'Recovered memory' tide is turning                                                                                                                [Next]

Donna Laframboise. National Post. Don Mills, Ont.: Sep 19, 2000. pg. A.19


After four years of investigation, Nova Scotia police released a report last week that concludes many of the abuse allegations leveled against employees of juvenile detention centres "appear to be concocted [and] contain blatant falsehoods and gross exaggerations."


While regrettable, the reason police have been forced to come to such a conclusion isn't difficult to fathom: In that province alone, $56-million in compensation has been available virtually for the asking. To qualify for a share of this money, claimants were required to do nothing more than relate a story of long ago abuse.


Lawyers acting on behalf of these claimants vigorously resisted the suggestion that they be required to pass lie detector tests. Nor were they cross-examined. Indeed, compensation cheques were issued and cashed well before many of the employees accused of all manner of crimes had the slightest opportunity to respond.


There's no question some residents of government-run facilities were maltreated as far back as the 1940s, and that attempts should be made to assist such people in overcoming the long-term damage. But it's also true that money, public sympathy and media attention provide huge incentives for people to fabricate horrific tales that never, in fact, occurred.


After a number of years in which it has been verboten to question the veracity of abuse claims on the grounds that doing so "revictimizes the victim," the tide has finally begun to turn. In addition to the Nova Scotia report, a new introduction to a classic book on incest is also breaking ground.


The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women, first appeared in 1986. Written by American feminist researcher Diana Russell, it reports on a survey of 930 randomly selected San Francisco women interviewed in 1978. As Ms. Russell points out, the widely accepted view that one in three females experience sexual abuse during their childhood can be traced back to this book.


(What's less well understood is that Ms. Russell considers obscene phone calls sexual abuse, and classifies a single stolen kiss on the cheek by an intoxicated older cousin as incest.)


The introduction Ms. Russell wrote for the new edition of The Secret Trauma demonstrates that even hardline feminists have woken up to the fact that many claims of abuse are simply untrue. In her view, "a high percentage of memories [of abuse] recovered in therapy and outside of it are false." Moreover, she believes therapists who have encouraged their mostly female patients to recover these non-memories have employed "outrageous" and coercive practices that have caused "immense suffering."


Ms. Russell's change of heart is due largely to the striking differences between the abuse scenarios reported by the women in her 1978 study and those of women who retrieved "memories" of abuse they later became convinced never happened. (Such women are known as "retractors.")


While only 5% of the incest perpetrators in the 1978 study were fathers, retractors almost always accused their fathers of abusing them. While only 3% of the incest described by the 1978 women involved more than one relative, in Ms. Russell's words, the assaults described by the retractors "almost always involve multiple perpetrators." While less than one in 10 incidents described in the 1978 study involved penile/vaginal penetration, retractors typically remembered being "raped."


None of the women interviewed in 1978 said they'd been abused by Satanic cults, and none reported developing multiple personalities. Yet both these elements are common among those whose abuse memories were recovered.


Ms. Russell's contention that therapists, rather than feminists, bear primary responsibility for the tens of thousand of families shattered by recovered memory therapy conveniently overlooks the fact that a 1993 Ms. magazine cover story declared: "Believe it! Cult ritual abuse exists!"


It also ignores the fact that Gloria Steinem narrated a 1993 documentary film about three multiple personality sufferers who'd apparently developed this condition as a result of childhood sex abuse. (The film includes a scene in which a young woman is strapped to a bed in a psychiatric hospital and administered sodium amytal -- a scientifically discredited "truth serum" -- to help her "remember" childhood sexual abuse.)


But never mind. The important point is that Ms. Russell's new views indicate that, even among feminist anti-violence researchers, there's a growing recognition that not everyone who claims to have been abused is, in fact, a bona fide victim.