Whatever happened to false memory syndrome?

Bristow, Jennie
False memory syndrome, where therapists encourage patients in the mistaken belief that they were abused as children, may have been exposed. But the dangerous assumptions behind the quest for repressed memories have yet to be challenged, says Jennie Bristow

'Anne Stone' went into therapy in 1982 feeling depressed. By 1990 she was convinced that she was a high priestess in a satanic cult. She had 'remembered' a series of bizarre rituals in which she was sexually abused, and where she herself sacrificed and ate children. Her own two young children were hospitalised, as therapists believed them to be members of the same cult. As Anne's family life crumbled, her mental state got worse and worse.

Her story is documented in Making Monsters: false memories, psychotherapy and sexual hysteria, an excellent critique of the US experience of recovered memory therapy written by Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters, first published in 1994. Their case study of George Franklin, convicted of first-degree murder in 1990 after his daughter 'remembered' seeing him kill her schoolfriend, confirms the horrendous consequences of recovered memory therapy in its heyday.

In April 1995 George Franklin's conviction was overturned. In November 1997 the US courts awarded 'Anne Stone' (really Patricia Burgus) $10.6 million in damages against the two therapists who turned her life upside down. The techniques involved in recovered memory therapy have now been widely discredited. Yet the damaging assumptions which gave rise to it in the first place continue to inform public debate.

Recovered memory therapy took off at a time when society was becoming increasingly concerned about the prevalence of child abuse, particularly within the family, and the lasting effect of such abuse on its victims. Although the specific idea of recovered memories has fallen from favour, the notion that somebody would necessarily be 'scarred for life' by sexual abuse is still taken as common sense. To suggest that experience of abuse does not have to become the defining feature of your life is presumed to be at best insensitive, and at worst an expression of sympathy for a paedophile.

From the widely accepted notion that the childhood experience of abuse can explain your problems in later life, it was only a small jump to the recovery of false memories. Therapists working on a presumption that a patient's problems could be linked to long-ago experiences of abuse used various techniques to encourage them to 'remember'. When confronted with the charge that they were implanting false memories into their patients' minds, therapists pointed to the suffering of people re-experiencing this apparent 'abuse' and retorted 'why would anybody want to be a victim of abuse unless they really were?'. But to be a victim - or 'survivor' - of abuse is more desirable today than anybody will admit.

Patients who have 'recovered' their memories of abuse will often say that, despite the trauma, realising their 'abuse history' has proved comforting. The continuum that a therapist establishes between their childhood and today means that everything suddenly 'makes sense': for the first time they have a seemingly rational explanation for what is wrong with their lives. Importantly, they realise that their problems and deficiencies are not their own fault. They are not responsible for the fact that their lives are less than perfect.

This displacement of responsibility on to other people or past experiences is a contemporary trend that, if anything, has been strengthened even as 'recovered memories' have been trashed. Child abusers in court will argue that they could not help what they did, because they had been victims of abuse themselves. Wife-beaters blame their violent childhoods for creating the idea that domestic violence was a normal part of home life. In a recent case a woman of 23 sued her former education authority for its alleged failure to protect her from being bullied as a child; an increasingly common example of people trawling their past for something to pin their current problems on. In this context, is it really that surprising that somebody should want to find something dark in her apparently happy childhood that could explain the misery she feels today?

There is a well-established pattern of those who define themselves as survivors of abuse using that experience to avoid dealing with their current problems. But in recent years the transformation of child sexual abuse from an unpleasant experience into a defining feature of life has gone further. 'Being a survivor' has become the means through which some individuals try positively to create an identity for themselves.

The Courage to Heal: a guide for women survivors of child sexual abuse, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, is widely regarded as the book most responsible for pushing patients of suspected abuse towards 'recovering' false memories. In this book 'being a survivor' is effectively presented as a love affair with oneself - an identity to aspire to. In the preface Ellen Bass says she first heard about child sexual abuse during a creative writing workshop she ran in the 1970s. Her book follows the creative writing format throughout: stories and poems by survivors about their pain and their healing are presented as proof that abuse makes you sensitive and creative.

The Courage to Heal set the standard for a flood of literature on incest survival. In Dillon's bookstore in Gower Street, London, there is a whole bookcase filled with literature for and by survivors, most of which seems to be poetry, fiction or artwork. Add to this the writers who have made a career out of recounting their experiences of sexual abuse, the hit TV programmes that feed off and dramatise experiences of victimhood, the true-life stories of suffering that feature monthly in teenage and women's magazines...and the reason why somebody might be attracted (consciously or otherwise) to the idea of presenting herself as a 'survivor' is suddenly less mysterious.

There is something about being a victim of a terrible experience today that seems to make you more interesting, more creative and definitely morally superior to a person who is simply boringly happy. If you have a past trauma, it pays to make the most out of it: at least you will get some sympathy, you may well get some status and you might even make some money, through the courts or through selling your story. If you don't have a past trauma, you may be tempted to make one up and create a survivor identity all of your own. In this twisted environment, the downfall of a few unscrupulous therapists with wacky techniques is far from the end of the problem.