Ellen Bass is a poet who suddenly achieved tremendous success with the self-help book The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse in 1988, coauthored with Laura Davis, which has sold over a million copies and been translated into several languages. Yes, recovery from child sexual abuse is a serious topic. Unfortunately, Bass and Davis – neither of whom have any expertise in any relevant topic (they are poets and creative writing teachers) though they do still view themselves as experts – ain’t helping.
The authors claim that individuals (mainly women) with a general set of symptoms are assumed to have been abused, but that the memories have been repressed – in reality there is little to no evidence for the claim that memories of childhood sexual abuse are unconsciously repressed. And in response, they propose a variety of techniques to overcome these symptoms, including confronting their alleged abusers, adopting an identity as a “survivor”, overcoming the associated trauma and in cases where there is no memory of any abuse, recovering the memories. In reality (again), there is no evidence that recovering repressed memories of abuse leads to improvement in psychological health – indeed, the evidence strongly suggests the exact opposite. There is a significant amount of other scientific errors in the book as well (that have not been corrected in subsequent editions).
The techniques are, however, an excellent means for constructing false memories of abuse in children, and Bass & Davis are to a large extent responsible for creating an industry which has isolated and separated family members despite having no positive evidence that the abuse actually occurred, and for destructively replacing individual identities with that of a “survivor” (though the fact that the book caught on is to a large extent due to the number of sheerly incompetent therapists out there – indeed, Paul R. McHugh, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins and an expert in the field of memory describes the book as the “bible of incompetent therapists”).
It’s rather obvious that no good can come from this particular type of bullshit, and Bass and Davis are morally responsible for ruining many people’s lives – a report for the Australian branch of the False Memory SyndromeFoundation found the book was linked to nearly 50% of the cases in which a false allegation of child sexual abuse was made based on recovered memories.
The book has been deemed “the most harmful work of slander, ignorance, and lies since The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”; aptly so, since its techniques are the same – appeals to suspicion, conspiracy, and paranoia by teaching women to blame all problems on repressed memories of abuse, “thereby triggering an epidemic of false accusations and shattered lives, this time aimed at mothers, fathers, brothers, uncles, and grandparents instead of Jews or ‘witches’.”
Of course, Bass & Davis are not alone. Similar ideas have been espoused in the works of self-proclaimed experts like Beverly Engel, E. Sue Blume, Wendy Maltz, Beverly Holman, and Mary Jan Williams, for instance. It is also notable that some of the case studies in their book were taken from now discredited reports of Satanic ritual abuse such as the autobiography Michelle Remembers by Michelle Smith.
Diagnosis: Rubbish, and Bass and Davis have the dubious honor of probably being among the pseudoscientists who have managed to cause the most amount of harm over the last decades. Horrible, horrible people.