope that the cracks do not lead to fissures. Sometimes they do, and the accusation acts like a crowbar and splits the family. Other times the accusation can unite the family.

Families and family systems can be examined in a number of different ways. Family therapists often look at family dynamics from the perspective of power, of intimacy, or of boundaries. No matter how one examines family dynamics, however, good communication turns out to be critically important. Good communication requires expressing feelings and this is scary for people who have been so hurt from the experience of FMS. When people express feelings they make themselves vulnerable. They have to be ready to take the risk that they may be hurt again.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that it is the siblings of accusers who tend to be the people who are the most hurt by these traumatic experiences. We don’t know why this is the case. Perhaps it is the fact that parents have a kind of unconditional love for their children that is not a characteristic of sibling relationships. Perhaps it is because the siblings are torn between the generations. Perhaps it is the case that many siblings take the biggest risks in trying to keep the channels of communication open with the accuser. Sometimes even after parents accept the accuser back, the brothers and sisters are so angry at what has happened that they will not welcome the retractor back.

Parents have many concerns at the beginning of reconciliation. They ask "How should we act? How should we respond? Should we act as if nothing had happened? Should we smooth over the difficulty? Should we confront our daughter? Should we express anger or would that be bad? Will our daughter continue to believe that she was abused by us? Does she have mixed feelings? Does part of her still believe the memories?"

Parents are often hypervigilant at the beginning of reconciliation. They tend to look for signs of the old beliefs and they are worried that their child is just saying things to please them. They wonder "Will she go crazy again? Can she be trusted? How can I deal with the anger, fear and suspicion?"

Retractors also have many concerns about reconciliation. Many wonder if their families will take them back and, unfortunately, the reality is that while most do, some families refuse to accept a returning child.

"What will they expect of me? Will they want me to go into the gruesome details? Will they accept my moods? How can I deal with my own guilt? What if a family member makes me angry and it has nothing to do with the memories? Will they accept my anger or will they think I am overreacting? Will they really forgive me?"

"This was very difficult -- I felt my husband didn’t trust me with my son. When I decided none of it was true, he was very angry with me. I was still afraid of my parents. They were really disappointed and angry with me. Their friends hated me. My in-laws were supportive until I "got on my feet," then they got real insulting. Through all of this..the cult images kept creeping back. We finally found a psychiatrist to help - my parents and me. My parents have become more understanding now because my Mom’s co- worker’s daughter is going through the same thing."
A retractor

Retractors have to deal with the aftereffects of recovered memory therapy in three areas: relational, psychological, and practical. When a person first retracts it causes profound changes in personal relationships. Usually there is a loss of the survivor group support that happens before there has been a reconciliation with family. Retractors often say they feel a loss of credibility and don’t know who to trust and who trusts them. Retractors are very vulnerable at this time and there have been several suicides.

Psychologically, many retractors feel distress. They feel anxious and wonder where they belong. They feel embarrassed and ashamed. One woman, for example, knew that her memories were false for quite some time but she could not face her parents. Retractors most often are still left with the problems that brought them into therapy in the first place. They don’t trust their own judgment and they feel that they have been manipulated. "How could I have been so stupid," they say.

At the practical level, they often have to make up for lost time, money and career. Many retractors express an intense need to make up for lost time.

There is no one rule or set of directions that will apply for all families. Each family is different and each family has a special set of dynamics and often there are old ways of interacting, old jealousies, that need to be dealt with. Nevertheless, there is one starting point for all families: effective communication. In order for reconciliation to happen there must be effective communication in a family. People need to express their feelings even if they are confused about them. That might mean, for example, someone says, "I’m confused. What do you want?" People must also listen to the feelings of others. It’s important that no one assume what someone’s feelings are. It is better to ask, "How do you feel about that?"

Good things are worth working for. Families can come out of this terrible experience and be even stronger if they are willing to make the effort. What all parties must keep in mind is that

"Reconciliation is a Process -- Not an Event".

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