Victims of Memory

Roger Sandell and John Rimmer
Magonia 53, August 1995

Like many other parents in Britain and the USA in the past decade Mark Pendergrast has been accused of child abuse on the basis of recovered memories. However he is a professional non-fiction writer, and instead of writing a 'personal testament' or confronting his accusers on a TV talk-show, he has written a wide-ranging survey of the whole phenomenon. [1]

Recently a number of sceptical books have appeared in the USA on the subject of recovered memories, some academic, some popular in approach. Pendergrast's however scores over all the others by the breadth of his social and historical perspective. Seeking the origins of, and analogies for, recovered memory stories he touches on many topics of interest to Magonia readers, including UFO abductions, reincarnation claims, Satanic cults, urban legends, hypnotism, 'bedroom visitor' stories and the witch mania.
Many matters dealt with in this book were new to me. There is a section on 'facilitated communication, a technique alleged to assist autistic children to communicate by holding their hands over a keyboard and picking out characters. The technique has obvious analogies with Ouija boards and the experiments conducted earlier in the twentieth century in which animals were alleged to be capable of producing messages by picking out letter cards. When a high proportion of 'facilitated communications' turn out to be allegations of abuse, further experiments produced clear evidence of subconscious cueing by the facilitators.
Even more bizarre are the claims of multiple-personality disorder (MPD). According to MPD specialists victims of abuse become so traumatised that they distance themselves by splitting into separate personalities, which lie dormant and can be recovered by therapists. Some patients turn out to have a hundred or more personalities, who like American TV wrestlers seem to each have one stereotyped characteristic, and answer to names such as 'The Zombie' and 'Mean Joe Green'. Some therapists think the Satanists deliberately induce MPD so that their victims will carry out activities which they will not remember afterwards, such as murder, gun-running or prostitution. Others think it is the CIA, Mafia or Ku Klux Klan that are responsible. Pendergrast notes the similarity of all this to older demonic possession traditions, but does not note its closest parallel with another contemporary American fad, channelling or claiming to be the voice of some dead figure dispensing cryptic wisdom.
To the best of my knowledge MPD has not, at least so far, been a feature of British recovered memory or Satanic abuse cases, a pretty clear indication of its status as a purely cultural artifact. Its origins probably lie in images from film versions oof Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde and similar stories. One wonders if the popular misuse of the term 'schizophrenia' has contributed. This word, literally meaning 'split mind' is often misunderstood to mean having two minds rather than simply meaning 'shattered mind' (it is slightly regrettable that Pendergrast himself uses the term in the incorrect colloquial sense).
These beliefs are not confined to an occultist influenced fringe, but are signs that psychiatry in the U.S.A. is widely affected by what may be a terminal climate of irrationality 
Pendergrast makes it clear that such beliefs as recovered memory are part of a wider climate of irrational therapy. Some therapist believe that their patients have been traumatised by sex abuse in past lives (a development that Peter Rogerson predicted in an earlier Magonia). Others believe that traumas can be traced to memories of experiences while in the womb (a belief that formed the basis of L Ran Hubbard's pseudo-science of Dianetics in the 1950s).
These beliefs arc not confined to an occultist influenced fringe, but are signs that psychiatry in the U.S.A. is widely affected by what may be a terminal climate of irrationality. One study suggests that about a quarter of qualified therapists accept the validity of past-life regression tales. Other qualified psychiatrists have written books endorsing belief in demonic possession and exorcism, and containing accounts of 'recovered' memories of early embryonic stages of development.
After this over-all survey, Pendergrast devotes a major section of his book to interviews with therapists, accused and accusers. This is a grim section, but comic relief comes in an interview with a therapist who not only deals with abuse memories, past lives and UFO abductions, but pregresses her patients into their future lives. Pendergrast may of course be accused of deliberately seeking those who can be held up to ridicule, but my own reading elsewhere supports his claim that, if he had wished to do so, he could have found far more bizarre therapists than those he actually quotes.
Particularly interesting are the interviews with 'retractors', the increasingly large group who have repudiated earlier allegations and now, like the accusers, seem to be forming a quasi-religious group with its own networks, counsellors and personal testimonies. One wonders perhaps whether some of the retractors may be over-keen to emphasis the part played by their therapists in the emergence of their stories, and to minimise their own responsibility. As with the stories of the accused and accusers it seems best to suspend judgement on a number of aspects of these cases where more detailed information is not available.
One quoted retractor, in particular, makes serious accusations against a therapist and the most that can be said is that some recent cases Pendergrast relates of scandals involving therapists mean that this story is not necessarily implausible. (When, one wonders, are the first retractor UFO abductees going to appear?)
Pendergrast then looks at the history of psychology, seeking the background to these allegations. He finds many historical parallels 18th and 19th century beliefs in imaginary mental ailments and bizarre treatments. Sigmund Freud emerges from this section as one very much influenced by some of these ideas, and his heritage has meant that their influence has lasted to the present day.
Pendergrast's examination of the social roots of the child abuse panic highlight the part played by specific factors such as the interactions between private medicine and the U.S. insurance companies that provide a major source of income for therapists, and wider issues such as current obsessions with victim status and the drive to pathologise an increasingly wide range of human behaviour under terms such as 'co-dependency', 'emotional incest' or 'sex addiction'.
Of particular interest is the section of 'survivorship as religion', which sees many forms of therapy as amounting to a quasi-religious movement based on the worship of self, an analysis which certainly explains the apparent contradictory alliance of mental health professionals, New Agers and Christian evangelicals in the Recovery movement.
The increasing breakdown of any overall consensus on sexual morality suggests another line of analysis, in which child-abuse provides a rare example of practices that different sides in cultural wars can unite to condemn. As a historical parallel, the mediaeval persecution of the Bogomils, the first Christian heretics to be accused of worshiping the devil and participating in orgies, not only came after a similar breakdown, the rift between Greek and Roman Christianity, but occurred right in the contested territories. The 16th century disruption of Christendom preceded the witch mania which provided an issue uniting Protestants and Catholics.
One can extend the socio-political analysis of the child abuse panic in other directions. The role played by some sections of the women's movement in fuelling the panic is reminiscent of earlier social reform movements in the USA which, in the 19th and early 20th century moved from support for slave emancipation, workers' rights and universal suffrage, to supporting authoritarian measures such as Prohibition and the taking of the children of the poor into state care (an activity that was frequently attacked by early film-makers, not merely in melodramas such as D. W. Griffiths' Intolerance, but in comedies such as Charlie Chaplin's The Kid and Laurel and Hardy's Pack Up Your Troubles).
Peter Rogerson has suggested that now American youth culture has become too de-politicised and commercially dominated to express any revolt against established values, child abuse allegations have emerged as purely individual anti-parental gestures.
Pendergrast ends with a section of advice and recommendations both for individuals caught up in recovered memory cases and for legislative action. Sensible and helpful as this section is, it is hard to believe that calls for licensing of therapists will achieve much since those with genuine academic qualifications have played as dubious a part in the controversy as those with none.
My final verdict is that it is hard to recommend this book too highly. It is essential reading not merely for anyone concerned with this particular controversy but concerned about contemporary culture and society as a whole.

The Father's Tale:

Apart from whatever insight it gives into the phenomenon of false memory, and the illumination it throws on the medical, social and historical context of the contemporary controversy, this book is also an intensely moving account of a personal tragedy. It recounts in harrowing terms the estrangement of first one, then both, of Pendergrast's daughters as a result of 'memories' recovered through therapy. However his account is not, as perhaps one would expect, a bitter condemnation of the therapists involved, nor an unqualified protestation of his own innocence.

Instead he reexamines with almost painful honesty his relationships with his daughters and his ex-wife, and seeks out those aspects of his behaviour and attitudes which may have led to his current plight, to the extent that many readers might think that he is over self-critical. The account he provides of the childhood and adolescence of his daughters may perhaps reinforce the suggestion that some abuse accusations ore an aspect of a repressed, late developing revolt against parental authority. Certainly Pendergrast's children, like some of the other children described in the individual accounts, seem to have had remarkably rebellion-free adolescence. More than most other books on the topic this book reveals the personal tragedies behind the sociological and legalistic descriptions. -- John Rimmer.

[1] Mark Pendergrast. Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives. HarperCollins (rev. edition), 1997.

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