Responding to recent reporting on "false memories"

The Australian newspaper has run a series of articles over the last few months questioning the credibility of adults who allege sexual abuse in childhood. These articles have been based on misinformed beliefs about the science of trauma and memory. With two colleagues, I authored a response piece that was published in the weekend edition of the paper.

Reporting Revives Bad Memories of Contentious Theories
Warwick Middleton, Martin Dorahy & Michael Salter
The Weekend Australian, 14-15 October 2017, p.22.

Recent reporting by Richard Guilliatt has raised questions about the credibility of adults reporting child sexual abuse (`Those Events Never Happened', The Weekend Australian Magazine, October 4-5). Underlying these articles has been a sense of unease or outrage about the accuracy of memories of severe abuse being retrieved after a period of being forgotten by some traumatized individuals.

Reading these articles, there is the feeling that we have stepped back into the previous century, before science had a solid understanding of the effects of trauma on memory. The early-to-mid 1990s saw the creation of terms like ‘recovered memory therapy’ to characterize mental health care for sexually abused people as stirring up false memories of traumatic events.

Activists promoting this view lobbied the Victorian Health Minister of the time, Bronwyn Pike, into launching an inquiry examining the extent "recovered memory therapy” was practiced in Victoria. The inquiry reported in 2005, finding that the term was not used by health professionals but was being used by lobby groups for political purposes.

In the more than two decades that have passed since activists first coined the term “recovered memory therapy”, the link between trauma and amnesia has been settled by science. Amnesia for trauma occurs across the spectrum – from soldiers participating in combat, to disaster survivors, to those who kill in “crimes of passion”, to the victims of child abuse.

While memories of trauma can return in therapy, they are more likely to arise in other situations. Chance encounters with people from one’s past, or watching movies or television programs, can trigger the emergence of what were previously inaccessible memories of abuse. Generally, recovered memories of trauma are about as accurate as memories that have been held continually. Both are thus equivalently inaccurate.

Revisiting old controversies about “recovered memories” risks obscuring what the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual abuse has established beyond doubt. Multiple institutions provided the necessary conditions for child sexual abuse to occur, with negligible likelihood that anyone in authority would take decisive action to protect children. Amnesia has been a common way for victims of institutional abuse to cope with such traumatic experiences.

On February 22, Australians witnessed an unusual event. Five Catholic bishops (one facing charges of failing to report child abuse allegations) representing the Australian-based institution associated with the sexual abuses of more children than any other, attended the Royal Commission to reflect on their collective failure. Bishop Anthony Fisher put it succinctly; “It was a kind of criminal negligence to [not] deal with some of the problems that were staring us in the face.”

A documented case from the royal commission poignantly demonstrates the phenomena of abuse-related amnesia. Philippe Vincent Trutmann, who was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison in 2005, confessed to sexually abusing Geelong Grammar student Luke Benson 30 to 40 times over a two-year period. Mr Benson had been asked to attend Prahran police station in 2005. But Mr. Benson, who remembers Trutmann as a “father figure,” testified that he has no recollection of the abuse despite being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Ross Cheit of Brown University in the US maintains a substantial website archiving corroborated cases of individuals who have recovered such memories.

Revelations about the sexual offences of entertainers such as Gary Glitter, Jimmy Savile and Robert Hughes show offenders often hide behind a cover of respected celebrity. Recent examples of prominent trusted Australian individuals being convicted of child sex crimes include child psychiatrist Dr Aaron Voon, IVF geneticist Michael Quin and singer, Rolf Harris. Personable South Australian child welfare worker, Shannon McCoole led a breath-taking double life as the head administrator of the world’s biggest paedophile network, a 45,403-member website.

Child sexual abuse is pervasive and unsettling. Abuse is a frequent cause of harm, but individual offences are often difficult to prove to a criminal standard. One resolution to this ambiguity is to hold the victim, not the offender, responsible. Social psychologists have studied for many years the tendency within human beings to blame the victims, question their motives, or attack their credibility. Here we deny the data, or reinterpret it, and denigrate or blame the victim to reduce the discomfort caused by facing the reality that innocent people are intentionally hurt by others.

A recent large-scale review by psychology professors Chris Brewin and Bernice Andrews of the studies exploring the creation of false memories in research laboratory settings concluded that the creation of false memories of childhood events has been exaggerated. Interestingly, the authors were attacked in commentaries that misrepresented their ideas and made erroneous claims about their review. Scientific data does not support the proposition that false memories of child sexual abuse can be routinely and easily created. However, this belief has become an item of faith for those unable, or unwilling, to face the uncomfortable reality of adult cruelty to children.

We still have much to learn about child abuse, trauma and memory. Excellent clinical guidelines for the treatment of complex trauma have been published by the Blue Knot Foundation, which are cited internationally as best practice. However, the evidence base remains incomplete. How sexual abuse interferes with memory, and the most effective ways of treating victims of child abuse, are the subjects of ongoing research around the world.

In the meantime, the media is a vital partner in the distribution of accurate information about child abuse and promoting child wellbeing and safety.

Reanimating settled controversies from the 1990s sows doubt where there is comprehension, and fails to keep pace with vital developments in the field. At worst, it risks promoting misinformation that compromises children’s safety and it blights the lives of survivors of child abuse.