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Whatever happened to false memory syndrome?

False memory syndrome, where therapists encourage patients in the mistaken belief that they were abused as children, may have been exposed. But the dangerous assumptions behind the quest for repressed memories have yet to be challenged, says Jennie Bristow

'Anne Stone' went into therapy in 1982 feeling depressed. By 1990 she was convinced that she was a high priestess in a satanic cult. She had 'remembered' a series of bizarre rituals in which she was sexually abused, and where she herself sacrificed and ate children. Her own two young children were hospitalised, as therapists believed them to be members of the same cult. As Anne's family life crumbled, her mental state got worse and worse.

Her story is documented in Making Monsters: false memories, psychotherapy and sexual hysteria, an excellent critique of the US experience of recovered memory therapy written by Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters, first published in 1994. Their case study of George Franklin, convicted of first-degree murder in 1990 after his daughter 'remembered' seeing him kill her schoolfriend, confirms the horrendous consequences of recovered memory therapy in its heyday.

In April 1995 George Franklin's conviction was overturned. In November 1997 the US courts awarded 'Anne Stone' (really Patricia Burgus) $10.6 million in damages against the two therapists who turned her life upside down. The techniques involved in recovered memory therapy have now been widely discredited. Yet the damaging assumptions which gave rise to it in the first place continue to inform public debate.

Recovered memory therapy took off at a time when society was becoming increasingly concerned about the prevalence of child abuse, particularly within the family, and the lasting effect of such abuse on its victims. Although the specific idea of recovered memories has fallen from favour, the notion that somebody would necessarily be 'scarred for life' by sexual abuse is still taken as common sense. To suggest that experience of abuse does not have to become the defining feature of your life is presumed to be at best insensitive, and at worst an expression of sympathy for a paedophile.

From the widely accepted notion that the childhood experience of abuse can explain your problems in later life, it was only a small jump to the recovery of false memories. Therapists working on a presumption that a patient's problems could be linked to long-ago experiences of abuse used various techniques to encourage them to 'remember'. When confronted with the charge that they were implanting false memories into their patients' minds, therapists pointed to the suffering of people re-experiencing this apparent 'abuse' and retorted 'why would anybody want to be a victim of abuse unless they really were?'. But to be a victim - or 'survivor' - of abuse is more desirable today than anybody will admit.

Patients who have 'recovered' their memories of abuse will often say that, despite the trauma, realising their 'abuse history' has proved comforting. The continuum that a therapist establishes between their childhood and today means that everything suddenly 'makes sense': for the first time they have a seemingly rational explanation for what is wrong with their lives. Importantly, they realise that their problems and deficiencies are not their own fault. They are not responsible for the fact that their lives are less than perfect.

This displacement of responsibility on to other people or past experiences is a contemporary trend that, if anything, has been strengthened even as 'recovered memories' have been trashed. Child abusers in court will argue that they could not help what they did, because they had been victims of abuse themselves. Wife-beaters blame their violent childhoods for creating the idea that domestic violence was a normal part of home life. In a recent case a woman of 23 sued her former education authority for its alleged failure to protect her from being bullied as a child; an increasingly common example of people trawling their past for something to pin their current problems on. In this context, is it really that surprising that somebody should want to find something dark in her apparently happy childhood that could explain the misery she feels today?

There is a well-established pattern of those who define themselves as survivors of abuse using that experience to avoid dealing with their current problems. But in recent years the transformation of child sexual abuse from an unpleasant experience into a defining feature of life has gone further. 'Being a survivor' has become the means through which some individuals try positively to create an identity for themselves.

The Courage to Heal: a guide for women survivors of child sexual abuse, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, is widely regarded as the book most responsible for pushing patients of suspected abuse towards 'recovering' false memories. In this book 'being a survivor' is effectively presented as a love affair with oneself - an identity to aspire to. In the preface Ellen Bass says she first heard about child sexual abuse during a creative writing workshop she ran in the 1970s. Her book follows the creative writing format throughout: stories and poems by survivors about their pain and their healing are presented as proof that abuse makes you sensitive and creative.

The Courage to Heal set the standard for a flood of literature on incest survival. In Dillon's bookstore in Gower Street, London, there is a whole bookcase filled with literature for and by survivors, most of which seems to be poetry, fiction or artwork. Add to this the writers who have made a career out of recounting their experiences of sexual abuse, the hit TV programmes that feed off and dramatise experiences of victimhood, the true-life stories of suffering that feature monthly in teenage and women's magazines...and the reason why somebody might be attracted (consciously or otherwise) to the idea of presenting herself as a 'survivor' is suddenly less mysterious.

There is something about being a victim of a terrible experience today that seems to make you more interesting, more creative and definitely morally superior to a person who is simply boringly happy. If you have a past trauma, it pays to make the most out of it: at least you will get some sympathy, you may well get some status and you might even make some money, through the courts or through selling your story. If you don't have a past trauma, you may be tempted to make one up and create a survivor identity all of your own. In this twisted environment, the downfall of a few unscrupulous therapists with wacky techniques is far from the end of the problem.

A victim of memory recalls

After his children 'remembered' in therapy that he had abused them, Mark Pendergrast helped sound the alert about false memory syndrome in the USA

Early in 1995 the first edition of my book, Victims of Memory: incest accusations and shattered lives, appeared in the USA. 'I did not want to write this book', I wrote at the outset. 'It's much too painful. The truth is, I had to write it. I finally realised that what has been termed "false memory syndrome" was destroying not only my children's very identities and my relationship with them, but millions of other families as well.'

I was extremely nervous when the book came out. My family had urged me to drop the project. Why should I tell the world that I was accused of committing incest? Couldn't it ruin my writing career? Wasn't it possible that it would drive my children even further away? My literary agent was equally concerned. No major US publisher would touch the project. In 1993 I had published For God, Country and Coca-Cola, a social and business history of the soft drink, which had received rave reviews and sold in translation all over the world. Was I crazy? Why didn't I follow up with another business book?

But I really couldn't make myself think about anything else. I didn't initially intend to write Victims of Memory. I simply decided to apply my interviewing and research skills to understand how and why my children would think I had done something so awful, when I hadn't. So I read books such as The Courage to Heal, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, interviewed therapists who specialised in memory retrieval, and attended an incest survivors' group to interview people I met there.

It became crystal clear that my children had stumbled into a vast social phenomenon in which a sizeable number of therapists had adopted an unproven theory and applied it to most of their clients. 'Do you feel powerless, like a victim?' asked The Courage to Heal. 'Do you feel different from other people?...Do you have trouble feeling motivated?...Are you afraid to succeed?... Do you feel you have to be perfect?' These were supposedly symptoms of a history of sexual abuse. Not only that, it was entirely possible, according to the authors, for people to repress all memory of sexual abuse.

The interviews with therapists and 'survivors' were just as disturbing. Of course, I couldn't tell them of my personal involvement, or they wouldn't have talked to me, so I told them the truth as far as it went: that I was a journalist trying to understand the recovered memory phenomenon. The therapists told me how they hypnotised clients or used guided imagery (really a form of hypnosis), dream analysis, journalling, or the like. 'Following the memory', one therapist told me, 'there's almost always denial. "I don't believe this; this didn't happen." When they deny it, I tell them, "It's understandable; who would want to believe it? It's hard to believe. If it's true, it will become more clear as more evidence comes up" '.

I realised what a terrible toll this form of 'therapy' took on those who came to believe they had suffered, all unknowing, a childhood of rape and torture. 'I've had to let go of the myth of what I thought my childhood was like', one woman told me when I interviewed her. 'It was like bursting a beautiful bubble, and it's very difficult to do.' She went on to tell me that she still loved and missed her father. 'He may not remember the abuse himself. He may have been in a trance state.'

This seems an outrageous notion, that terrible abuse must have occurred, but that everybody, including the perpetrator, forgot it somehow. Yet when you are accused of something so terrible by those you love, you question yourself. Paul Ingram, a Washington state policeman accused by his two daughters, managed to convince himself that he was guilty. A fundamentalist Christian, he 'prayed' to God to reveal what he had done, essentially performing auto-hypnosis on himself, and then confessed in glowing colour. I could have done the same thing. At first, I thought I might have done something that I forgot. So I went to a hypnotist to find out. Fortunately, I did not create an abuse scenario while in a trance state, but I could have. Afterwards, my research revealed that hypnosis frequently results in confabulations - mixtures of fact and fantasy - and that hypnotic subjects are likely to 'remember' or visualise what is expected of them. In a trance people become highly suggestible.

The more deeply I looked, the more shocking and fascinating the entire subject became. I realised that it was not simply my children who were imperilled. My parents, who were active in the civil rights movement in the American South, had taught me that it was my obligation to try to do good in this world, to prevent injustice where I could. I could not simply walk away from this horror. I decided to write Victims of Memory. After rejections from major publishers, I found Upper Access, a tiny Vermont publisher, which did a wonderful job. Even though the book came from a virtually unknown press it received an incredible pre-publication review in the New York Review of Books, where Frederick Crews singled it out as 'the most ambitious and comprehensive, as well as the most emotionally committed, of all the studies before us'.

Still, I wasn't sure of its reception when it was published, or what effect it would have on my life or the recovered memory movement. As it turned out, Victims of Memory has had a major impact on this type of misguided therapy. I hasten to point out that other books have also questioned recovered memories, including those by * Richard Ofshe, Elizabeth Loftus, Reinder van Til, Margaret Hagen, August Piper, Richard Webster, Tana Dineen, and others. Here in the USA, lawsuits brought by retractors - those who once believed in such 'memories' and no longer do - against their former therapists have made headlines with multimillion dollar settlements. The false memory societies in the USA and in Britain have made a great contribution to the debate.

Those who believe in massive repression are now in retreat, but there is still much to be done. In most of the USA and Britain, virtually anybody can set up a shingle saying 'therapist', regardless of training. Even those who receive advanced degrees do not necessarily learn about the hazards of hypnosis, human suggestibility or memory distortion. The worlds of the clinician and the scientist are still miles apart.

The recovered memory epidemic was just the most virulent and destructive in a long line of pseudoscientific psychological fads. Unless we change the way we approach messing with one another's minds, we will repeat the past, including its witch hunts, in other forms in the future. Right now, I am deeply concerned over the repeated questioning of young children who are bullied into 'disclosing' fictional abuse, even though they denied that it took place initially.

Looking back, I can say that Victims of Memory is probably the most important book I will ever write. I have heard from people all over the world telling me how much it meant to them, how it virtually told their own story. A few weeks ago, when I introduced myself in a public forum, somebody in the audience gasped. Later he came up and said, 'Your book saved my life'. He had been suicidal, believing in his recovered memories, before picking it up.

Now if only my own children would read it. They are still estranged. I love them. I miss them every day. Victims of Memory: incest accusations and shattered lives is published in Britain by HarperCollins, £14.99


Dr Michael Fitzpatrick asks why the professional reaction against this psychotherapeutic irrationality has been so slow and so muted

The Brandon report is widely regarded as the final nail in the coffin of the recovered memory movement. Published in April this year in the form of an article ('Recovered memories of child sexual abuse: implications for clinical practice', British Journal of Psychiatry, 172, S Brandon, J Boakes, D Glazer and R Green, pp296-307), the committee chaired by professor Sydney Brandon is categorical in its condemnation of the theory and practice of the movement.

Brandon's conclusion is that 'there is no evidence to support the wholesale forgetting of repeated experiences of abuse, nor of single episodes of brutality or sadistic assault, apart from the normal experience of infantile amnesia'. Furthermore, the report insists that 'no evidence exists for the repression and recovery of verified, severely traumatic events, and their role in symptom formation has yet to be proved'. It describes techniques of memory recovery, such as hypnosis, drug-induced 'abreaction', age-regression, dream interpretation, and others, as 'powerful and dangerous methods of persuasion' for which there is 'no justification'.

Elaine Showalter, a campaigner against recovered memory and other manifestations of contemporary hysteria, greeted the Brandon report as 'stunning' (Independent on Sunday, 5 April 1998). Following Jean La Fontaine's systematic exposure of the lack of independent corroboration of claims of widespread satanic ritual abuse and Joan Acocella's appraisal of the myth of multiple personality disorder, it seemed that the tide was turning against the wave of psychotherapeutic irrationality that had swept all before it over the previous decade.

The backlash against the recovered memory movement is indisputable - and it has been encouraged by successful litigation against therapists on behalf of former clients claiming for the damaging consequences of 'false memories'. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that the popular preoccupation with childhood sexual abuse as the explanation for the difficulties experienced by adults has come to an end. The extraordinary international impact of the recovered memory movement - on therapists and clients alike - reveals a deep emotional resonance for these morbid notions that is not susceptible to refutation by the cool analytic arguments of Brandon, La Fontaine and Acocella.

The history of the Brandon report itself reflects the powerful influence of the recovered memory movement even in the upper echelons of British psychiatry. In May 1995 the Royal College of Psychiatrists set up a working party to investigate the recovered memory phenomenon and a report was submitted in summer 1996. As the introduction to the report, finally published nearly two years later, explains, 'for a number of reasons, the college eventually decided not to publish the report under its imprimatur'. Instead it published a three-page set of 'recommendations for good practice', apparently largely motivated by concerns that allegations about false memories and threats of litigation carried 'the risk of bringing the profession into disrepute' ('Reported recovered memories of child sexual abuse', Psychiatric Bulletin, 21, 1997, pp663-665). Though Brandon does not elaborate on the 'number of reasons' for this process of delay and equivocation, it is widely known that his outspoken critique of recovered memory was not popular with many members of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, who either supported the movement or were sympathetic to its approach.

Psychologists in the British Psychological Society had already run into similar difficulties. A survey of more than 800 members in 1995 revealed a high level of credulity regarding recovered memories ('Recovered memories', BPS, 1995; see also 'Recovered memory: a morbid symptom', LM, April 1995). As one critic of this report asked, if so many chartered psychologists believed in recovered memories, 'what about "unqualified" therapists?' (L Weisenkrantz, Therapist, Winter 1995).

There can be little doubt that the impact of recovered memory is even greater among the legions of therapists and counsellors beyond the ranks of mainstream psychiatry and clinical psychology. I well recall attending a talk given by a voluntary counsellor who ran a group under the aegis of a well-reputed mental health charity. The group aimed to encourage long-term consumers of tranquillisers to reduce and eventually end their dependence. It soon became clear that she firmly believed that virtually all her clients had been prescribed tranquillisers by GPs who had failed to elicit their experience of sexual abuse as children. Her objective was to facilitate disclosure of this abuse, a process which she also firmly believed had a profoundly therapeutic value. I have encountered therapists working with people with eating disorders and self-injurious behaviour who share these convictions.

The Brandon report notes that a significant proportion of abused children grow up to become well-adjusted adults, and that there is no evidence that childhood abuse leads to any specific pattern of symptoms in adults, or that recovering memories of abuse helps to alleviate such symptoms (indeed there is much evidence to the contrary). However, such dispassionate arguments have little effect on the prejudices of the recovered memory movement.

Perhaps the most important reason why the intellectual backlash against recovered memory has had limited impact is the fact that the movement enjoys its greatest influence in the sphere of popular culture. The movement's key text - The Courage to Heal, published in 1988 - has become an international best-seller. Its authors, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, are feminists with roots in the women's movement rather than in the psy-professions. Their notorious 'checklist' approach - 'if you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were' - is characteristic of the burgeoning popular literature of 'self-help' and 'personal growth' manuals. Like its close relations, satanic abuse and multiple personality disorder, recovered memory has become a familiar feature of contemporary novels, films, TV dramas, soaps and confessional shows (see Hystories: hysterical epidemics and modern culture, Elaine Showalter, Picador, 1997).

The backlash against recovered memory remains limited in its effect because the prejudices of this movement resonate with the deepest insecurities of our time. What is remarkable is not the fact of the backlash, but that such an irrational and demoralising trend has been so slow to provoke a response and that the response is so muted. As long as individuals seek to resolve the problems of the present by agonising over the experiences of the distant past, rather than by looking to the future, the key notions behind the recovered memory movement will continue to exert their baleful influence.

Reproduced from LM issue 113, September 1998

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