Today’s entry is a guest post by English blogger Lleweton of the eponymous blog about personal memories past and present, which make for a beautiful portrait of England.

Nearly a year ago, Llew wrote a guest post about the relatively recent False Memory Syndrome, another questionable ‘therapy’ which is gaining traction in the West. To those who have been falsely accused of child abuse, it seems as if they undergo a never-ending witch hunt, which is the aspect of which Llew writes below.

Llew will be stopping by to check comments, so if you have anything you would like to ask or write about on this subject, please feel free to do so in the comments box following this post. Many thanks.


Smoke and Fire

The saying ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ can be prejudicial, in the legal meaning of the word.  It can presume guilt on the basis that the murky substance perceived is believed to be smoke.

Look again. It’s not smoke at all. It’s mist, vapour, fog, something which clouds the view. But by now it may be too late. The damage is done. Someone or something is condemned.  A few hundred years ago a village might have been puzzled by the failure of its crops or disease in its cattle. Why? ‘Well there’s old Meg in the cottage by the wood: always brewing herbs and muttering to herself. They do say she’s a witch. There’s no smoke without fire.’

And so, sadly, ironically and horribly, the innocent Meg in time, becomes the fire, atop a pile of  kindling ordered by the magistrates.  For a moment the villagers feel better about their crops and cattle.  And about themselves.

The ‘smoke’ which condemned Meg was unfounded baseless gossip, feeding on the upward spiral of excitement it generated, a kind of gluttony for more, a  prurient fever,  and the villagers’ fear for their livelihoods, the need for an explanation: somewhere to dump the blame, and to feel secure again. As the fervour mounted, maybe there were some doubters: one or two people who remembered that the old lady’s herbs helped their cough or cleaned their wounds. If they spoke up would anyone listen?  By then, if anyone did speak up, it would have taken courage to do so.

And as self-righteous anger swelled against the harmless old woman, so reputations were established. Her tormentors soaked up the gratitude of the villagers. They were needed. This made sense of their lives. Now they had status. Now they were respected. It was almost fun.

No smoke without fire. I have seen this happen in modern times. I’ll plunge straight in here and say it crops  up when people are accused of historic recovered memory of sexual abuse.  Something in Meg’s village caused the crops to fail and the cattle to ail but it was not the old lady. And something causes the frailty among accusers which leads, men, often elderly, to find themselves facing allegations that they had abused their children when they were young.

Evil happens. I’m not saying it doesn’t. There are accounts of witchcraft in modern times. Child abuse happens. But just as, in past times, fortuitous suffering could be attributed to the effects of witchcraft, so, today, much psychological suffering has found its rationalisation in recovered ‘memories’ of child abuse.  And mainly, those accused are as innocent as old Meg.

No-one has been burned at the stake but innocent people have gone to jail on the basis of unsubstantiated historic allegations of abuse. I have talked to one of these people myself. His conviction was quashed after he had completed six years in prison, with no early release, because he would not admit to guilt. He didn’t do it – as the courts eventually recognised.  I also know several people who have been through the dread process of months or years on bail and then trial, and then, thank God, acquittal.  But what damage in between? And it all stems tragically from the worthy, human desire to get things right.

In the 1980s there was a reaction against what was seen as a refusal by the authorities to believe allegations by women that they had been raped or sexually abused.  Campaigners rightly championed accusers against an unfeeling, unsympathetic legal establishment. And in time a culture developed in which it was quite properly demanded that accusers must be given a sympathetic hearing,   But the pendulum swung to its other extreme. An accusation came to be regarded as evidence.

We are talking here not about cows and corn which fail to thrive but about psychological ills. I was, in the 1980s and 1990s, involved, as a volunteer with trying to give support to people facing troubles in their lives. It was taken as a fact among other workers I knew that if someone had an eating disorder it happened because they were sexually abused when they were young children.

Seems fantastic at this point, today. But no-one questioned it.  Patent nonsense, but how many families were destroyed by it?  Diagnosis of an eating disorder led to psychotherapy which then led to this neat, one-size-fits-all  attribution of the cause of the illness.

There is a seminal book which I will refer to here: ‘The Courage to Heal’ by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, two Americans – they were reported to be lesbians –  whose book, first published in 1988, (my copy, 1997, Vermilion, London) said: ‘If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were’ (page 22).

Anything goes here as a symptom: depression and eating disorders, for example.

Goodness, how this idea took off. It was thoroughly challenged in a paper published by ‘The British Journal of Psychiatry’ of April 1998 Vol 172.296-307 ‘Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse – Implications for Clinical  Practice’. But too late for thousands of families across the world. And as far as I understand, the report was welcomed by the psychiatric/psychotherapeutic/counselling establishment like a lead balloon.

The BBC reported at the time that although the paper was originally commissioned by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, ‘it caused such a row within the college that two years after it was completed it has been printed as an independent paper’.*

And the scientific fallacy that a psychological symptom can prove CAUSE became an issue in a court action. I refer to one of case histories of recovered ‘memory’ cited  in ‘Miscarriage of Memory’  edited by William Burgoyne and Norman Brand, British False Memory Society, 2010, Chapter 12, Page 71.

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This refers to a charge in which the prosecution wanted to present  ‘postdictive evidence’’ – i.e. symptoms – as evidence against an 81-year-old man accused of  having indecently assaulted a young man, many years earlier.  In the event, this approach was not used by the prosecution.

The ‘evidence’ was claimed to be the psychological condition of the accuser. In this case this was not a family situation. The accused man had been a Sunday schoolteacher. Thank God he was acquitted and freed. But what an ordeal!

‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.’ Not fire. Fog.

There is a sea of sadness here: broken families; parents who fear to say why their children have gone away; cousins and grandchildren who do not know each other. Where does it come from? Accusers  yearn to feel ‘validated’ – to use a modern term from psychotherapy. They’re in a state. They’ve failed in their lives.  They’re lonely. Why? It must be forgotten sexual ‘abuse’:

‘It’s not your fault (says the counsellor). It’s because you were abused and you don’t remember it. But you will, with my help. Oh and don’t tell your family about me or our work together.’

And so the counsellor becomes the parent.  But in the wider sense the culture changes. It is fuelled by all the  human motives which fuelled the witch hunt: someone to blame, the intoxication of righteousness, validation; comradeship against ‘evil’.  Career advancement even.

But the evil is in the accusing.  The devil lives, unnoticed still, there.


(Norman Brand)