Do you ever feel dirty or ashamed? Do you have no sense of your interests or goals? Do you sometimes feel powerless, like a victim, have phobias, arthritis, or wear baggy clothes? According to two recent books, The Courage to Heal, (over 500,000 copies sold) and Secret Survivors, if your answer to any of these questions is yes, you may well be a victim of incest.

Never mind that you cannot remember being subjected to sex abuse by a family member: if you have doubts you were abused or think it’s maybe your imagination, then you probably suffer from “post-incest syndrome.” Denial is just a symptom; you’re blocking memories. As one author puts it, in the realm of sex abuse, “If you have any suspicion at all, if you have any memory, no matter how vague, it probably really happened.” In fact, there are platoons of therapists eager to use hypnosis to discover your forgotten episodes of violation and victimisation.

This distressing new turn in victim fashions is recounted in a stunning New York Times Book Review article by social psychologist Carol Tavris (write or phone me if you’d like a copy). She shows how the current spate of “incest-survivor books encourage women to incorporate the language of victimhood and survival into the sole organising narrative of their identity” — often with the encouragement of dubious therapists.

The mechanics of memory, Tavris rightly explains, are subtle and complex. Regressive hypnosis is more likely to generate fantasy “memories” than to recover recall of actual events. It’s a matter of memory by creative suggestion. When a troubled client is searching for the cause of a current malaise, such “digging” into the past can carry over into mere persuasion.

To the Skeptics it has a familiar ring: “experts” who hypnotise patients/victims to “discover” that they were raped in previous lives, or were abducted by UFOs and taken to the planet Zork to be subjected to weird medical experiments. But there is a difference: the man who raped me when I was a housewife in Atlantis is no more available for prosecution than the little gray Zorkian who abducted me. But dear old dad — well, there he is, and mum too. After the therapists come … the lawyers.

The definition of abuse in this new victimology is as expandable as a hot-air balloon, according to Tavris. She tells how one of the gurus of this new victimology “didn’t like the way her mother would plant a wet' kiss on her, look at her in ways that made her feelqueasy’ and walk in on her in the bathroom.” It wasn’t until years later, the guru claims, “that I came to terms with my mother’s behavior and saw it for what it really was — sexual abuse.”

Skeptics will find this new trend in victimhood disturbing for two reasons. First, the creative incitement of pseudomemories of sex abuse can lead to false accusations against parents and other — with devastating results for individuals and families. Second, it is no secret whatsoever that there is appalling sex abuse going on in our society. To use sex abuse as a principle explaining every incidence of adult unhappiness trivialises a serious human problem. In a world in which every unhappy soul is a “victim,” the needs of real victims will be ignored.

We’ll present more on this important topic at the Skeptics annual meeting in September in Christchurch. Mark your calendar!

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