When memory plays you false

21st March 1997 at 00:00
Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives

By Mark Prendergrast HarperCollins #163;14.99

The sexual abuse of children is not a new phenomenon. Yet it remained a largely unexplored issue until about 20 years ago, when those working in the care professions had to come to terms with real cases happening on their patch. Gradually a body of knowledge was built up, and some basic theory and practice were established.

One of these principles is to take such allegations seriously. Nowadays, a child who says that she - or he - is being abused, is more likely to have it investigated and to have some action taken. Yet it remains a horribly difficult issue to deal with. It is not like an illness which can be treated and then cured. Rather, there is a range of possible actions, none of which may be very helpful and any of which may actually be damaging.

This is true of legal, medical, therapeutic and social services responses. If you prosecute the offender you may destroy a family. If you remove the abused child, this may be experienced as further punishment. And the dilemmas go on.

One thing we can be reasonably sure of is that there is more abuse than gets reported at the time it occurs. Retrospective studies of adult survivors show that abuse in childhood was often not picked up. Victims - or survivors as they generally prefer to be called - often do not disclose their abuse until they are adult. It may come out in the course of treating physical or psychological symptoms. Those running courses on child sexual abuse have long known that they have to allow for the fact that a proportion of their students will themselves be survivors.

So it was not surprising when some therapists started claiming that they had identified cases of previous sexual abuse in adults who had not reported any such thing. An American book, The Courage To Heal, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, came out in 1988, specifically directed at such women survivors. It had a great influence.

Across the United States, families were ripped apart as adult children accused their parents of horrific crimes of which their parents had no knowledge or memory.

This is the phenomenon which Mark Prendergrast investigates. He is scrupulous in pointing out that of course there are real cases of incest and child abuse, which may not come to light until long afterwards. But the survivors in such cases usually remember all too well what has occurred. What he wants to challenge is the suggestion that people who have no memories of such abuse until therapists suggest it to them are necessarily genuinely recalling real events. Their accusations may be based on "false memory syndrome".

And indeed it does seem that there has been a whole culture developing in which people find some kind of solace in such a story as an explanation for the various failures and disappointments in their life which led them to seek therapy in the first place. But it is inherently absurd. It is to suggest that, if there is no smoke without a fire, then the absence of smoke must indicate an even greater fire. Denial is regarded as confirmation. Therapists who lead pat-ients on, and encourage them to believe in reconstructions which are actually fabricated, have a great deal to answer for.

Freud appears as the villain of the piece in Prendergrast's account. He initially believed in widespread abuse of his patients by their parents - the so-called "seduction theory" - but soon abandoned this for his theory of repression, in which the memory of genuine painful events is lost and can only be recovered through hypnosis or free association. Prendergrast attacks both views with force, though Freud's mature position was a good deal more reasonable than his account suggests.

But one can excuse his polemic, partly because he himself was an accused parent, and partly because he shows up with devastating thoroughness the poor arguments and coercion used by the therapists he attacks.

He suggests that they are conducting a new kind of witch-hunt, and that most of the accusations are totally unfounded. Repeated stories of so-called "Satanic" abuse, involving occult ceremonies, child and animal sacrifice together with child abuse, keep making the rounds although they have never been substantiated. His book is urgent, passionate, and much too long. But he has a real message for us in it.

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