Return to Salem
"Bijan Ebrahimi, a keen gardener – a quiet, disabled man whose only joys in life came from his horticultural interests and his cat – took pictures of local youths as they attacked his plants and intended to hand the photographs to police as evidence. But instead officers were called when he was seen with the camera and he was led away for questioning as residents chanted ‘paedo, paedo’. Officers realized their mistake at the police station and he was released, but rumours had already begun circulating that he was a child abuser and two days later he was beaten unconscious, dragged into the street and set on fire.
(Daily Telegraph 3.11.13)
The proliferation of historic allegations of sexual abuse following the outbreak of a scandal about the late Jimmy Savile in October 2012 is extraordinary, even by the standard of historic abuse claims. These originated in the USA in the 1980s, and have continued relentlessly ever since in English-speaking countries round the world. The abiding theme of these claims is one of childhood innocence violated, and trust betrayed. The public reaction to the revelation of such abuse is, predictably, one of shock and outrage, coupled with a demand for retribution and reparation.
When American feminist campaigners began to draw attention to the gross minimizing (as they saw it) of the problems of rape and intra-familial sexual abuse in the 1970s and 1980s, they used the technique of personal testimony. In the nineteenth century, this was a popular device deployed both by the antislavery movement, and by Christian revivalist movements, to promote their cause. Such ‘speaking out’ is characterized by highly emotive and graphic content, designed to shock the listener into horrified acceptance.
This rhetorical technique was not without its critics, sensitive to what nowadays we would call the pornography of misery. In 1855, a reviewer for The Athenaeum of John Brown’s Slave Life in Georgia remarked: ‘we scarcely see how the public is to be instructed by repetitious accounts so piteous and so harrowing’.
In 1971, a social worker named Florence Rush electrified the NYRF Rape Conference with her account of childhood molestation. This was second wave feminism’s equivalent to Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech, though what Rush described was more of a nightmare.
She concluded: sexual abuse of children...is an unspoken but prominent factor in socializing and preparing the female to accept a subordinate role: to feel guilty, ashamed, and to tolerate through fear, the power exercised over her by men.
Rush’s speech proved enormously influential on a generation of activists, who portrayed the nuclear family as a toxic arena of male-on-female abuse. The feminist construction of sexual violence also drew on trends in psychiatry, putting victims of rape and incest on a par with Holocaust survivors and victims of torture. They actively promoted the idea of rape as psychic trauma, causing a kind of disintegration of the self, with ensuing lifelong problems. Anti-Vietnam war activists, and the German psychiatrist William Niederland, persuaded the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Committee to introduce the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 1978. Feminist thinkers like the psychiatrist Judith Herman appropriated this concept over the next decade.
The practical problem US feminists faced was how to reconcile their claim that rape and sexual abuse were widespread, with an apparent dearth of traumatised victims. With evangelical zeal, they set about promoting a collective story. ‘Speak-outs’ on rape and incest resulted in the publication of memoirs like Kiss Daddy Goodnight (1978). Feminists urged the therapeutic professions to identify and treat victims, and the wider population to identify victims in need of help, with the aid of television and other media. Researchers claimed that one in three women were sexually abused as children. By the 1980s, Harrington notes, first person survivor testimonies were ubiquitous and stylised – as, indeed, they remain today.
The recovery movement’s Bible is a lengthy self-help manual written by two teachers of creative writing, a poet, Ellen Bass, and her student, Laura Davis, in 1988: The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. Neither of its authors had any background in science or psychology. They developed the book as a result of creative writing classes and self-help workshops that they organized. It is interspersed with seemingly firsthand accounts of abuse, often in lurid and disturbing detail. How much of these accounts is really ‘creative writing’ is a matter for speculation.
The book starts with a list of examples of abuse, followed by the assurance: ‘If you are unable to remember any specific instances likes the ones mentioned above but still have a feeling that something abusive happened to you, it probably did.’ A section headed BUT I DON’T HAVE ANY MEMORIES says comfortingly: ‘…you are not alone. Many women don’t have memories, and some never get memories. This doesn’t mean they weren’t abused.’ A chapter headed BELIEVING IT HAPPENED states:
‘To heal from child sexual abuse you must believe that you were a victim, that the abuse really did take place (italics added).’
This insistence on belief, as the precondition for healing, echoes evangelical Christian tradition. It even accepts the reality of Satanic abuse: ‘Society has got to stop denying.’
The process by which multiple memories emerge over time appears from one survivor’s account:
'The more I worked on the abuse, the more I remembered. First I remembered my brother, and then my grand-father. About six months after that I remembered my father. And then about a year later, I remembered my mother. I remembered the ‘easiest’ first and the ‘hardest’ last. Even though it was traumatic for me to realize that everyone in my family abused me, there was something reassuring about it…. My life suddenly made sense.'
This book spawned imitations worldwide. It has been roundly criticised as virulently anti-men, for encouraging false memories, and doing more harm than good. The popularized notion of recovered memory led to an outbreak of accusations by adult daughters against their parents, alleging often horrific childhood abuse. This in turn generated a rash of lawsuits, as well as bizarre accusations of Satanic ritual abuse of children at day-care nurseries, some of which resulted in successful prosecutions. To explain the delay that often ensued before accusations surfaced, psychiatrists argued that the trauma of childhood abuse led to amnesia, or dissociative memories, or even the outlandish notion of multiple personality disorder.
A counter-movement emerged, asserting that so-called recovered memories were in fact false memories implanted by ideologically driven therapists in vulnerable and suggestible clients. A variant on this hypothesis was that women sought therapy to confirm their wish to believe in prior abuse.
In 2003 Richard McNally, a Harvard professor of Psychology, conclusively demonstrated that trauma does not result in repressed memory or amnesia. ‘What we have here is a set of theories in search of a phenomenon,’ he wrote. He also demonstrated how easy it is to create false memories of horrific trauma. As the ‘strange saga of satanic ritual abuse’ shows, McNally’s work remains the gold standard in this area. His colleague, Susan Clancy, was pilloried after she did laboratory research to test the susceptibility to false-memory creation of those who said they had been sexually abused.
Clancy was then invited to undertake research on the validity of memories in those who believed that they had been abducted by aliens. Her conclusion: ‘Do our beliefs have narrative truth? Do they provide us with meaning and value? When people believe they were abducted by aliens, does this help them to understand perplexing or upsetting aspects of their lives? If so, the explanation is likely to be persuasive, satisfying, and resistant to argument (italics in original).’ A key function of such ‘magical beliefs,’ she argues, is the way in which they absolve people of responsibility for personal distress.
Later, Clancy wrote The Trauma Myth, which sparked further controversy. In it, she reiterates what many commentators had already accepted, that much child sexual abuse does not involve the use of force or violence, making the imposition of a PTSD framework inappropriate. The attraction of the trauma model has more to do with the horrified reactions of those receiving accounts of abuse, than with the experiences of those who have been abused. Instead, listeners project their own feelings of moral and even psychological revulsion onto victims.
It’s disturbing to think that in the UK justice system, the trauma model still holds primacy in sexual abuse cases: it is treated as the received wisdom on the subject. This needs to change, and change urgently. The naïve literalism with which claims of historic abuse are received also needs to change. Casting out inner demons is the proper province of the confessional or the consulting room, and not of our criminal courts.
Barbara Hewson is a barrister practising in Lincoln’s Inn"
Monday, November 24, 2014
Retro Report: The Film That Birthed Multiple Personality Disorder
"Sybil," which sold 6 million copies, led to the official recognition of multiple personality disorder by the DSM and sparked thousands of diagnoses of the disorder in the 1980s.
But the techniques Dr. Wilbur used to elicit her patient's testimony were questionable, and today, multiple personality disorder, now called dissociative identity disorder, is no longer a legitimate diagnosis.
NOV. 23, 2014
Debate Persists Over Diagnosing Mental Health Disorders, Long After ‘Sybil’
"Overwhelmingly, those receiving a diagnosis of the disorder have been
women. They typically had rough childhoods. A pattern to their stories —
Ms. Mason fell squarely within it — was that they endured horrific
physical and sexual abuse when they were little
More than a few claimed
to have been the victims of torture at the hands of satanic cults.
many cases, their memories were brought to the surface through hypnotism
or with injections of so-called truth serums like sodium pentothal. But
were those recollections real?"