Inside Story: Abuses of memory: What adults remember is taking over the child abuse debate. Rosie Waterhouse and Sarah Strickland report

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
WITH a logo showing an image of a small child cradled in the palm of a large, safe hand, a new enterprise called Accuracy About Abuse was launched in a flurry of publicity last week. Its aim is to 'counter misinformation in the public mind about child abuse'. In particular, it wants to debunk False Memory Syndrome (FMS), an American-

coined phrase used in the United States and now in Britain by parents who claim they have been falsely accused by grown- up children of sexually abusing them when young.

Advocates of False Memory Syndrome say these 'memories' are often 'confabulations' implanted by therapists after their children went into therapy for other problems.

On the contrary, say the therapists: adult survivors have repressed their memories of childhood sexual abuse for many years (they forget, in order to survive); they are enabled to 'recover' the memories in therapy by using techniques which range from hypnotherapy to regression therapy.

Accuracy About Abuse was presented to the Press and on television as an objective and accurate voice of moderation and reason in an increasingly polarised debate. Yet it is not an organisation as such, but rather a one-woman information service, being run by Marjorie Orr, a Hampstead-based former journalist, Jungian psychotherapist and part-time astrologer who writes horoscopes for the Daily Express and Woman's Journal (she is also the author of two books on astrology: Star Quality and Lovers' Guide: an Astrological Key to Relationships).

And Accuracy About Abuse is not impartial. Marjorie Orr believes that a lot of 'damaging nonsense' is being talked about FMS. It is, she writes, 'a syndrome which exists nowhere in psychological literature. It has been spread by people anxious to portray themselves an innocent parents wrongly accused of child abuse. Some are innocents maligned - which is a tragedy. Many are not . . . I am anxious that the FM (false memory) people do not purvey too much propaganda. However open minded they look, they obviously have a hidden agenda'.

She has obtained supportive comments from an impressive array of celebrities and professionals - including Helena Kennedy QC and Professor Anthony Clare - though they are not actually members of Accuracy Against Abuse.

The British False Memory Society, a charity set up last year, thinks AAA has a hidden agenda - and was quick to respond. 'Accuracy About Abuse is trying to hijack the moral high ground and misrepresent the work of the BFMS,' it said. 'In the last year over 350 families have contacted our help- line to report that they have been wrongfully accused by their grown-up children of either childhood incest or satanic abuse, sometimes many decades ago.'

Like AAA, the British False Memory Society boasts impressive supporters, with an advisory board that includes eminent academics, lawyers, psychologists and psychiatrists, including eight professors.

The debate is becoming increasingly confrontational, as was demonstrated on Friday on the BBC'S Kilroy programme. In a heated studio discussion, several therapists, including Marjorie Orr, faced a group of furious parents.

Protesting their innocence, many blamed therapy for persuading their adult children to believe they had been sexually abused within their families, which had now been torn apart.

IN THE United States in the past few years, thousands of women and some men have accused their elderly parents of having abused them as children. The total number is not known but estimates vary from between 25,000 and 50,000, and some claim the figure is as high as 100,000. Most of these 'survivors' recovered the memory during therapy; many have gone on to train as therapists specialising in recovered memory.

A self-help manual, The Courage to Heal, A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies since it was first published in the US in 1988 and in the UK in 1990.

Based on interviews with 200 survivors of incest and sexual abuse, the book provides a checklist for readers to discover 'Am I a survivor?' and des-

cribes the healing process which should include a trusted therapist.

But the authors, Ellen Bass, a therapist, and Laura Davis, a survivor, have been accused of making irresponsible statements which encourage vulnerable people, some with mental- health problems, to believe they were sexually abused when they were not. These definitive statements include 'If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were', and 'If you don't remember your abuse, you are not alone. Many women don't have memories, and some never get memories. This doesn't mean they weren't abused.'

Hundreds of survivors are now suing elderly parents for compensation, and in about 20 states the law has been changed to allow criminal prosecutions to be brought on the evidence of recovered memory alone.

To those who were sceptical about the sudden increase in survivor stories, it was not surprising that there was a backlash from parents claiming they were wrongly accused.

The False Memory Syndrome Foundation was formed in 1992 as a reaction to the spread of recovered-memory allegations. It was set up by Pamela Freyd and her husband, Peter, who claim they were falsely accused by their daughter. It has since been contacted by 12,000 families who claim they have been falsely accused; about 18 per cent of the allegations are of satanic abuse. More recently, a few cases have included claims that the abuse took place in a previous life. The debate is currently being acted out in a real-life drama in a televised court case in Los Angeles, in which a father is suing his daughter's therapists for dollars 8m ( pounds 5.4m) damages, claiming they implanted false memories that he had sexually abused her as a child.

Gary Ramona lost his dollars 250,000-a-year job with a Napa Valley winery and his wife and family, after his daughter Holly, now 23, made the accusations four years ago. (No criminal charges were brought.)

In Britain a similar pattern has emerged. In 1990 a helpline called Safe was set up for adult survivors; groups were formed, including Survivors Speak Out; and therapists who specialised in counselling survivors began comparing notes.

Last year, a group of parents who claim they were innocent of their adult children's charges formed the British False Memory Society. Roger Scotford, the founder and spokesman, claims the stories are strikingly similar. The memories are recovered when the adult children are in therapy for problems such as post-natal depression or, increasingly commonly, for eating disorders. Hypnotherapy is a recurring factor. Ties with the parents are severed: parents are not allowed to know or see the therapist to give their side of the story. The memories of abuse are vivid and often intensely violent. And, claims Scotford, the character of the exiled accuser changes so they become 'fixated with the idea that their current problems are as a result of their sexual abuse to the exclusion of all other possible causes'.

The testimonies of adult survivors are now beginning to replace those of children themselves as the most controversial area of the whole child-abuse debate. Recovered memory has become the hottest topic at child-abuse seminars and conferences where adult survivors are frequently invited to speak.

Many of the same people involved in the so-called satanic child-abuse scares which erupted across the US and Britain in the mid to late Eighties are also now specialising in 'recovered memory'. A book published last month called Treating Survivors of Satanist Abuse by Valerie Sinason (a consultant child psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic and St George's Hospital Medical School, London) features papers and articles by people who figured prominently in the Cleveland case in 1987 and the later satanic child-abuse scares particularly in Nottinghamshire, Merseyside, Rochdale and the Orkneys.

Satanic child abuse has been dismissed by a Government report, as reported last week in the Independent on Sunday. At a conference in Leeds last Wednesday, when she first publicly announced her research findings, the report's author Professor Jean La Fontaine said more research was needed into the veracity of recovered memory. Dr Marietta Higgs, the paediatrician at the centre of the Cleveland case, who was also at the conference, defended her reliance on the anal-dilatation method of diagnosing sexual abuse. In debate Dr Higgs, who is consultant paediatrician at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Gateshead, said: 'In terms of experiencing abuse, survivors are the experts in what may be helpful.'

Professor La Fontaine challenged this, saying: 'It is very dangerous to talk about people who have been abused as the only experts. They are not experts. They have experience. It is very worrying to place more importance on experience than actual research and study.'

Hard evidence is very difficult to come by. In the middle of the FMS/RM argument on both sides of the Atlantic are academics, doctors and therapists who are searching for it. Both sides can produce piles of papers from researchers in support of their arguments.

On the one hand, as the RM lobby maintains, there is no evidence that False Memory Syndrome exists as a clinical condition. But experiments have shown that patients in therapy can be induced to believe something happened to them that did not. A majority in both camps agree that there is some truth in the other's perspective. Most 'recovered memory' supporters accept that some accusations could be false; and most FMS advocates agree that some memories will be genuine. Everyone agrees that child abuse is widespread and abhorrent, although estimates of how many children are victims range widely from one in 10 to one in three girls and one in seven boys.

The latest research on the topic will be presented on 31 May at a seminar at the Royal Society of Medicine.

Dr Michael Yapko, a clinical psychologist from San Diego who specialises in marriage and family therapy and who trains in clinical hypnosis, is presenting the findings of a survey of beliefs and practices of 860 psychotherapists from all over the US. It seems that the seminar, organised by the European Therapy Studies Institute, will offer the conclusion that: 'A startling proportion of therapists and care professionals, ignorant about the workings of memory, are unwittingly leading their patients to believe they are victims of sexual abuse.'

But the organisers also say that: 'The most sensitive issue arising from this debate is that those genuinely guilty of child abuse can use the 'false memory' argument to hide behind.'

This is what Marjorie Orr and her supporters are most determined to prevent. The answer of the British False Memory Society is that both sides should work together.

'It is a pity that AAA is harassing the BFMS instead of joining forces,' wrote Elizabeth Newson, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Nottingham, in reponse to Marjorie Orr.

'The Society is already concerned to investigate the essential nature of memory and has successfully invited specialists in the subject to advise it objectively. It is disingenuous for one group to appropriate what should be a mutual desire for accuracy.'

At the moment, the need for more research is the only point that the two sides are not prepared to argue about.


JANE is unable to tell whether her memories of being abused, discovered though therapy, are real or not.

She started to see a counsellor in her mid-twenties because she felt dissatisfied with her life and wanted to change it. The counselling continued for a few years and Jane was delighted with the results. But then the sessions changed and she found herself struggling with the terrifying possibility that she might have been sexually abused as a child. She began to have disturbing memories, but was unsure if they were real or imaginary, planted by her counsellor.

Jane became confused and frightened and decided to terminate her sessions. She never discovered the truth about her 'memories' but is convinced she was right to stop probing. She is now happy and successful, and has never told her family about what happened.

'My counsellor had really helped me a lot and I was wondering if it was time to leave when she started all this stuff that was really different.

'It was round about the time when Roseanne Arnold was saying she'd been abused. The questions my therapist asked really changed. She started trying to bypass the adult me and reach the 'inner child', making me tell stories and asking me what I remembered about my childhood. I was quite willing at first although I wasn't sure what was going on or what I was supposed to say. I remember thinking: 'What does she want to hear?'

'I realised she was trying to work out if I had been abused. I had no sense of anything having happened, I couldn't remember anything. Then I had a few flashbacks but they could have come from anywhere. I was quite shocked but I almost wanted it to be true. I got so confused, I didn't know whether it was there, or she was putting it there, or I was putting it there to make it worth while. You have to have something to show for it, after all you're spending a lot of money.

'By the time you've come this far you are very open to the counsellor and used to saying the first thing that comes into your head. You are looking for something and so is she, like detectives. You could be forgiven for being disappointed if there's nothing there. But if you tell your brain it has to look for something bad it will find it.

'It started to take over my life. It's draining, you can't think straight and it affects everybody around you. The amount of attention you get from other people is enormous. I think it makes people feel special if they haven't got anything else going on in their lives. You get that need for attention when you're in therapy.

'There were six or seven people it could have been - it was crazy, everybody was a possible perpetrator. My therapist kept saying things like 'we'll find out' but I was getting frightened by that stage and really didn't want to know. The confusion in your head is worse than anything. I decided to get out. I still don't know if it ever happened but I've decided to get on with my life. I'm not haunted by it - maybe I'm just shutting it away, but that's OK by me. It's a really big thing and where are you going to get with it?

'Counselling is great for people who remember being abused or raped, but not if you don't remember anything.'

(Photograph omitted)