Issue 237 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


With the publication of William Penrod’s collected letters [“In Rejection I Remain,” July 1995], The Sun — a community, a conversation, a magazine written by its readers and read by its writers — has reached new heights (depths?) of interactivity. Who needs the Internet?

Annie Gottlieb New York, New York

Mr. Sy Safransky, you and your kind make me sick. It’s people like you who are responsible for all that is wrong in this country today, what with the drive-by shootings and teen pregnancies and all. Just how many lives have you ruined, I ask you, the way you ruined the life of my son, Bill Penrod?

Ever since you sent him that check for his story [“Orson and Me,” July 1995], he’s been thinking he’s a real writer and won’t even consider any other kind of work. If it hadn’t been for you, he might have eventually passed the custodian’s test and gone to work in the new courthouse or, better yet, the mall, wearing a nice green uniform, cleaning cigarette butts out of them sandboxes they have.

Right now he is off to Montgomery Ward to get himself an electric typewriter! I never heard of anything so foolish. What’s gonna happen is he’ll probably electrocute himself, and when he does his blood will be on your hands, Mr. Sy Safransky, smarty-pants editor.

For the record, I just want to say that I only let him have that old typewriter to give him something to do with his hands. I was afraid the boy was gonna go blind, if you know what I mean.

My only comfort now is knowing that it won’t be too long before Newt and Jesse and Pat send you and your kind back to where you came from, where you won’t be allowed to ruin any more innocent lives. Then America can hold its head high once more.

Bill Penrod’s mom Hammond, Indiana

I just finished reading Kathleen C. Smith’s “I Wish I Had the Energy to Clean My Stove” [July 1995] and found it well written, insightful, and shrewdly humorous.

With all the talk on these pages of men versus women, her story made me reflect on how much power we give to superficial aspects of our lives by focusing so much attention on them. Many people I know are trying hard to get along with one another. A story like Smith’s can’t help but aid them in their attempts to be kind, gentle, and understanding.

Paul Hurley Auburn, California

I am so deeply moved by Mark Pendergrast’s “Daughters Lost” [June 1995]. I find it hard to imagine a worse thing that could happen to someone. I admire enormously his courage in writing it, and I respect his honesty and integrity.

I love the stories he tells of when his children were little. It’s extraordinary that, in the midst of his pain and despair, he can describe so vividly all the happy times they had together.

I hope that he will write and let you know if (when) he finally gets his kids back.

Susan Price Vero Beach, Florida

I have been disappointed with The Sun for more than a year now due to the excessive bias toward males in your interviews and feature articles. I did not feel the need to write you, however, until your publication of Mark Pendergrast’s “Daughters Lost.”

As a psychotherapist who treats many sexual-abuse survivors, I would like to dispute some points in his essay and clarify others. First, contrary to Andrew Snee’s comments in the introduction, there is no censorship of accused parents. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation (of which Pendergrast is a member, and to which he makes reference) is a master at manipulating the media to put forth its agenda. The “false memory” cause has been promoted on television by Oprah and Frontline, and has appeared in such periodicals as the New Yorker and Mother Jones. In the last year, several books have been published on the topic. If Pendergrast’s book was rejected by many publishers, it may be, as the introduction suggests, because it was inappropriate for an accused parent to write a book discounting “recovered” memories. Or it may be because Pendergrast lacks the credentials to write a scholarly book on the complex subject of memory.

“False-memory syndrome” is not a recognized clinical syndrome. It appears nowhere in the psychiatric diagnostic manual. It is a term coined by the FMSF. Likewise, “recovered-memory therapy” is not a recognized form of therapy. I’ve never met anyone who claims to practice it, and, if there are therapists who do so, they are definitely on the fringe.

There is, in the clinical literature, more than one hundred years of documentation of the reality of repressed memories. The phenomenon pertains not only to child abuse but also to war veterans, POWs, victims of natural disasters, and survivors of other highly traumatic events. There is no concrete evidence that traumatic false memories can be implanted. FMSF advisory-board member Elizabeth Loftus has proven that a small number of subjects in a laboratory setting can be persuaded, under hypnosis, that a nontraumatic event may have occurred during their childhood. This “research” (which does not control for various important variables) cannot be applied to trauma. In fact, there is evidence that traumatic memories are stored differently in the brain.

The Courage to Heal is a self-help book for women who believe they were sexually abused. It does not claim to be an investigative guide for examining the veracity of one’s memories. Pendergrast takes several quotes from the book out of context to prove his points. His reference to “recanters” is also deceptive. Most survivors of abuse go through periods of doubting their memories even when they have always remembered the abuse and/or when there is solid corroborating evidence that the abuse happened. Who wants to believe that someone they loved and trusted would do such a thing? These doubting periods can be manipulated by the perpetrators.

I do not know whether Pendergrast is guilty or not. I do know that I have met real perpetrators who could be every bit as convincing as he, right down to the sentimental memories of their children growing up. The fact that Pendergrast has not one but two daughters who have made the same accusation does not speak well in his defense.

My main problem with the false-memory movement, which Pendergrast defends, is that it targets not only those fringe therapists who may be acting unethically but many mainstream, highly respected, and ethical therapists as well. Even worse, it adds to the heartache of already vulnerable victims. I hope The Sun will consider balancing Pendergrast’s views with a piece by someone who was sexually abused, describing the effect this has had on his or her life.

Ann Earle Pittsboro, North Carolina

It seems we are all looking for a demon. The other day I had my picture taken with mine: my horrific, loud, bellicose, abusive, patriarchal father. Rather, he is my ex-demon, for though my father represented the root of all evil in my life for a long time, it is over now. I have seen him as he is; he has stopped being God, and is now just a man with a soul.

I hold inside me two contradictory truths: that my father loved me, and that he did the inhuman to me. I was never caught in the false-memory debate; no one in my family ever suggested that my father didn’t do what he did. But, as your magazine teaches all the time, truth and love are not simple. I remember I love my father. And I remember his cruelty.

If we all need a demon, Mark Pendergrast’s is some amorphous group of therapists and authors with an agenda. What could be their motivation for ruining other people’s lives? Perhaps Pendergrast believes they were molested and now want to share the misery. Or perhaps some therapist convinced them they were sexually abused, and now they’ve become therapists to convince others. Such stories nurture the happy idea that incest isn’t endemic in this culture; that the abuse your magazine often chronicles somehow magically manages to rein itself away from the sexual sphere; that, yes, we’re heartbroken and demented as a family, a tribe, a culture, and yet we’re off the hook when it comes to incest — it’s just a bunch of therapists making up false memories. What was it Muriel Rukeyser said? “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”

I don’t suggest that Pendergrast is lying. I do think his book is a naive search for a new demon. That our culture accepts his explanation makes perfect sense: all the more reason for The Sun to think twice before printing it.

Carolyn F. Santa Cruz, California
Mark Pendergrast responds:

To Ann Earle and Carolyn F., I repeat my plea in response to the last round of letters about “Daughters Lost”: Please read Victims of Memory in its entirety. You have judged my book without ever having read it. All the information I give here is contained in the book.

Far from lacking “credentials,” I was an investigative journalist long before writing this book. Read some of the reviews, such as the one in Scientific American (April 1995), which called it “an impressive display of scholarship,” adding that “Pendergrast demonstrates a laudable ability to lay out all sides of the argument.”

I do not particularly like the term “false-memory syndrome” either, since it is pejorative and implies that someone is intentionally making up a memory. Approximately 25 percent of American therapists do specialize in helping clients to uncover “repressed memories” of questionable veracity. They do so using such pseudoscientific methods as hypnosis, age regression, dream analysis, “body-memory” interpretation, and group suggestion.

Contrary to Earle’s assertion, there is no scientific documentation for the concept of repression, which Freud invented around a hundred years ago. Certainly, massive repression — in which people are supposed to forget years of abuse, only to recall it later — flies against everything we know about human memory. Far from forgetting, those who were repeatedly traumatized tend to have intrusive memories. They suffer from an inability to forget. This also applies to veterans and victims of natural disasters and other traumatic events.

It would be unethical to conduct an experiment demonstrating how sexual-abuse memories can be implanted — although millions of such cases have occurred in therapy sessions in the last few years. The late Nicholas Spanos probably came closest by leading his hypnotized subjects to believe in severe traumatic experiences during “past-life” regression. Elizabeth Loftus conducted an ingenious experiment in which subjects came to believe that they had been lost in a shopping mall when they were five. That did indeed constitute a traumatic memory, albeit a mild one.

The Courage to Heal is intended primarily for women who think they may have been abused but who do not remember. Read chapter 3 of Victims of Memory for an extensive critique. “If you don’t remember your abuse,” the authors write, “you are not alone. Many women don’t have memories, and some never get memories. This doesn’t mean they weren’t abused.”

Earle apparently believes that “retractors” really were abused but have been duped into doubting their memories. I urge her to read such retractors’ disturbing stories, in their own words, in chapter 10 of Victims of Memory. If Earle is truly a compassionate person concerned about abuse, she will be moved to tears.

“I do not know whether Pendergrast is guilty or not,” she writes, then implies quite strongly that I am. This kind of smear tactic is becoming familiar to me, particularly coming from people who have never met me or my children. I document many cases in which one sibling recovered “memories” in therapy, then told another sibling that she, too, must have been abused and must enter therapy to recall it. Some families have lost as many as five children to this virus of suggested memories — all five never having recalled any abuse prior to therapy.

It is unclear from her letter whether Carolyn F. has always remembered her father abusing her or whether she recovered such memories. If she has always recalled, I presume her memories are accurate. Regardless, I certainly sympathize with her pain.

I agree that to demonize other human beings is a mistake, and I continually caution others not to demonize recovered-memory therapists. Most of them are well intentioned though misguided. Carolyn also assumes that I deny the reality of incest and sexual abuse, when in fact I emphasize the disturbing extent of real, always-remembered abuse.

Finally, thanks to Susan Price for her kind words. I will indeed let The Sun know when my children come back into my life. There will be much rejoicing.

Alison Luterman’s “Leaving the Reservation” [June 1995] transfixed me. I could not bear it to end, and flipped ahead to see how much longer I had with her, for, as I read, I felt absolute recognition, joy, and admiration. I would have to stop now and then to look out at the soggy green field and the stubborn snow on the mountains beyond because I could not bear to let her story go by so fast.

Grace Huffman Woody Creek, Colorado

There’s a story by Ursula K. Le Guin called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” about a mythical town in which all the citizens are intelligent, industrious, creative, and joyous — all, that is, with the exception of one sick, tormented child, on whose misery the success and happiness of the rest depend.

Most of the townspeople accept the child’s fate as inevitable, but sometimes one of the children — or even an occasional adult — leaves the town in protest, going beyond the borders to a place no one knows, “a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness.”

For years I have asked myself and my students to describe where the ones who walk away are going. After reading Janine Claire Blaeloch’s wonderful story “Hibernating” [June 1995], I know: they go mad; they turn into bears; they go home.

Gillian Kendall Athens, Ohio

Martha Friend’s comments [Correspondence, May 1995] regarding the lack of women’s voices in The Sun are ludicrous. I am a woman, daughter, wife, sister, lover, friend, etc., and I have never read a magazine to equal The Sun. It speaks to all of us, male and female, honestly and without condescension. If Friend feels “voiceless and invisible” I doubt it has anything to do with The Sun. I’m tired of hearing about the differences between men and women. One reason I cherish your magazine is because the writers seem to cross gender boundaries and let us experience what is in another individual’s soul, regardless of sex. Never change.

Robin Michel Fremont, California

In recent years, Sy Safransky has become very sharp at delineating the contradictions and hypocrisies with which we middle-class American soul-searchers live. He always does so in the first person, explicitly indicting only himself, but it’s clear that he writes with an awareness that his audience will relate to his predicament.

In “This Land Is Your Land” [May 1995], he depicts the essential distances between our ideals and our lifestyles, between tragic history and any realistic hope for redemption or resolution. (I almost think he feels that the desecration of the planet and the annihilation of indigenous cultures are somehow directly traceable, along some karmic continuum, to his discomfort with sleeping in a tent.)

Yes, the distance between our ideals and the tragic reality is immense. And I know we won’t see that distance bridged in our lifetimes. But we know miracles happen; we know a seed becomes a plant. We also know that we’re each responsible for our own small part.

So how do we begin to heal those distances that Safransky so keenly perceives? I guess we have to give ourselves a little credit for wanting to heal them in the first place. Then we must act as if we could make a difference, as if our every gesture and deed are part of a great ocean of contributions, the collaborative work of redemption and salvation. None of us can see the whole picture as it unfolds, and none of us can really even know if it truly is unfolding, but that’s part of the charm and mystery of being human.

Marc Polonsky Berkeley, California
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