Book Reviews: Memories are made of this

By Aidan Moloney

Real Events Revisited – Fantasy Memory and Psychoanalysis, Ann Scott, Virago, 1996 – £Stg12.99,

Victims of f Memory – Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives, Mark Prendergast,  Harper Collins, 1996,- £Stg14.99.

These two books deal each in its own way with the issue of repressed memories and by implication with the concept of false memory syndrome. Scott is a psychoanalyst and she was asked by the feminist movement to comment on the reality of the event. There has always been a debate in psychoanalysis, and there should be in every discipline claiming the title of therapy, between the status of the “real” and “fantasy”. So much of the meaning in therapy is communicated through metaphor and fantasy that not only the client but the therapist can get lost in the “holo-deck” and forget the distinction between the two. This distinction has become ever so critical in our time because the debate has gone beyond the consulting room and entered other worlds outside, particularly the world of crime and punishment when the revelations are about sexual abuse.

Psychoanalysis is the cradle for the debate between mass sexual abuse-perpetrated by parents, mass hysteria perpetrated by therapists or complexes which we all have as part of growing up. Scott has a very difficult task and her writing reflects the minefield.. She has to find a path that preserves Freudian concepts, neutralises Jeffrey Masson’s and Alice Miller’s criticisms and still satisfies the feminist agenda to validate a belief in widespread sexual abuse. Her writing is like someone trying to pick a way across a minefield – very often displaying incredibly light and delicate touches as she tiptoes through the danger, changing direction with a burst of confidence to a patch of safe ground where she abruptly comes to a halt and tries to climb skywards to escape. Her prose reflects the struggle, sometimes it has clarity but at moments where Freud and Feminism wrestle she takes refuge in a vocabulary that tries to appease both sides;

“If one looks at the situation of women who go into therapy say, without memory, and who recover memory through therapy – leaving aside whether it is through suggestion or through some unprofessional conduct by the therapist – they are in fact achieving a rhetoric of their own which was not available to them before.”

The book is a series of essays and the author who is deputy editor of the British Journal of Psychotherapy has published them separately already. While they all relate to a theme there is a lack of integration and a absence of development one might expect from a book – it’s more like reading short stories than a novel. Jeffrey Masson accuses Freud in particular (and psychoanalysts in general) of deliberately changing his interpretation of the event (real sexual abuse) into fantasy complexes, oedipal and electra complexes and because of the theory of infantile sexuality, attributing fantasies to children that should rightly be attributed to real sexual abuse. Masson’s thesis is built on the discovery of discrepancies between the original and published versions of Freud’s correspondence which led Masson to believe that Freud had suppressed his knowledge of the extent of childhood seduction. And it is refreshing to discover that despite all the criticism that has been piled on the father of most therapies he was very much aware of the issue that confronts us. Freud asks;

“Is it not very possible., that the physician forces such scenes upon his docile patients, alleging that they are memories?” Scott observes that Freud seeks to convince us that this is unlikely because the,

“behaviour of patients while they are reproducing these infantile experiences is in every respect incompatible with the assumption that the scenes are anything else than a reality that is being fell with distress and being reproduced with the greatest reluctance.”

However he did add a footnote to the above subsequently which shows he had not resolved the issue,

“but it must be remembered that at the time I wrote it I had not yet freed myself from my overvaluation of reality and my low valuation of phantasy.”

Although Scott has effective arguments to defend Freud her style can be very annoying because she does not seem to be able to weigh them. For example the following statement is redolent with irony,

“If Masson’s accusations had been accurate then the psychoanalytic community would justly have been on the defensive.”

Psychoanalysts more than anyone else should be aware that in terms of their discipline, denial and resistance could be interpreted as admission of guilt rather than innocence.

Mark Prendergast has a much more straightforward intellectual task. His theme is to prove the case for false memory syndrome and demolish the concept of repressed memories. He is a journalist who as a result of “vague unspecified” allegations of sexual abuse by both his adult daughters, has written Victims of Memory – Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives. Since his daughters refuse to communicate with him the allegations remain vague and unspecified.

The case to prove the existence of false memories is not difficult to establish since even those who advocate the existence of repressed memories must acknowledge that prior to their recovery the victims must have had false memories of a positive childhood that supposedly did not really exist. Scott points this out in the essay, Fantasy Memory Trauma.

The positive use of what might be termed memory creation is in fact common to a number of therapies, particularly Hypnotherapy. This technique of helping the client imaginatively re-script past events with a successful outcome provides the client with a repertoire of more resourceful “memories” to call on in the future and mimics the normal psychological function of mental rehearsal which operates in less traumatic situations.

However some self-help manuals advocate the use of similar methods to pursue evidence of childhood sexual abuse and unwittingly invert the technique to create negative memories. Mark Prendergast identifies The Courage to Heal, which spawned a whole series of self-help imitations, as the principal culprit.

The process of discovery is a two stage one. Firstly it depends on the assumption that there exists a strong correlation between surface symptoms and repressed memories. The range of symptoms are diverse, pervasive and sometimes mutually contradictory. The Incest Survivors’ Aftereffects Checklist includes; “pattern of ambivalent or conflicting relationships, depression, phobias, anger issues, feeling crazy, feeling indifferent, low self-esteem, eating disorders, fear of the dark, swallowing or gagging, sensitivity to or even wearing too many baggy clothes.. humourlessness or extreme solemnity”. Others include high risk taking, inability to take risks and if that doesn’t catch everyone then the ultimate sign is “Denial, no awareness at all”.

This is therapy imitating a pseudo scientific model of symptom and cause without either the research to support its deductions or the logical rigour to realise that the relationships between symptom and cause may not be one-to-one but one-to-many i.e. where a symptom may have a number of possible causes e.g. conflicting adult relationships could be a symptom of a childhood experience of either deprivation or being spoiled.

The second part of the process involves suggestion and regression of some sorts to reconstruct what might have happened. Prendergast quotes Renee Fredrickson, clinical psychologist and author of Repressed Memories: a Journey to Recovery from Sexual Abuse. Fredrickson proposes that the list of symptoms of sexual abuse are “as varied as the human spirit”. Her procedure is as follows; “Let yourself know what the most hopeless or shameful problem in your life is…Try saying to yourself three or four times a day for one week, I believe that problem is about my repressed memories of abuse. After a week write down or talk over with a friend how you see the problem now. Speculate on how it might relate to how you were abused”.

Fredrickson encourages women to believe that they were abused as infants by several perpetrators.

“How old do you think you were when you were first abused? Write down the first number that pops into your bead, no matter how improbable it seems to you… Does it seem too young to be true? I assure you it is not…Multiple abusers increase the likelihood of memory repression. The sheer number of abusers becomes overwhelming.”

It is incredible that such methodologies can be advocated as clinical procedures but of course there is no reason why psychology/therapy/counselling any more than other discipline should be free of iatrogenic diagnostic processes or why some people have not received the basic training of every market researcher – if you ask leading questions you will get the answer you are leading to.

The taped interview of social worker interviewing a child to elicit evidence of sexual abuse in a bitter custody dispute is disturbing;

Social Worker: Did Daddy ever put his diddle near your vagina?

Child: (laughing) No.

Social Worker: Can you show me how he did that?

Child: But my Daddy didn’t do it.

Social Worker: Your Dad didn’t? Who did?

Child: Nobody….

Social Worker: Cathy, when you go and see Dad, I wonder if Dad sometimes makes your vagina sore?

Child: No, be doesn’t.

Social Worker: If he did it would be okay to tell me.

Child: He doesn’t.

Social Worker: But Mummy says you have a sore vagina.

Child: Yeah, I used to.

Social Worker: We want to help you so you don’t get any more sore vaginas.

Child: I used to have one, but now it’s gone. I used to have one at home at Mum’s.

Prendergast reports that the Social Worker persists in the line of questioning and calls in the mother to help. Eventually the child relents and says her father touched her vagina. She is then praised for being a “good brave girl”.

Prcndergast’s case is weakest when he tries to establish that there is no such thing as repressed memories. Firstly it is impossible to prove the negative and secondly the concept of repressed memory is elusive. Exactly what type of forgetting is a repressed memory? There is actually no need for him to push his argument this far to discredit the practices he finds objectionable and which have brought so much unnecessary distress and pain to so many families. When he published an article in the Sunday Times, the next week the letters column was filled with stories from anguished parents who had lost their children though these methods. The problem is that there is real abuse and perpetrators will attempt to disguise and deny their guilt but it is only by coincidence that these techniques of recovering repressed memories would uncover real childhood abuse.

The issue is very complicated. There is no doubt that at a social level there has been a denial of sexual abuse inside and outside families and many people who were abused did not reveal that abuse. However the range of presenting possibilities is extensive and the following represent some if not a complete list of what can occur in therapy;

(i)  the client remembers the abuse but did not tell anyone until now;

(ii) the client forgot about the abuse and put it out of consciousness but can recover memories of it without any great difficulty;

(iii) the client thinks he/she was abused but has no specific memory of it and wants to discover those memories;

(iv) the client was abused sexually and remembers it but seeks memories of other probably earlier abuse and probably perpetrated by someone else;

(v) the client remembers being abused physically or emotionally but not sexually and wants to discover memories of sexual abuse;

(vi) the client has no memories of sexual abuse, does not anticipate discovering sexual abuse, but with help of the therapist uncovers what are interpreted as signs of abuse;

(vii) the client has no memories of sexual abuse but is told by a family member that evidence of abuse was discovered showing that he/she was abused by a family member;

(viii) the client has been sexually abused but is too young to conceptualise the experience and communicate it;

(ix) the client has been abused (as understood by current mores) but personally does not consider it to be abuse;

(x)  the client as part of the therapeutic process enters the world of fantasy and after giving permission to the imagination encounters a sexual experience which is a metaphor for an issue, past, present or future;

The answer to the question of why so many people are susceptible to believe that their parents sexually abused them when they did not, ranges from, well people can believe in the strangest things, to the effect generated by a belief in philosophies promising perfect health, happiness and bliss on earth. A person who believes in such philosophies and is stuck in the pain and misery that can often occur as part of living may try to assuage the dissonance between expectation and reality by seeking the origin of the pain in whatever cause the current fashion suggests.

Childhood by its nature may be a wounding experience involving traumas of separation and individuation and even the best parents are open to accusations that their children suffered and the worst parents actively contribute to the suffering. Prendergast gives a brief history of many of the influences he sees as contributing to social paranoia – the witch craze right up to the witches of Salem, demonology, psychosomatic illness, certain Freudian concepts, multiple personality disorder, psychics and exorcists, ultra feminism and the excesses of political correctness and certain forms of evangelicalism. He finds parallels in the hunt for witches in the past and the current persecution of men, particularly fathers.

Scott identifies another factor contributing to the desire to sensationalise in an era where competition for public attention is a prerequisite for survival;

“The increase in awareness of child sexual abuse coincides with this deregulation (the deregulation of the charity sector under Margaret Thatcher) which persuaded charities of the need for marketing solutions to their problems.”

Prendergast’s book is recommended reading for all therapists in training and Scott’s for everyone who likes their therapy in the form of psychoanalysis.