This is a transcript from PM. The program is broadcast around Australia at 5:10pm on Radio National and 6:10pm on ABC Local Radio.
PETER CAVE: It’s more than a decade since the emergence of a new kind of therapy which called on patients to look deep into themselves and recover their memories.
Sadly the technique has been largely discredited as an accurate form of evidence, but it’s still being used in countless child abuse cases both here and overseas.
Yesterday one such legal saga finally drew to a close with the mother and late grandmother of a teenage girl being awarded $165,000 in damages for being wrongly arrested and maliciously prosecuted.
Some of the claims on which the teenager’s case were built allegedly came from repressed memory counselling sessions.
Despite the controversy surrounding the counselling method, some psychiatrists say recovered memories are a valid form of therapy.
Julia Limb reports.
JULIA LIMB: It’s been 11 years since the Sydney teenager first accused her parents and grandmother of sexual abuse, and the Supreme Court’s judgment yesterday came too late for the grandmother who died last year.
The family have been torn apart by the allegations which began with the eldest daughter and ended up with the parents being accused of sexually abusing all four of their children. Both the parents and the grandmother were cleared of abusing the children.
Lawyer Greg Walsh who has represented the parents throughout the ordeal says all their lives have been badly damaged.
GREG WALSH: I don’t think the family will ever recover from what’s occurred. I mean, these people have had, in effect, their lives ruined. They will go to their graves always remembering and having the impact that this case affected upon them. It’s a terribly sad case.
JULIA LIMB: Greg Walsh says evidence involving repressed memories made up a large part of the case alleging that the parents had abused their children.
GREG WALSH: It was a very significant issue because the principal complainant was a person who had attended upon a therapist who was implacably a believer in the concept of repressed memory, and over about 42 sessions had been involved in treatment of the particular complainant. And over a period of time there evolved in the course of therapy increasing recollections and allegations of a most bizarre type.
JULIA LIMB: And he says like many of the other cases he’s been involved with where repressed memories evidence is used, the allegations were often outlandish.
GREG WALSH: Those allegations did not stand scrutiny at all. I mean, this was a case in which there were some of the most bizarre allegations.
I would draw an analogy with the Bunbury case, which some of you, your listeners may be familiar with years ago. This was a case in which there were allegations involving the drinking of blood and extraction of blood from various portions of the body, the most bizarre types of allegations, people in black capes, forced abortions and so on.
JULIA LIMB: Greg Walsh says that despite the controversy surrounding the veracity of repressed memories, he still has a number of cases where such evidence is being used.
Director of the New South Wales Institute of Psychiatry, Louise Newman, agrees that repressed memories do not make reliable evidence. But she says, as therapy, it’s an important tool.
LOUISE NEWMAN: Sometimes in clinical practice we don’t ever know the truth, which means if someone is looking at a legal proceeding it’s actually very difficult because the court is in the position of trying to determine whether something was true or false.
In many clinical situations that becomes less of an issue and we’re really trying to help people live with their beliefs and some memories of what’s happened to them without necessarily wanting them to reconstruct in an active way a whole story of abuse.
JULIA LIMB: And she says what we know about memory has changed significantly.
LOUISE NEWMAN: So it’s always extremely difficult to know with any degree of certainty about the veracity of someone’s memories. And I think that really becomes quite a complex clinical issue when we see people who have questions that they would like the answers to about what actually happened to them and we need to work with those individuals to help them reconstruct or put together a story of what might have been particularly negative experiences.
JULIA LIMB: Dr Newman says the book The Courage to Heal which was published more than a decade ago, had an enormous influence on psychotherapy and has meant that repressed memories therapy has not always been used appropriately.
LOUISE NEWMAN: Children have falsely in some cases, it appears, as adults, accused parents. So the consequences of this sort of therapeutic approach in unskilled hands or in overenthusiastic hands are very serious.
Certainly working with repressed memories or working with people who’ve survived abuse is not the sort of therapy that should be undertaken by people without a lot of experience working in this area.
PETER CAVE: Dr Louise Newman from the New South Wales Institute of Psychiatry speaking to Julia Limb.
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