dinsdag, oktober 03, 2017
Attacks on the credibility of abuse survivors are not justified by research. New science of trauma and memory has shown that the assertions of ‘false memory’ advocates are exaggerated
For a quarter of a century, the concept of “false memories” has provided a scientific fig leaf for sceptics of child sexual abuse allegations.
The “false memory” argument is deceptively simple: children and adults are prone to invent false memories of child sexual abuse that never occurred, particularly if encouraged by a therapist or some other authority figure.
So-called “recovered memories”, in which adults recall sexual abuse in childhood after a period of amnesia, have been a particular focus of disbelief.
In fact, scientific studies find that children are far less suggestible than we have been led to believe. Brain imaging studies have identified the neurological mechanisms involved in the process of forgetting and then recalling sexual abuse as an adult.
Delayed disclosure and amnesia are now understood as normal coping mechanisms in response to abuse.
However, for those uncomfortable with the social and legal reforms required to address child sexual abuse, the idea that large numbers of allegations are the product of “false memories” remains attractive.
This argument underpins recent reporting in the Australian, which has called into question the findings of the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse, on the basis that sexual abuse survivor testimony cannot be trusted.
Two lengthy articles have raised doubts about the recent prosecution of a mother and father for the prolonged sadistic abuse of their daughter, and challenged the trauma history of anti-abuse campaigner Dr Cathy Kezelman.
This reporting links therapy to the spectres of false memories and false allegations. The implication is that any child or adult who makes allegations of abuse after receiving mental health care may be suffering from therapy-induced delusions.
The “false memory” argument arose in the early 1990s. During this period, adults began pursuing criminal and civil actions for sexual abuse in childhood in large numbers. These legal proceedings were complex, since the alleged offences had often taken place decades ago. Many adults had sought mental health care for the effects of abuse prior to court action.
In response, people accused of abuse claimed that therapy was the cause of the abuse allegations. They paid psychology academics to testify in court about the fallibility and suggestibility of memory. Their theories of “false memories” were widely covered in the mass media by journalists who were dubious of the sudden increase in reports and prosecution of sexual abuse.
Of course, no memory is a pristine record of facts. From the moment it is produced, memory is shaped by interpretation as much as experience, and the meaning and availability of any given memory changes over time.
However, the new science of trauma and memory has shown that the assertions of “false memory” advocates were exaggerated.
Overwhelming experiences of abuse are encoded differently in the brain than other memories, and can produce amnesia and forgetting. My research has found that many perpetrators of severe abuse deliberately traumatise children in order to take advantage of this mechanism and prevent victims from disclosing.
It is vital that abused children and adults receive therapeutic support to address the psychological changes caused by sexual abuse, and their testimony should be taken seriously by law enforcement and the criminal courts.
Nonetheless, the imperative to deny and suppress these allegations is as strong as ever. Sexual abuse is a crime of the status quo. Offenders get away with abuse because they are camouflaged within their legitimate roles (as parents, relatives, friends, clergy, teachers and so on) in the lives of children.
As a result, allegations of sexual abuse are always a challenge to authority, revealing the weaknesses and failings of treasured social institutions.