We don’t like our world turned upside down, says psychology Professor Kathryn Belicki, especially when it comes to people we’re meant to trust
BY DAVE BURKET
Following publication last week of the news that Dr. Charles Duncan, a longtime family medicine practitioner in Fonthill, was resigning from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO), and agreeing not to apply again to practice medicine anywhere in Canada, reader reaction was swift. Within 24 hours of being posted online, the story had garnered 10,000 hits on the Voice website, with dozens of readers commenting there and on social media.
A large majority of reader reaction online was supportive of “Jane Smith” and the ordeal she described during her time employed in Duncan’s practice.
We also carry this week a selection of comments from Duncan’s former patients, who recount similar experiences and feelings of unease.
Some readers, however, seemed to question whether a doctor whom they respected could really be capable of, in this case, sexual assault. (The Voice does not know the nature of the complaint that started the CPSO investigation. Smith’s involvement was in support of that investigation, not the cause of it.)
A letter to the editor this week refers to Duncan as a “quality individual,” and the target of a “smear.”
We asked Brock Professor of Psychology Kathryn Belicki to comment on how we react to revelations of sexual misconduct. The following telephone interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
BURKET: What made us want to reach out to someone who might know about these things is that a couple of the reader reactions have been, “Well, he’s treated me fine and my family fine for X number of years or decades. So, I basically don’t believe this kind of thing.” This must be something that stops anyone, women or men, from coming forward. Can you talk a little bit about that?
BELICKI: You’ve just hit the first nail right on the head, and that’s this fear of repercussion. There’s fear of not being believed. A lot of my research has actually been with people who have histories of child abuse. And if they’ve been abused as a child, then they can grow up to be wounded people. And then when they have an accusation against somebody
who looks so good in the eyes of the world, they become even more at risk to be the person not believed. I think part of the thing that we need to societally struggle with is we have this demonic conception of people who do sexually abusive acts. As a result, when the offender is someone we care about or someone we respect, we can’t wrap our head around the fact that they would do this— because don’t only awful, horrible people do such things? Even if we do then wrap our head around it, we don’t want the world to know, because we’re afraid of how they’ll be treated. That’s something else that can go on with people being reluctant to disclose. Usually, in the first instance, they’re just very concerned about how they’ll be seen and that they’ll be discredited. But sometimes they’re also concerned about the offender, because if they know this person well and there are other things about them that they like and admire, then they’re concerned about the backlash that’s going to come down on their head. We as a society need to start coming to grips with the fact that people who have quite admirable characteristics still do awful things.
So it’s possible to be both—in this case, an otherwise presumably good doctor, and someone whose sexual desires are outside the norm.
Yep, absolutely. The evidence has been there. We just haven’t wanted to take it in. When I did my graduate training, for example, it was thought that child abuse was extremely rare. I literally started from a time when the world thought these things really didn’t happen very much at all. And then in the ‘80s and ‘90s there was this societal upheaval, where we finally came to acknowledge that, no, it is much more common than we’d realized. But we haven’t gone that next final step to realize, “Well, if there’s a lot of folks who have been abused, then that means there’s lot of people doing the abuse.” I think the next upheaval we need to go through is to take in the fact that people we like and respect do this stuff. And that’s very hard.
When did you start your grad work?
I started in 1976. So I studied between 1976 and 1984 and there were no courses on child abuse. I studied in what was considered one of the best programs in Canada. I don’t actually even remember being assigned a single article on the topic. The belief at the time was that maybe one in every one or two million people had been sexually abused.
In North America?
Yeah, period. It was just seen as extremely rare and not something we needed much to teach people about because it was so rare. Now we’ve forgotten that this was what people believed. There was huge professional resistance. I woke up to it early because I had a couple of remarkable experiences that made me awaken to the fact that sexual abuse and sexual assault were much more common than people were realizing. In a therapy group of women, one suddenly broke down and said she had sexual relations with her father. And my jaw is inwardly dropping. I never expected to hear this. Then suddenly another says, “Oh, honey. It’s okay. I went through it too. You’ll be fine.” And a third says, “Yeah, it was my uncle. What an asshole.” And I’m over there going, “What’s going on here?” But it was just so beyond my ken. My supervisor didn’t know what to make of it. I didn’t know what to make of it. Then I had a remarkable student cross my doorstep. She wanted to study, for her honors thesis, sexual abuse. And I said, “Whoa, that is too big a topic to take on. First of all, how would we find a sample?” And she said, “Well, isn’t it like one in four?” And I went, “Where did you get those numbers?” She brought in some articles I’d never seen. Didn’t know they existed. People weren’t reading them. They were out there, but we weren’t reading them. So I said, “Well, look. They must be defining sexual abuse really way too loosely.” And sure enough, many were defining it as unwanted sexual activity. So we did a little survey for her thesis, of 20 people. We used a very restrictive definition. You had to have had sexual contact with someone when you were preadolescent by someone who was at least five years older. That’s a very narrow, conservative definition. Twenty people, five said yes. And my world just shook.
These were undergrads?
These were undergrads at York. So that’s the other thing. These were undergrads. They were in their fourth year. So they’re successful students and it was anonymous. That was when I was just like, “Oh my god. How many people have I seen in therapy who’ve had this experience and I didn’t know it?” I started studying this, and studying the impacts of these kinds of experiences on people as adults. And then suddenly Oprah Winfrey goes for it. And there was this…groundswell, not from the profession. From on the ground. People saying, “Yeah, this has happened to me.” It’s a version of Me Too back then. And the reaction of the profession was to just disbelieve it all. I remember I had so many colleagues saying to me, “Oh, these are people just jumping on the Oprah Winfrey bandwagon.” Essentially saying, “Look, they’re lying.”
So, again, you circle around, of course people don’t want to confess this because that’s what they’re afraid they’re going to get hit with. You’re just lying or, in this [Duncan] case, you’re a young woman. I’m so impressed that she told her family right away, and that she went to the police. The courage that this took for her to do—that is remarkable. And her mother was perceptive. She knew what could happen, people just saying, “Look, you’re young woman. You’re trying to maybe get something from this well established man.” Like the number of things that could have come at her.
Her mother warned her.
The other thing that goes on—we tend to blame ourselves when we experience trauma. If somebody is in a bad car accident, they’ll say things like, “Well, if I’d turned right at that intersection instead of left,” or “If I’d left earlier or later.” I mean it’s almost crazy to hear, but it’s so common following any deeply upsetting event, for people to somehow blame themselves. What we think is going on there is that we want our world to be controllable. We don’t want to think that horrible things can happen to good people without any cause. So if we can blame ourselves, then the world becomes more controllable. “Well, gee, if I just work harder at being a good person, I can maybe prevent these things from happening.”
Manage the karma.
Then you go to sexual assault and abuse and often—as there was in this case—there’s a bit of a lead in. First of all, a hand on the shoulder and then massaging the shoulders. You’re a polite person. You may find that a little creepy, but you don’t want embarrass him, so you just… She talked about just moving away rather than saying anything. And then when suddenly it does become inappropriate, you’re going, “Oh my God, did I give him the wrong impression? I should’ve said something.” When others say, “Oh, well, maybe you were just seductive,” this feeds that. So victims go silent, because they’re partly blaming themselves or sometimes largely themselves for what happened. That’s another reason why they don’t report.
Where did you do your grad work?
At The University of Waterloo. Clinical psychology.
And when you refer to people in your profession, I take it “psychology” is the overarching term for the profession?
For me, psychology, but we were seeing real pushback also from medicine and psychiatry. The healthcare professionals generally just were slow to accept. I mean, you could imagine. People who’ve had their whole careers perhaps studying or gaining expertise in the area, or they’ve seen hundreds or thousands of people to treat them, and it’s never occurred to them that maybe the reason why this person is troubled is because they’ve been abused as a child. Then suddenly you get information saying that this is a big and frequent trauma. It goes against all your prior thinking, but it also shakes you up in terms of your own practice, and it’s kind of natural that in the first instance you’re going to just go, “I don’t believe this.”
Around what year do you think that changed?
The ‘80s and the early ‘90s was when it started to change. Then we had the whole controversy around false memory. Can we trust people’s memories?
Yes. She became the professional face of that. Claims that people were just lying wasn’t working so well, because there’s too many people saying this had happened to them. Then the next pushback came in the form of, “Oh, there’s an epidemic of false memory here, so we still don’t have to believe these accounts.”And eventually we got to a saner place, where we came to recognize that, no, it really happened. A lot of people have experienced these things. We gradually began to get a better understanding of memory and when we can trust memory and what we can’t trust about memory and how memory can get in trouble, and that allowed us to to be a little more realistic in recognizing the reality of abuse.
So, for the last 25 years, more or less—
Less. Certainly from about 2000 onwards, it seemed to me that society finally got it that lots of people have been abused.
Okay, so over the last 20 years, we’ve had a general acceptance among professionals, among psychologists and psychiatrists, that these numbers—
And on the streets. I notice people on the street are no longer surprised to hear that. But what we haven’t then connected the dots to mean that there have to be a lot of people out there doing this. And that means that probably many of us know somebody who we respect and like who has done something inappropriate. There we haven’t gotten yet, and that’s the final piece we need to wrap our heads around.
What will it take to achieve that, do you think?
Well, we’re going through that now, aren’t we? I mean, the Me Too movement is the start and, I think, just like we had in the ‘90s, where there was a huge war. In fact, I’m working on a book right now called Memory Wars. It became a war. It wasn’t just a scientific argument. It became a very, very vicious fight. Right now, I keep sort of steeling myself, waiting for some pushback on the Me Too movement. Me Too is squarely about saying, hey, this respected person, that respected person, this other respected person, has done this. The Me Too movement is now about offenders rather than about victims. The early ‘90s was about victims being recognized, and now the Me Too movement is about offenders being recognized. But I’m just steeling myself for, say, one high-profile, false accusation. It will just ignite, I think, a huge controversy.
Well, the pushback is coming sort of through a side door, with complaints about people being overly politically correct, which itself is a horrible term. What’s your take on that? Where comedians, now, are afraid to make certain jokes.
The language of politically correct speech is so fraught and such a problem. It touches on many issues, right? It touches on accommodating disabilities, accommodating differences, and how do we do that. It means that the fortunate in the world have to change their ways, and then there comes the question, well, how much do we have to change our ways? This is all just society kind of working this out as we move forward and hopefully into a more mutually supportive kind of space.
I heard recently a great definition of politically correct. “Politically correct” is just another way of saying, “Don’t be an asshole.” Just be cognizant of other people’s sensitivities and make reasonable accommodations. That’s all it takes.
I think that’s what we need to aim for. Yeah. I like that.
I was working in a very left-leaning radio station in Berkeley in the late ‘70s. The first time I heard the term politically correct was from someone who was on the staff there, saying, “Oh, that’s our problem on this side. Being leftists. We gang up our own and we have to be so much more politically correct than the other guy.” It was very much—and you may remember this as well—it was much a left-wing term, a self put-down that the right-wing came along and said, “Ah, we can use this,” to mean something entirely different.
Then it got co-opted.
Exactly. So what do you make of the psychology of people who might sit back and look at somebody like, say, Bill Cosby. How many women did it take to come forward before people stopped saying, “Oh, he’s America’s dad. He’s such a nice guy. It’s impossible to believe.”
I think there’s a couple of things going on. One is, as I said, this sort of over-simplistic notion of who does sexual offenses and our tendency to truly demonize. I think there’s that popular imagination of what a sexual abuser looks like, and they’re sort of evil and icky, and so then you take that template and you apply it to this person. You go, “They’re not like that.” I remember, years ago, when we had a debate here around the issue of false memory and one person got up. A lot of folks came to that debate who belonged to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, and these were parents who had been accused by the child of having been abusive. And one person stood up and said, “Look at us. Do we look like people who would offend?” And I go, “Oh my god. You’re thinking that offenders somehow look really awful and are visible, nasty people.” So partly there’s just a misunderstanding. A tendency to want to simplify the world into there’s good people and bad people and it’s just not like that. We are all more complicated. That’s part of the issue. Secondly, we all want the world to be sort of predictable. We want people who are competent and look good to be people we can trust, because then we can predict the world and we can keep ourselves safe. When someone you assumed you could be safe with because they’re educated, because maybe they’re attractive—that’s been found by the way. We tend to feel more safe around attractive people than less attractive people. So these kinds of revelations shatter people’s assumptions about the world in ways that are very unsettling and, hence, they want it to go away. The easy way to make it go away is, “Oh, she’s lying. He couldn’t possibly have done that.” Not realizing that educated people do this. Powerful people do this. Incredibly nice people, do this. Nice in other areas of their life.
You mentioned power there. You do see that theme with Weinstein, and the Fox News guy, Ailes, and the rest of these folks who are in very powerful positions, who are in very senior positions, and you could certainly say the same for a doctor. Authority carries power, right? So how much of that do you think plays into sexual offending?
That’s just well-documented. It isn’t always a feature, but that can certainly be a part of any sexual act, actually. Even within consenting couples, there can be real power dynamics play out around that. And then, of course, with powerful people, they also have built into that a certain safety net. That they know they’re well respected. They know their word is likely going to be taken over the word of somebody else. And they can feel above the law. They feel unlikely to be caught. So power plays a lot of ways. Certainly power and sex can go hand-in-hand anytime, and is often a component of sexual assault and sexual abuse. Some would say it always is. I wouldn’t go that far, but it certainly can be. Power comes in other ways in that it gives people certain kinds of immunity, or what they perceive as immunity, and they’re more than partially right about that. These things all have to be tested on their own merits, but you don’t want to be drawing conclusions based on education or appearance or position in the world. We need to figure this out so that we can even be more prepared to recognize that someone I love or admire may be an offender. And then we also need to figure out what are we going to do about this? There’s a lot of offenders out there, and we’re choosing not to recognize it because we don’t want to recognize it, but they’re there. What actually happens is we then refuse to notice that this physician we think so highly of has done this because we don’t want to demonize them.
I’m still a bit surprised to hear that childhood sexual interference or abuse wasn’t well known back then, because I remember growing up in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, kids making nervous jokes about priests. It was known but not widely discussed. You didn’t want to be in a room with a given priest…it was kind of an open secret. But I guess professionally in psychology, as you say, maybe it wasn’t—
Psychology and in medicine. It definitely came from the populace. It wasn’t psychologists or social workers or physicians who discovered this. It was regular people finally having ways to say— other than quietly, kid-to-kid saying—”This is happening.” Unfortunately all of the helping professions disappointed me in their initial response, which was to push back and to not believe it and to try and dismiss it. And then gradually… It was like people on the street got it before we got it.
Thank god, so to speak, for the Catholic Church’s obsession over record-keeping, because now you have all these cases, going back to the ‘60s, that were documented.
The other thing was, we thought it was just women. We didn’t take in the boys, but we still thought that it was really rare in boys. So the second kind of mini-revolution that had to happen was that it wasn’t just girls that experience this, but boys too. And then the next big thing was to recognize that women can be sexual abusers. These are still things that not everybody will accept, I think. But the knowledge is on the street. It’s just getting the people who could do something about it to fully take that in.
In the most cherished tradition of the social sciences, it’s time to prove the obvious.
Well, I appreciate your time. Anything I’ve missed here?
Nope. I think that we’ve covered a lot of ground.
Thank you. ♦