The memories linger on


Fitzpatrick, Michael
Type of WorkEssay

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick asks why the professional reaction against this psychotherapeutic irrationality has been so slow and so muted

The Brandon report is widely regarded as the final nail in the coffin of the recovered memory movement. Published in April this year in the form of an article:

  • ('Recovered memories of child sexual abuse: implications for clinical practice', British Journal of Psychiatry, 172, S Brandon, J Boakes, D Glazer and R Green, pp 296-307),

the committee chaired by professor Sydney Brandon is categorical in its condemnation of the theory and practice of the movement.

Brandon's conclusion is that

  • 'there is no evidence to support the wholesale forgetting of repeated experiences of abuse, nor of single episodes of brutality or sadistic assault, apart from the normal experience of infantile amnesia'.

Furthermore, the report insists that

  • 'no evidence exists for the repression and recovery of verified, severely traumatic events, and their role in symptom formation has yet to be proved'.

It describes techniques of memory recovery, such as hypnosis, drug-induced 'abreaction', age-regression, dream interpretation, and others, as

  • 'powerful and dangerous methods of persuasion' for which there is 'no justification'.

Elaine Showalter, a campaigner against recovered memory and other manifestations of contemporary hysteria, greeted the Brandon report as 'stunning' (Independent on Sunday, 5 April 1998). Following Jean La Fontaine's systematic exposure of the lack of independent corroboration of claims of widespread satanic ritual abuse and Joan Acocella's appraisal of the myth of multiple personality disorder, it seemed that the tide was turning against the wave of psychotherapeutic irrationality that had swept all before it over the previous decade.

The backlash against the recovered memory movement is indisputable - and it has been encouraged by successful litigation against therapists on behalf of former clients claiming for the damaging consequences of 'false memories'. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that the popular preoccupation with childhood sexual abuse as the explanation for the difficulties experienced by adults has come to an end. The extraordinary international impact of the recovered memory movement - on therapists and clients alike - reveals a deep emotional resonance for these morbid notions that is not susceptible to refutation by the cool analytic arguments of Brandon, La Fontaine and Acocella.

The history of the Brandon report itself reflects the powerful influence of the recovered memory movement even in the upper echelons of British psychiatry. In May 1995 the Royal College of Psychiatrists set up a working party to investigate the recovered memory phenomenon and a report was submitted in summer 1996. As the introduction to the report, finally published nearly two years later, explains, 'for a number of reasons, the college eventually decided not to publish the report under its imprimatur'. Instead it published a three-page set of 'recommendations for good practice', apparently largely motivated by concerns that allegations about false memories and threats of litigation carried 'the risk of bringing the profession into disrepute'

  • ('Reported recovered memories of child sexual abuse', Psychiatric Bulletin, 21, 1997, pp663-665).

Though Brandon does not elaborate on the 'number of reasons' for this process of delay and equivocation, it is widely known that his outspoken critique of recovered memory was not popular with many members of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, who either supported the movement or were sympathetic to its approach.

Psychologists in the British Psychological Society had already run into similar difficulties. A survey of more than 800 members in 1995 revealed a high level of credulity regarding recovered memories

  • ('Recovered memories', BPS, 1995; see also 'Recovered memory: a morbid symptom', LM, April 1995).

As one critic of this report asked, if so many chartered psychologists believed in recovered memories, 'what about "unqualified" therapists?'

  • (L Weisenkrantz, Therapist, Winter 1995).

There can be little doubt that the impact of recovered memory is even greater among the legions of therapists and counsellors beyond the ranks of mainstream psychiatry and clinical psychology.

I well recall attending a talk given by a voluntary counsellor who ran a group under the aegis of a well-reputed mental health charity. The group aimed to encourage long-term consumers of tranquillisers to reduce and eventually end their dependence. It soon became clear that she firmly believed that virtually all her clients had been prescribed tranquillisers by GPs who had failed to elicit their experience of sexual abuse as children. Her objective was to facilitate disclosure of this abuse, a process which she also firmly believed had a profoundly therapeutic value. I have encountered therapists working with people with eating disorders and self-injurious behaviour who share these convictions.

The Brandon report notes that a significant proportion of abused children grow up to become well-adjusted adults, and that there is no evidence that childhood abuse leads to any specific pattern of symptoms in adults, or that recovering memories of abuse helps to alleviate such symptoms (indeed there is much evidence to the contrary). However, such dispassionate arguments have little effect on the prejudices of the recovered memory movement.

Perhaps the most important reason why the intellectual backlash against recovered memory has had limited impact is the fact that the movement enjoys its greatest influence in the sphere of popular culture. The movement's key text - The Courage to Heal, published in 1988 - has become an international best-seller.

Its authors, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, are feminists with roots in the women's movement rather than in the psy-professions. Their notorious 'checklist' approach - 'if you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were' - is characteristic of the burgeoning popular literature of 'self-help' and 'personal growth' manuals. Like its close relations, satanic abuse and multiple personality disorder, recovered memory has become a familiar feature of contemporary novels, films, TV dramas, soaps and confessional shows

  • (see Hystories: hysterical epidemics and modern culture, Elaine Showalter, Picador, 1997).

The backlash against recovered memory remains limited in its effect because the prejudices of this movement resonate with the deepest insecurities of our time. What is remarkable is not the fact of the backlash, but that such an irrational and demoralising trend has been so slow to provoke a response and that the response is so muted. As long as individuals seek to resolve the problems of the present by agonising over the experiences of the distant past, rather than by looking to the future, the key notions behind the recovered memory movement will continue to exert their baleful influence.