"Our daughter disappeared from our lives four years ago, leaving a short note stating memories of abuse (with no details)... We don’t know where our daughter and grandchildren are as there has been no communication at all ." (accused parents)
"I was amazed to find it is possible to be arrested just on the basis of someone making unbelievable allegations and to be treated like a criminal. The police behaved as though I was guilty, even though they ended up not believing the accusations themselves." (accused mother)
"I would like to know what it was that I did." (accused father)
The following data was obtained from a postal Family Survey undertaken during late 1996 to early 1997 amongst the members of the Australian False Memory Association (AFMA). An eight page questionnaire containing 87 questions was developed from similar questionnaires used by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) in the United States and the British False Memory Society (BFMS) in the United Kingdom. It was considerably abbreviated and modified for Australian use. The questionnaire was distributed by mail to 110 parents who stated that they had been falsely accused of childhood sexual abuse, usually by a daughter, based on her "recovered memories". Typically these memories were recovered after the daughter had attended psychotherapy for some unrelated problem, apparently following many years or decades of amnesia, and with no previous awareness of being sexually abused by her parents.
The above quotations are from returned questionnaires and illustrate some of the reasons this survey was undertaken. From her personal experience as the partner of a falsely accused father, the writer has had contact with hundreds of other accused parents during the past three years. Professionally, the first client she assisted who was affected by this phenomenon was a 45 year-old feminist, accused by her son, arrested and interrogated by the police, and suffering from "stunned shock and disbelief". The experiences detailed in this survey are being repeated an unknown
number (certainly hundreds) of times around Australia. There was a vital need to know more accurately just what was happening and it was imperative to present these facts to those who may be in a position to alleviate some of the destruction being caused by the recovery of dubious memories.
For many years prior to the dramatic entrance of the recovered memory phenomenon into her personal life, the writer had worked with sexual assault survivors: women and men who had suffered abuse as children or adults. Most were unable to even temporarily forget their abusive experiences and none ever displayed massive repression, that is, total amnesia for their trauma. Many complained that, regardless of how hard they tried, they were frequently haunted by thoughts of the abusive incidents.
Sexual abuse of children not only certainly occurs, it is widespread. More widespread than many people feel comfortable to believe. Ironically, this survey has actually proved once again the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse, but not abuse that was forgotten and then recovered as memories with the help of a therapist or self-help book. It is hoped that this study will help to clarify the difference between the two forms of abuse in order that both will eventually be stopped. Abuse is caused to both the client, and to his or her family by unproven, harmful forms of therapy that almost always lead to psychological and physical deterioration for all persons involved.
Now that more recovered memory cases are being disproved in courts and most of the psychiatric and psychological professional associations are issuing warnings against memory recovery techniques, the number of false accusations is starting to decline. Even therapists who were involved in these dubious practices are finally beginning to realise the unreliability of pseudomemories, with some even apologising to families for the harm they have caused. Hopefully, as the focus of attention turns away from bizarre recovered memory claims, more public resources will become available to supplement the fight against all the real, rather than imaginary, pedophiles.
Completed questionnaires were received from 83 families prior to the closing date, indicating a high response rate of over 75 per cent, which compares favourably with other similar surveys overseas. In addition to their completed questionnaires, many respondents also sent additional material including court transcripts, reports and assessments, written statements of accusations, and many offered to provide any further information that may be required.
The survey provided a wealth of data and interesting results. Some of the findings were as expected, and served to confirm results from similar overseas surveys and anecdotal observations. Other findings though, were more unusual; some were discovered in response to additional questions based on the writer’s intuition, whereas others were completely unanticipated.
The most unexpected and surprising finding was the prevalence of actual sexual abuse that had been experienced by the accusers earlier in their lives, including a large percentage during their childhood. This discovery will hopefully lead to further investigation to help explain its significance. Until then, further interpretation would be purely speculative.
Another aspect of this survey which also requires more research is the apparent correlation between the recovery of allegedly false memories of childhood abuse and an actively religious upbringing. This was demonstrated in several of the survey’s results, including the extremely high percentage of accused fathers who were clergy, the disproportionate representation of ‘fundamentalist’ denominations among accused families, and the high number of accusers who (as adults) were conducting religious activities. All of these factors would not be so remarkable in the USA, which has a high level of fundamentalist religious involvement. However, as present-day Australia is a more secular, non-church-going country, the above findings are noteworthy.
For some time it has been accepted, and backed up by other survey results, that various stressors in the accusers’ current stage of life appear to play a precipitating role in the recovery of false memories. What this present survey has shown is that the most prevalent stress factor affecting the accuser was "moving house". This was not only rated the most frequently occurring stressful event just prior to the accusations being made; it was also the highest rated event classified as family stress, during the accuser’s childhood.
There was confirmation in the survey results, of the observation of accused families and the false memory associations, that there appears to be a large percentage of accusers who work in the field of counselling and sexual abuse. There could be various interpretations made of this finding, however they would be inconclusive without more detailed investigation. Another observation confirmed was that of the above average intelligence of the accusers - indicated not only by parental assessment, but also by school completion rates and university attendance.
Another relevant variable that appeared in this survey was the absence of a satisfactory personal relationship in the accusing person’s life. Very few of the accusers were in what the respondents classified as a happy marriage or partnership. Even amongst those who were married or in a relationship at the time they made their allegations, many had broken up two to three years later (at the time of the survey). Therefore, in addition to any other triggering events, being without a supportive partner appears to also be a risk factor for an accuser. Being a psychologist, I could not help speculating whether there may be something in the ancient Greek concept of ‘hysteria’ - the notion of an unsatisfactory sexual relationship being the cause of hysterical female behaviour. There is even one case of an hysterical conversion disorder included in these survey results.
The results are presented in a similar order to the questions and sections as they appeared in the survey. Accordingly, some related information may appear under separate headings, for example, details about the accusing person (such as average age), may appear under "Family details" and then again later under "Events connected with the accusation". This method of presenting results following the format of the questionnaire appeared preferable as it will assist individual participants in comparing their own personal responses with that of the combined totals of the survey on any particular question.
As 98% of the accusing persons in this survey were female, the whole report is written in the feminine gender to avoid the unwieldiness of using his/her, she/he, etc. Generally comments will also apply to the two male accusers.
1.1 The fathers
A high proportion of the fathers of the accusing persons were born overseas (33.75%) with 30% of all the fathers in the survey being born in Great Britain. According to the 1997 Year Book Australia (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 19% of Australians "had at least one overseas born parent" (p.94). It is estimated that most of the fathers were Caucasian. The average age of the fathers in 1997 was 63 years with 70% of the fathers aged between 55 and 75 years.
Based on the occupations of the fathers, the vast majority appeared to be middle-class (approximately 90%) and perhaps 7% could be classified as ‘working-class’. This is characteristic of all the other overseas studies which show the accused fathers to be typically well-educated, white and of high socio-economic status. A few occupations were extremely over-represented in comparison to the general population, for example, 10% were clergy, 10% teachers and 7% academics. Unfortunately relevant comparative data on occupations is not yet available from the 1996 Australian census. However, based on earlier data obtained from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, approximately 0.08 of the population worked as clergy or in related professions, which is a remarkable difference to the survey fathers. In 1995-96 the proportion of employed males working in education generally was 4.1%, compared to the survey’s total of 17%.
Ninety-three percent of the fathers represented in the survey had been accused of sexually abusing their children during childhood, based on the recovered memories of their daughters. Of these, 36% were the only person accused, but more than half of the fathers (57%) were not the only person accused, that is they were ‘co-accused’. Most of these were accused together with the mothers, but some were amongst multiple accusations (up to as many as ten) made by the accusing person.
1.2 The mothers
Almost a quarter (24%) of the mothers of accusing persons were born overseas, which is not a high proportion given the high number of people born overseas in the Australian population. It is only slightly higher than the average of 19% of Australians having at least one parent born overseas.
The average age of the mothers in 1997 was 61 years, therefore as expected, they are in a similar age group to the fathers in the survey.
It was more difficult to define the mothers according to occupations because there was a large number of homemakers. Sixteen percent were in medical/nursing occupations and 14% were teachers - similar to the proportions in these occupations amongst employed Australian women in 1995-96.
Sixty per cent of the mothers were not accused at all, although a large percentage - 37.5% - were ‘co-accused’, often as being accessories or observers of the alleged crime in collusion with the father. Only 2.5% of mothers were the only person accused (in the British survey 6% of biological mothers were the only one accused). The low number of mothers solely accused could be due to the fact that very few sons have made allegations against their mothers. This in turn may be partially explained by the fact that few males, compared to females, seek therapeutic help, which appears to be strongly implicated in the recovery of memories of an abusive childhood.
1.3 Children: The accuser and their siblings
1.3.1 The accuser
Ninety-eight per cent of the accusers were female which is a higher proportion than in most similar overseas studies. For example, 87% of the accusers in the British False Memory Society survey were female, and 92% in the USA survey conducted by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. The New Zealand study was closest to the present Australian one with 99% female accusers with only one male accuser.
The average age of the accusing person at the time of completing the survey in 1997 was 34 years (see further information in section 3.2 regarding the accusing person’s age at the time the accusations were made).
The most frequent ordinal position was that of the middle child in the family; 35% of the accusing persons were the eldest in their family and 19% were the youngest. These results are similar to both the British and American surveys, which found that accusers were first-born children in 39% (British) and 42% (USA) of cases. However, the middle child was not a specific category in the overseas survey results, and it is difficult to make comparisons as, depending on the size of the family, the middle may be the second, third or other. Anecdotal evidence had led to the belief that accusers were more likely to be the middle child in the family. In order for that to be confirmed it would be necessary to specifically design a study focusing on birth order - an opportunity for an Adlerian-oriented psychologist. Having had early training in Adlerian Psychology, I believe this (family constellation) is one of the overlooked aspects of the recovered memory phenomenon.
At the time of the survey only 40% of the accusers were married or in a de facto relationship, therefore the majority of the accusers (average age in their thirties) were without partners. However more than half have children, which at 3.75 per woman, is more than double the current Australian average number of children per family and higher than any Australian average recorded this century. The 1995 Australian fertility rate was 1.8 children per woman, and at the beginning of the 20th century it was 3.5 per woman. It could be speculated that having more than the average number of children, and especially if caring for them without a partner, may cause stress overload on these women.
Seventy per cent of the accusers had completed their secondary education to year 12. Australia has a very high year 12 retention rate and in 1997 it was 71%. However these women were completing their secondary education on average over 16 years ago when the figure would have been considerably lower. There was also a remarkable 60% who had received a tertiary education compared to the Australian average of 24% attending tertiary institutions in 1995. In the British survey 48%, and in the New Zealand sample 38%, of the accusers had attended university, which are also much higher percentages than the average university attendance in those countries. These figures strongly indicate that, in Australia and internationally, the accusers as a group, are better educated than the general population.
The occupations of the accusers were almost identical in both this Australian survey and the British one. The so-called caring professions ( psychologists, counsellors, social workers, teachers and similar) accounted for 37% in both these surveys. Statistics for 1995-96 show that the proportion of employed females in these fields in Australia was approximately 27%. There were 18% involved with home duties in Australia and 17% in Britain. In Australia 28% of the accusers were unemployed, compared to 35% in the British survey. However, this unemployment rate is not disproportionately high as, in Australia in 1995, 30% of females in the same age group as the accusers were not in the paid labour force. 
With regard to the accusing person’s contact with their family, more than a third had practically no family contact at all, a third were in contact with most of their family, and the remainder were in contact with only some members of their family - usually one or two of their siblings. This was a higher level of family contact than that reported in the British survey: in 59% of cases in the UK there was no contact between the accuser and their family, whilst 41% had some contact. Ever since the naming of the false memory syndrome accused parents in America have experienced the same cutting off of contact with their accusing child. The severance of family ties has always been a salient feature of this syndrome, unlike other psychological problems where support networks are usually encouraged and family input valued.
1.3.2 The accuser’s siblings
The average number of children in the accusing person’s family-of-origin was 4.2, a considerably higher average than in the wider Australian population which in 1995 was 1.8 children per family . However, during the sixties, when these families were growing up, Australia was going through a period of high fertility known as the "baby boom" and the average family then included approximately three children.
An unexpected statistic was that, out of all the siblings represented in this survey - a total of 252 - only 14.7% believed the accusations of their accusing sibling. However, in spite of not believing, a large proportion (58%) remained in contact with the accuser, representing a hopeful avenue of communication between estranged parents and their accusing adult child. It is often tempting for accused parents to try to coerce their non-accusing offspring into taking sides, to make a definite alignment with either the parents or the accuser. By allowing their non-accusing children to maintain a neutral stance, parents would instead preserve an important conduit between themselves and the accuser. Even minimal communication may assist later efforts at family reconciliation.
Fourteen siblings (5.5%) of the original accusers also later became accusers and it is of interest that ten of these fourteen attended the same therapist as their accusing sister. Anecdotal evidence from the legal sphere indicates that it is becoming increasingly common for a second sibling to later join her accusing sister in recovering questionable memories of childhood sexual abuse after attending the same therapist. In the United States 12% of respondents to the 1997 FMS Foundation survey had more than one accuser in the family and in the British survey 10% of families had more than one accusing daughter.
1.4 Family religion during the accusing person’s childhood
During their childhood almost two-thirds (63%) of the accusers were brought up in either "very active" or "active" religious family environments. However most of the accusers as adults (over 70%) later rejected any active religious practice. Several accusers who grew up in non-religious families, were later participating in New Age beliefs.
The above table clearly shows that an unusually high proportion of accusers come from the more fundamentalist type of Christian denominations, especially when compared to their level of representation in the Australian population as provided by the 1996 Census and listed in the above table. Although these denominations altogether accounted for only 3% of the entire Australian population, 39% of accusers came from this type of family background. Families with Uniting Church membership had approximately double their representation in the survey compared to the total population. In comparison, Roman Catholic families were under-represented, and Anglican families in the survey were equal to their population numbers.
Various theories have been expounded as to likely explanations for the apparent correlation (in Australia and the USA) between family upbringing in fundamentalist religious beliefs and the later emergence of recovered memories and bizarre accusations against parents. Like anyone who has spent years involved in the recovered memory phenomenon, I have my own speculative ideas. However, until there is further large scale research, they will just remain as speculations and not testable hypotheses.
These results relating to religious affiliation in this Australian survey differ markedly from the British one which found that approximately 90% of British families were from the more traditional churches, being predominantly Church of England and Roman Catholic. Therefore, this is one aspect of the false memory syndrome where there appears to be considerable difference between Australia and Britain.
2.1 Methods of discipline
Survey participants were asked to indicate what methods of discipline were used when the accusing person was young. The list of options included "none" and "other" which enabled respondents to add any other disciplinary methods not provided.
The following tables are presented in order of the frequency of the methods selected and are shown separately for children under 12 years of age and over 12 years. It was encouraging to observe that the most favoured method of discipline was reasoning, even with children in the under twelve years age group.
2.2, 2.3, 2.4 Child rearing
Almost 80% of parents stated that they "only seldom" or "never" resorted to any physical punishment of the accusing child when he or she was growing up. However as the above table shows 60% indicated that they had smacked or spanked their accusing child when she was under twelve years old. Although this may appear a high proportion using physical punishment by present-day standards, these parents are now in their sixties and seventies and raised their children at a time when "spare the rod and spoil the child" was the guiding principle. Many parents of that generation felt that physical discipline was necessary during early childhood, with the more verbal types of discipline at a later stage.
In comparison to their other children, accused parents felt that they had spent an average amount of time with the accuser during her childhood. Therefore there was no support for speculating that the accusing child had either been given less or more attention than her non-accusing siblings. Psychological theories would suggest either scenario: for example, if a child is a real victim of incest, she is frequently given more attention by the offending parent, whereas if a child is neglected in comparison to her siblings, she may grow up feeling resentment toward her parents. Although it is not possible to draw conclusions from parents self-reported memories of their behaviour towards their children, the fact that the survey parents report average time spent with their accusing child, would tend to indicate neither of the above theoretical scenarios.
An idea I had prior to undertaking this study (based on anecdotal evidence) was that the accusing person may have been considerably indulged or spoilt as a child, both materially and in the amount of parental attention they received. However, the results indicate that only 28% of parents thought this occurred within their families. The great majority (70%) believed the accuser was not indulged or spoilt any more than other children.
2.5 Periods of family stress
Parents were asked to list any periods of family stress that may have affected the accusing person when he or she was growing up and to provide the age of the child when the stressful experience occurred to the family.
The responses to this question indicated some common incidents were experienced by many of the accusing persons during their childhood. For example, 27% of the accusers had experienced major relocation of the family home, often due to their parents transferring work locations to interstate or overseas. ‘Moving house’ is one of the under-estimated extremely stressful situations people can experience. The reader is referred also to section 3.1 regarding events occurring to the accuser as an adult immediately prior to the accusations being made.
Almost a quarter (23%) of the accusing persons experienced the death of an immediate family member during their childhood. This appears a high percentage, yet without a comparable control group it is not possible to conclusively state that it is exceptional. The death of a significant person also featured in the stressful experiences of the accusers prior to making their allegations (see 3.1.). Psychological scales used to assess stressful life experiences usually rate the death of a significant other person as one of the most significant stressors.
The most unexpected experience during the childhood of many of the accusing persons was that of actual sexual abuse. Thirteen percent of parents knew of actual sexual abuse experienced by their accusing child, perpetrated by some other person, that they were willing to write about on their questionnaire. This level of childhood sexual abuse is particularly noteworthy as this information was volunteered in response to a general question about stressful family experiences that "may have affected the accusing child". Thirteen per cent appears to be a high rate of childhood sexual abuse to find when not actually asking about it. For further information on this topic, refer to section 4.1.3 which specifically asked if the respondent knew of any sexual abuse actually suffered by the accusing person.
3.1 Events preceding the accusation
3.1.1 Stressful experiences prior to the accusations
The following table lists, in order of frequency, the stressful experiences known to the respondent, which occurred to the accusing person during the two to three years prior to the allegations being made. Twenty-one items were provided, based on known psychological stressors and respondents were given the opportunity to include any additional experiences which may have occurred. These added events are marked with an asterisk. (Table inserted on following page).
Relationship problems: As was expected - based on widespread anecdotal evidence - their adult daughter’s major relationship problems preceded allegations of childhood sexual abuse in many families. The British survey found that 55% of the accusing persons had recently experienced relationship problems; a similar result to the 52% found in this survey. The major disruption caused in a person’s life when they experience serious problems in their main personal relationship often causes severe emotional disturbance. It is the way in which this emotional disorder is handled that unfortunately sometimes leads to disreputable therapists and the recovery of so-called repressed memories. These previously unknown memories of childhood abuse are then used to explain the emotional pain being experienced, instead of looking for the cause in the person’s current situation.
Death of a family member or friend: The number of accusing persons recently experiencing the death of a family member or friend (22%) was very similar to that of their childhood experiences where 23% had stressful bereavement experiences. The loss of a significant person through death is well-known as one of the most stressful human experiences. It is a situation that cannot be overcome or altered and its finality presents a challenge to a person’s coping ability, especially if they are experiencing emotional problems at the time.
Stressful experiences occurring to accusing person prior to accusations
Moving to a new home: Surprisingly the most frequent stressful experience was that of moving to a new home: this had also been the most frequently mentioned stressful experience during the childhood of the accusing person. To be the most frequently mentioned stressor both during childhood and adult life, this experience must have had considerable impact on the families concerned. Moving one’s place of residence is frequently connected to other forms of change in one’s lifestyle, such as schools, employment, church, friends and local community networks. The British study found that only 21% of the accusing persons had recently moved home; the considerably higher Australian figure may reflect a culturally different, more mobile lifestyle. And in Australia even a move to a neighbouring state may involve distances of more than a thousand kilometres - something not experienced in, say, England.
Emotional or psychological illness: A large number of accusers were perceived as suffering an emotional or psychological illness (41%) which is not surprising as the usual false memory syndrome scenario is that the person experiences a problem for which they attend psychotherapy. They then gradually come to believe that they are victims of an abusive childhood and begin to recover supposedly repressed memories of being sexually abused by their father and others. This recovery of dubious memories is frequently accompanied by a marked deterioration in the person’s psychological well-being (for documentation see, for example, the Washington State Crime Victims Compensation Program as reported in the FMS Foundation News-letter, vol.5, no.5, May 1996, p.1).The British survey also found a similar percentage suffering from emotional and psychological illnesses.
Eating disorder: Only 17% apparently suffered from an eating disorder prior to making their accusations and, as will be detailed later, only 3% were known to have been diagnosed by their therapist (after the accusations) as having an eating disorder. The number of accusers with eating disorders appears very low, given that many therapists believe that an eating disorder is a reliable indicator of childhood sexual abuse. Even more significant results became evident on cross-tabulating questionnaire data. Of all the 27 accusers who were known to the respondents to have actually been sexually abused (eighteen of them as children), only one had been diagnosed as having an eating disorder. And of the fourteen accusers who had an eating disorder prior to making their allegations, not one was known to have been sexually abused - apart from their unsubstantiated "recovered memories". Therefore in this survey there appears absolutely no correlation between eating disorders and actual sexual abuse.
Overall, this section indicates that accusing persons have been affected by multiple stressful experiences, both during their childhoods and as adults prior to making their accusations of childhood sexual abuse based on "recovered memories". It appears that the most significant of these is: moving to a new home, the breakdown of an important relationship and the death of a significant person.
3.1.2 Additional experiences
In addition to the checklist provided above, respondents were also asked if they knew of any other experiences that may have contributed to the accusations. Because this was an open question the responses were extremely varied, however one trend seemed to be evident. More than a third of the accusing persons were affected by unsatisfactory sexual relationships, which included at least one instance of an apparent hysterical conversion disorder of temporary blindness.
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Australian False Memory Association
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