Keywords: False memories

A victim of memory recalls


Pendergrast, Mark
Type of WorkEssay

After his children 'remembered' in therapy that he had abused them, Mark Pendergrast helped sound the alert about false memory syndrome in the USA

Early in 1995 the first edition of my book, Victims of Memory: incest accusations and shattered lives, appeared in the USA. 'I did not want to write this book', I wrote at the outset. 'It's much too painful. The truth is, I had to write it.

  • Victims of Memory: incest accusations and shattered lives is published in Britain by HarperCollins

I finally realised that what has been termed "false memory syndrome" was destroying not only my children's very identities and my relationship with them, but millions of other families as well.' I was extremely nervous when the book came out. My family had urged me to drop the project.

  • Why should I tell the world that I was accused of committing incest?
  • Couldn't it ruin my writing career?
  • Wasn't it possible that it would drive my children even further away?

My literary agent was equally concerned. No major US publisher would touch the project. In 1993 I had published For God, Country and Coca-Cola, a social and business history of the soft drink, which had received rave reviews and sold in translation all over the world. Was I crazy? Why didn't I follow up with another business book?

But I really couldn't make myself think about anything else. I didn't initially intend to write Victims of Memory. I simply decided to apply my interviewing and research skills to understand how and why my children would think I had done something so awful, when I hadn't. So I read books such as The Courage to Heal, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, interviewed therapists who specialised in memory retrieval, and attended an incest survivors' group to interview people I met there.

It became crystal clear that my children had stumbled into a vast social phenomenon in which a sizeable number of therapists had adopted an unproven theory and applied it to most of their clients.

  • 'Do you feel powerless, like a victim?' asked The Courage to Heal.
  • 'Do you feel different from other people?...
  • Do you have trouble feeling motivated?...
  • Are you afraid to succeed?...
  • Do you feel you have to be perfect?'

These were supposedly symptoms of a history of sexual abuse. Not only that, it was entirely possible, according to the authors, for people to repress all memory of sexual abuse.

The interviews with therapists and 'survivors' were just as disturbing. Of course, I couldn't tell them of my personal involvement, or they wouldn't have talked to me, so I told them the truth as far as it went: that I was a journalist trying to understand the recovered memory phenomenon.

The therapists told me how they hypnotised clients or used guided imagery (really a form of hypnosis), dream analysis, journalling, or the like.

  • 'Following the memory', one therapist told me, 'there's almost always denial. "I don't believe this; this didn't happen." When they deny it, I tell them, "It's understandable; who would want to believe it? It's hard to believe. If it's true, it will become more clear as more evidence comes up" '.

I realised what a terrible toll this form of 'therapy' took on those who came to believe they had suffered, all unknowing, a childhood of rape and torture.

  • 'I've had to let go of the myth of what I thought my childhood was like', one woman told me when I interviewed her. 'It was like bursting a beautiful bubble, and it's very difficult to do.' She went on to tell me that she still loved and missed her father. 'He may not remember the abuse himself. He may have been in a trance state.'

This seems an outrageous notion, that terrible abuse must have occurred, but that everybody, including the perpetrator, forgot it somehow. Yet when you are accused of something so terrible by those you love, you question yourself.

Paul Ingram, a Washington state policeman accused by his two daughters, managed to convince himself that he was guilty. A fundamentalist Christian, he 'prayed' to God to reveal what he had done, essentially performing auto-hypnosis on himself, and then confessed in glowing colour. I could have done the same thing.

At first, I thought I might have done something that I forgot. So I went to a hypnotist to find out. Fortunately, I did not create an abuse scenario while in a trance state, but I could have. Afterwards, my research revealed that hypnosis frequently results in confabulations - mixtures of fact and fantasy - and that hypnotic subjects are likely to 'remember' or visualise what is expected of them. In a trance people become highly suggestible.

The more deeply I looked, the more shocking and fascinating the entire subject became. I realised that it was not simply my children who were imperilled. My parents, who were active in the civil rights movement in the American South, had taught me that it was my obligation to try to do good in this world, to prevent injustice where I could. I could not simply walk away from this horror.

I decided to write Victims of Memory. After rejections from major publishers, I found Upper Access, a tiny Vermont publisher, which did a wonderful job. Even though the book came from a virtually unknown press it received an incredible pre-publication review in the New York Review of Books, where Frederick Crews singled it out as

  • 'the most ambitious and comprehensive, as well as the most emotionally committed, of all the studies before us'.

Still, I wasn't sure of its reception when it was published, or what effect it would have on my life or the recovered memory movement. As it turned out, Victims of Memory has had a major impact on this type of misguided therapy.

I hasten to point out that other books have also questioned recovered memories, including those by Richard Ofshe, Elizabeth Loftus, Reinder van Til, Margaret Hagen, August Piper, Richard Webster, Tana Dineen, and others. Here in the USA, lawsuits brought by retractors - those who once believed in such 'memories' and no longer do - against their former therapists have made headlines with multimillion dollar settlements. The false memory societies in the USA and in Britain have made a great contribution to the debate.

Those who believe in massive repression are now in retreat, but there is still much to be done. In most of the USA and Britain, virtually anybody can set up a shingle saying 'therapist', regardless of training. Even those who receive advanced degrees do not necessarily learn about the hazards of hypnosis, human suggestibility or memory distortion. The worlds of the clinician and the scientist are still miles apart.

The recovered memory epidemic was just the most virulent and destructive in a long line of pseudoscientific psychological fads. Unless we change the way we approach messing with one another's minds, we will repeat the past, including its witch hunts, in other forms in the future. Right now, I am deeply concerned over the repeated questioning of young children who are bullied into 'disclosing' fictional abuse, even though they denied that it took place initially.

Looking back, I can say that Victims of Memory is probably the most important book I will ever write. I have heard from people all over the world telling me how much it meant to them, how it virtually told their own story. A few weeks ago, when I introduced myself in a public forum, somebody in the audience gasped. Later he came up and said, 'Your book saved my life'. He had been suicidal, believing in his recovered memories, before picking it up.

Now if only my own children would read it. They are still estranged. I love them. I miss them every day.