First, there was Recovered Memory, when all the repressed secrets of childhood flooded back. Then came the allegations of child abuse. And now the backlash: False Memory Syndrome. Whom do you believe, the parents or their children? Paul Vallely reports on a family at war over childhood memories. Photographs by Anastasia Voutyropoulou
Only in America, you might think, would attempts to recall the intimate landscape of childhood generate a billion-dollar argument.

"A single diagnosis for miscellaneous complaints - that of unconsciously repressed sexual abuse in childhood - has grown, in the past decade, from virtual non-existence to epidemic frequency," Frederick Crews has written in an influential two-part article in the New York Review of Books, to be published here in book form next month. Its disciples claim that across the United States millions of people are suffering from repressed memories of sexual abuse. Recovered memory, they prefer to call it.

In the US, bookshops carry huge sections devoted to Recovery. The movement's bible is The Courage to Heal, published in 1988, which suggests that one in three girls and one in seven boys have been sexually abused. The book recommends confronting abusers and publicising their supposed actions, even though there was no external evidence. "If you think you were abused," say its authors, a social worker and a creative English teacher, "and your life shows the symptoms, then you were." They recommend confrontation - even the accusing of grandparents and parents on their death-bed.

An example of how Recovery has gripped North America is that some states and Canadian provinces, under pressure from adult survivors, are changing their statute of limitations to allow prosecution 30 years or more after abuse is alleged to have taken place. Symptoms of abuse are seen everywhere: decreased interest in school, falling grades, difficulty in concentrating, fear of the dark, failure to brush the teeth - all are cited as possible indicators. The stories get more bizarre by the week. One woman "recalled" being an egg stuck in the fallopian tubes before conception. Others claim memories of their ancestors or of different incarnations; and they are not the wacky few - a survey found 28 per cent of US graduate therapists believe that hypnosis can retrieve "memories" of past lives.

Now Britain has been swept up in the debate.The first case reported here was in 1990. The British False Memory Society was founded in 1993 and now has more than 400 cases on its books (its US equivalent claims 12,000). "Proponents of Recovery hold that recovered memories are essentially accurate and, therefore, make no attempt to seek corroboration of them. Therapists refuse to meet family members and hold that it is a betrayal of the patient to look for corroboration. They believe that unquestioning acceptance is the only appropriate response," wrote Dr Janet Boakes, of St George's Hospital in London, in an article in The Lancet.

"Some therapists don't actually think it matters whether the allegations are true," says Dr Larry Weiskrantz, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Oxford and one of the country's leading neuro-psychological researchers. "They talk of `narrative truth' being what counts. That may be OK for a novelist, but to a scientist it is astonishing." Janet Boakes, who is secretary of the UK Council for Psychotherapy, is a member of its working party currently drawing up guidelines for therapists encountering False Memory Syndrome, which she insists "threatens to undermine the credibility of the entire profession".

But the believers think very differently. "Most therapists grossly under- estimate the amount of sexual abuse around," says Marjorie Orr, a former Jungian therapist and founder of Accuracy on Abuse. "False Memory Syndrome is a paedophiles' charter. It's a smokescreen for those anxious to duck responsibility for their own abusive actions and by those who cannot face the reality of widespread childhood sexual abuse. It's a case of `blame the therapist and silence the accuser'."

What follows is the story of one such battle of realities between the accused and the accuser.

Pamela: The Mother's Story [Pamela is the mother of Julian, Benedict, Tom and - the youngest - Sarah]

"In the early years, there was no sign. Julian was an extrovert, the most academically able of our four children. At school he sang, played the clarinet and was in school plays - an all-round achiever and, apparently, popular at his boarding school, as were his three brothers after him. But when it came to A-levels, out of the blue he went into total withdrawal. One of the Jesuit priests there said he had never come across a boy with such a low opinion of himself. And yet we had had no clue. Apart from the night terrors.

Looking back, he had a genetic pre-disposition to depression, I suppose. I have suffered from it. So did my father and my brother. But there was no early sign. The night terrors were when he was small; they were nightmares or waking dreams. He would cry, and we'd find him with staring eyes, dripping with sweat. But many children go through that.

It was when he was 19, after leaving school, that he began to be manic. Depression alternated with periods of hyper-activity, like getting up at 3am to cycle from London to Dorset to see his girlfriend. After a clumsy suicide attempt at the age of 26, he was referred to a clinic for psychotherapy. He went three times a week for psychodynamic counselling.

He began to come home asking questions about his childhood. He trawled through all the letters he'd written from boarding school, which I'd kept. `Tell me about my past,' he kept saying, and he got het up and enraged. I spoke, but not knowing what it was he wanted, I couldn't satisfy him.

The first real sign of trouble came at Christmas 1992, when he hired a cottage with his girlfriend, Helena, instead of joining us. Shortly after, Philip, his father, had a letter from him saying it would be a good idea if they didn't see each other anymore. But there was no explanation. And that was when the whispering started. It plunged us into a two-year period of hell, an unbelievable atmosphere, full of dark hints and dreaded aspersions.

I found out through Julian's youngest brother, Tom. It was after midnight, sitting here in the family kitchen. He'd made some remark about my working for the charity Childline and what hypocrisy it was. I challenged him. What followed was the most extraordinary 20 minutes of my life: Philip had severely sexually abused Julian from the ages of three to 12 - it just exploded out of him. His brother had told him two years before. I cannot tell you the sense of relief. After two years of sinister allusions, here was a direct statement. But it didn't for one moment occur to me it was true. I said to Tom: `Did you never think you had two choices: to believe Julian - or to disbelieve him?'"

To Dr Tim Woolmer, Director, Westminster Pastoral Foundation. July 1993

Dear Dr Woolmer

In opposition to his brother's wishes, one of our four children recently disclosed to my husband and me that two years ago, in psychotherapy with one of your colleagues, our eldest son Julian claimed that he had been sexually assaulted by his father when a child.

This was just before the media attention given to False Memory Syndrome. We had never heard of the phrase, but my response was that just such a phenomenon must exist, whether professionally recognised or not, because with 32 years of marriage to Philip, and a knowledge of his love for his children, I know that such treatment of any of them is not part of his sexual or temperamental agenda...

We would be grateful if you would now encourage our son's therapist to agree to a meeting with us. It is obvious that claims and counter-claims... can be made, but at least it will offer her the chance of proving to us her recognition of the need for professional objectivity. It will also help to maintain the integrity of your organisation.

Yours sincerely,

Pamela Hastings

The Westminster Pastoral Foundation, 23 Kensington Square, London W8. September 1994

Dear Mrs Hastings

I understand your concern and your arguments, but we cannot simply ignore your son's view of the matter.

There are, by definition, only two parties who can know the truth of this situation. May we suggest now might be the time for them to meet, however painful that might be, preferably with a neutral third party acceptable to all.

I very much hope that you will be able to resolve your difficulties.

Yours sincerely,

Tim Woolmer,

Director

Few in the world of therapy deny that the sexual abuse of children is distressingly more widespread than polite society once assumed. Most of those who have been abused do not trumpet their distress; more normally, the problem is getting them to disclose it.

Most people who are abused - perhaps 95 per cent - remember their abuse, according to Martin Conway, Professor of Psychology at the University of Bristol, who next year will publish Recovered Memories and False Memories. "Intrusive memories - such as flashbacks, especially during sex - are a much more common problem than amnesia." Yet those who do suppress the memories bury them deep. Individuals who grow up in an abused family can be seriously damaged; throughout their childhood, they have been massively threatened and socialised into silence.

"Sexual abuse is a particularly difficult trauma to deal with," says Dr Phillip Mollon, head of Psychotherapy Services at Lister Hospital, Stevenage, "because of the secrecy, the shame, the guilt, the fear and the conflict of loyalties." The average timescale for recovering the memory of non-sexual abuse is 10 weeks; for sexual abuse, it is one year. Yet the discrepancy tells us little. "It might point to the depth of the shame," says Martin Conway, "or it might tell us it takes a lot of indoctrination before people will fabricate that much."

To Dr Tim Woolmer, Director, Westminster Pastoral Foundation. October 1994.

Dear Dr Woolmer

In reply to your recent letter, if you refer to mine of the 13 September, it will remind you that I am also included in Julian's accusations of sexual abuse. During a phone-call earlier this year (made by him to us), he claimed that I had raped him when he was 10 years old. When I asked him to explain what he meant by the term, he replied, "You took me into your bed and put my penis into your vagina". I believe this qualifies me to argue unequivocally that at least some of his charges are untrue - and those against his father can be disproved with strong facts.

I am increasingly appalled at your refusal to accept any collective responsibility for your organisation and its unsound therapies, using the protection of a spurious self-policing policy that will not accept any element of accountability to injured third parties.

Yours sincerely,

Pamela Hastings

Julian: The Son's Story

"Our family is reasonably dysfunctional. My father is a transvestite and underwent aversion therapy for it in the late Sixties, around the time Benedict was born and about 18 months before the abuse began. My father's stepfather is a paedophile; my younger brother, Tom, has been abused by him. My mother has a history of depression. These are not memories recovered in therapy; these are facts. I have huge reservations about saying this. I've avoided saying it in the past, but as my mother is opening the debate to such an extent...

I have complete faith in the whole therapeutic process. My therapist was not invasive, she did not ask leading questions, she just provided a safe environment in which to deal with some horrific events in my childhood. The process was extremely painful, but it was my only route to a whole self.

The human mind is extremely complex. I don't want to talk about the details, but my father's abuse of me is something I have always been aware of - as a fact, not a feeling. But remembering can be difficult; it's human nature to avoid pain. If you don't have the capacity to face those memories, you don't face them.

[On his accusation that his mother raped him] It was an improper relationship. But I was older. It wasn't remotely as damaging as the abuse from my father; it wasn't as insidious, painful or as violent.

My life is very good now. But I'm aware of the implications for me as a parent, given the cyclical nature of abuse - as an abused child. I'm beginning to build a dialogue with my father. That's something I want to encourage. I would like it with my mother, too, but she's entrenched in such a position of denial... I was in denial for many years, so I recognise it in her, but I'd hope for a reconciliation one day. She is my mother and I love her.

I'm not looking for retribution or seeking to damage them. I do love them both very much, though now that love has a different foundation."

At the heart of the False Memory debate is a dispute about the nature of memory itself. "We all recover memories," says Martin Conway."We meet long-lost friends and memories flood back. We walk down a street and smell fresh bread baking and remember something we had forgotten from our childhood. Proust wrote 800 pages based on the notion. The question is how?"

Memory is popularly conceived as a library with different incidents, like books on the shelf which we can take down and examine. Modern neuro-psychiatric research suggests this to be an unhelpful metaphor. "Those with brain injuries to the frontal lobes can manufacture memories in great detail which turn out to be totally false," says Conway. "There are no books that can be taken down from shelves to provide such false stories. They do it by retrieving unrelated facts from the long-term memory and reconstructing them. It shows that memory is more dynamic and incomplete than we supposed, and it always contains inferences and inaccuracies. Most memories aren't accurate."

The implications for therapy are obvious, he says: "Therapy provides the ideal conditions for fabrication - a patient in a distressed state, prepared to trust and to believe the therapist. There's no doubt that under those conditions people will fabricate memories."

Experiments show that one-third of participants fabricate memories. Dr Stephen Ceci, a psychologist at Cornell University, has proved that when children are repeatedly asked questions about fictitious events, they eventually fabricate memories of them - and two-thirds of adults could not tell the difference between fact and fantasy.

"Often there is absolutely no way of judging whether allegations are true," says Larry Weiskrantz, "though, if the accusations are said to have continued from an early age to adolescence and then there was amnesia, that's extremely suspicious. And, if they go back to memories below the age of four, we have to be very wary."

Roger Scotford, founder of the British False Memory Society, was accused by his daughter of tickling her clitoris when she was nine months old. Can anyone remember from that age? "I don't think so," says Conway. "We know children can recognise the sound of their mother's voice within a few hours. Someone may possibly be able to remember something of her father bathing her, putting powder or cream on sore spots. But infant comprehension is not sufficient to lay down memories like that."

Recent research has shown that the absence of infantile memories is not due to repression, as Freud thought, but because the development of the hippocampus and prefrontal lobes (crucial seats of memory) is incomplete in infants.

But yet again Marjorie Orr sounds a warning. "You can't take work done on people memorising shopping lists in labs and then apply it to people who have been persistently raped for nine years," she says. "Traumatic memory works very differently. It's stored in indigestible lumps encoded in a different way than ordinary memory. And it comes back in a different way, in bits and pieces, starting with a smell, a sound, a panic attack."

Philip. The Father's story

"Helena [Julian's girlfriend] rang me to tell me she and Julian were going to split up. They had been together for nine years. Part of the problem, she said, was the business between me and Julian, which she assumed was not true. I didn't know what she was talking about. She then told me: Julian was accusing me of sexually abusing him as a child. I had no sense, as Pam did, of the pieces falling into place - the rows, the fights between Julian and Benedict, the dark remarks and bursts of anger - I was shocked. Pamela has been the interpreter of events. I was just shocked.

I cried for the first time as I tried to explain to Benedict that I hadn't done it. `You didn't believe I'd done it, did you?' I asked.

`Well, Dad, it took me a long time to make up my mind,' he said. His brother had made these assertions so wildly, so persistently.

It was then I realised what damage had been done. Ben's loyalties have been put into conflict; he clearly feels desperately hurt, and he is angry, too, because he wants the old family life back and he can never have it again. This quite extraordinarily dirty thing has soured everything in our lives.

I spoke to Julian on the telephone. He said: `Oh, come on, Dad, you've got to believe.' I said: No. It went back and forth. Then he said: `Surely you don't forget the Flopsy Bunnies.' But it meant nothing. What terrible fantasy it refers to, I cannot imagine. The stories began to escalate, the allegations to get more wild. It was as if it was necessary each time to up the stakes and make it more vivid, more graphic.

He came back and said that he scalded himself with a kettle when he was three as a cry for help. Yet friends who were there testify that he scalded himself on a hot water tap and that it was an accident. When he accused Pamela of raping him, I felt less isolated. There was some sense of comfort in it. It was so absurd that it became a great deal easier to talk to our friends. If you decide to be open, you take on board that some people will say `no smoke without fire'.

Pamela got angry, but she directed her anger at the therapist who she thought had brought a pre-conceived agenda to the discussion and imposed it on the patient. But I was angry with Julian. How could my son - however vulnerable, misguided, influenced - how could he have produced this obscene series of lies! I could see there was no way back. If he wanted to unload all this onto me, where was he going to go if he was forced into the realisation that it was not true?"

There is more to all this than mere family tragedy. The phenomenon reveals something deep in modern culture. There is something about the contemporary celebration of the psyche which has taken on the characteristics of faith. Psychology has become the new secular religion. Therapy is its pastoral practice, the counsellor is its priest, and Recovery is its new heresy.

It rests on a belief system with imagery as apocalyptic as that of Christianity's. Much repression therapy has the feel of some hallowed cultic ceremony. And it soon enters the field of witch hunts and moral panic. "The girl stands up as in the Salem witch trials and says `I accuse', and it's enough to convict," says psychoanalyst John Lawrence. "The whole normal process of the sifting of evidence is abandoned."

One of the things that contributes to the heat of the debate is a profound sense of defending one's faith. The neophytes of The Courage to Heal represent a new secular puritanism which displays a hostility towards the family and family relationships as deep as any monastic value. The extreme forms of therapy demand "detachment" from the client's family; many others produce it as a by-product and encourage an attitude of emotional coldness and cruelty between different generations.

Other aspects of the movement are underpinned by a feminist ideology. Since the 1930s, legal traditions on evidence had assumed that women and girls were predisposed to bring accusations against men of good character; for 40 years, it was difficult for allegations of sexual abuse to gain a hearing. Those whose concern is, above all else, to support abused women resolve that False Memory Syndrome is part of a backlash to discredit them.

But it also speaks to our modern victim mentality and its need to shift blame for life's problems on to someone else. That is why the movement reaches its apotheosis in the United States. "It's part of that country's culture of revenge," says Martin Conway. "It says: something has gone wrong in my life, someone must be to blame, and, since society these days won't accept blame, it must be the fault of my family."

A study to be published next month by Dr Gisli Gudjonsson, reader in forensic psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, confirms this. His review of 272 recent cases for the False Memory Society shows that in most, the accused is the father or another close relative, and that most accusers come from families with several children - indicating that sibling rivalry may play some part. Many of the allegations - all but 10 per cent of which were uncovered during therapy - are couched in very vague terms, with the details never disclosed to those who are accused.

From Mervyn Phillips, Chairman, Council of Management, Westminster Pastoral Foundation August 1996

Dear Mrs Hastings

I have now carried out the enquiries I promised... and I am satisfied that WPF's complaints procedures and Code of Ethics, which are adopted from those laid down by the British Association for Counselling, are - and have been for the quarter century of WPF's existence - a proper basis for the mutual trust inherent in the counselling relationship. Accordingly, that trust is not to be lightly breached, and it is a matter of fact that WPF does not entertain third party complaints...

The Foundation is fully aware of the various books and other publications to which you have referred... WPF does not engage in techniques intended to promote false memories... This is nationally acknowledged by WPF's peer organisations and recognised by all those who have direct knowledge of its continuing work in both training and counselling.

Throughout your letters, you have sought to secure some admission of wrongdoing on the part of the Foundation, its people and practices. In so doing, you have used emotive and pejorative language: "misguided treatment", "at the hands of", "injustice", "misplaced convictions", "victimised", "fantasy", "dubious practices", "get a second opinion", "subjected to", "the hidden agenda of the therapist", "a sad victim", "over-zealous members of the therapy industry", "your refusal to accept any collective responsibility for your organization and its unsound therapies", "spurious self-policing policy", and "the vicarious harm that has been done to so many good people", by way of example.

I find no basis in fact for either the choice of words or for the meanings intended, and WPF stands by its actions and stated position. Accordingly, I believe your accusations are unfounded in every particular.

Yours sincerely,

Mervyn Phillips

The therapy industry is now beginning to take notice. Credibility is at stake. "Our counsellors are made aware of the danger of false memory," says Dr Tim Woolmer, director of the Westminster Pastoral Foundation. "Our policy document states: it will be important for the counsellor to establish that actual abuse is taking place rather than fantasies... Fantasies of this nature are not uncommon, and it is important that we are not panicked into over-reacting."

The clinic, he insists, adheres to the UK Council for Psychotherapy guidelines, which state, among other things, that "the therapist is not competent to determine the historical truth of an allegation of sexual abuse".

Last year, a working party for the British Psychological Society (BPS) pronounced that both true and false memories can be recovered, but, as one of its members, Phillip Mollon, warns: "It's extremely difficult to distinguish between real and false memories without additional evidence or corroboration. Both can be convincing. Good practice will convey that uncertainty to the patient."

Two other working parties are preparing new sets of guidelines for practitioners. At the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the committee chaired by Dr Sydney Brandon, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Leicester University, is about to report on the issue. "There's growing concern," he admits, "and a clear need for guidance and control on how such memories are explored."

Tim Woolmer, not surprisingly, takes a hard line in the conflict facing therapists between preserving client confidentiality and demonstrating accountability. "The notion of inviting a third party, however intimate, in to discuss a client's counselling is unethical," he insists. "It's the utter security of that confidentiality that makes people feel safe. It's like the confessional. The only exception we would make is where the client admits that he is the current abuser of a child. Those are our rules," he concludes.

To Julian's new wife on the eve of their wedding (to which his parents were not invited). September 1996

Dear Jane

It was good to receive Julian's letter recently and catch up with your news. We've had great reports of your new home and it sounds super - and all the more so, I imagine, now that you are both giving it the benefits of your various talents!

I was sorry to hear of the death of your friend, and Julian's reaction to it is understandable. We only have one life, and, in order to preserve its precious qualities, we must ensure that it is lived with a high regard for the well-being of all those whose own precious lives we affect - it's a view that is encapsulated by all the world's great religions.

On the eve of a new phase in your own life, Jane, I have a very special plea to make to you - to try hard to accept the truth of our eldest son's happy, secure childhood. Please believe me when I say how completely I understand your motives, springing from your love and affection for him, that result in a reluctance to take an objective view of his misplaced beliefs. But to explore the facts further will not be a betrayal of that love but a confirmation of it, expressed in your ability to support him in the journey back to truth. It will not jeopardise your contentment but will enhance it, because happiness is not valid when it is enjoyed at the heavy expense of others.

The enormity of Julian's situation, and of so many like him, is at last being recognised by the psycho-therapeutic profession, as well as academics, resulting in an ever-increasing avalanche of printed words... I offer you just a tiny but important sample - the revised guidelines drawn up by the BPS. Please swallow hard and read it - you don't have to rely exclusively on our word!

Wow - this is getting a bit heavy!

We hope you have fun on Friday, and look forward to celebrating with you both in the near future.

With our love to you both,

Hugs and kisses,

Pamela

Some accusers eventually retract, others simply come home. One woman, who had ended up in a court because of her daughter's testimony that she had enticed dogs in off the street for sexual intercourse with her child, received a call on Boxing Day last year: "Can I come home, Mum?" Others are the subject of a tussle between parents who, like the Hastings, cannot agree the terms of reconciliation. According to the False Memory Society, among its 400-plus cases, there are only 40 returnees and 20 recanters. Most stand by their accusations.

In reconciliation, there is a conflict between love and truth, between peace and justice. "I still love him," says Philip Hastings of his son Julian. "He is my child. I have a father's love and duty, and love is forgiveness without question. I started with anger but have gone on to say I would have him back at any price, even without a recantation." For Pamela, the pursuit of truth is the most important thing; she is constantly chasing after further evidence, new documentation, the latest research. "For me, it's the love which is paramount. I want my son back. I sense he's coming back. For me, that'll do"

The names of the Hastings family have been changed. The letters have been edited.

Comments