Contesting Stories of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Woodiwiss, Jo
Palgrave Macmillan Ltd, Basingstoke
9780230574045 (pb)

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Cover of book I suppose a good litmus test of whether or not an academic book succeeds in making you think is whether or not you'd really like a vigorous interchange of views with the author over a pint and I would!

Jo Woodiwiss challenges the notion that 'the self is ... a project on which to be worked ... where women are seen to have more work to do than men (p.57)'. Childhood sexual abuse (CSA) memories 'recovered' in adulthood, is the vehicle used for this exploration. She makes clear in the introduction that the book is not about CSA or therapy. She sets out to provide a space in which the narratives of women who recovered memories of CSA in adulthood could be heard. Their narratives, it is argued, are defined and limited by dominant therapeutic and self-help discourses. And, as Woodiwiss says, the frameworks within which stories are told are very important.

The book is organised in 11 chapters sub-divided into sections. Each chapter focuses on key themes such as 'Beyond the Recovered Memory Wars' and 'Choosing a Story'. Certain themes such as the 'Inner Child' occur throughout as sections in some chapters (chapters 3 and 5) and as an entire chapter (chapter 6). Woodiwiss argues powerfully for the creation of a space 'in which women are no longer directed to look inward for the cause of and solution to their unhappiness but ... acknowledge and address the external conditions of their lives (p.10)'. This is a perspective that resonates elsewhere. In her recent book Ehrenreich (2010) bitterly complains about the positive thinking narrative that places pressure on those with breast cancer to cure themselves. The only acceptable narrative is that of survivor there is no place or space for fear or anger or despair. So there is much in this book that highlights how women are defined and constrained by discourses which limit the narratives they can construct and which don't, ultimately reflect the actualities of their lives.

Where I would enjoy a debate with the author, however, is in relation to the literature within which the data is placed and which is used to support the overall argument. The definition of Multiple Personality Disorder is drawn from the USA (p.59) yet our countries are not comparable in this area. Multiple Personality Disorder and Satanic Abuse are contested concepts in UK professional domains and are not closely associated with CSA. At times discussion in the book conflates therapeutic and self-help literature and never really defines what is meant by therapeutic or therapist in this context.

'Therapy' is a highly diverse and unregulated field and to imply a broad unity of perspectives, such as the inevitable damage caused by CSA in adulthood, is not actually reflected in professional literature and I think is a weakness. Nearly a decade ago in a review of research studies on the long-term impact of CSA Corby (2000) pointed out that many studies suggest CSA is not necessarily incapacitating in later life. Current professional literature based on studies of interventions recognise that the language we use, such as 'molest' and 'abuse' signify a distorted and unhelpful simplification of complex human experiences. 'That is, our choice of terminology may function like a self-fulfilling prophesy: what we name may become what we see (Crittenden, 2008, p.10).

Nevertheless the powerful message from Jo Woodiwiss is that CSA is a readily mobilised social script and for many women there are few alternatives. They have to find acceptable explanations for whoever they are that may have little to do with the actualities of their lives.


Corby, B., (2000) Child Abuse (2nd Edn), Buckingham: Open University Press Crittenden, P.M., (2008) Raising Parents. Attachment, parenting and child safety, Portland, Oregon: Willan Publishing. Ehrenreich, B., (2010) Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, London : Granta.

Stephanie Petrie
Liverpool University