The buzz-words are false memory syndrome.
February 17, 1997
But is it a ploy by accused adults to explain away allegations of abuse by their grown-up children?
THE first time the notion of false memory syndrome was successfully fielded in a British trial was in 1994 when the father of a 33-year-old care assistant, Fiona
Reay, was acquitted at Teesside Crown Court in the north of England of sex offences against his daughter committed throughout her childhood.
The father was a middle-aged Scottish seafarer whose lawyers discredited his daughter's testimony by suggesting that she was the victim not of her father
but of false memories planted by "regression therapy". Defence barrister Toby Hedworth told the court about a "worrying phenomena" of people believing "phantom
memories" induced by therapists. After hearing this hypothesis the jury took only 27 minutes to dismiss the charges of rape and indecent assault. It is odd that this case does not feature in a new book by the American journalist Mark Prendergast, Victims of Memory. More than 700 pages long, it promises to be an encyclopaedic survey of "false memory" in the English-speaking world, a contagion spreading
throughout the English-speaking world.
Why then does Prendergast's book omit Fiona Reay's case, the first in Britain, particularly since - unusually - in this debate we can hear from both
sides: the accused and the accuser and other witnesses, with a professional or personal stake in the story. The Fiona Reay story uniquely satisfies
journalistic manners - the duty to tell not only the "who, what, where and when," but also to report conflicting versions of events. It relieves the journalists of the problem of belief - for or against "false memory" - and returns us to the real stuff, the actual sequence of events.
The medical records in Fiona Reay's case - first told in full in The Scotsman - confound the false memory hypothesis. She didn't magically "recover" buried
memories. Her tragedy was that she had never forgotten. It's all there in her medical records.
Toby Hedworth and the father's solicitor, David Smee, had seen Fiona Reay's medical records and therefore, knew that this could not be a case of "false memory".
"Did I say that it was?" said David Smee when it was put to him after the trial. His job, he said, was not to pursue the truth but to protect his client, to get
This landmark case does not trouble Mark Prendergast. He ignores it. Despite its vast length, his book makes no concessions to journalistic etiquette.
"False memory" is a new concept. It is not a scientific concept, it has not been adopted as a clinical diagnosis. It was formulated by accused adults to explain away allegations of abuse made by their grown-up children.
Some of its advocates were already familiar figures in the sexual abuse war zone: a founder of the American movement is Ralph Underwager, a Lutheran pastor who
says he gives evidence in hundreds of child abuse cases a year - always for the accused adult. He was the only American expert witness to appear before the
Butler-Sloss judicial inquiry into the Cleveland child abuse controversy in 1987, when he said that social workers "lie" and "fabricate" evidence of child abuse.
Most allegations, he says, are not merely unproven: they are false.
In the Nineties, Underwager's crusade against false allegations by children was extended to false memories among adults - usually induced by therapists. Hundreds
of accused adults found sanctuary in the movement inspired by Underwager, a veteran of the courts and the campaign trail. So confident was Underwager that he gave a long interview with the Dutch paedophile magazine Paedika pronouncing that paedophiles should be "more positive" in promoting paedophilia as "God's
will" and blaming feminists for a jealous hostility to men's interest in boys. He had to quit the False Memory Syndrome Board. Undaunted, the movement spread
to Britain in 1993, promoted by a retired naval officer turned property developer, Roger Scotford, who was faced with accusations by two of his daughters. Traumatic amnesia or repression doesn't happen, he says.
Based in his spacious Georgian home in the midst of Wiltshire countryside, Scotford encourages journalists to hear his story, including his detailed re-telling
of specific acts of alleged abuse, and to listen to an Ansaphone tape recording of his daughter shouting at him and demanding that he leave her alone. The tape is
played as evidence that his daughter is hysterical. Scotford admits, however, that she is protesting against his bombardment with false memory material.
Scotford went public after private encounters with his daughters. His campaign houses around 800 files from accused adults. He claims these are all false memory
cases. However, a random reading of the files reveals something rather different: simply letters from accused adults protesting their innocence.
The British Psychological Society, fearful that bad therapy might be yielding a crop of "false memories", went to work on Scotford's files and discovered that
three-quarters contained no reference to "recovered memory". Those that did included no references to how memories had been retrieved. The rest are merely adults denying allegations of abuse: many files were "sketchy", others were just notes of telephone
The BPS then canvassed the professional community and found that a fifth reported recovered memories of abuse after amnesia - but before seeing any therapists. Even more, a third, had clients who recovered memories of other traumatic experiences.
Concerned with the impact of the debate on services for abused adults and children, NCH - Action for Children, one of Britain's big children's charities, conducted its own research among clients and found that fewer than 10 per cent had ever forgotten. The issue, then, is not so much forgetting as remembering.
Where did this leave the debate? Like Roger Scotford, Mark Prendergast has been accused by his own daughters. His reply to them is this book. The book is
not about false memory: it does not show how this misty process is supposed to happen. It isn't a journalistic investigation, it doesn't give both sides
of an argument - indeed you would not know there was a debate at all from this book. Its thesis is less concerned with false memory as such than the cultural
revolution that has allowed the abuse of children to become knowable.
Prendergast's target is everyone who has revealed childhood abuse: there isn't as much sexual abuse as the survivor movements say there is; there's no such thing as repression or traumatic amnesia; and in any case its effects aren't so bad after all.