Bettina Aptheker: False Memory Syndrome?

Historians in the News

... In order to say that Bettina is having 'false memory syndrome' you'd also have to claim that she's lying that as an adult she spoke to her father about the abuse, and he apologized--was sick with shame, actually, is the feeling you get from her account. So it's not just false memory syndrome she'd be being accused of, it's also a wholesale fabrication of her adult interaction with her father about it. (She also said she got therapy after she remembered, not before, so these stories about therapists bringing things up are only relevant if we think Bettina is lying about these details and saw a therapist _before_ she recalled the abuse.)

I read Bettina to be telling a very difficult thing that she would much prefer not to be telling. I find it harder to imagine a motive for Bettina for lying (and lying so elaborately) than it is to imagine that the abuse occurred. I suspect my reaction differs from some because I've heard so much testimony, from kids and adult women about sexual abuse from fathers, grandfathers, stepfathers, uncles--not 'recovered memory,' most of it has nothing to do with that--that I no longer have the reflexive"it can't be!" shock reaction that comes from not really having much sense of the scope or range of the problem, and from thinking that the men that do it are--surely, must be, monsters, heinous criminals--and rare. They're not. Women talk about not only continuing abuse of the kind Bettina alleges but also a continuum that ranges from one-time sexual wierdness with fathers (such as him beating her up for breaking the rules and during the beating the girl becomes aware that he has an erection; fathers making one-time passes at their 15-year olds; fathers who grope) to continuing abuse. At least half the women I know well enough to have talked about it have had some experience of this kind, and several experienced sustained sexual abuse as children.

Progressive men need to get a little more honest about this. One excellent ally in some child sexual abuse cases I worked on in Mississippi is a radical preacher from New Orleans--he not only took men to task and said, let's call it what it is, rape, but he also told on himself about sexual feelings he had around his daughter. So this needs to be called out for what it is--not in a shocked anti-sex hysterical save-the-innocents caterwaul--but selfish male supremacist bullshit that must stop.

Bettina said her father asked,"Did I ever hurt you when you were a child?" and her answer was"yes." So he didn't know, or claimed not to know, that this would or did hurt her. When told yes, he was anguished. I think this is very real if not typical--men justify this bad behavior by saying it isn't hurting anyone, carefully constructing their denial. (I suppose in some cases they're simply so selfish that they don't need to bother with denial.)

It's only through women and girls really calling men on it and telling them they will not get away with it--and that they may be exposed--that it will stop. The reaction to Bettina's book is one sign of how much shit you will get if you speak out, so this is something that takes considerable courage.

As for 'forgetting' something for decades, I think 'forgetting' is not really the right word. I have had this happen with one traumatic experience, and it's more like putting something in a drawer you don't open. When you open it, the memory is still there, it wasn't ever gone, really, but you just didn't have time or space or a way to think about it, so you didn't. If, while the drawer is closed, you are asked, 'did x happen?' your answer is genuinely 'no' but later it might dawn on you that well, actually, 'yes.'

I'm not on a jury, and it's true there would be a higher burden of proof there. This will never, thank god, go to a jury, since the criminal justice system is not the answer to this (a strong women's liberation movement is). But one reason Bettina has for talking about this is that public exposure--and the fear of it--really is the most powerful leverage to get men to stop.

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