Malignant Memories

Debra McKinney documents the spirited growth of three women as they transcend the tragedies of incest that haunted their lives.  Originally published in the Anchorage Daily News on June 6, 1993.

Twenty-five years have come and gone since Margie last visited the old man's farm. She's not sure she can even find the place. She's not sure she wants to.

The 51-year-old Anchorage travel agent has made a lot of progress lately confronting her fears. But she still has trouble talking about what happened in the barn.

So fragmented are the memories. She remembers her Uncle George carrying her piggyback across the horse pasture, her bony legs, black patent-leather shoes and white-lace socks poking out from under his arms. She remembers staring up at the barn's rafters, and how the hay scratched her skin. She remembers her ankles being strapped down, legs apart.

And then there's the time she was tied by her wrists and hoisted.

Did things like this happen a couple of times? Every visit? Why didn't her aunt come looking for them? Did she not want to know?

Margie wants to remember more. No, she wants to forget. But she knows she has to go back there if she ever wants peace. And so she studies a local map.

Although Uncle George has been dead for more than 20 years, the courage to go through with this comes from two friends.

A year ago they were strangers — Vivian Dietz-Clark, 41; Ezraella "Ezzie" Bassera, 44; and Margie (to protect their own privacy, her children asked that the family name not be used). Now they call themselves sisters.

Their demons brought them together. Within the past few years, memories have surfaced, forcing them to deal with what had long been buried — the sexual abuse they're convinced they experienced as children.

A tremendous amount of energy goes into locking things up inside, Ezzie's therapist, Joan Bender, explained. It's like sitting on a huge, bulging chest to keep it from popping open. Any added stress drains energy from that chore. The lid creaks open. Memories escape.

The three Anchorage women met in a support group for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse offered by STAR (Standing Together Against Rape). And when that group ended, they continued to meet on their own.

The Marvellas, a combination of their first three names, is what they call themselves now that they're a team. The melding of their identities is a metaphor for the journey they've taken on together.

That journey comes at a controversial time. Repressing memories has long been recognized by mental health experts as a way victims cope when events are too horrible to face. But more recently, some victims of childhood sexual abuse have been accused of concocting memories — and therapists of planting ideas in their heads. There's now a national organization, False Memory Syndrome Foundation, for people claiming they've been falsely accused of sex crimes, with some members fighting charges of satanic and ritual abuse.

Detective Bob Holt in Kent, Wash., who's been investigating child abuse cases for 18 years, warned the Marvellas this spring that going public wouldn't be easy: "I'm sure you realize there will be those who won't believe you."

In Vivian's case, the abuse was too traumatic to face, but she never once forgot it. And when she confronted her father last November, he confessed to abusing her as a child and to recent abuse of another child family member. Last month, he was arrested in Florida on felony child abuse warrants issued in California.

In Margie's and Ezzie's cases, the men they accuse of abusing them are dead, so there can be no confrontations. Nor can the accused defend themselves.
Margie and Ezzie have written and talked to relatives, neighbors — anyone they can think of who might have seen or heard something. But child abuse is veiled in secrecy. Witnesses are hard to come by.

These women trust their memories implicitly. And so they push themselves to remember.