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Misinformation Concerning Child Sexual Abuse and Adult Survivors

Roesler, Thomas A. M.D.

Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics: August 2003 - Volume 24 - Issue 4 - p 291-292
BOOK REVIEWS: Misinformation Concerning Child Sexual Abuse and Adult Survivors

Psychiatry and Human Behavior

Brown Medical School

Providence, Rhode Island

Misinformation Concerning Child Sexual Abuse and Adult Survivors edited by Charles Whitfield, Joyanna Silberg, and Paul Jay Fink New York, NY, Haworth Press, 2002, 210 pp, $24.95.

This volume is a collection of articles examining four controversies in the evaluation and treatment of child sexual abuse: (1) Is child abuse harmful? (2) Does false memory syndrome exist? (3) Is there a “witch hunt” in this country over child sexual abuse? and (4) What about repressed memories? An attempt to cover four such weighty topics is, indeed, a tall order.

The authors and editors are all veterans of the child abuse wars. The book was obviously designed to be an antidote for arguments currently being employed in courtrooms around the country. As such, it offers solid scholarly material and unabashed advocacy for children and adults victimized as children.

Three of the articles are concerned with a meta-analysis published in 1998 by a Rind, Tromovitch, and Bauserman (Psychol Bull. 1998;124:22–53). The article has attracted so much attention because it purported to show that sexual abuse has significantly less long-term effect on children, and especially on men abused as children, than commonly assumed. For two decades research has been accumulating regarding the deleterious effects of sexual abuse on long-term psychological functioning. In fact, the evidence has been so striking that child sexual abuse has been called the most significant preventable cause of psychological dysfunction.

The appearance of the Rind et al article in the reputable journal Psychological Bulletin makes it valuable ammunition in a courtroom setting for any defendant accused of sexual abuse of a child because the authors make an academic argument that sexual abuse is not so bad. The articles presented in Misinformation Concerning Child Sexual Abuse and Adult Survivors attack Rind et al from all quarters. Specifically, the methodology comes under intense scrutiny. Rind et al are accused of sample bias for having based their analysis on studies involving only college students. The criticism points out numerous errors in statistical analysis and makes a case that the article was written to promote a particular bias on the part of the authors.

False memory syndrome has never had much support from serious researchers. From the beginning it served a political purpose. It was invented by people accused of sexual abuse and their advocates. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation promised, when unveiling this explanation for why their members were being accused of sexual abuse, that scientific studies would follow. Alas, no such evidence has ever emerged. Whitfield gives a detailed response describing how the false memory syndrome defense has been used in the courtroom and how to rebut it.

In the mid-1990s extensive media attention was paid to “false accusations.”The New York Review of Books (January 12, 1995) published a long article by Frederick Crews purportedly documenting how innocent individuals were being caught up in a witch-hunt. He specifically referred to the case of school bus driver, Robert Halsey, who was convicted of sexually abusing two young boys. Ross Cheit, an attorney and Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, reviewed the case for evidence that Mr. Halsey might have been falsely accused. Instead, he discovered a richly documented record describing ghastly physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Indeed, a worse poster child for witch-hunt victimization could hardly be found.

Finally, Courtois, who for several decades has been writing practical advice for therapists treating adults sexually abused as children, was charged with summarizing how to deal with memories of abuse that emerge in therapy. Her 19 guidelines should have a special place in any therapist’s office.

Taken as a whole, the articles in this volume make for engaging reading. They may be polemical in nature but they provide much useful information. Awareness of the material in this book is a prerequisite for anyone who might be called to the courtroom in a case involving a sexually victimized child or adult.

© 2003 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.