THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH – 29 September 1996
False memories and faux realities
THE POWER of the human imagination may be a wonderful thing – witness Shakespeare – but it can have its drawbacks when people come to believe that imagined events are in fact real. False memory syndrome – the subject of last evening’s devastating Fine Cut television documentary, "Divided Memories", is the great scandal of contemporary psychotherapy (and that is saying something).
The pattern of events is always the same. An unhappy young woman, often with an eating disorder such as bulimia, seeks help from a therapist. Eating disorders, it is claimed, can be caused by sexual abuse in childhood. With sufficient encouragement, the woman does indeed begin to remember the details of the many perverse ways her father sexually assaulted her when young. The more she recalls, the more graphic and detailed her memories become. Retrieving these lost memories is a first step on the road to "recovery", during which the therapist helps the "victim" to become a "survivor", although the father must first be confronted with the allegations, after which all further communications must cease. Out of the blue, confident men in late middle age find themselves accused of molesting their daughters and, in the ensuing fall-out, marriages are wrecked, friends are lost, careers destroyed and families fall apart.
Protestations of innocence that "none of this happened" appear unconvincing when set against the daughter’s vivid accounts of being abused. And how can anyone tell who is speaking the truth about events that allegedly occurred in private, decades earlier?
None the less there should be some instances among the thousands of allegations based on recovered memories where other family members could provide corroborating evidence that the perpetrator was an incestuous paedophile. Not one single case has ever been independently authenticated in this way. Further, it is always the father who is implicated, which is quite contrary to the standard pattern of sexual abuse, in which the perpetrator is usually the stepfather or some other adult not biologically related to the abused.
This naturally throws the spotlight on the role of a therapist. There is no doubt the "victims" do believe they were abused. Indeed, their memories are just as powerful and certain as my memory of what I had for breakfast this morning. Yet, for therapists to accept these recovered memories as "true", they must deny reality – that the pattern of abuse is highly atypical and no case has ever been independently confirmed. The "false memory syndrome" of the patient is both bolstered and reinforced by the "false reality syndrome" of the therapist.
Ignorant therapists are certainly not the only group to manifest this "false reality syndrome". It can be found in all walks of life, but particularly nowadays among politicians, as I discovered this week.
The Government is naturally sensitive to the charge of mass bureaucratisation of the health service, which Mr Gerald Malone, Minister of Health, has personally told me is completely untrue. Rather, he assured me, the proportion of staff directly involved in looking after patients has increased over the past 10 years from 60 to 66 per cent.
From my own experience, I know this cannot be the case; for each hospital manager before the reforms, there are now 10, and my Family Health Service Authority has grown from a small office and a secretary to a six-storey modern block, with a large atrium running up the centre from which can be seen in every direction hundreds of administrators hard at work.
Copyright: Telegraph Group Ltd