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The sins of the mother?

He says she abused him when he was a child. Heartbroken, she says it's not true. Was she a molester? Or is something wrong with his memory?


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 26, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG -- She first sensed something was wrong during a backyard wedding four years and what seems like a lifetime ago.

It began as a joyous family occasion. The younger of her two adult sons was getting married, exchanging vows in a sun-soaked ceremony.

Only a few yards away, she sat beside her older son, a career radio man then in his early 40s. Suddenly, she felt moved to reach over and squeeze his hand.

"It was like nobody was there," she says softly, looking out the window of her St. Petersburg home as dark storm clouds roll in again on a recent afternoon. "I just felt such a sense of rejection."

She had worried that something might be bothering him for months before that. His once-cheery phone calls from the West Coast had become superficial and brief; her inquiries about visiting him, his wife and their young boy -- her only grandchild -- were increasingly met by non-committal replies.

Then, several months after the wedding, his letter arrived. It was dated Feb. 20, 1997.

"In this letter, I'll be as open as possible about the problems in communication that you've sensed between us. . . .

"On the one hand, I love you. You're my mother; I have always loved you and probably always will.

"On the other hand, I don't trust you. When I was a kid, too much happened that I got p--- off about and am still p--- off about. As far as I can tell, you haven't changed much since I was a kid. That's why I don't trust you to this day, and why we'll never have a close relationship."

It was the end of the letter, the start of a family tragedy.

Troubling memories

In the late 1970s, a controversial form of psychotherapy led thousands of people to unearth previously "hidden" memories of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of their parents.

The therapy has since been widely discredited. But cases of so-called "recovered memory" continue to arise, and the despair and indignation of both the accuser and the accused are always intense. As always, the conflicts are rooted in the power and fallibility of memory.

In the end, a question often remains amid the broken relationships: How does one know whose version of the truth to believe?

This story differs in a fundamental way from many cases documented over the years. It has unfolded in letters and e-mails that have been provided to the Times by the mother, a 71-year-old St. Petersburg retiree and former Pinellas County educator, who, like most other family members interviewed in this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Her world was turned upside down, she says, when she received that first letter. She says she felt stunned and confused, at a loss to imagine what her son was talking about. She quickly wrote back:

"Let me start by saying I love you very much. You brought a wonderful joy to my life and I've always treasured you. I'm truly sorry for any hurt I caused you. Whatever I can do to improve our relationship is what I want to do. . . ."

His reply came in a letter one month later, March 24, 1997:

" . . . You know what you did and I know what you did. We both lived it, and I remember what happened. I'm not interested in explanations or apologies.

"For us to have a relationship, you need to finally take some responsibility for your life and get some help.

"If you even dare to ask me what I'm referring to, I'll know that you're not taking responsibility."

She wrote three emotionally charged letters in the next month, wavering between outrage ("Your letter is absolutely impossible") to conciliatory ("When I wrote to you last week, I was angry and defensive. Now I've calmed down. . . .")

There were no replies. Reeling with frustration and despair, she called her former husband, the young man's father, to see if he had heard anything.

That was when the bombshell hit.

The son had told his father that he had fleeting memories of his mother sexually abusing him.

The words, she says, made her feel ill. Too shaken to speak to him by phone, she composed a letter, reading in part:

"In no way, at no time, did I abuse you sexually or any other way. . . . I believe what you're experiencing now is something like bad dreams, and we all have them. . . . As much as this accusation has devastated me, I realize you are suffering much more. . . . You have extraordinary intelligence. Please keep an open mind on this. . . ."

Her son returned the letter, along with a handwritten note: "If you respected my privacy, you would not have pried into my business. Obviously, I cannot trust you and just as obviously your idea of respect is what makes you feel good. I've been working on an in-depth letter to you. Maybe someday you'll get it (literally and figuratively)."

She fired back a reply:

"I've pried into your business? I don't understand how you could accuse me of mistreating you, and not to expect me to try to find out just what I'm being accused of. . . . I repeat, I did not abuse you. It is beyond my comprehension that you would believe such a thing. . . ."

There was something about her son's accusations that heightened the mother's feeling of helplessness.

He didn't remember any specifics.

Two years after his first accusation, he wrote her a letter describing his memories as "fleeting and vague," adding that "they may be wrong and inconsequential." He wrote of having virtually no memories of his own childhood, describing his recollection of it as a "black void." Then, when his wife and he had a baby in 1993, "I started having memories. I hear having a child brings up memories for everyone (positive, negative and neutral) and it happened to me, too."

He wrote that any contact from his mother, including notes or presents to her grandson, "literally tears me apart inside. I pay the price with pain, and I'm back at Square One again. I dissociate -- out of my control, I'm forcibly ripped apart -- from my family, my emotions, my short-term memories, my life, myself. . . ."

Near the end of the e-mail, he added, "No letters, no phone calls, no e-mail, no presents of any kind. I don't even want to know your reaction to this note."

The Christmas Letter

There is another correspondence engraved in his mother's mind. Earlier this year, his son's wife mailed out a belated 1999 Christmas letter, one of those chatty family roundups. This one, though, opened with a decidedly dark tone:

"Dear Family and Friends:

"I've been wrestling with what to say in this letter forever, it seems. I'm not sure where to begin. . . .

"Sometime after (the baby) was born, memories began bubbling up in bits and pieces for (my husband) of being sexually abused by his mother. Along with the memories came the dissociation, which allowed (him) to promptly forget what he remembered. . . . "

The letter detailed the immense stresses on both her and her husband.

"He's dissociated much more often than he's present. He became very unpredictable, incompetent, and sometimes cruel in an attempt to protect himself from what he was reliving and from me, the woman who loves him. Ah, but there's the rub: the first woman who loved him hurt him terribly. . . ."

Back in St. Petersburg, the mother accused of hurting him received a copy of the letter from her younger son. When she read it, she says, she was aghast, numb. Then she became angry. She got a lawyer, who fired off a letter to the older son's wife:

"My client vehemently denies these spurious allegations and is troubled that her son . . . may be dominated by unscrupulous influences suggesting "false memories.' . . . Should these fallacious allegations persist, my client has instructed me to proceed with all appropriate legal actions, including a lawsuit for defamation of character."

The mother's younger son has denounced his brother's accusations as false. "I am your stumbling block because I was there and Mom was a nice woman, a normal, real person, not the mad/bad witch of your story," he wrote to his brother in one lengthy e-mail exchange marked by blunt insults on both sides.

The woman's former husband, father of both sons, has tried to maintain a good relationship with his accusing son, daughter-in-law and grandson but stands by his former wife. In a statement to the Times, he wrote:

"My ex-wife did not abuse my son. She has been a devoted mother, caring and capable, and an altogether admirable person.

"My son is not malicious, nor is he dishonest. He has never been a problem during his childhood or adolescence. Nothing has prepared us for this tragedy. . . .

"How can I reconcile these judgments? I cannot. . . .

"I see no hope that this will ever end."

Today, the accusing son works as a programmer at a West Coast radio station. He defends the Christmas letter his wife mailed out and is adamant that his therapy has nothing to do with the recovered memory approach.

Though the details continue to escape his memory, he holds firm to his position that his mother abused him sexually.

"It's not about the memories for me," he says. "It's about the emotional stuff I've gone through. The memories -- I don't know if those are specific memories of something that happened or my own attempt to put some sort of sense on something that happened. I do feel very violated and very angry about whatever happened.

"And it's my feeling that whatever happened -- her guilty fingerprints are all over my psyche."

Building the foundation

Whether or not this is a case of recovered memory, stories such as this are surprisingly commonplace at the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, a support group for parents accused of abuse by adult children.

"There isn't anybody who doesn't feel that sexual abuse is a real problem," says Pamela Freyd, executive director of the foundation, based in Philadelphia. "But what we're talking about is a different problem, and one that will drain resources that could be going to help real children in the here and now."

Freyd's organization traces its roots to a 1991 Philadelphia Inquirer article about a woman who said she recovered memories of incest while in therapy. She cut off relationships with her parents and others who would not acknowledge her claim.

A University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist quoted in the piece, Dr. Harold Lief, received hundreds of calls from families in similar situations. One year later, a group of families and professionals from Penn and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore founded the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. Its goal: to document the cases and spread helpful information about memory to affected parents.

Parents flocked to the foundation with tales of anguish and bewilderment. Freyd recalls elderly fathers, crushed by abuse allegations from daughters, who simply lost their will to live and eventually died "brokenhearted." The foundation's first national conference in 1992 served as a mass catharsis for the hundreds of parents who packed it.

"One father told me that the foundation provided an intellectual framework for understanding the problem," recalls Freyd, "and that moved it beyond the realm of just personal pain into a social issue which one could begin to grasp."

The roots of the recovery movement

At the same time, a Boca Raton independent book publisher named Eleanor Goldstein saw stories about the foundation and joined forces with Freyd. They studied emerging cases and published articles and books on the subject. Goldstein traced the genesis of the recovered memory approach, searching for causes and trends.

She says the groundwork was laid by the radical feminist movement of the '70s, pushing an agenda "that we are a patriarchy and men intentionally abuse women in order to keep them under control."

As the '80s arrived, the recovery movement was beginning to flourish. There were books on co-dependency, John Bradshaw's television shows and conferences about healing the inner child, and self-help conventions galore.

A key element of the movement was this belief: An alcoholic parent could have abused a child but would have blacked out and have had no memory of it.

"(The recovery movement said to people), "If there's anything wrong with your life, you were probably abused as a child. You will never heal unless you go into therapy. You must go to the kind of therapist that will help you go back to your early childhood to remember the abuse.' "

Goldstein noticed a pattern in the cases.

"The common elements were that, first of all, (the accusers) were people in close families, well-knit," she says. "The accusations usually came from daughters, primarily in their 30s and 40s. These were women who had in common certain activities in their lives; among them, most belonged to either a radical feminist group, a recovery group like Al-Anon, a New Age movement -- one of these three."

Goldstein's research soon involved 20 families. In almost every case, the accusing daughters had read a 1988 book called The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Written by two women in California who were not medically trained, the book makes a bold assertion.

"It says that most people are sexually abused by the time they are teenagers," says Goldstein, "and they forget it because the memory is so strikingly bad that you repress it."

Goldstein points out that the word repression is used throughout the book, along with statistics that one of three women, and one of seven men, are sexually abused by the age of 16, and the majority of them repress the memory. It includes graphic accounts of fathers sexually abusing infant daughters in their cribs and prescribes a detailed protocol for healing, including confronting the alleged abuser.

"What happens is, once you state that experience, it becomes very real," says Goldstein. "You say, "Well, I sort of remember, it's coming back to me.' Then you're told to write all this down in your journal -- "It doesn't matter if it's true or not, just write it down because it will help you and it probably is true anyway.' So it went on and on this way."

More and more therapists -- many only counselors with little training, but also some licensed psychiatrists and psychologists -- began putting recovered memory techniques into practice, often involving hypnosis and the power of suggestion. Against that backdrop came the rampant allegations of sexual abuse against elderly parents.

"There was a constellation of symptoms," says Goldstein. "They'd read The Courage to Heal. They'd all say, "Do not contact me for six months so I can have time to heal.' Three women I saw all wrote virtually the same letter on yellow legal paper, like they were following a manual. And when you heard the hurt and desperation in a 70-year-old parent's voice, tied in with all these other things, you had a pretty clear picture of everything."

The wave of charges waned in the mid-'90s as a trickle, then a flood of accusers retracted their allegations. That was followed by a deluge of lawsuits and multimillion-dollar settlements that put many practitioners out of business. (See related story.)

Volumes of scientific research have questioned the validity of recovered memories. In his book Searching for Memory: the brain, the mind and the past, Harvard University psychology professor Daniel L. Schacter concludes that, though there have been some documented cases of recovered memories of sexual abuse, there is not enough data available to support their accuracy.

Schacter cautioned that any therapist "who engages in undisciplined interpretation of fears, attractions and other symptoms may be taking a step down a road to disaster."

Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of psychology and adjunct professor of law at the University of Washington, has published 18 books on memory. In one study, she attempted to plant a fictitious memory in 24 adults that, at age 5, they once became lost in a shopping mall. In the end, seven (29 percent) claimed to have a full or partial memory of the false incident.

A mother and a son

In St. Petersburg, the mother says she wonders how all this happened. How did the son who once lit up her life with joy come to loathe her?

She remembers many ups and downs along the way. Her husband, she says, was a successful writer in New York but also an alcoholic who had a temper when he drank. "He never hit the kids; he tried very hard to be a good father," she says.

She stresses that she was always discreet around her boys, that they never saw her in so much as a slip. But there were frequent moves that disrupted the boys' childhood, as their father's drinking triggered a tailspin of lost jobs.

She and her husband divorced; he entered AA, got sober and remarried. She went to work for the Pinellas County school system as her two sons -- three years apart -- made their way toward college. Her oldest attended St. Petersburg Junior College and landed a part-time job at a local radio station, once even interviewing his mother on-air about her job.

So began his life in radio. Along the way, he married. He and his wife moved to the West Coast in 1992 and had their son in 1993.

By 1994, the mother began to sense hostility during visits. "I wrote to (his wife) once and said, "I sense you don't like me; is it something you'd be willing to talk about?' And she wrote back and said, "Oh, nothing's wrong.' "

Not long after that, her world fell apart in a flurry of e-mails and accusations.

Today, she holds little hope that her son will ever change his stance. She is angry at his wife, who she feels harbored resentment toward her and may have fueled her son's resolve.

Her son scoffs at that. "I have been in therapy for several years because of depression and what's been called post-traumatic stress disorder and also dissociation, which is almost being multiple personality but not quite," he says.

"I'm like a Vietnam veteran who wakes up screaming in the middle of the night," he adds, "and it's triggered by contact from my mother."

In her apartment, the mother has a new challenge. Last month, she underwent surgery to remove a malignant tumor. She has begun chemotherapy and is optimistic about her chances. People visit her. She reads humor books and updates on the false memory front. She taps out e-mails to friends, writes down her feelings in a journal. But always, the thoughts creep in.

"I'll tell you that rarely a day goes by that he doesn't come into my mind, and mostly, it's loving thoughts," she says. "I try to remember the good times."

For information

To contact the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, call (800) 568-8882 or (215) 940-1040 or write to the foundation at 1955 Locust St., Philadelphia, PA 19103-5766. The group's Web site is To obtain related books on the subject published by Eleanor Goldstein, contact SIRS (Social Issues Resource Series) at (800) 232-7477.

Local contacts for the foundation are Bob and Janet McKelvey in Pasco County at (727) 856-7091. Bob McKelvey's story of being an accused parent, titled "The Day the Earth Stood Still: A "Repressed Memory' Story From Hell," can be accessed on the Internet at

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