The controversy over false memory syndrome flared up again yesterday with the publication of a large-scale survey of psychotherapists whose patients had recovered "lost" memories during treatment, many of alleged childhood sexual abuse.
The survey, the first of its kind, was presented to the British Psychological Society's annual conference in Edinburgh. The society said that it contradicted the claim that such memories were usually caused by the suggestion of the therapists themselves.
The British False Memory Society, however, which represents parents who say they have been wrongly accused, immediately attacked it as unscientific and hearsay evidence. The question of whether forgotten memories of childhood sexual abuse (usually by family members) can be brought back with the aid of therapy has been bitterly contested ever since the first cases emerged in the United States over the past decade. The idea of repressing memories began with Sigmund Freud who believed humans could remove unacceptable knowledge to the subconscious. However, many accused parents claim their family lives have been destroyed by fantasies planted by unscrupulous therapists in their children's minds - and the courts have given them backing. In one case, Gary Ramona, a Californian business executive, won pounds 335,000 compensation after his daughter who was undergoing regression therapy accused him of rape. Those who say they have been abused, on the other hand, argue that if it is possible for war victims to block out horrific events, why should this not be true of sexual abuse? The report, by Dr Bernice Andrews, chartered psychologist and senior lecturer at Royal Holloway College, University of London, covered 108 practising psychologists, who had nearly 700 clients with recovered memories between them, and who spoke in detail about 236 cases. The BPS yesterday suggested that three of its findings gave credence to the idea of memories recovered in therapy. The first was that in a third of the cases studied, the patients had started to recover their memories before speaking to a therapist. The second was that not all memories were about sex abuse - more than a third involved other incidents, such as cruelty. The third, said the BPS, was that "there was corroborating evidence in 41 per cent of cases." However the study admits that 41 per cent is the figure for patients who claimed there was such evidence. Only in 3 per cent of the cases, the survey says, had the therapists seen the alleged evidence for themselves. "Why has third-party hearsay evidence, collected from the very people who might be causing the problem, been given such an unwarranted accolade?" said Roger Scotford, director of the British False Memory Society. Dr Andrews replied: "If these collaborative reports are not valid, what is going on? Are they not only falsely believing they are abused, but also fantasising about collaborative evidence?" One psychologist's client claimed to have recovered a memory of being abducted by aliens. "It is likely that some of the memories are false," said Dr Andrews. "However, it is very likely that many of them do correspond to actual events. …