Selling Serenity.

Author:Meacham, Andrew
Position:Sexual abuse lawsuits

Sometime early in 1992 I received a book about how to sue one's parents for sexual abuse. Editors receive free unsolicited books almost every day, most of which get shelved with scarcely a backward glance. This one, for whatever reason, caught my eye.

Why would an adult want to sue her or his parents for sexual abuse that happened twenty or thirty years ago? There could be legitimate reasons, starting with the obvious: an injury had occurred. But the linchpin of this particular book--as well as the flood of uncritical books, articles, and television movies about to descend on the United States--was not the kind of abuse or injury that typically fills up civil court dockets. These authors were talking about sexual abuse they claim was repressed for decades then materialized in fragments as the alleged incest survivor worked to recover the memories.

At the time the information seemed apropos for mention in Changes, the magazine for which I wrote and served as associate editor. Sexual abuse was the emerging hot topic of the day and Changes aimed to serve adults who had been brought up in dysfunctional families. I called the book's authors, a pair of lawyers in Lake Oswego, Washington, and learned that their state was about to extend its statute of limitations for sexual abuse lawsuits to allow for something called "delayed discovery." The case for making such a change in the law seemed compelling.

If what these authors and a growing host of "trauma experts" were claiming was true--and if years of child rape, torture, and forced participation in heinous acts, including murder, could be wiped from the victim's conscious memory as a survival mechanism--then existing systems of legal redress were indeed unfair. By the time memories of traumatic childhood experiences were recovered, the statute of limitations had long since expired. Thus it seemed that the very severity of the injuries was hindering victims' access to justice. Under Washington's new statute, sexual abuse survivors would have three years to sue for damages after the abuse was remembered.

The new law had been pioneered almost single-handedly by a Washington couple. After Patricia Barton recovered her memories of being molested by her father and learned of her powerlessness to sue, she and husband Kelvin lobbied state legislators for years until somebody listened. Their success in getting the law changed seemed like a grassroots victory over a system that has often been proved indifferent to domestic abuse, particularly against women and children. I spoke with the Bartons, wrote a short news story about their case, and ran it in Changes. To my lasting chagrin, I headlined the article "Abuse survivors sue perpetrators"--mainly because I could not fit the word alleged into the available headline space. But, hell, it was a survivor's magazine and I figured no one would care.

No one did. I forgot about sexual abuse survivors and their recovered memories and proceeded to work on the other dozens of stories on my plate. Along with Changes, my employer, Health Communications, Inc. (HCI), also published a monthly newspaper for addiction professionals and a magazine for family therapists interested in addiction issues. Similar to the stories of recovered memories of abuse, the topics covered in these publications attracted their share of controversy.

By the early 1990s, the 1980s-inspired "war on drugs" had lost some of its luster as a social cure-all or even as a workable idea. Highly visible figures such as William F. Buckley and Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke were openly advocating a once-unthinkable strategy of legalization for at least some drugs. On the so-called demand side of the equation, a $2-billion-a-year treatment industry found itself suddenly tottering under increased pressures brought on by market saturation and managed care. Hospital-based treatment chains were going bankrupt, and those that would survive were scrambling for creative ways to fill empty beds.

Thus in the early 1990s, whether as a result of inspiration or financial need, co-dependency emerged as a watchword for mental-health consumers, as did sex addiction, workaholism, eating disorders, and original pain, among other afflictions, diseases, and dysfunctions. No one came right out and said that being a man or a woman qualified one for treatment; although one would have thought so, judging from the proliferation of books, tapes, and conferences offering help for "women's issues" and later "men's issues." With each successive wave of books came fame and popular credibility for a fairly small pool of authors, mostly therapists with master's degrees, punctuated by the occasional M.D. or Ph.D. psychologist.

Instead of setting trends through...

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