Recovered memory dismissed by doctors

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The Independent Online
FALSE memories can be planted in patients' minds by psychiatrists and there is no evidence that memories can be "blocked out", a report set up by the Royal College of Psychiatrists has concluded.

The report, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry today, says there can be no justification for using drugs, hypnosis or dream interpretation in treatment as they may distort memory or implant a new one.

Over the last six months the report has split the Royal College, provoking such intense anger amongst members that it was not published under the college's name. One member of the working party which wrote the report refused to put his name to it. Another source said the original report (the new report is a revised version) was so "inflammatory" that it read like "the British False Memory Society's newsletter".

The question of whether forgotten memories of childhood sexual abuse can be brought back with the aid of therapy has been bitterly contested since the first cases emerged in the United States a decade ago.

Many accused parents claim their family lives have been destroyed by fantasies planted in their children's minds by unscrupulous therapists. Gary Ramona, a Californian business executive, won pounds 335,000 compensation after his daughter who was undergoing regression therapy accused him of rape.

But those who say they have been abused, such as the American comedienne Roseanne Barr, argue that if it is possible for war victims to block out horrific events, why should this not be true of sexual abuse?

The authors conclude that a growing body of research indicates that memory is fallible and vulnerable to suggestion, and that no autobiographical memory can be relied on without some external corroboration. However, they accept that the secrecy surrounding child sex abuse may often make such corroboration difficult to obtain.

"No evidence exists for the repression and recovery of verified severely traumatic events," says the report. "There is also striking absence in the literature of well-corroborated cases of such repressed memory through psychotherapy. Given the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse, even if only a small proportion are repressed and only some of them subsequently recovered there should be a significant number of corroborated cases. In fact there is none."

"Memory enhancement" techniques do not enhance memory and there is evidence that they can be "powerful and dangerous methods of persuasion," they say.

"Many of the memories `recovered' by these measures refer to events in the early months and years of life which fall within the period of infantile amnesia and must be regarded as implausible for that reason," the report adds.

It concludes by saying that psychiatrists have a duty not to cause harm to patients or their families, and any report of child sex abuse should be listened to seriously and sympathetically. It adds that whether or not a patient who seeks help has true or false memories of past sexual abuse they are entitled to sympathetic and competent care.

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