It hurts the vul­ner­a­ble to dis­pute the set­tled link between trauma and am­ne­sia


Re­cent re­port­ing by Richard Guil­li­att has raised ques­tions about the cred­i­bil­ity of adults re­port­ing child sex­ual abuse (“Those Events Never Hap­pened”, The Week­end Aus­tralian Magazine, Oc­to­ber 4-5). Un­der­ly­ing this and other ar­ti­cles in The Aus­tralian has been a sense of un­ease or out­rage about the ac­cu­racy of mem­o­ries of se­vere abuse be­ing re­trieved af­ter a pe­riod of be­ing for­got­ten by some trau­ma­tised in­di­vid­u­als.

Read­ing th­ese ar­ti­cles, there is the feel­ing that we have stepped back into the past cen­tury, be­fore sci­ence had a solid un­der­stand­ing of the ef­fects of trauma on mem­ory. The early to mid-1990s saw the rise of terms such as re­cov­ered mem­ory ther­apy to char­ac­terise men­tal health­care for sex­u­ally abused peo­ple as stir­ring up false mem­o­ries of trau­matic events.

Ac­tivists pro­mot­ing this view lob­bied the Vic­to­rian health min­is­ter at the time, Bron­wyn Pike, into launch­ing an in­quiry ex­am­in­ing the ex­tent re­cov­ered mem­ory ther­apy was prac­tised in Vic­to­ria. The in­quiry re­ported in 2005, find­ing that the term was not used by health pro­fes­sion­als but was be­ing used by lobby groups for po­lit­i­cal pur­poses.

In the more than two decades since ac­tivists first coined the term re­cov­ered mem­ory ther­apy, the link between trauma and am­ne­sia has been set­tled by sci­ence. Am­ne­sia for trauma oc­curs across the spec­trum — from sol­diers par­tic­i­pat­ing in com­bat and dis­as­ter sur­vivors, to those who kill in crimes of pas­sion and the vic­tims of child abuse.

While mem­o­ries of trauma can re­turn in ther­apy, they are like­lier to arise in other sit­u­a­tions. Chance en­coun­ters with peo­ple from one’s past or watch­ing movies or tele­vi­sion pro­grams can trig­ger the emer­gence of what pre­vi­ously were in­ac­ces­si­ble mem­o­ries of abuse. Gen­er­ally, re­cov­ered mem­o­ries of trauma are about as ac­cu­rate as mem­o­ries that have been held con­tin­u­ally. Both are thus equiv­a­lently in­ac­cu­rate.

Re­vis­it­ing old con­tro­ver­sies about re­cov­ered mem­o­ries risks ob­scur­ing what the Royal Com­mis­sion into In­sti­tu­tional Re­sponses to Child Sex­ual Abuse has es­tab­lished beyond doubt. Mul­ti­ple in­sti­tu­tions pro­vided the nec­es­sary con­di­tions for child sex­ual abuse to oc­cur, with neg­li­gi­ble like­li­hood that any­one in author­ity would take de­ci­sive ac­tion to pro­tect chil­dren. Am­ne­sia has been a com­mon way for vic­tims of in­sti­tu­tional abuse to cope with such trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ences.

On Fe­bru­ary 22, Aus­tralians wit­nessed an un­usual event. Five Catholic arch­bish­ops (one fac­ing charges of fail­ing to re­port child abuse al­le­ga­tions) rep­re­sent­ing the Aus­tralia-based in­sti­tu­tion as­so­ci­ated with the sex­ual abuses of more chil­dren than any other, at­tended the royal com­mis­sion to re­flect on their col­lec­tive fail­ure. Arch­bishop of Syd­ney An­thony Fisher put it suc­cinctly: “It was a kind of crim­i­nal neg­li­gence (not) to deal with some of the problems that were star­ing us in the face.”

A doc­u­mented case from the royal com­mis­sion poignantly demon­strates the phe­nom­ena of abuse-re­lated am­ne­sia. Philippe Vin­cent Trut­mann, who was sen­tenced to 6½ years in prison in 2005, con­fessed to sex­u­ally abus­ing a Gee­long Gram­mar stu­dent 30 to 40 times across a two-year pe­riod. The stu­dent had been asked to at­tend Prahran po­lice sta­tion in 2005. But the stu­dent, who re­mem­bers Trut­mann as a “fa­ther fig­ure”, tes­ti­fied that he has no rec­ol­lec­tion of the abuse de­spite be­ing di­ag­nosed with post­trau­matic stress dis­or­der.

Ross Che it of Brown Univer­sity in the US main­tains a sub­stan­tial web­site ar­chiv­ing cor­rob­o­rated cases of in­di­vid­u­als who have re­cov­ered such mem­o­ries.

Rev­e­la­tions about the sex­ual of­fences of en­ter­tain­ers such as Gary Glit­ter, Jimmy Sav­ile and Robert Hughes show of­fend­ers of­ten hide be­hind a cover of re­spected celebrity.

Re­cent ex­am­ples of prom­i­nent trusted Aus­tralian in­di­vid­u­als be­ing con­victed of child sex crimes in­clude child psy­chi­a­trist Aaron Voon, IVF ge­neti­cist Michael Quinn and singer Rolf Har­ris.

Per­son­able South Aus­tralian child wel­fare worker Shan­non McCoole led a breath­tak­ing dou­ble life as the head ad­min­is­tra­tor of the world’s big­gest pe­dophile net­work, a 45,403mem­ber web­site.

Child sex­ual abuse is per­va­sive and un­set­tling. Abuse is a fre­quent cause of harm, but in­di­vid­ual of­fences are of­ten dif­fi­cult to prove to a crim­i­nal stan­dard. One res­o­lu­tion to this am­bi­gu­ity is to hold the vic­tim, not the of­fender, re­spon­si­ble. So­cial psy­chol­o­gists have stud­ied for many years the ten­dency within hu­man be­ings to blame the vic­tims, ques­tion their mo­tives or at­tack their cred­i­bil­ity. Here we deny the data, or rein­ter­pret it, and den­i­grate or blame the vic­tim to re­duce the dis­com­fort caused by fac­ing the re­al­ity that in­no­cent peo­ple are in­ten­tion­ally hurt by oth­ers.

A re­cent large-scale re­view by psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sors Chris Brewin and Ber­nice An­drews of the stud­ies ex­plor­ing the cre­ation of false mem­o­ries in re­search lab­o­ra­tory set­tings con­cluded that the cre­ation of false mem­o­ries of child­hood events has been ex­ag­ger­ated. In­ter­est­ingly, the au­thors were at­tacked in com­men­taries that mis­rep­re­sented their ideas and made er­ro­neous claims about their re­view. Sci­en­tific data does not sup­port the propo­si­tion that false mem­o­ries of child sex­ual abuse can be rou­tinely and eas­ily cre­ated. How­ever, this be­lief has be­come an item of faith for those un­able, or un­will­ing, to face the un­com­fort­able re­al­ity of adult cru­elty to chil­dren.

We still have much to learn about child abuse, trauma and mem­ory. Ex­cel­lent clin­i­cal guide- lines for the treat­ment of com­plex trauma have been pub­lished by the Blue Knot Foun­da­tion, and th­ese are cited in­ter­na­tion­ally as best prac­tice. How­ever, the ev­i­dence base is in­com­plete. How sex­ual abuse in­ter­feres with mem­ory and the most ef­fec­tive ways of treat­ing vic­tims of child abuse are the sub­jects of on­go­ing re­search.

In the mean­time, the me­dia is a vi­tal part­ner in the dis­tri­bu­tion of ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion about child abuse and pro­mot­ing child well­be­ing and safety.

Rean­i­mat­ing set­tled con­tro­ver­sies from the 90s sows doubt where there is com­pre­hen­sion and fails to keep pace with vi­tal de­vel­op­ments in the field. At worst, it risks pro­mot­ing mis­in­for­ma­tion that com­pro­mises chil­dren’s safety and it blights the lives of sur­vivors of child abuse.

We still have much to learn about child abuse, trauma and mem­ory

War­wick Mid­dle­ton is ad­junct pro­fes­sor at La­trobe Univer­sity, Univer­sity of New Eng­land and Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury in Christchurch, as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor at Univer­sity of Queens­land, and di­rec­tor of the trauma and dis­so­ci­a­tion unit at Bel­mont Hospi­tal in Ca­rina, Bris­bane. Martin Dorahy is pro­fes­sor of clin­i­cal psy­chol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury. Michael Sal­ter is se­nior lec­turer in crim­i­nol­ogy at Western Syd­ney Univer­sity.

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