The debate about "recovered memory" and sexual abuse of children has been too concerned with Freudian methodology. We should try to discover what is actually happeningby Daniel Britten / August 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Revelations about Freud are flowing fast. In a biography by Paul Ferris, to be published in September, we will learn that Freud was a cocaine fiend, who was transformed into a “big wild man” by the drug and became obsessed with it for at least 40 years. To those familiar with the subject this will come as no surprise; Freud-bashing has been gaining momentum for at least a decade. A series of books, including those by Frederick Crews, Allen Esterson, EM Thornton and Richard Webster, have questioned Freud’s methodology, his ethics and his claims to scientific validity. Moreover, Freud stands accused of deliberately manufacturing patient testimonies in order to fit his theories, and of destroying patients’ lives in order to further his own career.
But at the very time when Freud’s credibility both as a scientist and as a man have come into question, his theories have once again become a focus of public debate. Through the “recovered memory” movement, the lives of hundreds of thousands of families have been devastated when adults, usually under the influence of therapists, recollect being sexually abused by their fathers when they were children. Many of their recollections go beyond straightforward abuse and unfold into scenes of ritual satanic abuse organised by networks of paedophiles.
While most of these claims have so far been made in the US, there is evidence of a similar phenomenon in Britain. At least three police forces are currently investigating claims of multiple abuse, and a number of high profile cases have already been investigated. In 1993, this led to the creation of the British False Memory Society, established to combat “false memory” claims. But counter-organisations, such as the Ritual Abuse Information Network and Support (Rains) have also been set up. While many therapists, social workers and certain sections of the police force genuinely believe that sexual abuse of children is an important social problem, those on the side of the accused often compare the furore to the 17th century Salem witchcraft trials.
Freud is pivotal in the debate because he is the authority upon whom the truth of recovered memory depends. He originally claimed that his female patients had systematically repressed childhood experiences of father-daughter incest. Repression, he adduced, “is the foundation stone on which the structure of psychoanalysis exists.” But although he subsequently altered his “seduction theory” and insisted that his patients had merely fantasised about…