Incest survivors are the neglected heroes of the #MeToo movement. In the last few years, survivor activists have bravely shown the world that adult sexual assault and harassment are far more commonplace than many had formerly realized or wanted to acknowledge. The same is true of incest: sexual abuse by a family member, usually when the victim is a child. Yet, while terms like catcalling, campus sexual assault, workplace harassment and date rape have by now become everyday phrases, the word incest remains taboo.
What we don’t speak about, we can’t analyze. Progressive culture has been steadily dismantling the victim-blaming tropes that have stigmatized adult rape survivors for centuries, like “what was she wearing?” Yet when it comes to entrenched narratives that silence incest survivors, mainstream media continues to propagate these harmful myths unchecked.
It’s time for us to change that.
Anti-Survivor Propaganda and the Myth of “False Memory Syndrome.”
The most insidious and enduring attack on incest survivors in modern times is the myth of “false memory syndrome.” I’ve published an in-depth history of this harmful campaign, which originated in the 1990s, when a seething backlash erupted to squash an emerging movement of incest survivor activists that took shape in the 1980s—an outgrowth of the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s.
Every anti-oppression movement has its backlash—racial justice movements in the U.S. are always met with rises in white supremacy, and demands for gender equality are countered with surges of patriarchal power jockeying. When adult incest survivors began speaking out about childhood sexual abuse and bringing their perpetrators to court, the accused organized their own backlash movement in the form of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF).
Founded in 1992, the FMSF was on its surface an “advocacy group” created by and for parents who’d been accused by their children of sexual abuse. The group’s supposed agenda was to provide support and fellowship to families that had been “destroyed” by accusations of incest. They launched a well-funded media campaign purporting the existence of an epidemic of “False Memory Syndrome”—not a scientifically researched condition, but rather a slogan concocted by accused parents to discredit the testimonies of their children.
“False Memory Syndrome” was an enticing decoy, much like Trump crying “fake news” whenever someone points to his misdeeds. And like Trump, who remains unscathed by numerous allegations of sexual abuse, the accused parents of the FMSF were right to assume that a culture steeped in patriarchy would side with them over their accusers simply based on the power differential between parents and their children.
This blind deference to power enabled the FMSF to pass off a blatantly hollow defense strategy as science. In fact, they didn’t even try to hide this when recounting how the foundation came up with its pseudoscientific catchphrase:
“…since the parents were convinced that what their children thought were memories were really incorrect beliefs, the term ‘false memory’ seemed appropriate.” (False Memory Syndrome Foundation)
In other words, “False Memory Syndrome” was nothing more than an authoritative-sounding way for alleged incest perpetrators to call their accusers liars.
The Persuasive Power of “Science”
The FMSF’s “false memory” campaign was highly effective with popular media, which eagerly gobbled it up. It eased the dissonance between an image of the “perfect American family” and an emerging consciousness of staggering rates of child sexual abuse across the U.S. and worldwide. The campaign also meshed well with predominant cultural biases of the early 1990s—a time when, for example, Anita Hill’s credibility was put on trial at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings when she accused him of sexual harassment.
“False memory” propaganda made its way into the scientific community as well. Much like other disinformation campaigns that masquerade as science to reinforce patriarchy and white supremacy, such as gender essentialism and eugenics, “False Memory Syndrome” became deeply entrenched in scientific literature and research.
To this day, popular psychology magazines like Psychology Today reference Elizabeth Loftus as the world’s leading memory scientist and authority on “false memory.” Loftus, a member of the FMSF’s scientific advisory board, has made a career as a highly paid expert witness for the defense of such clients as Ted Bundy, O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson and Harvey Weinstein, as well as countless parents accused of sexually abusing their children. By her own admission, she has no clinical or research experience working with sexual abuse survivors—the population whose memory she claims to have expertise on.
While the FMSF and their advisory board claimed to be champions of science and truth, “false memory” research has always been politically motivated. It emerged as a response to sexual abuse accusations and its aim has been to exonerate the accused, not to improve psychotherapy outcomes. “False Memory” advocates uniformly ignore the ample evidence and research studies that support the validity of repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. And while repressed memory is a phenomenon that is commonly observed in survivors of military combat and other traumatic experiences, the “false memory” debate centers uniquely on the more politically charged topic of child sexual abuse (Goldsmith and Barlow).
Attitudes Toward Incest Survivors Are Stuck in the 1990s
Despite the changing times and the gains of the #MeToo movement, incest has yet to make its way into the public conversation about sexual abuse, and “false memory” rhetoric continues to be paraded on the pages of mainstream publications without critique. It is as harmful to survivors as other outdated victim-blaming notions like “she was asking for it” or “men can’t be raped.”
When incest survivors look to sources like Psychology Today, GoodTherapy or BetterHelp for information and support, they are likely to find material that leaves them feeling gaslighted, invalidated and re-traumatized. Below are some live examples:
- This Psychology Today blog post refers to traumatic amnesia—a phenomenon widely acknowledged by trauma survivors and experts like Bessel van der Kolk and Judith Herman—as “arrogant fiction.” The author then tellingly suggests that Jerry Sandusky’s accusers may be victims of “false memory”—a fallacy that has been thoroughly debunked by trauma experts.
- Another Psychology Today article on “false memory” offers this ominous warning to child sexual abuse survivors who dare confront their abusers: “A malleable memory can have especially dire consequences, particularly in legal settings when children are used as eyewitnesses… This becomes highly problematic when a case involves alleged sexual abuse…”
- A post on BetterHelp uses the above Psychology Today article as an authoritative reference on “false memory,” and implies that this issue is particularly prevalent with “children who have been abused or assaulted.”
- Following the “false memory” disinformation bandwagon are also GoodTherapy, Healthline, Verywellmind and many, many more.
While “false memory” propaganda abounds, finding any information at all on healing from incest can be challenging. Search the word “incest” on these mainstream psychology websites and here’s what you’ll find:
- Verywellmind: Zero articles about incest.
- GoodTherapy: Three articles – two are about non-sexual incest (i.e. emotional incest) and none of them are about the most common form of familial sexual abuse, father-daughter incest.
- BetterHelp: Nothing.
- Psychology Today: A smattering of material ranging from articles that helpfully address the trauma of incest, to essays that focus on the procreational hazards of incest without identifying it as abuse, to articles that question the morality of incest, as if the ethics of sexual abuse were up for debate.
The range of attitudes expressed by Psychology Today reveal that, while mainstream culture has finally come to understand the power dynamics underlying sexual abuse of employees by bosses, students by teachers and congregants by clergy, many of us fail to understand the power dynamics that enable older family members to sexually abuse younger ones. Perhaps it’s harder to acknowledge abuses of power that hit so close to home.
Not only is the media’s inept handling of incest harmful to survivors seeking resources on healing, but it also enables perpetrators seeking validation for their behavior—which they will readily find in mainstream psychological resources that fail to make clear the harm they are causing to their victims.
At a time when social justice consciousness is on the rise, it’s imperative that we stand up for incest survivors and hold these media outlets accountable for their part in colluding with rape culture. If we truly want to reform the abuses of power that underlie our social structures, it’s vital that we acknowledge and address the injustices hiding in plain sight within our own families and homes.
Where Do We Start?
In order to lift the taboo on talking about incest and start correcting the misconceptions that popular psychology magazines continue to perpetuate, it’s necessary to start with the basics and define incest. In doing so, we can shed light on the spectrum of abuse that falls under the umbrella of incest, much in the way that we now recognize the spectrum of adult sexual abuse, from microaggressions to violent assault.
Rather than looking to forensic or psychological experts to define incest, I advocate listening to those with lived experience. Below is the definition given by Survivors of Incest Anonymous, an organization of peer support created by and for survivors:
“We define incest very broadly as a sexual encounter by a family member, or by an extended family member, that damaged the child. By “extended family” member we mean a person that you and/or your family have known over a period of time. This may be any family member, a family friend, clergy, another child, or anyone who betrayed the child’s innocence and trust. We believe we were affected by the abuse whether it occurred once or many times since the damage was incurred immediately. By “abuse” we mean any sexual behavior or contact with the child. Sexual contacts may include a variety of verbal and/or physical behaviors; penetration is not necessary for the experience to be defined as incest or sexual abuse.”
If we’re ever going to be able to talk about incest openly as a society, we must also expand our language in order to facilitate that discussion. It may be helpful to build off of terms for adult sexual abuse that have already gained cultural acceptance and understanding. For example, we could talk about: Parental sexual harassment, mother-son rape, sibling sexual coercion, familial non-consensual touch. As we’ve seen with #MeToo, when we begin to put words to abuses that have been normalized or denied in our communities, we start to realize that abuse is not an anomaly but rather an expression of systemic inequalities, and that we are all impacted somewhere along the spectrum.
One of the most difficult and damaging consequences of incest is the crushing self-doubt that survivors commonly struggle with. It can lead to severe psychological distress and, at its worst, suicidality. That’s why it’s so vitally important that popular psychology resources, at the very least, refrain from reinforcing survivors’ self-doubt with perpetrator-protecting tropes like “False Memory Syndrome.”
Self-doubt for incest survivors is driven by internal and external forces knitted together, forming a tightly woven tapestry that is painstaking to undo. During childhood, when incest victims are often dependent on their abusers for primary caretaking—love, food, shelter—a common automatic survival mechanism is for the child to deny, minimize or dissociate from the abuse. Researcher, professor and incest survivor Jennifer J. Freyd wrote about this phenomenon in her 1998 book Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse. Many survivors repress their memory of the abuse completely until a time in their lives when it is safe enough to remember—and even then, memories often emerge in non-narrative forms such as emotional responses to triggers, physical sensations, intrusive images, etc.
A similar survival mechanism often propels non-offending family members to deny, minimize or dissociate from the abuse as well. Confronting an abuser can cause upheaval to an entire family or community system, destabilizing the financial ties and social cohesion that the group depends on for survival. Therefore, when incest survivors do disclose the abuse, they are often met with persistent and widespread gaslighting—manipulation of truth that causes one to doubt one’s own reality.
Added to this are the denial and threats that abusers commonly use to keep their misdeeds a secret, as well as the enduring cultural conditioning to disbelieve survivors of childhood sexual abuse, aided and abetted by “false memory” jargon. In the face of all these overlapping layers of denial and dissociation, reclaiming self-belief becomes a Sisyphean challenge for incest survivors.
Despite the obstacles, survivors can and do heal. An important part of the process is regaining trust in oneself and reclaiming authority over one’s own lived experience. Survivors often find that creative expression and mindfulness practices offer pathways back to a sense of inner trust and self-connection. For many, it’s also essential to find reflections of their own experience in the words of other incest survivors. If gaslighting leads us to feel “crazy,” affirmation of our lived experience can help us repair our sense of reality and self-trust.
Because many popular psychology publications are still rife with incest denial rhetoric, survivors frequently look outside the mainstream for support. Below is a compilation of some excellent resources created by and for incest survivors on the healing journey:
Books and Films
- Am I Crazy? My Journey to Determine if My Memories Are True
- The Courage to Heal
- Healing My Life from Incest to Joy
- Love with Accountability
- Soaring Above the Ashes
What can each one of us do to make the world a safer place for incest survivors and to support inclusion as we collectively strive to end rape culture? All successful anti-oppression movements are founded on consciousness raising. That is what #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have used as fuel for cultural and political change. Why not build on the armatures that have already been so bravely constructed? Share the words of incest survivors with the hashtag #believeincestsurvivors. Correct community members when they perpetuate myths that harm survivors. Be an empathetic and affirming listener when a survivor discloses to you. Demand accountability from media outlets that promote anti-survivor propaganda. Be an agent of change. We already know that these actions, with collective participation, can have culture-shifting impact.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
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