Sexual abuse-- all too real

Your cover story about malpractice by a therapist treating a child for "repressed memory" of sexual abuse ["Saving Sarah," October 16, 2003] described a disturbing experience for her family. As in any field of medicine, there are incompetent practitioners, and our confidence in treatment providers is shaken when we hear bad stories.

However, to use one family's experience and then to generalize to an entire field of diagnosis and treatment is faulty science and faulty journalism. The sidebar "Which hunt?" proceeds to link the increased public reporting of child sexual abuse since the 1980s with the issue of "repressed memory."

Reporting increased primarily because the American Medical Association first identified child sexual abuse and began diagnostic and treatment efforts in 1969. In addition, in the 1970s, with the highly publicized experiences of the Vietnam Veterans, the psychiatric community began to take a greater interest in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and studies of the physiology and psychology of trauma.

Also, with the women's movement and the establishment of rape crisis centers (such as our local Sexual Assault Resource Agency), women began to feel safe and supported to tell their stories.

What is most important to acknowledge is that most child sexual abuse survivors remember their abuse. Reports do not generally come from "repressed memory." For several decades, major studies have consistently reported that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. These are the people who remember what happened!

That means that 20 percent of adults are survivors of child sexual abuse. It is no wonder that there are frequent reports.

In our culture, which attaches shame to survivors and which often blames them for their abuse, it's already difficult to speak out and tell the truth about what happened. Articles such as yours, which suggest that survivors' stories are not true, are irresponsible and continue to make it difficult for people to seek help.

The American Medical Association, the Surgeon General, and the Centers for Disease Control all recognize sexual abuse as an epidemic in our country. They also acknowledge that silence and shame allow sexual abuse to continue. Your readers, survivors and their families and friends, know that child abuse is a betrayal of a child's most basic needs for safety and protection. They deserve to be supported and respected for speaking the truth.

Joyce Allan

 P.S. Your article featured a photo of The Courage to Heal and suggested that this valuable book caused the increase in reporting in the mid-80's. It was, in fact, published in 1988 as a response to the need for resources to help these survivors. The most recent, third edition, of The Courage to Heal has a thorough discussion of the false memory controversy for readers who are interested in really understanding this issue.