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Memory is contentious, that much is clear. Those who have experienced trauma often have patchy memories: dissociation is common, as is freezing and becoming immobile.

But the idea that someone can simply forget then remember an instance of abuse, having previously remembered nothing, is not one supported by professionals, and has not been a common claim for decades.

Yet false memory syndrome has been used to discredit survivors time and again in recent years. Lawyers for Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein have all called in experts on false memory to give expert testimony at their trials.

Now the memory of the woman who accused Attorney-General Christian Porter has been brought into question. Sky News commentator Andrew Bolt suggested she may have been delusional.

“Is it possible that this mentally ill woman was acting under a delusion?” he said. “Some people claiming to be victims do lie. Some are delusional.’’

Crikey, too, has come under fire over an article last Friday which examined the statement of Porter’s alleged victim, who we will call Jane Doe, through the lens of repressed memory (see other articles on this subject in this issue).

A brief history

Professor of psychiatry at the University of Melbourne Louise Newman tells Crikey false memories emerged as a theory when sexual abuse first became recognised as a major social issue across the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Mandatory reporting laws were also introduced in many countries, leading to more and more people coming forward with stories.

“There were some social workers who believed that their job was to encourage people to remember,” Newman said. This led to some high-profile examples of people claiming to be involved in elaborate satanic rituals.

During this time, psychology Professor Elizabeth Loftus conducted a landmark study. Researchers tried to implant memories of being lost in a shopping centre in 24 participants, asking them to add colour and detail to the memory.

Just six participants “fully or partially” believed the false memory, leading proponents of the study to claim false memories can be implanted in a quarter of people.

This study has been criticised. We don’t know if the false memory would have lasted long term or what constitutes a “full” or “partial” memory. It also didn’t measure participants’ belief in a memory — just how vivid the picture in their head was.

When a variant of the experiment was conducted, this time trying to get people to recall a rectal enema — something physically invasive, similar to sexual assault — just four participants “remembered” the enema.

But the notion of false memories was born. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation was founded in 1992 by husband and wife team Pam and Peter Freyd (who were also step-siblings) after their daughter accused her father of molesting her across her childhood. Freyd was himself a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and suffered from alcoholism.

The foundation helped men who had been accused of abuse, often by people who claimed to have recovered their memories. Two of its board members had previously been interviewed for a Dutch pro-paedophila magazine. The foundation folded in 2019.

There have been examples of people who bought into the idea of repressed memories but later realised their memory wasn’t true.

Newman says repressed memories are largely discredited: “There’s no such thing as recovered memory therapy.”

Recognising rape for what it is

The idea someone can completely forget a dangerous encounter is contentious. Importantly, survivors don’t forget a memory but struggle to acknowledge it for what was.

One meta-analysis of unwanted sexual experiences obtained through force, the threat of force, or incapacitation of the victim found that 60% of women did not acknowledge their sexual encounter as rape.

Many survivors also do not immediately use the terms “rape” or “sexual assault” to describe their experiences.

This is exactly what the woman who accused Porter of rape said happened. Porter has strenuously denied the allegations.

“I had a better understanding of these memories, and only really understood them once my Sydney-based psychologist [referred her to literature around repressed memories],” she wrote. She does not say she “re-remembered” the memories, only that she better understood them.

Importantly she also wrote Porter’s name and referenced the assault in scattered diary entries, which she said were from 1989. One friend who was romantically involved with the woman and who asked to remain anonymous told Crikey she referenced an assault from 1988 onwards, though didn’t disclose who it was until 1989. A counsellor Jane Doe saw also said she discussed the assault from 2013.

Newman stresses it’s different for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, who may remember details differently as their brains are still developing during the time of the abuse.

“Memories are not laid down in children’s brains in the same way as they are in adult brains,” she said.

But for adults, it’s a different story. They might deliberately try to avoid the memory as a coping mechanism, but completely forgetting then re-remembering isn’t likely, she says.

NSW psychiatrist Dr Karen Williams specialises in complex trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. She says people fabricating an entire traumatic event simply doesn’t happen.

“That is not something that you would see in somebody who has been traumatised,” she said.

While getting small details wrong was common, Williams said, misremembering the perpetrator or their actions wasn’t.

William says Jane Doe’s history of mental illness was being used against her, instead of being interpreted as a symptom of trauma.

“Instead of that being a sign that she was obviously suffering from some sort of traumatic response, it’s being interpreted as a sign that she’s mentally ill and therefore not able to provide a proper history,” she said.

Is recovering memory still a form of therapy?

Techniques to recover allegedly repressed memories can include hypnotic regression, guided imagery, and dream interpretation.

Newman says no one reputable in Australia is working with repressed memories.

“That would be considered fringe,” she said. “It’s not supported by the evidence, and it’s not supported by the major international professional bodies for working with post-traumatic stress and abuse.”

She stresses there are clear registration requirements for psychologists and psychiatrists with standards of practice and a code of conduct, and it is important people looking for a mental health professional check their registration.

Both Jane Doe’s Sydney-based psychologist and Adelaide-based psychiatrist are registered with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency and do not have any reprimands lodged against them.

“Validating people’s experiences is important,” Newman said. “That’s not the same as telling them what their experiences are.”

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.