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Chance Thoughts
by Sue Chance, M.D.
April 1996

What Happened?

At the moment, I'm still preoccupied with my recent trip to South Africa. Not to belabor it, but I went as part of a team of "experts" on posttraumatic syndromes, and our delegation's leader was Bessel van der Kolk. You may recognize him as a luminary in that field. Some of the things I'm going to say are appropriated from him (though he didn't say them as intemperately as I will), so if you want to read more on the subject, look up his material, especially his new book, written with Alexander McFarlane--Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experiences on Mind, Body and Society. It's published by Guilford Press and comes out May 1 (1996).

Here goes: I now know that I'm not the only psychiatrist irritated by the "false memory syndrome" stuff pervading the literature. I recognize it as the same irritation I felt when reading about the "as-if personality," followed by "borderline," followed by "adult children of alcoholics," followed by "co-dependency." That each of these categories touched on real concerns of real patients and had heuristic value is not in question. What irritated me about them was the "bandwagon" phenomenon--or perhaps I might better state it as the "black hole" phenomenon. Because pretty soon it seemed to me that everything got sucked into the category of the moment, and if anybody anywhere got mad at somebody else, they affixed that label to them.

See, people do listen to us, and there is a vast pool of abusers/perpetrators/ victimizers out there, just waiting for the kind of ammunition we keep giving them in our zeal for hot topics. I'd say we were merely foolish, but I'm not sure I believe that. I think it highly likely we're doing what we've done since Freud's day. And that is, blaming the victim. Does it not strike anybody else as remarkable that it was only when terrifying figures like "one woman in three is sexually abused at some time in her life" and the very word "abuser" became part of common parlance that we suddenly developed this fascination with "false memory syndrome?"

1 don't mean to malign those writing about and researching it. I know from experience that, if I sat down and talked with any of them, I would see their point of view and possibly admire their passion for their subject. But I think our profession--that is, my profession--needs to examine our responsibility for popularizing what is essentially a destructive idea, namely that our patients are not to be trusted when it comes to telling us the truth. By all means, we should try to derive the most accurate picture we can of what happened, along with what the events meant to the storyteller. But in essence, I believe that "false memory syndrome" might more appropriately termed "lousy therapist syndrome." Because it is the poorly trained or integrity-deficient therapist who creates the crisis of false trails and spurious information that "false memory syndrome" actually represents.

Let's talk about better training and quality control. Let's look to ourselves for basic honesty. And let's approach therapy realizing that it is our job to evaluate--neither to trust nor distrust--the people we see.