Friday, 17 March 2006

Peeling away a therapy onion.

by Bettina Arndt
Herald-Sun, Melbourne
17 mar 2006

Last year a Sydney mother, father and grandmother were awarded $165,000 in damages for wrongful arrest following allegations of sexual abuse by one of their daughters. The case was a classic, with a daughter alleging she’d been forced by these relatives to participate in all sorts of wild, sexual rituals involving animals, blood and menstrual fluid, horrific abortions and adults dressed in hooded black garments.

The committal hearings showed the daughter’s “memories” of these extraordinary happenings emerged as a result of 40 sessions with a therapist whose core business is digging for hidden evidence of abuse. Human memory is like an onion ring, he told the Court – “one peels away the layers of memory until the core is revealed.” Here was a clear case of recovered memory, with the therapist freely admitting his therapy aimed to peel the onion.

Onion peeling is on the nose. Around the world professional organizations warn of the risks of relying on memories emerging in therapy, particularly when hypnosis and dubious techniques such as bodywork or rebirthing are used to prompt these so-called recollections. Therapists have been sued, professionals struck off with legal cases highlighting the immense damage caused when false memories lead to accusations of abuse. Yet still it goes on. There are still shonky, so-called “therapists” causing havoc in the lives of families by assuming sexual abuse underlies all manner of psychological disturbance and using suggestive techniques to seek the proof. Few now admit to performing “recovered memory therapy” (RMT) since this type of therapy has fallen into disrepute but the results are the same. Walks like a duck, quacks like a duck…

It was seen as a major victory for these families when eighteen months ago the Victorian government called an enquiry into RMT. Last week the Health Services Commissioner released their report. The result is disappointing. The report denies there is any ongoing issue with this type of therapy and fudges relevant research findings – although it makes some important recommendations urging professional bodies to properly address issues of training and professional practice.

When the Victorian report discusses the recent NSW Supreme case, it fails to mention all the evidence which emerged in the committal hearings and claims the case had nothing to do with RMT. In a neat piece of bureaucratic double-speak, the report uses a narrow definition of RMT to suggest there’s no evidence this type of therapy is being used at all in Victoria - ignoring the fact that there are still plenty of therapists committed to the search for forgotten memories of sexual abuse. The results of their handy work is seen in the regular trickle of Australian sexual abuse cases which turn out to be based on false memories – cases being thrown out of court by judges now well-informed about the dangers of this therapeutic muck-racking.

Dr Elizabeth Loftus, - recently named as one the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century – is one of a group of academics who have attacked this one-sided report. In a letter to the inquiry, the academics point out the report’s literature review  distorts the vast body of research which has failed to provide any solid evidence that memories can be repressed and then recovered – research which shows traumatic events are highly memorable and seldom, if ever, forgotten.

What’s going on here? Those conducting the Victorian enquiry seem to have been swayed by vigorous objections of people working with victims of sexual abuse who interpret any doubts about repressed memory as an attack on their work and the victims they are trying to help. But this is madness. Surely it is possible to acknowledge the worrying prevalence of sexual abuse and the appalling toll it takes on its victims while properly using scientific research to inform the public about the likelihood of memories being real or created. The community needs to be warned of the dangers of therapy which aims to discover memories of abuse, in the absence of any other evidence this has taken place. The inquiry was an important step towards acknowledging the tragic effects on families of false accusations spawned by this therapy - but the results fall sadly short. "

Complete text reproduced with permission of the author.

No comments:

Post a Comment