False Memory Wreaks Havoc for Accused By Mike Field The case had the classic characteristics that have become all too familiar in recent years. A disturbed young woman in St. Mary's County, Md., suffers from what appears to be a prolonged and serious bout of depression. Under the care of a therapist, she suddenly recovers memories of a long history of sexual abuse at the hands of her father who, she remembers, molested her three to four times weekly over a period of years. So painful were these memories to recall that the girl could barely talk about them or describe the incidents. As a precaution, the therapist recommends having the girl removed from her parents' household and placed in a psychiatric hospital. The accused, a former naval officer now retired, is shocked by the allegations, which he denies categorically. The girl's family is amazed to discover the physicians at the hospital will not meet with them or even consider the evidence they have that the charges are unfounded. As the possibility of criminal proceedings looms, they turn to Paul McHugh, the Henry Phipps Professor of Psychiatry and director of the Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine. "The case was already in court when I was called in," recounted Dr. McHugh, who gave a Welch Lecture on Nov. 21 on the Homewood campus. "One thing that struck me right away was that there was no physical evidence of abuse. The only suggestion that the abuse had occurred came from the girl's testimony." The parents, on the other hand, were able to provide Dr. McHugh with the girl's personal diary, recorded during the time she was now claiming to have been abused. In it, the girl wrote that she could not understand the cause of her depression, since her family loved her and she was not the victim of child abuse. The diary--coupled with the discovery that the girl had seen and been profoundly influenced by the movie Sybil (a film about a woman with multiple personalities stemming from sexual abuse at the hands of her mother)--proved to be the smoking gun, and led to the dismissal of the prosecution. Eventually, there was a total evaporation of the memories of abuse. The girl--now a young woman--once again is reconciled with her parents, added Dr. McHugh, and is preparing to go to college. The St. Mary's county case was, claimed Dr. McHugh, an example of False Memory Syndrome, which was the focus of his Welch Lecture. In recent years, Dr. McHugh has become a leading voice in the often-controversial movement to challenge allegations of abuse and sexual assault brought forth by adult patients claiming to have remembered incidents they had previously repressed. "The problem is not issues of memory, but issues of belief," said Dr. McHugh, who is careful to emphasize that his doubts are not about the existence of child abuse, but of the recent prevalence of cases in which memory of the abuse was repressed. "The abuse of children is a great concern. We know it occurs and occurs more often than perhaps we even suspected and that it ought to be stopped," he said. "Freud himself reported cases of repressed memories of sexual abuse, though he later came to doubt them, concluding that people repress their conflicted feelings, not memories of specific events." According to Dr. McHugh, Freud was probably right. Evidence supporting his conclusion can be found in the memories of children from concentration camps and more recently, from the children of Chowchilla, Calif., who were kidnapped in their school bus and buried in sand for many hours. Those children, wrote Dr. McHugh in an autumn 1992 article in The American Scholar "remember every detail of their traumatic experience and need psychiatric assistance not to bring out forgotten material that was repressed, but to help them move away from a constant ruminative preoccupation with the experience." Traumatized children, it would seem, remember all too well. Dr. McHugh believes the problem lies not with the individuals experiencing false memories, but with a therapeutic community that has proven too complacent in challenging the veracity of its patients. "I had one therapist say to me directly that, as a therapist, he was not an investigator and it was not his responsibility to verify the accuracy of his clients' reports," said Dr. McHugh. "This is the equivalent of a surgeon saying that if someone's got a tummy ache I don't look into it, I just cut 'em." On Friday, Dec. 9, Dr. McHugh will deliver opening remarks at a three-day conference in Baltimore devoted to False Memory Syndrome. The following day he will offer the conference keynote address on the do's and don'ts for clinicians managing memories of abuse. The conference is co-sponsored by the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, an organization founded by individuals who claim to be falsely accused by family members suffering from FMS. It is, he believes, a field ripe for dispassionate critical analysis. "The explosion in sexual abuse charges stemming from repressed memory is a craze, similar to the Red Scare, to the pogroms, to the witch trials," he said. "It's an example of bad practice, not bad people. The purpose of a false memory is to form a life story to provide an explanation and justification of psychological distress. It may help explain things, but that doesn't make it real."
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