Beware the imperfect memory. Sometimes the real victim in a child abuse scandal is the person wrongly accused
David Aaronowich, The Times Newspaper, 20 April 2013
Imagine you are one of two unfortunate people. First you are J, in your mid-forties. More than 30 years ago, in your early teens, you were repeatedly sexually abused by a number of people, one at least of whom is fairly famous. At the time you were confused and powerless and even inclined to blame yourself for what was happening. Although you told one or two adults at the time, they didn’t believe you, or even became angry with you. Since then you have suffered from depression and have found it hard to give or take love. But now, watching the Savile story unfold, you feel strong enough to come forward and tell the police what happened. Perhaps now there can be a little justice.
Now you are X. You’re a 65-year-old man who was once in the public eye. A friend rings you up one day and asks you in slightly embarrassed tones if you know what people are saying about you. Gradually you realise what is happening. There is a police operation looking into historic child abuse involving famous and powerful people. No names of those who are accused have been released, but various hints have been dropped and now online sources — websites and Twitter — have begun to name you as one of the anonymous abusers. Someone — a victim, apparently — recalls you visiting a children’s home and attending a drunken party where you took part in abuse. And it isn’t true. Your head is in a spin. Your sense of self seems to dissolve.
And now wake up. There are far more Js than Xs, I am fairly certain. More abused kids who weren’t believed than people who have been wrongly accused of abuse. And as The Times revealed yesterday on its front page, the habit of keeping accusations against celebrities, VIPs and politicians secret from other parts of the force can only have led to important information not going where it might have been used to better investigate and prosecute crime.
As regular readers know, I have said it over Savile and said it again over the grooming cases that the stance of disbelief that greeted many of the victims of child abuse was worse than a shame. And this internal police confidentiality has no doubt worsened the situation of abuse victims and allowed celebrity abusers to carry on abusing. It’s an irony, of course, that the motive may well have been to prevent corrupt officers selling gossip to newspapers. Gossip that might have been true. Or might have been untrue.
Because how do you balance the situations of J and X? And what about X minus? The dead X, who cannot sue or refute an allegation? How do you deal with the possibility that what the victim remembers is false?
“So they’re lying, Mr Aaronovitch?” come back a score of tweets and e-mails. “You too join the ranks of those who disbelieve the victims. You are part of the problem.”
I think that people can be and often are wrong without ever telling a deliberate untruth. This has to do with how memory works and how it can be altered. Reading a book this week by the journalist Will Storr reminded me of the case of Carol Felstead, a nurse who died in 2005. In The Heretics Storr describes the series of fantasies, events and therapists that led to Felstead claiming that she had uncovered formerly repressed memories of incest and family abuse.
Storr visited some of her therapists, including a senior person at the British Medical Association and another who works at the prestigious Tavistock Institute. They all believed Felstead’s new memories of family abuse and had helped her to recover them. But what, asked Storr, about her 1997 fantasy of being raped in Conservative Central Office by a former Cabinet minister using a claw hammer? “It could have happened,” was in essence their reply. One spoke of another patient of hers who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by Margaret Thatcher. “From the way she said this,” the therapist went on, “I could see this had been deliberately done. She’d been drugged by people using Spitting Image masks.”
What Felstead did was an extreme case of what is called confabulation, or “honest lying”, and is a particular problem in historic abuse. Imagine a confused memory of an event in early adulthood, iterated and reiterated, perhaps in the context of support groups and suggestive questioning. Does that not sound a little like what might have led to the false accusations against Lord McAlpine, hinted at on Newsnight last autumn?
Now add confirmation bias to confabulation. Felstead’s therapists obviously felt that her account of her abuse fitted their preconceptions. They zoned out information that sat badly with reality or found improbable explanations that suggested that their theories still worked. In the same way the police or other authorities dismissed without proper investigation the evidence of abused youngsters because they had the wrong histories, the wrong accents or the wrong appearance.
I raise this because of some of the reporting of Operation Fairbank and its offshoot, Operation Fernbridge. Fairbank was set up after the Labour MP Tom Watson told the Commons, at the height of the Savile revelations, that — among other things — there were serious accusations against famous people that had gone uninvestigated.
Fernbridge is a specific investigation into allegations that, in the early 1980s, teenagers were abused at a Richmond children’s home and at a nearby guesthouse. The investigative journalism outfit Exaro has published nearly 40 different short reports on Fernbridge since November, many of them dovetailing into stories carried in other newspapers.
Early on, Exaro’s editor claimed that there would be “seismic” revelations involving several former Conservative senior ministers. And Exaro’s work has, as they more or less admit, been expedited by systematic leaks from within the police operation itself. Exaro was somehow present when two men (neither of them famous) were arrested by police last month. On February 16 Exaro reported that police were “preparing to arrest” a former minister.
Of course, all this has fuelled online speculation about the identity of the still unarrested minister, about who the other ministers and celebrities are and what they supposedly did. Eccentric lists circulate. Confident claims are made. I’ve read them and they are easily found.
So there are victims and there are victims. And what this column is saying is let’s be careful — both ways — not to deal with one at the expense of the other. Who would want to be either J or X?