Issue 236 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


I once wrote a letter to my dad asking him to confess to molesting me. Although I couldn’t (and still can’t) recall anything, I suspected that my difficulty in relationships, trouble keeping a job, poor memory, sexual dysfunction, and low self-image related to some early trauma. (I had a number of friends who had recovered memories.) But I didn’t send the letter.

Now I’m glad I didn’t. It turned out that I have attention-deficit disorder, the symptoms of which resemble those of abuse survivors. Some could argue, I suppose, that my condition results from molestation. But all the reading I’ve done indicates that it is a physiological problem caused by genetic predisposition.

Because of my experience, I read Mark Pendergrast’s “Daughters Lost” [June 1995] with great interest. I’ll bet there are some genuine molesters in the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. What better hiding place? But that doesn’t mean, as some survivors and their “helpers” seem to think, that parents who deny abusing their children are always liars.

Thanks for having Diana Maria Castro’s “Annie’s Hair” in the same issue. We need to acknowledge that molestation does happen, even if false memories muddy the water.

Name Withheld

I can’t express how angered, saddened, and disappointed I am by your decision to excerpt Mark Pendergrast’s self-serving terrorist attack on his daughters, Victims of Memory.

I can, however, ask you to cancel my subscription.

I do this very reluctantly, as I usually enjoy your magazine a great deal, and I understand that Pendergrast has a right to state his side of the story. However, I believe the issue of the reliability of repressed memory is so important that one must take sides, and I cannot allow my subscription dollars to support a publication that gives its blessing to the side I believe to be absolutely, criminally wrong.

Name Withheld

I’ve just read Mark Pendergrast’s “Daughters Lost” and I must say I feel intense compassion for him. My childhood was not without its sad memories, like everyone else's, but overall I consider myself blessed to have been raised by good folks, salt-of-the-earth farmers in north central Texas.

Do we nowadays count too little on ourselves and too much on someone or something else — the government, a shrink, a lawyer, a pill — to fix our lives? Or do we truly believe that life requires tremendous courage, heart, strength, and gumption? It seems to me that the richness and joy of life come from going forward as best we can. For me, that’s meant putting the torch to some bad memories. It’s meant throwing guilt out the window and hoping that I’ve learned something. And it’s meant forgiving it all.

God damn the hurters of children; “Annie’s Hair” makes us remember that it happens. And God help those who are hurt — children and parents. With “Daughters Lost” Pendergrast steps out of the muck of confusion, rejects a great opportunity for self-pity, and works to find the truth of the situation. He has my respect.

Charlene Strauss Bass Harbor, Maine

I was shocked and horrified at your insensitivity in placing “Annie’s Hair” in the same issue with “Daughters Lost,” let alone on the following page. Were the editors out to lunch?

Bobbi Hoover Santa Clara, California

Mark Pendergrast would have us believe that therapists put memories in their clients’ heads, and that hypnotists induce “false” memories. Yet he went to a hypnotist to remember the past and came up with nothing new; he had six therapists and none of them put any “false” memories in his head. It’s only because his daughters have accused him of abuse that he vilifies therapists.

He denies that he lacked boundaries with his daughters, yet at the beginning of his essay he describes wanting to “taste” his daughter’s thumb. She didn’t want him to have it, but he kept trying to pull it out of her mouth until he succeeded, and then he stuck it in his own mouth. Her body was not hers to control, but his to “taste.” This example betrays him. He uses it to show how much “fun” he had with his little girl, but all it shows me is that he wanted to consume her.

What Mark Pendergrast doesn’t understand is that his daughters are separate from him. He says, “We seemed to remember radically different childhoods,” but it wasn’t his childhood. His was the fatherhood to remember. Only his child knows what her childhood was like. But because he has no boundaries, he can’t understand this.

One reason daughters cut off communication with their fathers is because it’s the only way they can establish their own boundaries. Late in life, Pendergrast’s daughter is finally saying to him, “It’s my thumb, and it doesn’t belong in your mouth!”

Pamela Malone Leonia, New Jersey

When my sister told me that her suicidal tendencies and multiple-personality disorder were caused by severe abuse she suffered at the hands of my long-dead father — the adult I most admired in my family — I was deeply disturbed. My friends all urged me to believe her, and I genuinely tried. But it didn’t take. I was already an adult when she was a child, and I saw nothing that I would call abuse. The longer she associated with therapists and with other abused people, the stranger her stories became. Finally, she accused both our parents of ritual satanic abuse.

I do not believe that the things she claims to remember literally happened. Like Pendergrast, I have done a lot of thinking and talking with friends. If all my friends who claim to be abused are telling the literal truth, the world we live in is even more horrible than I can imagine. Possibly some of these memories are from dreams. Or perhaps people need excuses for the small lives they lead. Having been abused is a ready-made excuse for not living a full life.

Considering how confused our cultural attitudes about sex and intrusion are, it’s no surprise people become hysterical about this subject. I do recognize that people like my sister are deeply hurt by something. And I very much hope to see her heal herself one day. Until then I will love her as much as she will allow, while maintaining my own view of reality.

Name Withheld San Francisco, California

As I read “Daughters Lost,” I was increasingly convinced by and sympathetic to Mark Pendergrast’s pain and horror at his daughters’ allegations of sexual abuse. Then, at the very end of the piece, he made an apparent error in interpreting King Lear that chillingly opened my mind to the possibility that Pendergrast, as sincere as he seems, may be blind to some of the realities of his family relationships.

Pendergrast seems to think that, in the scene he describes, Cordelia is apologizing to her father, and that Lear graciously replies, in effect, “Don’t worry. We both screwed up.” In fact, the breach between them came about because Lear did what Pendergrast’s daughters accuse him of doing: violating the respectful boundaries of the father-daughter relationship, putting his own needs first, demanding a love that was special and, to him, necessary. “I love your Majesty / According to my bond, no more nor less,” Cordelia tells Lear in Act I, and Lear’s response is to feel slighted and enraged, and to banish her.

Does Pendergrast distort the meaning of King Lear because he is unaware of his own Lear-like narcissism? His daughters’ “memories” of physical sexual abuse may not be accurate — but do they symbolize a psychological invasiveness that was more subtle, but equally powerful and damaging? If this is so, Pendergrast, for all his suffering as a “victim” of false accusations, has not yet experienced what Lear endured: the pain of exploded grandiosity, of realizing his foolishness and his mistakes and, finally, emerging as a man capable of genuine love and understanding.

Leon Siegel Sebastopol, California

I remain haunted by “Daughters Lost.” I’ve spent twenty years in various therapies for sundry problems — anorexia, suicide attempts, dysfunctional everything. The first year I attended Al-Anon I had my first sexual-abuse memory. A touch from my husband triggered it. At that point I’d read no literature addressing recovered memories. I was divorced the following year.

My experience differs vastly from Pendergrast’s relationship with his children. My father was an alcoholic and died of related illnesses. My mother has always been mentally ill. They beat me up once when I asked them to go to therapy with me.

Perhaps Pendergrast’s daughters read all the way through The Courage to Heal. (I only got to page fourteen.) Perhaps they did all the exercises. They might believe right now that the abuse really happened. But if they keep growing through it, they’ll have to come to their own conclusions.

During the time I was actively praying to have all my memories returned to me, I was also actively hating my parents’ guts. I had massive resentments and stayed angry for at least two years. I kept my contact with my mother to a bare minimum, and still do so. While I realize that my mother is never going to be the protective pal I craved, and my abusers will never pay for their crimes, I also know that life goes on. If I hold on to resentments, I will die from the poison. But if I keep my faith that God watches over me and take responsibility for the rest, I might have a life worthy of recounting.

Pendergrast’s daughters will mature. They will want to reconcile. They will see through some of the junk well-meaning idiots have written and think their own thoughts, have their own memories.

N.G. Portland, Oregon

Pendergrast’s family experience reminds me a great deal of my own, though I am on the other side, being the daughter.

My family was a little different from his. My parents stayed married, though they hardly related to one another. My father was quite sexual with me. He never slept with me or made much physical contact, but his interest in me was inordinate and inappropriate. He was also alcoholic, and, as time went on, his sexual pathology increased.

I believe Pendergrast’s story; nothing he says indicates that he behaved sexually with his daughters. I can’t imagine how horrible it would be to hear such a malignant accusation from the two people I loved most. But no one is blameless. I think Pendergrast let his daughters become the primary focus of his emotional life, in place of an adult female. They were correct to feel like “surrogate wives.” To be that important to a parent is more pressure than a child can bear.

One of my several therapists had a great interest in my uncovering specific sexual memories that I did not have. Under pressure from her and in my seemingly endless anxiety and depression, I generated those memories. I now know them to be false. Obviously, I don’t know nearly as much about this therapeutic phenomenon as Pendergrast does. I wonder, though, if these memories are generated in part by a desire to express some underlying disorder. I don’t mean to trivialize concern for the truth. But perhaps a dispassionate view will make things more clear.

In my family, every one of five children broke all contact for a period of time. Some of us have come in contact again; some haven’t. My father died eleven years ago, still drinking, still oblivious. We’ve all had difficulties with our mother as well; her decision to stay with him was not necessarily in our best interests. We each had to spend time alone; we had to have distance in order to renegotiate the family contract.

The best thing my mom did for me was take care of herself. She went to twelve-step meetings, retired to a town she loved, made lots of friends, and took care of herself financially; in short, she made sure she didn’t need me. At times, when I was doing poorly, she was concerned and interested and sympathetic, but I’m sure when she got off the phone with me she had a little cry and then went on. There was great relief in knowing that I could get better without the added pressure of needing to make her feel better, too.

I think the specific horrors of his daughters’ accusations have blinded Pendergrast — understandably so — to what his daughters need from him right now: some space; respect for their needs, including the need to be separate; acceptance of them as people with their own paths, however loony those paths might seem.

Caryl D. Omaha, Nebraska

I was deeply distressed by Mark Pendergrast’s “Daughters Lost.” As a survivor of childhood incest and mother of a twenty-six-year-old daughter recovering from incest, I live with this issue on a daily basis.

I was struck by the enormous suffering experienced by both Pendergrast and his daughters. It is agonizing that he is still unable to respect his daughters’ boundaries, is still convinced that they must do it his way. He will say whatever he needs to manipulate them, even to the point of publishing open letters. His daughters are young women now. They have their own agonies to heal. How they do that, whom they do it with, and when is none of his business. His business is to examine why he is unable to respect their requests. Focusing on who did what to whom and joining national organizations that blame therapists are just diversions.

Sexual abuse of children is not limited to intercourse. Touching children to comfort oneself, even in a nonsexual way, can be enormously damaging to them. Pendergrast makes a point of telling how close he was with the daughter who has accused him of sexual abuse, as if that proves nothing could have happened between them. After my father molested me when I was six, I followed him everywhere for the next twenty years. I had bonded with my perpetrator and believed I was responsible for all his needs. This is common for victims of incest.

Debating about whose memories are “true” is a waste of time and energy. If Pendergrast’s child felt tortured when that hot iron touched her, it doesn’t matter what “really” happened. Proving that his daughter or her therapist is wrong, sick, or criminal will not ease the author’s suffering. The only way to do that is to focus on himself and his own healing. I wish him the courage to feel his pain and end his suffering soon. My heart goes out to all three of them. There is difficult work ahead.

N. M. New York, New York
Mark Pendergrast responds:

There are so many points raised in these letters that it would take this entire issue of The Sun to answer them adequately. Prior to the effort, let me make one short plea: Do not judge my book or personal story solely on the short excerpt you have read. Please read my entire book. If you don’t want to buy it, get it from a library. Then judge.

I appreciate the many supportive letters, but my worst fears are fulfilled by several knee-jerk, judgmental reactions. For months, I agonized over whether to include my personal story in Victims of Memory. After much discussion with my editors, I decided that I really had to do so, in order to be honest. I knew that I would be accused of having “an ax to grind,” which is why I strove mightily to be as objective as possible and to look for every evidence for what I term “massive repression.” I found none. We all have had memories of isolated events come back to us, triggered by a sound or smell, but I found no evidence that people are capable of repressing years of trauma.

When the editors of The Sun told me that they wanted to excerpt only my personal story, I hesitated again, knowing that it would be read out of context, without the scholarly investigative journalism that makes up the majority of the book. Finally, I decided to give the go-ahead, since I wanted people to know about Victims of Memory. I regard every copy that gets into someone’s hands as a potential life-saver. All too many people have committed suicide because of this misguided form of therapy. I want it stopped. I want people to be warned before they suffer through years of unnecessary separation from their families.

Now let me address some of the points raised in the foregoing letters. One writer believes my book is a “self-serving terrorist attack” on my daughters. In no way is my book an attack on my children, whom I love and care for deeply. In part, I wrote this book to try to help them see what is really going on with recovered-memory therapy.

It is quite astonishing to me how those with the “recovery mind-set” see evidence of family dysfunction everywhere. I knew when I put in the thumb-sucking game that someone would pounce on it and say, “Aha! Boundary violation! Emotional incest!” If you want to interpret loving parent-child interactions that way, you can do it with just about any family.

I do not think I was the perfect parent, however, as is obvious to anyone who will read my book, particularly the entire letter I wrote to my children at the end. It is true that I made my children too much the emotional center of my life after the divorce, though I resent the jargon about “surrogate wives.” I am quite sure that my daughters and I have much to talk about. I would dearly love to talk about anything whatsoever that is bothering them. But I can’t. I can’t even write to them, except in the pages of a book. Can anyone understand how stupid I felt having to write a letter to my children in those pages? But if I wanted to say anything at all to them, that was my only way.

Another Sun reader assumes that I am down on all therapists. Not at all. Many therapists are compassionate, well-trained professionals. I prefer cognitive and behavioral therapy that focuses on the here and now, but any decent therapist would have suggested to my children long ago that they bring me into a session to talk about whatever was bothering them. Recovered-memory therapists, on the contrary, specialize in fostering overdependence in their clients, encouraging them to cut off all contact with parents, and replacing those parents with the all-wise therapist. If anyone is a “surrogate” family member in this phenomenon, it is that kind of therapist.

This is not simply a stage that my children are going through, some sort of necessary separation. They have been sucked into a harmful belief system. This is not simply a matter of them wanting “some space; respect for their needs.” I have not seen my daughter Christina in more than five years, nor Stacey in nearly three years. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to have done to them. I don’t know their names or where they live. I am terribly worried about them. As I wrote in my letter to them: “Don’t worry, I don’t want to turn you into infants or teenagers again, and I don’t expect we’ll see each other all that often. You’re adults now, and we’re all busy. I do hope we can reestablish a comfortable, affectionate relationship, though, and that you can call on me when you’re down, or need money or advice, for what it’s worth — or even a zucchini-bread recipe, which is the last thing you called me for, Stacey.”

One letter writer repeats a recovered-memory dogma that I heard over and over again from the therapists I interviewed: “Debating about whose memories are ‘true’ is a waste of time and energy. If Pendergrast’s child felt tortured when that hot iron touched her, it doesn’t matter what ‘really’ happened.” This reasoning is absolutely appalling. Of course it matters whether my daughter Christina brushed into an iron accidentally or I intentionally burned her with it to threaten her into silence about the awful things I was supposedly doing to her. Of course the truth matters, to all family members involved in this nightmare.

“God damn the hurters of children.” I agree completely. The first sentence of my book reads: “There is no question that sexual abuse in America is much more prevalent than anyone was willing to admit just a decade ago.” I emphasize this point with statistics and interviews throughout the book. But we are talking apples and oranges here — the difference between abuse that’s always been recalled and just-remembered abuse that supposedly lasted for years. Those who were abused for most of their childhood remember it all too well. Their problem is an inability to forget.

About hypnosis: Yes, I initially went to get hypnotized when I was torturing myself over what I might have done to my children. Thank God I didn’t come up with something, which could easily have happened. My subsequent research revealed to me that hypnosis is defined as a state of enhanced suggestibility. It is a perfectly good way to suggest people do something they desire — quit smoking, lose weight — but it should never be used to recover “memories.” That also goes for guided imagery, visualizations, relaxation exercises, prayers for God to reveal abuse memories, or sodium-Amytal interviews — all forms of hypnosis.

I did not like Diana Maria Castro’s “Annie’s Hair,” a melodramatic, stereotypical piece to which several letters allude. Do not forget: her story is fiction, clearly intended to show an evil, disturbed, sexually abusive father. Yes, such fathers do exist. But the story turns a haircut into a major metaphor for incest, and then suggests that the child will forget the sexual abuse but will recall the haircut: “Annie remembered that it was Daddy who had cut her hair, but all the other scary pictures in her head were slowly being scribbled over with a fat crayon the color of night.” This is pure speculation and folklore. It illustrates how easily we incorporate myth and fiction into our worldviews. The moral? If you recall squirming when your father cut your hair, he probably molested you.

Finally, let me rescue my reading of King Lear, my favorite play of all time. Of course I know that Lear was a jerk at the beginning of the play. As I wrote in the excerpt, “Lear was a patriarchal son of a bitch who ‘hath ever but slenderly known himself.’ ” The reunion scene with Cordelia comes after he has been reduced to complete despair and has reassessed everything about his life, and it is one of the most poignant in literature, right up there with the prodigal son’s return.

I must say that I am depressed by some of these letters and the incredibly judgmental attitude they reveal. We have a long way to go in our society before we outgrow this victimology mind-set, always eager to find fault if a chink in the armor is available — unless, of course, it happens to be your armor.

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