By Keir Liddle
The allegations of abuse levelled against Jimmy Saville are as shocking as they are numerous and one can only hope that some degree of justice is achieved for any victims of such abuse in the coming months. However Skeptics should perhaps be aware of at least one of the organisations that have become embroiled in the scandal.
On the 3rd of October 2012 ITV aired a documentary about the Savile affair, entitled Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile, in which Former detective Mark Williams-Thomas conducts an investigation into allegations that Sir Jimmy Savile sexually abused vulnerable teenage girls. This is available on the ITV website and on YouTube.
At the end of this documentary a telephone number and website is provided for people to call. The number and website are for the controversial charity the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC). NAPAC is an organisation that courts controversy by promoting the book “The Courage to Heal“. The book was written by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis and suggests that individuals (mainly women) with a vague set of psychological symptoms have been abused. The book also states that in some cases the memories of the abuse have been forgotten but are responsible for the individual’s current problems. The book supports the idea that repressed memories of abuse exist and it and its authors have been criticised for being unqualified and for creating an industry which has isolated and separated family members despite having no positive proof the abuse occurred.
A repressed or recovered memory is supposedly a a memory that has either been dissociated from awareness or repressed without dissociation in a process called motivated forgetting; these memories are reportedly blocked out due to their painful or traumatic nature. The existence of repressed memories has never been accepted by mainstream psychology and much of the research supporting the theory has been heavily criticised. A common criticism is that a recovered memory is tainted by, or a product of, the process of recovery or the suggestions used in that process. A memory generated by the therapists suggestions is generally thought of as a “false memory”
False memory syndrome is defined as:
[A] condition in which a person’s identity and interpersonal relationships are centered around a memory of traumatic experience which is objectively false but in which the person strongly believes. Note that the syndrome is not characterized by false memories as such. We all have memories that are inaccurate. Rather, the syndrome may be diagnosed when the memory is so deeply ingrained that it orients the individual’s entire personality and lifestyle, in turn disrupting all sorts of other adaptive behavior…False Memory Syndrome is especially destructive because the person assiduously avoids confrontation with any evidence that might challenge the memory. Thus it takes on a life of its own, encapsulated and resistant to correction. The person may become so focused on memory that he or she may be effectively distracted from coping with the real problems in his or her life
The issues with false memory syndrome came to the fore during the “Satanic Panic” a moral panic that originated in the US in the 1980’s and quickly spread to the UK. The panic was related to fears that many children had been the victims of satanic ritual abuse based largely on testimony derived from recovered memory therapies. Official investigations produced no evidence of widespread conspiracies or of the slaughter of thousands; only a small number of verified crimes have even remote similarities to tales of satanic ritual abuse (SRA). Though the default position on SRA is now one of skepticism a small number of adherents still believe that large scale ritual abuse of children is occurring most recently and notably TV talk show host Dr Phil.
NAPAC’s views on ritual abuse, as disclosed in their newsletters are as follows:
Ritual abuse is a controversial issue because there are certain people in society in whose interest it is to maintain a firm denial that it exists. We call these people perpetrators.At NAPAC we know it happens as we have spoken to hundreds of victims whose personal testimonies bear witness to this pernicious and vicious crime committed against children. It almost defies definition but we would describe it as a bunch of evil people who come together to destroy the mind, body and soul of a child and they do it in a carefully crafted and ritualistic way. The more bizarre the ritual, the more unlikely it is for children to be able to disclose and the harder it is for normal, decent people to believe that such atrocities occur.NAPAC has more information of ritual abuse if you want to contact us. It does not make comfortable reading but consider people like Fred and Rose West – this was a part of their sordid world – and the world put them where they belong.
False memories have been debunked by a number of psychologists both within and out-with the Skeptical community such as Elizabeth Lofthus and Chris French and a number of charities exist to help families who have been affected by the generation of false memories such as the British False Memory Society. The society offers legal help to those families affected by spurious allegations generated by false memories and supports the publishing of research that highlights the dangers of testimony derived from recovered memory therapies.
However not everyone believes that the BFMS is doing good work. The CEO of NACAP Peter Saunders has written on his personal blog the following:
Now you know why I constantly say that napac (and survivors and children) has enemies. There are a lot of abusers out there and we have to be on our guard. As some of you may have spotted recently the British False Memory Society (another dangerous group) have written to the Church of England urging them not to recommend a book called The Courage to Heal. Well I’ve never read this book but I have heard from countless survivors over the years how it has helped them…………heal from abuse. Surprise, surprise then, the BFMS want it removed from bookshelves
It seems while NAPAC undoubtedly does a lot of good work for genuine victims of child abuse it also holds some rather conspiratorial views about abuse and recovered memories. Seemingly believing there is a conspiracy of silence to cover up the widespread abuse of children in society regardless of any evidence that suggests otherwise.
False memories are dangerous. They can lead to the breakup of loving families and in some cases can lead to the persecution and prosecution of innocent people.
I want to make it abundantly clear that I do not doubt the testimony of those who have come forward in the Savile case. However I would like program makers, the public, the police and courts to be aware of the nature of NAPAC and their belief in recovered memories and ritual abuse. We can do much harm when trying to do good.
Britain has already gone through a satanic panic, it doesn’t need a Savile panic.