Believe the Women?

As Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court has been disrupted by the #Me Two Movement’s chant “Believe the Women,” it is worth recalling the origins of this slogan -- and the huge damage it wreaked in its first incarnation. It is also worth considering what light the earlier Believe the Women movement can throw on the current allegations.

I described its origin in 2001 in The Women’s Quarterly.  I noted it could be traced to a single moment in history, April 17, 1971, when the New York Radical Feminists, a group that at its height boasted no more than 400 members, held a groundbreaking conference on rape, a subject long considered taboo.  The event produced an unlikely star, Florence Rush, a middle-aged social worker who had never been raped.   It was the conclusion to her speech that electrified the audience. “The family itself is an instrument of sexual and other forms of child abuse… permitted because it is an unspoken but prominent factor in socializing and preparing the female to accept a subordinate role… In short the sexual abuse of female children is a process of education that prepares them to become the wives and mothers of America.”  A participant, Susan Brownmiller, who would go on to write a book on rape, recalled: “I have been to many feminist meetings, but never before, and not since, have I seen an entire audience rise to its feet in acclaim. We clapped. We cheered.”

Feminist writers would begin to outdo each other in their estimates of incest victims.  Catherine MacKinnon, the law professor who helped develop the legal definitions of sexual harassment, announced that 4.5% of all women are victims of incest by their father and if brothers, stepfathers, uncles and family friends were thrown in, the figure rose to 40 percent.  Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman dedicated her 1981 book Father-Daughter Incest, to the women “estimated by us to be in the millions, who have personally experienced incestuous abuse.”  

At the time of the 1971 conference psychiatric textbooks estimated the rate of father-daughter incest at one to two for every million women in the United States.  If that figure was accurate, it was not surprising that incest attracted little public attention. On the other hand, if, in fact, fathers were sexually abusing millions of daughters, why did no one know of it?

The theory of repressed memory provided the answer.  A woman was so traumatized by being molested by her father, the theory said, that she banished the memory from her conscious mind. Therapists of all types, from psychiatrists on down, set out to help patients unlock their supposedly buried memories.   Ellen Bass and Laura Davis in 1988 published the best-selling The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse  which encouraged women to look to sexual abuse as the explanation if, for example, they had problems trusting their intuition, had an eating disorder, felt different from other people, felt powerless, like a victim.  Therapists exhorted their clients to “detach” from their parents (i.e. sever all ties) and even sue them in civil or criminal court.  In the ensuing hysteria 24 states promoted such litigation by changing the statute of limitations so that the time limit for filing a lawsuit was based not on the date of the alleged deed(s) but rather on when the purported victim recovered her (in a small proportion of cases, his)  memory  or realized the damage it had done.  As a result sexagenarians sued parents confined to nursing homes.

Large numbers of families were destroyed. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation, established in 1992 by Pamela Freyd and her husband after he was accused by their daughter Jennifer (by a curious coincidence, like Christine Blasey Ford a psychology professor), reported being contacted by 20,000 families embroiled in such accusations.  The allegations did more than affect relations between accuser and parents. They resulted in divorces, feuds between siblings and loss of employment, as the charges became public.

What brought this phase of “Believe the Women” to a close was not, alas, the triumph of reason or pushback by professional associations (which were silent or joined in the popular hue and cry), but the impact of lawsuits by women subject to especially vigorous therapy who recovered their sanity.  In 1997 insurers agreed to pay Pat Burgus $10.6 million; under repressed memory therapy in a hospital unit she had “remembered” Satanists pushing torches inside her and having to eat body parts from 2,000 human corpses per year.  Insurers for psychiatrist Kenneth Olson awarded Nadean Cool $2.4 million in an out-of-court settlement after 15 days of court testimony.  Cool had been told she had 120 personalities including that of angels and a duck.  After Cool was tethered spread-eagled on a bed, Olson brought a fire extinguisher to the site because, he said, “she could burst into flames as a result of the exorcism.”  With insurers increasingly refusing to insure practitioners of repressed memory therapy, the movement faded.

What light might all this throw on the allegations against Judge Kavanaugh by Christine Blasey Ford? While Ford claims that her memory of the assault has remained basically intact since the incident occurred, i.e. this is not a case of repressed memory, there are aspects of her story that suggest otherwise and certainly warrant investigation.  If this is an intact memory, she would surely remember its most traumatic aspects, including not just the assault but the getaway, how she managed to get home. Yet she remembers nothing but the assault.  If she ran away suddenly from a small party, would not her best friend, who was also there according to Ford’s account, have questioned her  the next day about her disappearance?  And would she run away without any warning to her friend that two drunk would-be rapists were on the loose right there? 

If this was a “repressed” memory, i.e. one brought up through some kind of therapy, even self-wrought (remember, she’s a psychologist), the whole story makes more sense.  Ford has a vivid memory of events, but she alone has them.  Those she has placed at the scene, including her good friend, have no memory of it.   Ford’s memory wobbles; she tells her therapist in 2012 there were four people in the room where she was attacked; now she remembers two.   The memory is selective: she cannot fill in the where or when. 

Thanks to Senator Jeff Flake adopting the endlessly repeated Democratic talking point, the FBI is conducting an investigation. They are not likely to uncover much more about Judge Kavanaugh’s role in the alleged incident given that testimony has already been given by those Ford placed at the party (who have denied on penalty of perjury that they were there).  Where the FBI should be focusing their inquiry -- with the prospect of uncovering useful information -- is on Christine Blasey Ford.  Presumably, if this was an intact memory, as a fifteen-year-old she initially knew where and when the attack occurred, how she got there and how she got away. When did she “lose” her memories of these salient facts?  Did she forget the episode for some of those 36 years and then “recover” her memory with gaping holes?  Did she undergo therapy before 2012?  Can the FBI see those therapist notes she supposedly showed the Washington Post

Believe the women?  We already know we can’t believe everything Ford says.  She claimed she could not come to Washington until the end of the week because of her fear of flying.  Yet we now know she not only flies regularly to see her family in Delaware (which could be explained as a reluctant duty) but has flown on vacations to the South Pacific and Tahiti (easily avoidable if she feared flying).  In her testimony she claimed not to know that the committee had volunteered to fly out to question her.  Even if her lawyers had kept the several messages making this offer from her (unethical and so dubious), this was widely reported in the news and would surely have been brought to her attention if she had by some miracle failed to hear it herself.

The current #MeToo Movement has instilled a terror of examining the story of any woman who claims to be a victim of sexual abuse.  This is treating women as infants in the guise of respecting them.  Ford deserves the same scrutiny that has been turned on Judge Kavanaugh.  The current FBI investigation offers an opportunity for equal treatment. A probing inquiry into her story, and questioning of others who know her,  is likely to prove far more enlightening than a mindless “Believe the Women” in respect to uncovering the origin of her uncorroborated memories and the level of credence that should be put in her and them.

Rael Jean Isaac is the author, most recently, of “The Last Victim: One Man Caught in the Day-Care Hysteria Decades Ago Still Seeks Justice”, National Review, September 10, 2018.

As Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court has been disrupted by the #Me Two Movement’s chant “Believe the Women,” it is worth recalling the origins of this slogan -- and the huge damage it wreaked in its first incarnation. It is also worth considering what light the earlier Believe the Women movement can throw on the current allegations.

I described its origin in 2001 in The Women’s Quarterly.  I noted it could be traced to a single moment in history, April 17, 1971, when the New York Radical Feminists, a group that at its height boasted no more than 400 members, held a groundbreaking conference on rape, a subject long considered taboo.  The event produced an unlikely star, Florence Rush, a middle-aged social worker who had never been raped.   It was the conclusion to her speech that electrified the audience. “The family itself is an instrument of sexual and other forms of child abuse… permitted because it is an unspoken but prominent factor in socializing and preparing the female to accept a subordinate role… In short the sexual abuse of female children is a process of education that prepares them to become the wives and mothers of America.”  A participant, Susan Brownmiller, who would go on to write a book on rape, recalled: “I have been to many feminist meetings, but never before, and not since, have I seen an entire audience rise to its feet in acclaim. We clapped. We cheered.”

Feminist writers would begin to outdo each other in their estimates of incest victims.  Catherine MacKinnon, the law professor who helped develop the legal definitions of sexual harassment, announced that 4.5% of all women are victims of incest by their father and if brothers, stepfathers, uncles and family friends were thrown in, the figure rose to 40 percent.  Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman dedicated her 1981 book Father-Daughter Incest, to the women “estimated by us to be in the millions, who have personally experienced incestuous abuse.”  

At the time of the 1971 conference psychiatric textbooks estimated the rate of father-daughter incest at one to two for every million women in the United States.  If that figure was accurate, it was not surprising that incest attracted little public attention. On the other hand, if, in fact, fathers were sexually abusing millions of daughters, why did no one know of it?

The theory of repressed memory provided the answer.  A woman was so traumatized by being molested by her father, the theory said, that she banished the memory from her conscious mind. Therapists of all types, from psychiatrists on down, set out to help patients unlock their supposedly buried memories.   Ellen Bass and Laura Davis in 1988 published the best-selling The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse  which encouraged women to look to sexual abuse as the explanation if, for example, they had problems trusting their intuition, had an eating disorder, felt different from other people, felt powerless, like a victim.  Therapists exhorted their clients to “detach” from their parents (i.e. sever all ties) and even sue them in civil or criminal court.  In the ensuing hysteria 24 states promoted such litigation by changing the statute of limitations so that the time limit for filing a lawsuit was based not on the date of the alleged deed(s) but rather on when the purported victim recovered her (in a small proportion of cases, his)  memory  or realized the damage it had done.  As a result sexagenarians sued parents confined to nursing homes.

Large numbers of families were destroyed. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation, established in 1992 by Pamela Freyd and her husband after he was accused by their daughter Jennifer (by a curious coincidence, like Christine Blasey Ford a psychology professor), reported being contacted by 20,000 families embroiled in such accusations.  The allegations did more than affect relations between accuser and parents. They resulted in divorces, feuds between siblings and loss of employment, as the charges became public.

What brought this phase of “Believe the Women” to a close was not, alas, the triumph of reason or pushback by professional associations (which were silent or joined in the popular hue and cry), but the impact of lawsuits by women subject to especially vigorous therapy who recovered their sanity.  In 1997 insurers agreed to pay Pat Burgus $10.6 million; under repressed memory therapy in a hospital unit she had “remembered” Satanists pushing torches inside her and having to eat body parts from 2,000 human corpses per year.  Insurers for psychiatrist Kenneth Olson awarded Nadean Cool $2.4 million in an out-of-court settlement after 15 days of court testimony.  Cool had been told she had 120 personalities including that of angels and a duck.  After Cool was tethered spread-eagled on a bed, Olson brought a fire extinguisher to the site because, he said, “she could burst into flames as a result of the exorcism.”  With insurers increasingly refusing to insure practitioners of repressed memory therapy, the movement faded.

What light might all this throw on the allegations against Judge Kavanaugh by Christine Blasey Ford? While Ford claims that her memory of the assault has remained basically intact since the incident occurred, i.e. this is not a case of repressed memory, there are aspects of her story that suggest otherwise and certainly warrant investigation.  If this is an intact memory, she would surely remember its most traumatic aspects, including not just the assault but the getaway, how she managed to get home. Yet she remembers nothing but the assault.  If she ran away suddenly from a small party, would not her best friend, who was also there according to Ford’s account, have questioned her  the next day about her disappearance?  And would she run away without any warning to her friend that two drunk would-be rapists were on the loose right there? 

If this was a “repressed” memory, i.e. one brought up through some kind of therapy, even self-wrought (remember, she’s a psychologist), the whole story makes more sense.  Ford has a vivid memory of events, but she alone has them.  Those she has placed at the scene, including her good friend, have no memory of it.   Ford’s memory wobbles; she tells her therapist in 2012 there were four people in the room where she was attacked; now she remembers two.   The memory is selective: she cannot fill in the where or when. 

Thanks to Senator Jeff Flake adopting the endlessly repeated Democratic talking point, the FBI is conducting an investigation. They are not likely to uncover much more about Judge Kavanaugh’s role in the alleged incident given that testimony has already been given by those Ford placed at the party (who have denied on penalty of perjury that they were there).  Where the FBI should be focusing their inquiry -- with the prospect of uncovering useful information -- is on Christine Blasey Ford.  Presumably, if this was an intact memory, as a fifteen-year-old she initially knew where and when the attack occurred, how she got there and how she got away. When did she “lose” her memories of these salient facts?  Did she forget the episode for some of those 36 years and then “recover” her memory with gaping holes?  Did she undergo therapy before 2012?  Can the FBI see those therapist notes she supposedly showed the Washington Post

Believe the women?  We already know we can’t believe everything Ford says.  She claimed she could not come to Washington until the end of the week because of her fear of flying.  Yet we now know she not only flies regularly to see her family in Delaware (which could be explained as a reluctant duty) but has flown on vacations to the South Pacific and Tahiti (easily avoidable if she feared flying).  In her testimony she claimed not to know that the committee had volunteered to fly out to question her.  Even if her lawyers had kept the several messages making this offer from her (unethical and so dubious), this was widely reported in the news and would surely have been brought to her attention if she had by some miracle failed to hear it herself.

The current #MeToo Movement has instilled a terror of examining the story of any woman who claims to be a victim of sexual abuse.  This is treating women as infants in the guise of respecting them.  Ford deserves the same scrutiny that has been turned on Judge Kavanaugh.  The current FBI investigation offers an opportunity for equal treatment. A probing inquiry into her story, and questioning of others who know her,  is likely to prove far more enlightening than a mindless “Believe the Women” in respect to uncovering the origin of her uncorroborated memories and the level of credence that should be put in her and them.

Rael Jean Isaac is the author, most recently, of “The Last Victim: One Man Caught in the Day-Care Hysteria Decades Ago Still Seeks Justice”, National Review, September 10, 2018.