Greg Barns SC has raised the possibility that the accuser of Christian Porter had a false memory and in an article in Crikey, David Hardaker has raised the possibility that “If there is to be an independent inquiry into the unproven allegation of rape 33 years ago against Attorney-General Christian Porter, it may be that repressed memory therapy will be in the dock.”1 I don’t subscribe to Crikey, so cannot read the article beyond the first couple of short paragraphs. As a consequence, I’ll not refer to it further, beyond the fact of its existence.
‘Repressed memory’ is the theory developed by Sigmund Freud in which he stated that people store away memories of stressful childhood events so they don’t interfere with daily life. Since then, psychologists have been arguing about the nature of memory and whether it’s possible to create false memories of past situations. This has also impacted legal proceedings.2
Recovery from trauma for some people involves recalling and understanding past events. But repressed memories, where the victim remembers nothing of the abuse, are uncommon and there is little reliable evidence about their frequency. According to reports from clinical practice and experimental studies of recall, most patients can partially recall events, even if elements of these have been suppressed.2
The modern story of repressed memory or false memory, as it is sometimes called, began almost 30 years ago. In 1992, Jennifer Freyd accused her father of sexual assault so, in response, her parents, Peter and Pam Freyd, founded the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF). The parents maintained that the accusations were false and encouraged by ‘recovered memory therapy’. The foundation claimed that false memories of abuse are easily created by therapies of dubious validity. However, there is no good evidence of a “false memory syndrome” that can be reliably defined, or any evidence of how widespread the use of these types of therapies might be2.
The FMSF popularised the term — false memory — that became one of the most effective tools to instil doubt not only about allegations of child sex abuse but about all forms of sexual violence. Between 1992, when the foundation was launched, and December 2019, when it abruptly closed, it bolstered the defence strategy employed by numerous sex offenders, from Michael Jackson to Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein. The notion that one’s own memories of sexual violence are unreliable is owed, in large part, to the Freyds’ foundation.3
They claimed, with increasing vigour, that their now adult children were victims of therapists who encouraged the recovery of ‘false memories’. A particular focus of the FMSF was the diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder and controversies regarding alleged Satanic Ritual Abuse. One of the original members of the FMSF was Ralf Underwager, a psychologist and Lutheran minister. Underwager gave evidence for the defence in over 200 child sexual abuse cases in the USA, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand and Australia.4
In 1988, Anna C. Salter, an internationally respected American psychologist, published a scholarly demolition of published systematic misrepresentations by Ralf Underwager and Hollida Wakefield (Underwager’s wife). In response, Underwager and Wakefield began a campaign of harassment and intimidation, which included multiple lawsuits; an ethics charge; secretly taped phone calls; and ad hominem attacks, including suggesting that Salter was laundering federal grant money. The harassment and intimidation failed as Salter refused to retract her study. The lawsuits and ethics charges were dismissed.5 The FMSF became famous for exhorting followers to sue therapists and it looked favourably on those who picketed therapists’ offices. The FMSF never managed to have the vaguely defined so-called ‘False Memory Syndrome’ accepted by a mainstream diagnostic system.4
The FMSF then began to attack professionals working with child abuse survivors. Therapists were accused, without evidence, of encouraging clients to make up memories of abuse. This story was swallowed whole by large sections of the profession and the general public. Rather disturbingly, large sections of the media and the community accused all such therapists of gross misconduct, without objective examination of the evidence4.
Following on from the formation of the FMSF in 1992, an Australian affiliated society, the Australian False Memory Association (AFMA) was formed in 1993. However, it didn’t last long. The last time there was an updated entry on their website was approximately two decades ago. The leading spokesperson in Australia on behalf of the AFMA, a twice suspended psychiatrist, Dr Gerome Gelb, was exposed for plagiarism and was arrested for taking a loaded handgun into a Melbourne magistrate’s court in 2007.4 The success of the FMSF would certainly not have been possible without the assistance of the international media and journalists more concerned with ‘clickbait’ than investigating the complexities of child abuse4 (surprise, surprise!).
At the end of December 2019, the FMSF was dissolved, and a number of its advisors have been sidelined from the scientific community. However, despite the FMSF’s lack of scientific rigour, an incredible amount of damage has been done to society’s understanding of sexual trauma and the ability of survivors to seek justice. The FMSF’s founders and advisors were people who had a motive to deny the truth.6
In the Porter case, the assertion that recovered memories are at best unreliable, has already made its way into the media1,8, and it will become more widespread, as numerous politicians and people in the Murdoch and other media use it to attempt to discredit his deceased accuser, just as they have already attempted to do by calling her ‘mentally ill’. Those who use either of these stigmatisations simply demonstrate their allegiance to the government above all else. I am not familiar with the woman’s and her friends’ 31 page letter to the Prime Minister and other politicians, but others are. The fact that this was so detailed9 does make one suspicious that those raising the ‘recovered memory’ or ‘false memory’ are simply trying to defend Porter at all costs. This is probably most clearly expressed by Diana Scambler in Crikey (to their credit, not behind their paywall), who said: “You appear to wish to de-legitimise the deceased accuser of Porter, by stigmatising the therapy she apparently received. I wish you’d done broader research.”10 Indeed.