by Michele Landsberg, Toronto Star, Nov. 13, 1993
If you are an ordinary member of the reading and viewing public, you’re probably fairly confused by now about the welter of arguments and accusations surrounding memories of incest.
Is it possible for adults suddenly to recover long-buried memories of childhood sexual abuse? Are innocent men being dragged into court in an “epidemic” of false accusations? Are therapists “implanting” false memories in the confused and vulnerable minds of neurotic women?
The latest salvo in this war of words was fired last weekend, when the Criminal Lawyers Association staged a conference about sex abuse cases. One speaker, James Alcock of York University, compared incest survivors to “people who say they were abducted by UFOs”. Another speaker, criminal lawyer Alan Gold, gloated that since therapists “really don’t know what they’re doing … You can have so much fun slicing and dicing them on the witness stand.”
What’s going on here? The lawyers and some of their expert speakers are repeating the attack language, the trivial approach and even the idiotic “kidnapped by aliens” examples furnished by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, a U.S. lobby group.
From the sensational media accounts of “false memory”, it would be difficult for a person unfamiliar with sex abuse and psychological trauma to form a coherent opinion.
But here’s the basic- information often omitted from such stories. There is no such scientific category as “false memory syndrome”; it’s an impressive-sounding label, without medical validity, that was dreamed up by the foundation.
The foundation itself was started by Peter and Pamela Freyd, immediately after their grown daughter Jennifer privately confronted them with her memories of incest. Jennifer, an award winning professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, went public only after her parents had mounted a highly emotional public crusade against “false memory” accusations. In their defensive frenzy, they even attempted to enlist Jennifers academic colleagues to serve on their board. Jennifer has been quoted as wondering why her recovering alcoholic fathers memories should have any more credibility than her own.
The foundation’s membership is made up of many such accused parents. Its scary statistics and anecdotes are all drawn from informal, non-scientific surveys of these same members. Its roster of impressive “professional advisers” isn’t always what it seems. Some are respected researchers; others are hired-gun expert witnesses who travel the continent testifying, for a fee, on behalf of accused child molesters. One such vociferous member, Ralph Underwager, only recently – and hastily – resigned from the board after an interview with him appeared in a Dutch paedophilia magazine. Underwager has described paedophilia as “a responsible choice” and urged paedophiles to boldly “make the claim that paedophilia is an acceptable expression of God’s will for love and unity.”
The foundation’s greatest weakness, though, is its simple-minded propaganda about the nature of memory. Serious researchers, like Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, director
of the trauma Centre at a Harvard Clinic, have convincingly described the existence of “body memories” that can’t be falsified. Long-repressed events, triggered by sensory experiences, flash. back into consciousness in the from of searing images and sensations of the original trauma.
Without doubt, there are ill-trained therapists who over-interpret a patient’s symptoms. And it would be foolish to claim that there are never any false accusations.
But most therapists, scientists and researchers say that the great majority of abuse cases are never reported; that abuse survivors tend to deny rather than exaggerate their horrific memories; that the mechanisms of repression and forgetfulness are thoroughly documented in psychiatric literature.
“Look, this is backlash,” said Dr. Melissa Farley of San Francisco. She’s a clinical psychologist whose research on the long-term physical effects of incest is funded by the Kaiser medical centre.
This has happened before. Freud himself at first believed his patients’ stories of childhood sexual abuse. The he came under tremendous pressure from his colleagues and recanted. Now that incest survivors have once more won the struggle to be believed, and are successfully suing for compensation for years of illness and therapy, there’s suddenly a loud, vocal counter-attack.
The foundation has a slogan: “False memory syndrome – destroying families. But isn’t it violence, incest, denial and lies that destroy families? The foundation may have scored some recent media triumphs, but their crusade is patently self-serving. And so are the criminal lawyers who leap to use the foundation’s disreputable arguments.