Trust the Experts

Recent articles in the press have discussed the case of an Air Force policeman, Paul Busa, who has come forward to bring charges against the Rev. Paul Shanley. After viewing TV coverage of other allegations against the notorious self-professed proponent of sex with children, Mr. Busa says he broke down and cried, recognizing his own story in the reports he heard. The articles suggested that Mr. Busa’s accusation is the result of a “repressed” or “recovered” memory that may be difficult for prosecutors to corroborate.

But to term Busa’s memories of his abuse at the hands of a trusted priest “repressed,” or “recovered,” is disingenuous and cynical. It heralds the beginning of an attack on the credibility of those whose testimony threatens what we now know is the status quo: the widespread sexual exploitation of minors by men who are sheltered and abetted by institutional authority. To assert that all of our memories, whether traumatic or not, are present to us at all times and continuously is to defy both logic and common sense. It is also grounds to call into question the motives of those who would try to enchant us into believing this assertion.

Think about it. Every day we recall things we never had occasion to remember before. The other day a conversation with a friend about amusement parks suddenly reminded me of my first ride on a wooden roller coaster when I was twelve, including the fear I felt, the pressure to hide that fear from my friends, the ride itself, and the exhilaration afterward — “Let’s do it again!” This event had never presented itself to me before as a memory. Why would it? What would its use or context have been? Is it therefore a “repressed” memory? Is it a “recovered” memory?

Private conversations invite memories. So does public discourse. Until now our public discourse was more likely to demonize whistle-blowers like Greg Ford and Paul Busa. Mr. Busa tells us that Shanley told him, simply, “Nobody will believe you.” In fact, that was an accurate statement of the climate at the time, a state of affairs we must never return to, in which those who disclosed their victimization were sneered at, shamed, and silenced. In the case of men assaulted as boys they were further suspected — via the circular logic of the so-called “cycle of violence” — of being perpetrators or potential perpetrators themselves. Unsurprisingly, the result of such a climate is silence. Paul Busa’s memories, like those of many others who survived such violations, were not repressed, but suppressed.

Please let us not go down the rabbit hole again into the wonderland of psychobabble that suggests that only what goes on inside a person’s head is real. If we cede our thinking about this to the specious expertise of psychiatrists and lawyers we will drown in a sea of abstract neologisms with endlessly elastic definitions. Brownlow Speer, chief appellate lawyer for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, is quoted in the Globe article, “There are psychiatric stars who will want to weigh in on each side.” Indeed. Whole careers arguing jesuitical questions that start from otherworldly premises can be dusted off and jump-started. Just like the good old days when such “experts'” calendars were full of court appearances worth up to $10,000 a pop.

We need to define our terms. The “recovered” memory debate of years past mainly concerned itself with allegations that emerged from hypnotherapy. Whenever such an allegation was unable to be substantiated, it was termed a victory by a well-organized network of people pushing the idea of something called False Memory Syndrome and then featured as if it were proof of innocence. Riding this momentum, defense attorneys and others expanded the definition of a “recovered” memory to mean any memory you hadn’t had before. Never mind whether any conversation, public or private, had ever invited it, never mind the cultural forces arrayed to suppress it: ridicule, machismo, homophobia, and prescriptions for both pharmaceuticals and forgiveness.

There are reasons why these allegations are so old. Children hardly have the means to understand or express what was done to them, and those who attempt to help a child articulate what happened are said to be unfairly “leading the witness.” If a child is silent until adulthod, until he or she has acquired the ability, understanding, and strength to tell the truth, however, then he or she will be distrusted for not having come forward sooner, or vilified for availing himself or herself of the proffered anodyne of alcohol, or dismissed as crazy for having sought help from psychiatry.

The ancient Romans had a saying: Experto credite; from it, we derive our word expert. It means “Trust the one who has had the experience.” What is our motto? “Attack the memories of those who have suffered”? If children are considered unreliable because they are children, and adults have pseudo-scientific adjectives attached to their memories that render them suspect, then we can convene all the committees and commissions we want and nothing will change.

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