The New Victims of Sex Abuse

Sydney Morning Herald, October 10, 1993

Denis Dutton

The very idea of child sexual abuse provokes deep passions. On the one side, there stands a profound impulse to protect vulnerable children from hideous crimes. Such feelings represent the best part of human nature, but they can bring out the worst part as well: panic reactions that amount to little more than witch-hunts, with blameless families broken up (as in Britain) and innocent parents and child-care workers languishing in prison (in the United States). Even if acquitted, victims’ lives are left in tatters (as the women in the Christchurch Civic Creche case have asserted).

The stark reality and horror of child abuse, as the social psychologist Carol Tavris has pointed out, is such that considerable throat-clearing is required to raise even the slightest scepticism about its diagnosis and treatment. Yet a failure critically to examine the more extreme claims of what she calls the “sex abuse industry” has created a whole new class of victims.

Consider the case of a retired Royal Navy officer summoned not long ago by his 28-year-old daughter to her London flat. Sitting lotus position, “Joanna,” the name given her by the Independent reporter who investigated the story, read him a statement describing how he had had tickled her clitoris and stuck pencils in her vagina when she was less than a year old. At eight years old he had supposedly raped her orally and anally.

Later Joanna “remembered” being molested by her grandfather and taken to a meeting where a baby was killed and men forced anal intercourse on her. With supporting letters from her therapist, she was now demanding 70,000 compensation from her father. He has refused and she has severed links with him, except for messages of swearing rage she leaves on his answering machine. These still reduce him to tears.

Joanna is not a victim of sex abuse, but rather has succumbed to the most vicious therapeutic trend of recent years. She is suffering from False Memory Syndrome, having been wrongly convinced by her therapist that she is an incest victim.

A typical case such as Joanna’s begins when a client seeks counselling for a problem such as headaches or depression. Her (or his) therapist, persuaded by books such as The Courage to Heal by Bass and Davis, or Beverly Engel’s Right to Innocence, has adopted the doctrine that undetected childhood sex abuse causes many psychological malaises. The memory of abuse, these authors argue, is often repressed and unknown to the patient.

Confronted with the “reason” for her problems, the patient initially recoils in disbelief, but to the therapist such denial is further proof that the sexual abuse is real. Using hypnosis, the therapist urges the patient to recall the abuse, and by a process of suggestion and leading questions both become convinced something terrible happened in her childhood. This in turn explains what is wrong in her life now.

Often the pseudomemories created in these sessions are revolting in their ugly detail. But sometimes they are based on definitions of sexual abuse so elastic they encourage clients to feel that anything their parent did they didn’t like was abuse. Beverly Engel disliked the way her mother would give her a “wet” kiss or walk in on her in the bathroom: “It was not until recently that I came to terms with my mother’s behavior and saw it for what it really was — sexual abuse.” In this climate of victim-worship, every annoyance or slight the mind can create or remember is elevated into a lasting grievance against parents.

Repeated sessions “clarify” the traumatic memories, which are nothing more than fantasies based on the therapist’s doctrines and line of questioning. To the vulnerable patient, however, it is all vividly real, and the establishment of a False Memory Syndrome is complete. The patient may take great consolation in procedure, discovering the reason for her current symptoms and achieving the status of victim/survivor. Certain of her condition, she confronts her stunned and bewildered mother and father, perhaps suing or demanding they be jailed. Though her family ties have been damaged irreparably, she now enjoys the care and love of her therapist and fellow-survivors. (The therapeutic process may take time, however: one woman who subsequently sued her father had finally “remembered” his molestation in her thirty-second therapy session!)

For students of the paranormal, this all has a familiar ring. A decade ago many people came to believe aliens were kidnapping ordinary citizens from their beds at night. Awakened by a blinding light, abduction victims were levitated out of the window by peculiar little beings with gray skin and large, black, Modigliani eyes. Once in the aliens’ flying saucer, horrible medical experiments were performed on them, and women abductees were impregnated with alien embryos.

Most abduction “survivors” only understood their experiences after they had received attention from “expert ”therapists trained (by reading the right books) to recognise the symptoms of UFO abduction. In fact, the same structure of practice and belief underlies both the misguided forms of the incest/sex abuse industries and the UFO abduction industry. Patients suffering psychological distress are treated by therapists ideologically predisposed to a single cause for most of life’s difficulties.

There is a crucial difference, however, between narratives of UFO abduction and fantasised sex abuse. The aliens aren’t on hand to be sued or thrown in jail. But Mum and Dad, if they’re still in the neighbourhood, make perfect targets. Of course, sexual abuse is a demonstrably real crime. But in our anxiety about it we must not create a whole new class of victims: parents and family members falsely accused of sex abuse by younger people suffering from FMS.

The key delusion on which FMS is founded is the notion that traumatic memories are often “repressed” and can be recovered decades later by hypnosis. There is no evidence whatsoever for general repression of major life-events, and certainly not for highly traumatic experiences. One study of children who had witnessed the murder of a parent showed that none had repressed the memory. Children who were in concentration camps cannot rid themselves of the memories. The question for true victims of sex abuse is not, “How can I remember it?” but rather, “How can I forget it?”

Recent psychological studies have shown how easy it is to inject false memories into people’s minds simply by asking questions (“Remember when you were little and lost in the shopping mall?”). Far from improving memory, hypnosis tends to render subjects more suggestible while making pseudomemories more vivid. The old idea, popular in the 1960s, that hypnotism can improve recall, for example enabling crime witnesses to remember briefly-glimpsed licence numbers, has by now been thoroughly tested and refuted, but it is still treated as a valid doctrine by some sex-abuse counsellors.

Little wonder then that over 4000 distraught families have so far contacted the False Memory Syndrome Foundation in Philadelphia, formed, in Martin Gardner’s description, “to combat a fast-growing epidemic of dubious therapy that is ripping thousands of families apart, scarring patients for life, and breaking the hearts of innocent relatives.” Gardner calls FMS “the mental-health crisis of the 1990s.”

False Memory Syndrome represents a threat to every loving, normal parent in Australia or New Zealand whose child might someday, encountering a rough patch in life, fall into the hands of an ideologically-driven sex-abuse therapist who accepts the myths of memory repression and hypnotic enhancement. It is up to educated, enlightened psychologists and health professionals to see that this is one fad that does not become established here. Sex abuse — a real and terrible crime — creates enough victims as it is.


University of Canterbury philosopher Denis Dutton recently delivered the annual President’s Lecture at the Christchurch School of Medicine. His remarks are extracted from that address.