3.3.5 Changes to the mental, physical and emotional health of family members
following the accusations
Even amongst all the devastation encountered in the results of this survey, this section was possibly the most distressing to collate: trying to transpose heart-rendering human experiences into mere statistics. As one accused person wrote in response to this particular question (3.3.5): "after four years of hell, how can you assess?" Therefore, in acknowledgement of the pain of the 83 families surveyed, this section will include many personal quotes.
Effects on the health of the accuser: As many accused parents were no longer in contact with their accusing son or daughter, they did not know about the current state of their health. Forty-two percent of respondents either did not complete this question or responded "donít know".
Suicide: Of the remaining 58% of accusers whose current condition was known to the respondents, seven per cent have committed suicide, and a further 15% have made several suicide attempts, that is a total of 22% have either committed suicide or are suicidal since making their accusations. This statistic strongly indicates one of the most harmful, and fatal, after-effects of recovering bizarre pseudomemories. The research conducted on the Washington victims compensation program demonstrated an even higher rate of 66% having suicidal thoughts after recovering memories.
Other known effects on the accusing persons reported in this Australian survey include a range of psychotic behaviour, self-mutilation, violence, bi-polar disorder, marriage breakdowns, severe depression, major personality changes, MPD, and drug and alcohol abuse. The Washington data also found massive increases in self-mutilation, divorce, unemployment and hospitalisation after recovered memory therapy, compared to when these persons first entered therapy. The Canadian Psychiatric Association acknowledged that: "Increases in self-injury and suicide attempts have been reported in some patients given recovered memory treatment".
Effects on the health of the accused: Ninety-six per cent
of respondents reported deterioration in their health, including
onset of cancer, heart attack, stroke, high-blood pressure, mental
breakdown, depression, nightmares, severe stress reactions, impotence,
anger, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and suicide ideation. As
one accused father said: "She murdered me, but itís
a slow death" from what he described as his utter desolation
and a heart attack. Others wrote: "Had difficulty believing
it could really happen - being arrested, etc. The strain has
caused us to separate".
It needs to be emphasised though, that in spite of 96% of participants experiencing a marked deterioration in their health, it cannot be assumed that there is a causal relationship between being falsely accused and serious health problems. There could be other possible causes which cannot be ascertained from a study of this type. For example, because of the average age of this group - 63 years - increasing health problems would be expected. Whether they would be as serious and pronounced as this survey found could only be verified by studying a similar matched group of men over the same period of time, in other words, a control group. The same limitation would apply to the findings (following) on the accused partnersí health.
Effects on the health of accused personís partner: Seventy-four per cent reported deterioration in their health. They experienced similar conditions to those suffered by the accused person but sometimes with more severe outcomes than the accused. For example, they were four deaths of partners, that the accused persons believed were related to the accusations. Many felt that their cancers diagnosed after the allegations were stress-related, and many others wrote of mental and emotional breakdowns, anxiety, diabetes and sleep disorders. One accused personís partner wrote that she had suffered "stress reactions, heart attack, Lupus exacerbated and recurring headaches". Another parent said: "Feel that we cannot face much more of this trauma. Have been devastated by it." Some other comments were:
Effects on siblings and others: The siblings physical health does not appear to have suffered as greatly as the accused person and his/her partner, but there were just as severe emotional changes reported, including shock, confusion, anger, bewilderment, disbelief, withdrawal and depression. A likely explanation for less reported changes in physical health would be due to the siblings being a generation younger than the accused parents. Most of the parents were in an age group that their physical health would be expected to start deteriorating anyway, although in a less severe manner. And there is obviously an enormous difference between being the person who is actually falsely accused of a despicable crime compared to being a member of that family. The following comments reflect some of the emotions experienced by the siblings of the accuser:
Extended family members were often also severely affected by the accusations - even those who had not even been told of the accusations, for example, the grand-children of accused persons, who are often totally cut off from their grandparents for several years. Some of the participantsí comments follow:
3.3.6 Changes caused by the accusations in various areas of the respondentís life
Changes experienced in the different areas of the accused personís life varied greatly from one individual to another, depending on the uniqueness of each individualís personal situation. Reports ranged from utter total devastation of all areas of their lives - especially if they had served a jail sentence - to those who had found renewed strength in their relationships and a greater appreciation of the supportive members of their family and friends. Obviously an individualís personal coping skills would be a relevant factor for how one responded to the crisis of allegedly being falsely accused, but such individual assessment is beyond the scope of this survey.
Some comments which illustrate the varied changes that people experienced are listed below under the different topics provided:
4.1 Childhood history
4.1.1. A selection of 34 adjectives were provided for respondents to chose words to describe the accusing child as she was growing up. They are listed below, re-sorted in order of frequency (two questionnaires had no response to this question).
It is not surprising to see the word most frequently used to describe the accusing child is intelligent. This affirms the data from secondary school completion rates and university attendance, which indicated that generally the accusing person has higher than average intelligence. As children they were also described as mostly helpful, responsible, happy and honest and only sixteen per cent were described as untruthful and twelve per cent as dishonest.
It will be of interest to those who are curious about the personalities of those who recover pseudomemories, to see a high proportion described during childhood as being "imaginative", "attention-seeking" and "fantasising". In retrospect it would have been interesting to have also asked respondents to select from the same list of descriptors for the accusers as adults. Although it was not within the scope of this survey to even begin to assess the personalities of the accusers, the data obtained indicates that this is an area that would provide a worthwhile topic for future research.
4.1.2 The accusing childís relationship with various significant other persons:
(a) when she was growing up, and
(b) during the 2 to 3 years preceding the accusations.
Data for the foregoing table was incomplete on many questionnaires for various reasons, for example, respondentsí lack of knowledge, one accuser had not yet reached adulthood, or respondents had not been in contact with the accusing person as an adult. Percentages were therefore calculated on the total number of responses received in each category.
The generally positive relationship the accusing person had with everyone in their life was noteworthy. As children, seventy per cent of the accusers had positive relationships with all the categories of people listed and only four per cent had generally poor relationships with others. Even during their adult life - in the two to three years preceding the accusations - the majority of their relationships with others were still positive. According to the respondents, approximately two-thirds of the accusers retained positive relationships with both parents even prior to making their allegations. Within the constraints of this survey it is not possible to know whether the accusers themselves also viewed their relationships as so positive.
4.1.3 Actual sexual abuse of the accusing person (known to the respondent):
Respondents reported that twenty-seven (out of 83) - many more than once - of the accusing persons were known to have actually been sexually molested, abused or raped, that is, 33%, that was known to others. This figure appears a surprisingly high percentage, yet would almost certainly be an under-estimate of all the abuse that occurred. As someone who has worked as a psychologist in the field of sexual abuse for many years, the writer has observed that many genuine victims of sexual abuse often do not confide in their parents or others. If those who had been abused but had not confided in their parents, were added to the 33%, the final figure could be as much as 50% or more. However, this is only speculation as there is no accurate way of estimating the total number.
Of those who were known to the respondents to have previously been sexually abused (i.e. 27 of the accusers), eighteen were aged 16 or under at the time of the abuse, that is two thirds (67%) of those known to have been abused and 22% of the total number of accusing persons. Therefore the limited results of this survey indicate that more than one in five of this sample were known to have been sexually abused as children by others, that is, not the person/s they were currently accusing based on their recently "recovered memories". Once again, this figure of one child in five, does not take into account any who were sexually abused and did not tell their parents.
This high incidence of actual childhood sexual abuse reported in this survey - more than one child in five - may shock some readers who have not worked in this area. Those who work in a clinical role with victims often perceive the rate is much higher. Hopefully, future research may investigate the possibility that those who have been sexually abused as children may later be susceptible to recovering false memories, especially in relation to the identity of their abuser.
4.2 Adult life of accuser
4.2.1 Respondents were asked to rate how successful they believed the accusing person was in his or her professional or working life. Results spanned a fairly normal distribution, however if the highly and moderately successful are added, 76% of accusers were rated as successful. As the table below shows, similar rates were obtained in the British survey:
4.2.2 Accusing personís partner
Approximately forty percent of the accusing persons were married or living in a de facto relationship at the time of the survey, and their average age was 34 years at this time.
Marital happiness: Of the accusing persons who were married or in a permanent relationship at the time the survey was conducted, only 20% were considered by the respondents as being happy in their relationship. In effect this means that approximately 92% of the accusers were either without a partner or were not in a satisfactory relationship about two to three years after making their allegations. This would indicate that being alone and without the advantages of a supportive relationship may not only be a predisposing factor to the development of the false memory syndrome but may also be more severe as a consequence of making false allegations. It could be that partners who observe the accusersí deterioration and the impossible and bizarre nature of their "memories" may become concerned that they may be the next person accused.
4.2.3. Partnersí belief
Of the accusing persons who remained in marriages or de facto relationships, the majority of their partners believed the allegations. It may be speculated that the accusing person would tend not to remain in their relationship if their partner did not believe their allegations, as they usually sever all contact with anyone who disbelieves their "memories". The respondents believed that approximately half of the accusersí partners were themselves in some way involved in the accusations. Interestingly in a small number of cases, partners themselves did believe the allegations until accusations were then later also made against them. This situation was also reported as occurring with a small number of siblings, that is, siblings who at first believed the accusations of their sister until at a later stage of recovering "memories" they were included in the allegations.
This type of experience - that is, believing the allegations until they are also accused - was occasionally mentioned by respondents in relation to other relatives, neighbours and friends too. As a person themselves knows when they are falsely accused, they then start to doubt allegations made against others that they previously thought must have been true. Most people inexperienced in this field fall into the trap of naively believing anything a person alleges, being unable to understand why anyone would make a false accusation. It is usually only after becoming personally affected by recovered memory allegations that people understand that it is possible for anyone to be accused of sexual abuse without any corroborating evidence at all. The saying: "where thereís smoke, thereís fire" does not apply to recovered memory allegations.
4.2.4 Various psychological study/activities engaged in by the accusing person
As shown above, a large proportion of the accusing persons were involved in psychological studies, counselling, social work or similar. It is intriguing to observe so many accusers being drawn towards the therapeutic industry, which possibly leads to the affirmation and continued consolidation of their belief in repression and recovered memories. Unfortunately therapeutic networks subscribing to such an incredulous belief system lead to an escalation of victims - both those encouraged to believe in false abusive childhood memories and those dozens of others affected by each accuserís "recovered memories". For those interested in an extensive and fascinating critique of the psychotherapy industry and its role in creating and maintaining victims are referred to the recent book by Dr Tana Dineen entitled Manufacturing Victims.
This section includes information about the survey participants, including their relationship to the accuser, their home state, anonymity, and their additional comments and criticisms of the study.
Respondentsí relationship to accuser:
In the British survey 87% of the respondents were the parents of the accuser and 6% were siblings. This survey had a similar response structure with parents making up a total of 81%, plus the step and foster parents 5%. The New Zealand survey found that 79% of respondents were parents. The obvious reason for the predominance of parents amongst all survey respondents is that they are usually the people accused on the basis of "recovered memories".
Anonymity: This was one of the biggest surprises in the survey to find that only 15% of those responding chose to remain anonymous. When one considers the highly confidential and potentially damaging nature of the information people were disclosing about allegations made against them, this could indicate not only a willingness to stand up and be counted, but possibly also displayed a feeling that they had nothing to fear because they were innocent.
Perhaps being wrongfully accused of a serious crime one has not committed gives one extra reserves of courage. When we made the decision not to hide behind anonymity on national television we felt that our lives had been destroyed and that we had already been hurt as much as it was possible to be hurt, so there was nothing more to lose. In addition, there was our naive belief that, as my husband was innocent, he had nothing to fear. In 1994 we did not realise how many other fathers were in Australian jails because of unsubstantiated recovered memory allegations.
Further participation: Eighty-four percent of participants were prepared to be involved with further follow up research to the survey. Most respondents also offered to provide any additional information that may be useful.
The proportion of responses from each state closely reflect the membership numbers and levels of activity of the Australian False Memory Association. The two highest responses, Victoria and South Australia, equate to where the association was originally developed and where a small group of parents first held informal support meetings prior to the formation of the AFMA. The lowest level of response was from New South Wales - the Australian state with the highest population. It is interesting that a fairly small state (in terms of population) Western Australia, made up almost a fifth of the survey participants. This may be partly due to Australiaís highest profile "recovered memory" criminal trial having been conducted in that state, thereby creating considerable media interest and community awareness about the false memory syndrome and the AFMA.
Additional comments and criticisms
Respondents provided a tremendous amount of additional comments and helpful advice to others on their questionnaires. Several of those who had been arrested advised anyone falsely accused to immediately seek the services of a knowledgeable solicitor. Criminal charges may be laid without the knowledge of the person accused, and the police may arrive unexpectedly. For a large number of parents, the first they heard of any allegations of childhood abuse was during police questioning.
Many spoke glowingly of the invaluable help and support received from the AFMA and how they could not have survived the trauma of being falsely accused without that assistance. Meeting other parents having similar experiences proved helpful to some participants. Others suggested to parents to read as extensively as they could about recovered memories and the false memory syndrome: the AFMA newsletter periodically publishes reading guides and book reviews of relevant publications.
Several comments were more like compliments, for example: "Delighted it is being undertaken" and "Thank you for investigating the plight of the real victims". One person suggested that more questions and research was needed on MPD/DID, which is a valid comment as this diagnosis appears to be implicated in many of the cases of bizarre recovered memories. For those interested in more information on MPD (or DID as it is now called) see the new release, Hoax & Reality: the Bizarre World of Multiple Personality Disorder by August Piper, Jr., M.D., published by Jason Aronson Inc., New Jersey (1997).
Many of the additional comments were incredibly sad in spite of their brevity: some examples from several families follow:
Several respondents commented on the ambiguity of two of the questions in the survey and a few participants had critical comments related to their own particular situations. For example, one person criticised the inherent assumption that all accusers were adults, as in this respondentís case their accusing daughter was only 18 years old. Although it has been known that some allegations based on recovered memories are made during an accuserís early adulthood, these are the exception. As stated earlier in this report, the average age when accusations are made is about 30 years (both in Australia and in overseas surveys), and the average age of the accusers at the time of the survey was 34 years. Only two accusers in this Australian survey were under 21 years.
Another participant pointed out that the questionnaire did not allow for a person being accused by multiple accusers or twins. I was aware of this but, because of space, time and complexity concerns, decided that it was not feasible to design a questionnaire that would incorporate all the various possibilities of each unique situation. It was assumed, and perhaps should have been made more explicit, that not all the questions would be applicable to all respondents, and that those in an atypical situation would have to make some allowances for the questionnaire. Some respondents did add extra details or altered some descriptions to better illustrate their particular situation.
As stated earlier, the survey questionnaire was based on others used in similar overseas studies, initially in the United States by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, and later in the United Kingdom by the British False Memory Society. The reason for using these as a basis was so that the information obtained could be compared to false memory syndrome data collected in these other countries. However, the overseas survey questionnaires were considerably modified not only to apply to Australian conditions, but also to reflect my personal psychological interests and hypotheses about specific data that may prove useful. The original draft of the questionnaire was more than 24 pages so it gradually underwent considerable modification and abbreviation to achieve the final eight page Australian format. I also believed that a questionnaire over twenty pages long is more likely to lead to a lower response rate or, if returned, would be more likely to have missing data. These aims - for a high response rate and for each questionnaire to be as complete as possible to allow for maximum comparisons - were, I believe, successfully achieved.
Unfortunately there are many limitations generally inherent in this type of survey based research, which need to be heeded when considering any of the results obtained. For a start, the data is retrospective - participants are asked to comment on events that occurred years, even decades ago. Research has demonstrated that parentsí memories of (say) how they disciplined their children or how their children behaved are not always accurate, especially decades later. Another weakness is that surveys rely on self report, that is, the information is provided by the respondent, without the person conducting the study having any direct contact with that respondent. The written format of a survey with closed questions requiring a yes/no type answer, does not allow for the fullness of responses and clarification that can be obtained using an interview with open-ended questions.
In addition to the above general methodological weaknesses, there are also some specific limitations within this survey. The most notable problem is the lack of contact (for both the respondent and the researcher) with the accusing person, on whom much of the data is based. There is therefore the limitation inherent as in any second and third hand transmission of information. However, in this particular survey there was also no opportunity to look at both sides of the allegations, nor to be able to make any assessment regarding their veracity or the accused personís innocence.
As mentioned earlier in regard to the consequences of the accusations, without a control group it is not possible to attribute a causal relationship to those effects. It would be necessary to have a matched control group and compare (for example) their health over the same period of time to be able to say that it is being falsely accused that causes a dramatic deterioration in a personís health. Another possible weakness is that this survey was conducted amongst members of the AFMA and they may not be representative of all the other falsely accused Australian parents who have not contacted the AFMA. Therefore these results can only reflect the experiences and behaviour of this section of the population.
However, in spite of the aforementioned weaknesses of the study, the data collected and findings presented in this report, overall provide a vast source of knowledge and understanding of the recovered memory phenomenon in Australia, which was not previously available. It is my hope that this study will be a starting point, and serve as a springboard, for many other research projects. This report indicates unlimited possibilities for further study, but they will be dependent on available resources - both financial and human, and with access to extensive computing facilities and academic support. To outline just some of the possible areas for further investigation:
In closing, I would like to once again sincerely express my appreciation to all the families who so willingly and openly participated in this survey. Being part of one of the "recovered memory families" myself, I realise the added emotional strain of taking part in such a study. I hope that every family shattered by this hideous epidemic will eventually regain some equilibrium and attain some level of peace within themselves, either with or without the return of the accusing person.
48 Washington State Crime Victims Compensation Program,
Australian False Memory Association
Email the AFMA at firstname.lastname@example.org
PO Box 74
88 88 77