Books: Between the idea and the reality ... falls the shadow

Lisa Appignanesi is dismayed by therapists who cultivate a talent to accuse
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Victims of Memory: incest accusations and shattered lives by Mark Pendergrast, HarperCollins, pounds 14.99

A father sits on his daughter's bed. "I love you so much, Princess," he says and kisses her goodnight. In the 1950s, these two sentences would have invoked a vision of parental warmth and happy families. In the moral panic of the 1990s, when it's no longer Reds we find under the bed, things have changed. Alert as we are to the terrors of child abuse, this little scene is likely to provoke a nervous tremor and an anxiety about potential incest - physical or even, indeed, "emotional".

Victims of Memory is a passionate and distressing book. Reading it, one has the sense that everywhere across the US and in pockets of the UK, millions of women and a not insignificant number of men are rolling around on therapeutic floors or couches, clutching pillows and teddy bears, and evoking the child within in order to retrieve long-buried memories of traumatising penises inserted into innocent orifices and hideous satanic rites or alien abductions.

Mark Pendergrast is a liberal and, in his own way, a feminist. He neither belittles the pain, nor doubts the extent of child abuse. Nor does he doubt the pain of those who set out to remember.

What he does question is the reality of recovered memory. Can one suffer repeated sexual abuse for years, say from the cot to 18, and then altogether forget it or repress it until the right cultural moment and therapeutic setting awakens memory? Pendergrast's answer is no - and he brings in an army of memory experts to bolster his case.

Yet in the US, recovered memory has taken on all the force of a salvationist movement. It has its core believers and proselytisers, its evil demons and sacred texts - like the massively popular, The Courage to Heal - and its mantras of victimhood and survival. It has spawned a sizeable and lucrative industry, propped up by medical insurance, of therapists and psychologists, counsellors and social workers. These diagnose, root out, suggest or simply cue repressed memories of abuse in their clients through any combination of hypnosis, guided imagery, dreamwork and sodium amytal. The movement even has its ambulance-chasing lawyers primed to sue accused parents at the first rush of memory.

If you're depressed or bulimic or anorexic or simply unhappy, then popular knowledge would have it you're a secret victim of forgotten abuse. Remembering will be shameful. Healing will be painful.

But once you're on the other side and have successfully taken your rage out on parents or grandparents and the occasional uncle, you'll be a heroic survivor. And all along, you'll be part of a large and supportive community, far more trusting and, at least theoretically, less abusive than the family you have left behind.

The trouble is every memory is at the mercy of its interpreters. In the current case, the cure itself produces the disease. Like multiple personality disorder - another abuse-linked diagnosis, and one which expresses itself in far more dramatic ways - recovered memory seems to be a creation of therapists and obliging patients, encouraged by the Oprahs of the media. America (and, after a time lag and with less of a mass spread, the UK) has become a country where character traits and everyday unhappiness have been medicalised with expert sanction.

The most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, DSM-IV of 1994 (the American psychiatric bible), describes someone with an "identity problem" as a person suffering from "uncertainty about multiple issues...such as long-term goals, career choice, friendship patterns, sexual orientation and behaviour, moral values, and group loyalties." Among the various personality disorders, the DSM lists Avoidant Personality Disorder (socially inhibited, feeling inadequate, hypersensitive), Dependent Personality Disorder (inability to make decisions, needs reassurance from others) and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (selfishness, grandiosity, a sense of entitlement).

Everyone, it seems, is potentially mentally ill. Whether this rush to disease simply gives one a crutch with which to walk through life remains an open question. What isn't at question is that any treatment for a DSM named disorder is entitled to insurance benefit.

In the culture of grievance, someone must be to blame for all illness. Gurus of the Recovered Memory Movement have proclaimed 80 per cent of American families dysfunctional.

In every case, parents are to blame: fathers, in the first instance. Pendergrast is himself an accused parent - a victim of the memories of abuse retrieved by his two daughters. A mute appeal to these prodigals underscores his exhaustive investigation of the movement, as well as his interviews with survivors, therapists, accused parents and retractors who have now decided that their elicited memories experienced or elicited had no grounding in the real. Despite his evident anger, Pendergrast bends over backwards to be fair.

Yet he too is caught up in the culture of blame. His principal target is that old bogey, Freud, who invented repression - by which, as I understand it, Freud meant that we tend to forget the things we don't like to remember.

It is a little odd for Pendergrast to single out Freud, since the radical wing of feminism (from which the recovered memory movement grew) also singles him out for blame, for precisely the opposite reason. Their Freud is blamed for rejecting the notion that all abuse remembered in therapy is real, and for claiming that - for the purposes of psychoanalysis - whether it is real or fantasised is irrelevant.

For Freud, memory was clouded by desire. The truths of the psyche were not the same as the truths which go to court. He was wary of psychoanalysts giving evidence and was himself loathe to be an expert witness. He neither sued parents nor won claims for his patients.

Blaming Freud for the excesses of the recovered memory movement is a little like blaming the American founding fathers for the fact that "the pursuit of happiness", enshrined as a right in the Declaration of Independence, hasn't quite worked out.

But then Freud was always more than a little wary about America and its therapists: "They know only its terms and its catch-words," he wrote in 1930, "though this does not shake them in the certainty of their judgement...There is a general tendency to shorten study and preparation and to proceed as fast as possible to practical application."

With or without Freud, the memory wars go on. In the final years of our millennium, we find it so hard to imagine a future that memory, individual or collective, has become a battleground of identity - our last-ditch repository of soul and meaning.