Johns Hopkins Gazette: December 5, 1994

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
     "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
     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
     "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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