Memory

From Lisa Appignanesi's Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present, published by Virago.

www.littlebrown.co.uk

Abuse, truth and recovery

Being alive as a woman at the end of the 20th century meant to be an incest survivor. In 1991 Oprah Winfrey, as well as former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur and the famous television comedienne Roseanne Barr Arnold, shared their abused pasts with the world. Time magazine reported: "'It's the secret that's been killing me my whole life,' Arnold, 38, says. 'I feel like screaming; I feel like running; I struggle hard not to forget again.'... And for every celebrity who has gone public, thousands of ordinary people have found the courage to confront their own pain, tell others about it and seek help."

Help, of course, means help from the therapeutic professions which had no little hand in constructing the illogicality of a killing secret so terrible one struggles not to forget it. Everywhere vulnerable people woke up to the possibility that their ailments, discomforts and failures, their sense that something was wrong, had a cause in a secret they had forgotten. A sizeable industry of therapists, psychologists, counsellors and social workers was at hand to diagnose, root out, suggest or simply cue repressed memories of abuse in their clients. They did so through any combination of hypnosis, journal-keeping, "guided imagery" (a programme of guided thoughts and suggestions), dreamwork and the truth drug sodium amytal. The movement had its ambulance-chasing lawyers primed to sue accused parents at the first rush of memory. And as the abused took the accused family members to court for "reparations", in high-profile cases which by 1994 had topped the three-hundred mark and included murder and satanic abuse charges, a backlash set in.

The turning point may have come around 1988 when in Olympia, Washington, Paul Ingram, a sheriff's deputy who belonged to a religious group, the Church of the Living Water, which actively believed in Satan, confessed to child abuse and to murdering twenty-five children in satanic rituals. The case was brought by his daughters Erica and Julia, who recalled the abuse by their father and his poker friends, from when Erica was five until she left home. Ingram's recollections of his wildly abusive past came during intensive interrogation. He was persuaded that he suffered from multiple personality disorder and so couldn't at first remember the events. He confessed to a series of horrendous charges and was jailed, only later to withdraw his confession. This wasn't accepted, despite the reports of memory experts which showed that his original testimony had nothing to do with remembering. Ingram served fourteen years in prison. Investigated by Lawrence Wright, the Olympia story was published in the New Yorker in 1994 and fed the backlash, which by then included cases against therapists.

Melody Gavigan, thirty-nine, a computer expert from California, checked into a local psychiatric hospital. She was severely depressed and needed help. During her five weeks of treatment, a family and marriage counsellor suggested that her depression stemmed from childhood incest. Desperate for any answers, Gavigan took the cue and started writing her journal of emerging memories. As Time magazine reported on 29 November 1993: "She told about running into the yard after being raped in the bathroom. She incorporated into another lurid rape scene an actual girlhood incident, in which she had dislocated a shoulder. She went on to recall being molested by her father when she was only a year old – as her diapers were being changed – and sodomized by him at five." On her therapist's advice, Gavigan confronted her father with her accusations. She broke off relations with her family, moved away and formed an incest survivors' group. More memories came. Something in the college psychology course she had signed up for, however, made her sceptical of what she had "recovered" and she concluded her memories were false. She filed a suit against the psychiatric hospital for the pain she and her family had suffered.

The "memory wars" were well under way. Where therapy was hailed as salvation, it was also now under attack, sometimes by patients, sometimes by theoreticians, sometimes by accused parents who banded together in America in the False Memory Syndrome Foundation early in 1992, and in the British False Memory Society. The new memory scientists – a grouping which included cognitive psychologists, biochemists, neuroscientists and the new brain imagers – came together to dispute therapists' recovered-memory findings. They argued that memories decayed, could easily be changed by suggestion or wish, and made to feel real by repetition. Freud's name was bandied about by both sides: either he was responsible for having abandoned his original hypothesis that really occurring and later forgotten childhood seduction was a trigger to hysteria or, as the philosopher of repression and the unconscious, he was responsible for the entire package of recovered memory, with its real or therapy-induced rememberings.

Memory had become the fin-de-siècle's favourite conceptual cluster, and the memory of abuse could be recovered or invented to create an identity. In the "decade of the brain", it had a great many investment dollars to nourish it.

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