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By August Piper Jr., M.D.

From the FMSF Newsletter, 1994, Vol. 3 No. 5

Could the FMSF do more to help families? That question surfaced after I received several letters and calls from Foundation members whose children had accused them of long-ago abuse. A telephone conversation with Dr. Freyd followed, during which we developed an idea: to compile and publish suggestions for families whose members have been accused of abuse.

We hope these suggestions will flow from two sources. First, and most important, we want you, our members, to tell each other what you have learned. Do you have suggestions for other parents who have been similarly accused? What helped you contend with this affliction? If the family ever reunited, what helped bring this about? When parents are confronted with these accusations, is there anything you’d advise them not to do?

Being condemned to repeat history is the unhappy fate of those who fail to learn from the past. We hope to avoid this punishment. Therefore, the second source of information for the suggestions will be the thoughts of people who have previously wrestled with and written about the questions that occupy us today. I have begun to review the literature on these subjects to obtain this information.

If you wish to contribute to this effort, please send your comments and thoughts to me, in care of the FMSF.

One important question is frequently asked of the Foundation: how can parents encourage their children to renounce unfounded abuse accusations? The following analysis may be useful.

About twenty years ago, several cults sprang up in the United States. I believe the practices of those groups resembled today’s methods of treating multiple personality disorder and satanic ritual abuse, and of performing recovered-memory therapy. Therefore, examining the history of cults should teach some ways that today’s families and parents might usefully respond to the problems caused by these three therapies. (Though I am a little uncomfortable with the word "cult, " because of its connotations, it should be pointed out that no disrespect is meant to either religion or to spirituality, and that ’cult" is not used pejoratively. Also, I am not saying that all practitioners who perform these three treatments are members of cults.)

What characteristics do recovered-memory therapy, treatment for MPD, and therapy for satanic ritual abuse have in common with the cults of two decades ago?

Let’s start with a definition. The term "cult" does not have a precise scientific meaning, but as used here, it refers to a group with a "devoted or extreme attachment to or extravagant admiration for a thing or ideal, especially as manifested by a body of admirers; any system for treating human sickness that employs methods regarded as unorthodox or unscientific" (Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary; Random House Unabridged Dictionary). According to various references, it is the excessive or extreme attachment formed by members of these groups that is key. This behavior disrupts the lives of involved followers, and therefore causes concern to families and friends of these individuals.

Cults typically are established by strong or charismatic leaders who control power hierarchies and material resources. Cults possess some revealed "word" in the form of a book or doctrine. Also, they confine their membership in various ways -- for example, by bringing people into controlled environments where they are bombarded with strange new ideas (Streiker, Mindbending; Kaplan, Freedman, and Sadock, Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry). Group membership is contingent on accepting the doctrines and dogma of the leader. Joining the group brings two powerful reinforcements into play. First, rather than being encouraged to discover their own responses to the complexities of modern life, cult members learn a seemingly coherent system of ideas providing simple, "cookie-cutter" answers. For example, many in to- day’s cult-like groups are told that past sexual abuse is responsible for all their current problems. Second, members develop a sense of being part of a group that shares their feelings and aspirations. These two forces produce a third vital effect -- a significant increase in self-esteem (Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 24:593-602, 1979).

Above all, cults employ systematic forms of consciousness-altering practices (chanting, spending long hours reciting memorized material); they encourage their members to remove themselves from greater society so as to devote more time to the cult; they discourage critical thinking and suppress alternative views of social reality; and they strongly encourage members to cut off communication with families, often by inducing fears and phobias -- "Your father raped you when you were a helpless child," (Pavlos, The Cult Experience; Streiker).

To a greater or lesser extent, the three kinds of treatments under discussion here share these characteristics. For example, in my experience, many patients who become involved with these therapies do so excessively. Treatment becomes the focus of their lives. They spend tens of hours each week in therapy and therapy-related activities. One teenager I evaluated was seeing her therapist at least six or seven hours a week for months. In addition, the therapist encouraged her to devote several hours each day to writing down ever-more-fantastic "memories" of rapes by her father and episodes of satanic abuse by her parents and grandparents.

Mainstream clinicians and scholars regard the theories supporting these three treatments as unorthodox and unscientific. For example, the idea of "repressing" a whole series of memories, and then accurately recovering them after years or decades, is now considered to be without foundation.

Science encourages critical evaluation of ideas. Cults, on the other hand, tend to regard books like The Courage to Heal as exactly and timelessly true. Because such texts rest on faith, rather than on the strength of supporting evidence, they admit of no doubt, require no proof.

Controlled environments? Bombarding people with strange ideas? These phrases exactly describe hospitals where patients are encouraged to search for "buried memories" of sex abuse and for "hidden alter personalities." The facilities often employ systematic forms of consciousness-altering practices, like hypnosis and Amytal interviews, in such quests. Influential clinicians encourage patients to remain in these hospitals for weeks or months. during this time patients withdraw from the larger world in order to undergo the inward-directed rituals of recovered-memory or satanic-abuse treatment.

It should be acknowledged that almost all the above characteristics of cults could be applied to both legitimate psychotherapies and to mainstream religions. However, two of them cannot be: no conventionally oriented western religion, nor any standard psychotherapy, isolates the bulk of its adherents from the outside world, or urges general severance of family contacts.

I have set out, perhaps at immoderate length, the analysis. Does it help those asking for advice on how to heal their families, and how to talk to accusing children? I believe it does. Some advice that follows from the analysis:

First, each family’s situation is obviously different; there is no one "procedure" that works for all.

Second, I have recently heard of parents who are considering kidnaping their children and "deprogramming" them, just as was done two decades ago. The literature of the time indicates that such drastic methods worked poorly then; they would probably fare no better now. In addition, they are almost certainly legally and ethically indefensible, because they violate freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Finally, techniques of coercive persuasion strengthen the hand of cult-like groups: these procedures show cult members that parents and friends are not to be trusted. Thus, not only does "deprogramming" anger those on whom it is attempted, but it also risks driving other members deeper into the cult (American Journal of Psychiatry 136: 279-282, 1979).

Third, families should remain optimistic about the likelihood that loved ones will renounce their accusations. Several literature sources claim that about nine of ten members of cults eventually leave them. Do any Foundation members have figures on the present rate of recantations of accusations?

The key word in the previous paragraph is "eventually": healing from accusations should be considered a marathon run, not a sprint. One father and mother to whom I recently spoke had just been accused of years-ago sexual abuse by their grown son (whose therapist had apparently "discovered’ the abuse); after accusing them, he had refused to even talk to them. Nonetheless, these devastated and panicked parents were set to take a two-thousand-mile airplane trip to try to talk him into retracting his allegations. I wondered if they might better avoid reacting when the adrenalin was pumping, and take a little time to make a reasoned response. (They canceled the trip.)

The older literature advises against trying to argue accusers out of their beliefs. One modern commentator echoed this. If the accusations really are untrue, "Family members should deny, deny, deny -- but arguing with the accuser is a waste of time." The theory behind this, of course, is that it truly is difficult for just one person to have a successful argument. Instead of debating, parents might simply continue quietly saying, "We’ll always be your parents, and we’ll always be ready to welcome you back," or something to that effect. In such a way, the children hear every day a still, small voice of their own, asking if they really know what they are doing. Parents might remember: "The drop maketh a hole in the stone, not by violence, but by oft falling."

If the child insists on talking about the alleged abuse, parents may have to be firm and simply refuse to discuss the matter, to change the subject, or use other tactics to avoid entering into a debate about truth or falsity of the accusations. These tactics force accusing children to examine their own consciences, to listen to the inner voice that asks if they really know what they are doing.

What about arguing with therapists? The FMSF working paper, Meeting your Accusing Child’s Therapist, offers good thoughts.

Streiker advises that friends of the family, and non-accused siblings, have important roles to play. Their task is to make consistent efforts to establish and maintain contact with the accusing child, to develop his or her trust, and to create opportunities for dialogue. Obviously, they too should avoid arguing with the estranged family member.

Equally obviously, guilt-tripping ("Do you know what you’re doing to us? How can you do this to us?") and insults ("How can you be so stupid?") seldom lead to reconciliation.

The papers warn parents against developing an obsession with the cult and the apparent loss of their child. The importance of parents carrying on with other aspects of their lives and those of their other children is also stressed. A support group or formal counseling might help. Halperin’s book, Psychodynamic Perspectives on Religion, Sect, and Cult, has some interesting comments on these points.

Several writers urge families to look honestly at the accumulated misunderstandings, poor communications, and hostilities that have contributed to the present difficulties: neither accepting an excessive amount of blame for the problems, nor minimizing responsibility for them.

The literature warns; no matter how attractive the ideas of "mind- control" or "brainwashing" are, these notions are oversimplified and almost certainly inaccurate as well. See Cults, Converts, and Charisma: The Sociology of New Religious Movements by Robbins.

I found interesting the articles that talk of difficulties experienced by people who leave cults. They are beset with guilt and shame: for turning their backs on their belief system, for letting down or deserting their friends in the cult, and, of course, for hurting their families in the first place. For weeks or months, recanters may be disoriented, isolated, angry, embarrassed, and depressed, or may have ‘dissociative’ experiences. They will need understanding and nurturing and support -- at exactly the time when the family’s own reserves may be depleted. Several writers make what I consider a good case for a brief course of professional counseling at the time of reentry to the family. It hardly seems necessary to say -- but I will -- that the chosen therapist should not be one who will practice what one commentator called "hokum therapy": no alters, no rooting around for buried abuse. The goal of the counseling should be simply to help the family and the child rejoin.

Finally, parents may have to face and accept the terrible truth; they may, after all, be powerless to stop the child from worshiping false gods.

Let us know your thoughts!

August Piper Jr. M.D., a psychiatrist in private practice in Seattle, is a member of the FMSF Scientific and Professional Advisory Board.

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