Review of "Accounts of Innocence"

By Joseph E. Davis
University Of Chicago Press, 2005
Review by Roy Sugarman, Ph.D. on Jun 27th 2006
Accounts of Innocence

The subject of the subtitle informs you from the start that the book has three parts: a historical exploration of the systemic meanings applied to the subject matter across time, definitions of client experience, and finally, the victimization of the self that this all implies.

What passes for construction in the first part is really a careful, sociologist's analysis of the history of public and academic acknowledgment of the problem, as it unfolded in the minutiae of the literature.  With lengthy repetition of the issues Davis, a social scientist, painstakingly unravels the meanings given to sexual abuse of children across time in the 20th Century.  I think most would accept that sexual tampering of children was always there, but merely discovered by authorities as the family opened up to social scrutiny in the early, to mid, 20th Century.  This is covered in the first chapter on incest and sexual offences before the social discovery.  Here, Freud is singled out for a particular role, given his controversial contributions to the field as exemplified in his letters to Fleish and in the popular books written shortly before 2000.  Freud of course attended autopsies of dead, abused children in Paris, but nevertheless was a product of the European Victorian-Age Jewry of his time, and seemingly avoided the topic, resolving it in the theory of Oedipus and other tragedies.  The Family Therapy movement, and of course even earlier the Ego Psychologists, challenged individual pathology as being underlying in all of these cases, and the idea that such pathology lived internally.  The Family Therapy movement didn't get it all right however, as the Feminists soon proved when they attacked both psychoanalytic and family schools alike, with accusations of victim blaming, or moving pathology around in a linear way, or alternatively, with circular causality; although neither dealt effectively with the Feminist argument of a patriarchal society's capacity to injure one gender to serve the other.

Chapters two and three go into painstaking detail in documenting the subtleties of these arguments, and even if one doesn't descend into one form of envy or the other, Davis leaves no stone unturned or accessioned; it's the most detailed review I have ever waded through.  By the time the reader emerges, 100-plus pages of small-fonted discussion have taken place, setting the scenario for what follows.  So the story unravels from the incest years, to the emergence of the problem as social phenomena, through the family therapy and child protection movement eras in the USA, and then to the anti-rape movement, as well as the victims activists, narrowing down the argument for intervention from a series of collectivist movements to the psychological trauma model.

In the second section, Davis moves to the microcosmic rationale for defining the victim's experience under the umbrella of the rational and persuasive arguments for the methodology of studying the victims accounts, moving smoothly to the idea of the survivor of abuse, rather than a passive victim's experience, now liberating the passive victim from social intervention, through to a survivor, motivated intrinsically.  This last is informed by the passage of actual treatment practices, so the rationale and persuasive arguments for diagnosis and treatment dominated this phase.  The impetus for this was of course written by non-professionals, the now apocryphal 'The courage to heal'.  Emphasis here was the need for a change of definition of the personality, from victim of patriarchal assault and helpless recipient, to whole survivor, who heals and takes control of the bits of her or his life that have been stolen.  The correct assignment of blame here is thus pivotal.  Self-help books and self-help groups began to dominate the scene, as other groups had done earlier during the anti-rape movement and the child protection era respectively.  In this arena, psychotherapy emerged as an attempt to address client distress by translating cultural meanings into embodied experience, with the goal of changing the victim's identity using the tools of survivor rationalization, persuasion, decoding of symptoms, reframing of experience and so on.  Here, the construction is of the victim account, a narrative that will allow for the therapeutic experience of teaching a new view of past and present, the victimization 'account' (see page 165).

In this account, the connection often has to be made between the abuse of childhood experience, and the symptoms of adult dysfunction, often not made by the client, but by the process of psychotherapy, even if the client has access to clear memories of the events.  Survivor therapy is thus a collaborative process of 'discovery'.  This often involves the reconstruction of memory, with all its pitfalls.  Nevertheless, the idea was to abreact the abuse trauma in a safe environment and relationship.  In this way the victim account is the first stage and the survivor story is the second.  'One story, victimization, signifies the part of herself conditioned by abuse and expressed in her symptoms and other problems identified during therapy.  The other story, survival, signifies the part of herself that has remained true and that is expressed in her inner strength, resilience, and willingness to struggle' (page 193).  This often leads to confrontation with those perceived as providing abuse, and the renegotiation of other relationships which were embarked on by the 'false self' of the victim. Having been victimized and survived, the next stage is to thrive on the foundation of the 'true self'.  The right story is thus replacing the wrong story, or the mediating narrative is providing the context of more than symptom reduction, but of moving on ahead from that.  The mediating narrative thus has to fit with actual experience.  Part three of the book however, will have to deal with the problems of the healing narrative, namely, the memory 'wars'.

If the child protection movement and the anti-rape coalitions had failed to provoke any resistance from a troubled society contemplating its own horrors, then the false memory revelations yielded up the first major rethink of the value of the mediating narrative.  Following on the medicalization of sexual abuse and survivor therapy came an increasing set of data and testimonies on the value or otherwise of memory, and its reconstruction.  In short, the idea that abuse was providing the resource for adult psychopathology was obsessive fruit for some mental health professionals, and so it was sought out even when there was no clear idea that it ever occurred.  The client is once more, or for the first time, a victim of the therapeutic approach.  Elizabeth Loftus is perhaps the most famous of the researchers into how memory is influenced in such ways in social interactions such as the therapy room.  The evidence is thus that people are more inclined to regard a memory as real when detail is added.  Hypnotherapy adds much detail, apparently none of it accurate, just more of it, and hence will allow vague memory to take on the specter of full-blooded accurate recall of reality, which Loftus was able to show is not the case.

However, as Davis points out, the counterculture of the false-memory accusers has resulted in the entire metaphysical process of psychology being brought into question, particularly with reference to metaphor and narrative.  The reliance, they argue, should be on evidence based practices, namely, on therapies that have an empirical base.  This now established principle has led to others, such as Miller, arguing in turn for a return to engagement with human suffering rather than a more robotic and manual-driven approach.  However, the idea of repressed memory and similar issues are no longer the domain of the conference, they are 'out there' and don't need a therapist to create them.

Chapter nine, where the accounts of innocence begin, starts with the book created by a person who must labor under the often misread author, Louise Armstrong.  Her initial book, Kiss Daddy Goodnight, set the tone for walking-talking survivors to come out.  Her life's work of course founders often in the controversies of public cases of abuse, and the false memory wars.  Narrative had become confessional, survivors were spoken of in terms of their wounds, not their success, in the dogma of therapy, rather than existence.

Like many feminist assertions, the idea here is that therapy and pathology individualize and de-politicize the issue that is important, as the personal must be seen as political in order for social change to evolve at the macro, not individual, therapy level.  Psychologists are not agents of social change in that way.  The needy narrative of the damaged goods in the abuse world had subverted the language of social change.

Accounts of innocence thus ultimately fail, and the amazing excitement generated by this surprising book suddenly dies, as Davis tries to end positively, with the hope of resisting the mechanization of human mental existence, and a distorted form of authenticity. These pitfalls foster a passive and helpless view of the victim on the one hand, and a sentimental subjective view on the other: we are either socially determined or individually pure, neither of which leads to empathy in an understanding of the process, human and social, of sexual abuse.

The early chapters are tedious if well informed; the latter race along and inform and teach at the same time, the unique skill of a good teacher. For anyone, this is recommended, but leaves one saddened by the incapacity of us all to address a heart-rending issue.


© 2006 Roy Sugarman


Roy Sugarman PhD, Acting Director of Psychology Royal Rehabilitation Centre Sydney; Conjoint Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry University of New South Wales, Australia


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