Note: this story discusses sexual assault and suicide. Note: this story is an amended version of the original. Please see note at end.
If there is to be an independent inquiry into the unproven allegation of rape 33 years ago against Attorney-General Christian Porter, it may be that repressed memory therapy will be in the dock.
As the media and political pressure has built on Porter there’s one fact that has had no airplay — yet it is something we really do need to know.
The allegation of rape fuelling the case against Porter — which he vigorously denies — may include some details that are the product of recovered memory theory, a discredited therapy which targets “memories” of events so horrific that the mind has forgotten them in order to cope.
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How do we know this? The alleged victim said so. It is in her statement — which has had limited circulation — and acts as a preface to the horrific details to be told.
The woman begins her statement by saying “I have always remembered these things”, but goes on to add that she “only really understood” her memories once her Sydney-based psychologist — who specialises in counselling sexual assault survivors — referred her to The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk in September 2019.
“I had not previously heard of it, nor had I read it,” her statement says. “Bessel van der Kolk explains that for survivors of torture and trauma our bodies will store traumatic events and only allow them to resurface when our minds are able to re-examine them, usually several decades later.”
The woman’s statement says she has also drawn on notes of the night made in 1989, 1990 and 1991, though the originals of these are not publicly available.
Who is van der Kolk? And what role might his influence have had in the memory of events stretching back more than 30 years?
He is an American psychiatrist who has been the poster boy for recovered memory therapy since the 1990s when it was all the rage in America, and then Australia. In recent years the therapy has been rebadged as dissociative identity disorder.
A profile in The New York Times Magazine summarised van der Kolk’s contribution thus:
In the 1980s and ’90s, people from all over the country filed scores of legal cases accusing parents, priests and day care workers of horrific sex crimes, which they claimed to have only just remembered with the help of a therapist. For a time, judges and juries were persuaded by the testimony of van der Kolk and others. It made intuitive sense to them that the mind would find a way to shield itself from such deeply traumatic experiences.
But as the claims grew more outlandish — alien abductions and secret satanic cults — support for the concept waned. Most research psychologists argued that it was much more likely for so-called repressed memories to have been implanted by suggestive questioning from overzealous doctors and therapists than to have been spontaneously recalled. In time, it became clear that innocent people had been wrongfully persecuted. Families, careers and, in some cases, entire lives were destroyed.
After the dust settled in what was dubbed ‘the memory wars’, van der Kolk found himself among the casualties. By the end of the decade, his lab at Massachusetts General Hospital was shuttered, and he lost his affiliation with Harvard Medical School.
An early Forbes magazine piece characterised van der Kolk as “on the fringe” of psychological thought.
“He believes traumatic memories can be repressed by the mind and stored in the body — mysterious vaginal pains might indicate a long-forgotten rape — and later retrieved,” Forbes reported in 2003.
A quack approach to treating trauma? Yes. And that’s not all.
EMDR and other pseudo-science therapies
When Porter’s alleged victim was seeking answers in 2019 to the demons that haunted her she ended up seeing a psychologist who practises EMDR therapy.
The psychologist is also based at a Sydney clinic which offers the full gamut of alternative therapies. Another therapist lists her qualifications as a clairvoyant and “certified angel intuitive” as well as being a “spiritual healer” specialising in “subconscious trauma and past pain release”.
Armed with her copy of van der Kolk’s tract, the woman recalled a series of horrific details of what had occurred more than 30 years before. A defining characteristic of the memories is that they entail elaborate rituals. The attacker insisted on shampooing the then 16-year-old’s hair twice. He insisted on shaving her legs and on washing her anus at length.
The perpetrator was cruel. He nearly strangled her. He kicked her right leg away. All up it was the picture of a victim being prepared for sadistic torture. The scene has a horror movie quality to it. The woman remembered him writing “Christian Porter was ‘ere, Jan ’88” in the steam on a bathroom mirror.
The ordeal was so shocking, she said in her statement, that she entered into “dissociative states” to cope. The idea of dissociation — that the mind fragments into different entities as a shielding mechanism — is fundamental to recovered memory therapy. The number of different alters, or identities, a person dissociates into can run into the dozens, each with a role to protect the psyche. Treatment can last for years.
Dissociation also occurs as a result of extreme trauma and may not necessarily be linked to recovered memory.
So what was the value of the therapy?
September 2019, when she received the van der Kolk book, was a turning point for the woman. With images of unimaginable sexual humiliation and degradation unleashed in her psyche, she took her life just nine months later.
In the intervening period she began to tell her story, painting a truly shocking picture of a depraved torturer, depicting scenes that would cause outrage.
Victorian Labor MP Daniel Mulino, an old friend, was contacted in December 2019, as was Malcolm Turnbull.
She reconnected with other old friends. They believed her and have said again and again how much they were convinced by the sincerity and the consistency of what she said. And why wouldn’t that be the case? The images the woman was remembering were freshly minted.
South Australian journalist Tory Shepherd also met the woman, heard her troubled story and after an anguished assessment decided not to pursue it.
“The story had convincing detail, the ring of truth. But that’s not enough to put it in print,” Shepherd wrote this week. “As we spoke, it was clear she was uncertain about going public. She was shaky, shaken, obviously suffering,”
The woman took the matter to the NSW police in February 2020, five months after she had “really understood” her memories based on van der Kolk’s theories.
At the time, according to the police, she advised investigators that she “dissociates” — another possible pointer to the recovered nature of her 2019 memories — and had wanted to ensure that she was as “coherent and as grounded as possible” when giving her statement.
It later emerged that her parents were worried she may have “confected or embellished the allegations due to her mental illness”, according to a statement circulated by the woman’s friends and supporters.
Is it possible that the discredited and dangerous practice of recovered memory has now ensnared an attorney-general (no matter what you think of him)? If so it would be a first in Australia.
If there is to be an inquiry, this is a key question to answer because whatever happened that night 33 years ago it is impossible to rely on the therapy-induced memories of a now dead woman without independent corroboration.
Some of Australia’s best journalists have been working on the case against Porter for several months and were unable to get corroboration enough to name him before he took the step himself this week. The closest Four Corners came was an allegation of Porter very publicly kissing and hugging a Liberal Party staffer in a Canberra journo-political haunt.
What if nothing occurred as Porter has insisted?
The stakes are high indeed.
Since this story was published Four Corners has reported that the woman disclosed in therapy perhaps for the first time in 2013 that she was raped by a male called “Christian”. Four Corners did not interview or name the therapist.
Crikey does not question that the woman making the allegations against Porter has always had a memory of the night in question, as has been written in her statement. Crikey also does not question that there are notes made in the years following the night that refer to the events, though Crikey has not seen the originals of these notes.
Crikey’s focus has been on the horrific details which appear to have emerged only in 2019 and to ask legitimate questions as to how these memories arose, given they go to the credibility of the allegations.
We have amended the original copy to make this crystal clear.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.